Will Afghanistan Ever Find Peace?

Afghanistan is back in the news. The front pages of the main American newspapers are carrying the news of some new Afghan developments. At this time, the attention is on the Russian effort to hurt the Americans as they begin to withdraw from Afghanistan. It is alleged that Moscow is paying Taliban fighters large bounties to kill US soldiers.

If this is true, Russian’s alleged involvement in Afghanistan raises many questions. How are the Russians carrying out this operation? Why are the Russians doing that at a time when the US has indicated that it is pulling out its forces from Afghanistan? And will this development cause the US to delay its departure?

As is known, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad met with the Taliban’s chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar to sign a potentially historic agreement on Feb. 29, 2020 in Doha, Qatar. After nine rounds of discussions extending over many months, the parties signed a deal expected to pave the way for eventual peace in Afghanistan. The deal, obviously, aims to allow the US to extract itself from its protracted war in Afghanistan – a place famously known as the “Graveyard of the Empires.” The US has been fighting on the ground there for 19 years, with 12,000 American soldiers currently stationed within the country. Despite so many years, the conflict has shown no sign of letting up; all the while, the US is keeping the Afghan government and its security forces on life support.

More than 2,400 Americans have been killed and another 20,000 injured during the war in Afghanistan. Some 1,100 NATO troops have also died, while the war is estimated to have cost the US $2 trillion. In the meantime, Afghan security forces have lost around 70,000 fighters, and it is believed that the number of Taliban fighters that have been killed is almost the same, while more than 43,000 civilians have died. A major portion of the latter, however, has fled – with more than 2.5 million Afghan refugees worldwide.

Attempts at peace talks have occurred sporadically since the war began in 2001. However, many of these peace talks have been invariably stalled and postponed, offering little hope in the way of results. However, during the US President Donald Trump administration, negotiations between the US and the Taliban for peace have intensified. For Trump, the war in Afghanistan is too costly. The war has already shown too many similarities with the Vietnam War for the US, and Trump, who reiterates that “endless wars must end,” has indicated a withdrawal from Afghanistan is in order to prevent a further loss of American money and lives.

In fact, Trump’s appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as his special adviser on Afghanistan was indicative of how much more seriously he was prepared for peace talks compared with his predecessors. Khalilzad’s main job has been to facilitate talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. As the US-Taliban deal is now signed, the Taliban and Kabul should come to the table to start intra-Afghan talks. Although the Taliban has agreed to talk to various Afghan leaders as part of the deal, it has refused to invite the Kabul government to negotiations as it sees the latter as merely a puppet of the US

The intra-Afghan talks are expected to start following the implementation of the US-Taliban agreement and phased American withdrawal. However, the agreement does not guarantee (or even imply) that any intra-Afghan deal will be signed before the US withdrawal. Accordingly, only a major terror attack on American assets by the Taliban or from Taliban-controlled territories can jeopardize the deal, halting the planned US withdrawal.

There have been a number of Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces since the US and Taliban signed the deal on Feb. 29. The US military has already responded with airstrikes to aid their Afghan allies in kind. However, that does not mean that the US will halt its departure.

So now, Afghans are wondering if the deal was just for the Americans alone.

Today, it looks like Washington only cares that the Taliban continues its fight against the last remnants of Daesh in Afghanistan, having already crushed the terror group’s presence on the ground. In line with the agreement, the Taliban has guaranteed that Afghanistan will not be used by any of its members or those of any other groups as a base from which to threaten the US’ and its allies security. Although some are pessimistic about this pledge, I am not: The Taliban’s goal is to take control of the country, and it will continue to fight for this following the withdrawal of international troops from the scene. So, in the aftermath of the US withdrawal – which has already started, an unknown future awaits Afghanistan.

We have already saw the problems on the horizon in the quarrel over a prisoner swap, which is part of the agreement between the US and the Taliban. The US-Taliban deal requires the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners by the time talks kick off, in return for 1,000 Afghan government security forces held by the Taliban. However, on March 1, the government, which was not a party to the deal, rejected the US and Taliban’s call for a prisoner exchange. President Ashraf Ghani stated that such an agreement would require further negotiation and could not be implemented as a precondition for future peace talks. In response, the Taliban resumed offensive operations against Afghan security forces on March 3, which were responded to by US airstrikes. After too much effort, the prisoner swap started. So far, the government has freed 4,015 and the Taliban has freed 669. An estimated 10,000 Taliban fighters are currently held by the Afghan government.

In line with this, intra-Afghan negotiations were scheduled to begin on March 10 in Oslo, but it has not started yet while it is said that the talks will take place in Doha.

In the meantime, there are further complications. While Kabul continues to throw plans for intra-talks into chaos, the rivalry between incumbent President Ghani and the former unity government partner Abdullah Abdullah continues.

The latest crisis in Kabul during the elections when each sworn in as the president at the same day in March highlights the seriousness of the power struggle between the two leaders. As Abdullah is now setting up a parallel government, the very basis of intra-Afghan negotiations has been further thrown into question. US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who was appointed to facilitate talks between the Taliban and Kabul, has long been trying to find a way out for a deal between two camps but has not made progress.

Khalilzad, a well-known Afghan-American figure who has served as the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and later, the U.N., is very familiar with the stalemate in Afghanistan. But he is also known for his connection to former President Hamid Karzai, who was sworn in in 2004 after the US invasion. Furthermore, the fact that a number of his relatives are involved in Afghanistan’s politics raises questions about a conflict of interest. Long ago, there were rumors that he might even run for the presidency. We don’t know if he has such ambitions, yet the visible involvement of his extended family in the Afghan government will always cause doubts over his objectivity.

On the other hand, several political opposition figures, such as Karzai and Abdullah, are known to have a different model for intra-Afghan talks in mind, and it is rumored that they seek to bypass Ghani, making a behind-closed-doors deal with the Taliban. This would result in a power division between Kabul and other provinces. As the Taliban seeks to integrate its fighters with Afghan security forces and change the constitution to hold power in the long term, it would gladly welcome this situation. Opposition figures may think that they can outsmart the Taliban, but I think this is unlikely, as the Taliban has been playing this game for a long time, using violence whenever it requires, especially given that its fighters outnumber the Afghan government’s forces. A government weakened by power divisions in Kabul would make their job a lot easier.

In addition, the Taliban could make as much as $1.5 billion a year, according to estimates. Much of this income comes from the drugs trade. Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium – a key element in the manufacture of heroin. Much of the crop is grown in Taliban-held territories. The group also collects taxes in the areas it governs. This makes the Taliban not just militarily, but also financially, more powerful than Kabul. If international financial aid to the Afghan government is cut or decreased in the wake of the US-Taliban deal, the group’s influence and power will increase in parallel. As is widely known, Trump’s priorities always revolve around cutting expenses, so an aid cut is not an unlikely possibility, and the Afghan government should be ready for such a move.

As part of the US-Taliban deal, the Americans have stressed the protection of women’s rights – given the Taliban are known to have excluded women from education, employment opportunities and going out alone. However, this issue was obviously not discussed explicitly during the negotiations, and it was decided these should be a matter for the intra-Afghan talks.

It is thus clear that the US failed to establish even a minimum standard for the rights of women in its desperation to leave the theater of war, despite having posed as an advocate of Afghan women’s rights for years, claiming part of the reason for its presence was the protection of basic rights.

There are many more questions over the possible fate of the Pashtuns, as well as the country’s minorities. Are ethnic conflicts in store? What about sectarian issues between Shias and Sunnis? Will regional powers such as Iran and Pakistan fill the political vacuum left by the US in Afghan politics? I hear a resounding “yes” to at least one of these questions.

In addition to all, it is now claimed that the Russians are returning to Afghanistan. So, the million-dollar question is whether Afghanistan will ever find peace.

Merve Şebnem Oruç is an award-winning Turkish journalist and columnist for Daily Sabah and HABER. She is on Twitter here.