On February 29th 2020, history was made in a conditional peace agreement signed between the US and the Taliban. The deal was signed by Zalmay Khalilzad, special envoy to the US, and Taliban chief Mullah Abdul Ghana Baradar. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo witnessed the signing.
After it was announced last September that the US would withdraw 5400 troops from Afghanistan, hopes were shattered when President Trump stopped talks because of the death of a US soldier. However, within two weeks discussions reopened, perhaps signalling the end was in sight for the conflict.
Under the deal, the US will commit to withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan within 14 months. President Trump said, “It’s time after all these years to bring our people back home.” The US is also lifting trade sanctions on the country and Trump is pushing the UN to do the same. Trump’s promises of peace, of course, came with a threat as he said, “If bad things happen, we’ll go back with a force like no-one’s ever seen.”
The US' involvement in Afghanistan began in the months following 9/11, after the Taliban refused to hand its perpetrator, Osama Bin Laden, to the US. There has been a heavy US military presence in the country ever since. America's intervention in the region continued to escalate after Bush's original action, with Obama sending more troops into the area in 2009, bringing the number of US soldiers up to 100,000.
The promises made under the deal are monumental. US forces have occupied Afghanistan for 18 years and many don’t know life in the country without occupation. It’s uncertain exactly how Trump would justify returning to a country in which they had no right to be in the first place, but he has at least made the steps needed to see a peace agreement between the two organisations.
A big part of the agreement assures that the Taliban will tackle the actions of extremist groups like Al-Qaeda. This will hopefully help to reduce violence in the region. However, 22 soldiers and 14 civilians have been killed in the week since the peace agreement was signed and Kabul saw its most brutal attack for months. It may be that a reduction in violence is something that comes in the long run.
Many have taken issue with another part of the peace agreement which allows for an exchange of prisoners, meaning that 5000 Taliban prisoners and 1000 Afghan security force prisoners would be exchanged by the 10th March. Experts are hesitant about the consequences of allowing prisoners back out, but it may be what is necessary to ensure that violence in the region improves and the war can finally come to an end.
A largely problematic outcome of the peace agreement also stems from the lack of inclusion of the Afghanistan government. Since peace talks began in December 2018, the Taliban refused to talk to the Afghan government, citing them as “American puppets.” It appears unlikely that the peace agreement will work in reality if the Taliban remain uncooperative with the Afghan government. As an organisation no longer wielding power, they cannot expect to operate with great influence may struggle to work with the Afghan government, who are undoubtedly left in a weaker position because they have bargaining power now when it comes to negotiations. Nonetheless, President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani said that the government is ready to negotiate with the Taliban who are still active across 70% of Afghanistan.
Women across the region fear the consequences of US removal. Many benefitted from the US occupation and fear that they will be confined to the positions that the Taliban had them under in the past. As long as the Afghan government can retain control of the country, there is a chance that their positions remain strong. Taliban leaders have said that the organisation has changed since the 1990s. However, another US occupation is not the answer to ensuring female progress and the US must not be painted as a saviour of Afghan women. George W. Bush’s claims that “the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes" until US intervention was merely an attempt to legitimise the war for those less hawkish than himself and Dick Cheney.
Many have also questioned whether the newly signed peace agreement gives legitimacy to a terrorist organisation which is officially recognised as legitimate in the agreement that undermines the Afghan government.
It all comes down to the fundamental issue that the agreement has no outline for what the future of Afghanistan looks like. While the leaders of the Taliban may have agreed to the terms of the peace talks, the Taliban is an organisation with many different branches and degrees of influence in different areas of Afghanistan. Exactly how the central forces of the organisation plan to ensure all of its members agree with the provisions of the treaty is unknown. Lots of members still have a deep rooted hatred of the US and no intention to change their actions.
Structural problems within the Taliban may be the undoing of the new peace agreement if its leaders cannot ensure the smooth transition to peace, but I believe what will be more disastrous to the potential of a peaceful Afghanistan is the lack of legitimacy given to the Afghan government due to their exclusion from the agreement, despite having jurisdiction over the area.