Peace in our time, but not for Afghanistan

By TARAS TRUNOV

Donald Trump is far from the first figure we would consider a peacemaker, and yet in February of 2020, it was in Trump’s name that the United States signed the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”.


This much-touted ‘peace deal’ between the US and the Taliban is, supposedly, a step towards ending the war in Afghanistan. In brief, the United States has agreed to lobby the United Nations to drop sanctions against the Taliban, and has also promised to withdraw both American and other international forces from the country by April 2021. In exchange, the Taliban is to cease support for all terrorist groups that threaten the West and to open peace negotiations with the legitimate Afghan government in Kabul.


Looking past the optimism and photo ops, however, a stark reality emerges: the US-Taliban agreement is unlikely to confer peace upon Afghanistan.


To put the deal into context, one must acknowledge that it was never about the Afghans. In fact, Kabul was entirely excluded from the negotiations. The deal was designed solely as a vehicle for Trump to pull troops out of the country with some modicum of national dignity, all in the service of his own domestic popularity, and thus re-election prospects. Any actual peacebuilding in Afghanistan would be a happy coincidence at best.


The Taliban have been only too happy to indulge this narcissism. Their only “concession” of any magnitude is a promise to end their support for international terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda; given that it was exactly this support that led to their downfall in 2001, the Taliban have no incentive to quarrel.


Even more farcical is the requirement that the Taliban begin peace talks with the Afghan government - with no actual obligation to cease military action in the meantime. This represents a massive win for the Taliban, who need only pay lip service to peacebuilding, while actually being given free rein to intensify their military operations. Since February, attacks against government employees and facilities have been rising, and despite the Afghan government’s protestations that these are contrary to the aims of the overall peace process, critics have argued that there is little desire on the part of the Trump administration to hold the Taliban to account.


It is no exaggeration to say that the Kabul government cannot survive this state of affairs. At present, the Afghan security apparatus is notoriously fragmented, corrupt, and unreliable. As a result, the United States and other international forces play a key role in the fight against not only the Taliban, but also dangerous groups such as Daesh. Even so, the Taliban have made major territorial gains in the past couple of years, controlling or contesting more than half the provinces in the country. In some areas this control is so secure that they have been able to institute their own trappings of governance, such as tax collection and a schooling system. The official line from the Taliban is that they are willing to consider sharing power with the current government, but all the while, they are doing their best to undermine It. Why bother with joint rule when they can simply sweep the government aside and replace it wholesale?


There are few who would mourn the current Afghan government’s downfall in isolation; human rights violations, corruption, and general ineffectuality are, and always have been, an everyday occurrence under its rule. Still, the alternatives going forward look increasingly desolate.


In the ‘best’ case scenario, the Taliban are able to swiftly and decisively assert themselves as the new government of Afghanistan, and maintain a relative degree of control over the country. This does not mean an end to the suffering of Afghans; the Taliban ruled with unspeakable brutality during the 1990s, and this has not changed in provinces controlled by them today. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch have highlighted how women’s rights, in particular, are under threat by the deeply misogynistic ideology of the Taliban.


In the worst case, the Taliban are able to depose the government, but not assert control of the country. The result is inevitably an even more chaotic civil war between factions such as the Taliban’s tribal opponents, ideological rivals like Daesh, and even splinter groups within the Taliban itself.


The difference between these cases is a matter of degree, and the reality is that it will likely end up somewhere in between. Either way, it is important to note the role that the US-Taliban deal plays in shaping this new reality. While both the American presence in Afghanistan and the government it supports are deeply flawed and ultimately unsustainable, the US does the Afghan people no favours by abruptly departing without lasting guarantees for genuine peacebuilding in Afghanistan. For America, its war will end - for Afghanistan, it will merely change shape, as it has always done since 1978.


IMAGE - Unsplash