This unfolding drama has now acquired special attention from strategic analysts all over the world who are expressing their own views over how and when the US and NATO troops will be able to leave Afghanistan. They have also noted how Biden and the US Secretary of State Blinken along with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are carefully moving forward in this regard.
In the third week of March, the US President disparaged the agreement struck by former President Trump with Taliban in February, 2020 and criticized it as having not been ‘very solidly negotiated’. This appears to have led Biden to review US troop levels in Afghanistan amid new talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. It is understood that he considers it will be ‘tough’ to meet the May 1 withdrawal deadline.
The US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has already been to Kabul, Afghanistan and met the Afghan Defence Minister Yasin Zia, on March 21. Similarly, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has pledged not only to rebuild and revitalize the transatlantic NATO military alliance but also share Washington’s efforts with NATO regarding the time frame on any possible withdrawal from Afghanistan. This is important because there has been NATO presence in Afghanistan for many years. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has also gone on record that NATO will not withdraw its troops from Afghanistan “before the time is right”. He has also pointed out that the Taliban must do more to meet the terms of a 2020 peace agreement with the United States first.
It would be important to note that the 2020 deal mandated measures to be taken by the Taliban in conjunction with a reduction in US troops, including cutting ties with fighter groups, reducing violence in Afghanistan and engaging in meaningful negotiations with the elected Afghan government. This premise has led the US to reduce its troop numbers, but the US and NATO officials have expressed doubt as to whether the Taliban has upheld its part of the deal. This has also led US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month to outline a US proposal for talks between Afghan parties and the Taliban on a transitional government.
It needs to be noted here that since the agreement between the US and the Taliban was signed, there has been a spike in violence and a rise in civilian casualties. Government, civil society figures, journalists and political moderates have been assassinated. This has affected the dynamics of reconstruction of Afghanistan –as a country. John Sopko, the US Department of Defense’s special inspector for Afghanistan reconstruction has recently revealed that the Western-backed government in Kabul receives 80 percent of its annual funding from the US and other nations. According to him, continuing uncertainty within the country has resulted in international annual development aid to Afghanistan decreasing from a high of US Dollar 6.7billion in 2011 to US Dollar 4.2billion in 2019, according to World Bank data. This is interesting because financial strategists have pointed out that since 2002, the US has spent US Dollar 143billion on reconstruction in Afghanistan, including US Dollar 88billion for training and support of the Afghan army. That is really amazing.
Biden, like Trump, wants to end the nearly 20-year conflict and bring home the remaining slightly more than 2,500 American soldiers still in Afghanistan. This number has come down from about 13,000 a year ago. There are however still about 7,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan who rely on the US for logistics and security support.
Lyse Doucet and Mahfouz Zubaide of the BBC have mentioned that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has recently called on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to show "urgent leadership". They have also referred to a draft paper that sets out a new arrangement in three parts: guiding principles for Afghanistan's constitution and the future of the Afghan state; agreed terms to govern the country during a transitional period and a roadmap to a "durable and just settlement"; and finally - and most urgently for Afghans - agreed terms for a "permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and its implementation".
Two possibilities for an executive administration have been offered: one similar to the current arrangement led by a President and Vice-Presidents and another which includes a Prime Minister. This draft peace agreement also includes a suggestion for a High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence to provide "Islamic guidance and advice" - though it's likely to fall far short of what the Taliban herald as the return of a "pure Islamic government".
It is understood that there are also hints that the UN, kept largely on the sidelines until now, will be shifting to centre stage to confer greater international legitimacy on the process, and make it easier for neighbors who have long been involved in Afghanistan to sit on the same table. Mr Blinken has apparently also hinted that there could be the convening of a high-level meeting outside Afghanistan to bring warring sides together.
A Taliban spokesman- Muhammad Naim has however expressed skepticism over the discreet proposal by the United States for an interim government in Afghanistan, saying transitional governments have proven ineffective and that the group’s vision for the country revolved around a strong central administration capable of enforcing their definition of an Islamic system of governance. Washington had earlier in March proposed replacing the current government with an interim administration until a new constitution is agreed and elections are held, while a joint commission monitors a ceasefire. Under the proposal, the national parliament could either be expanded to include Taliban members or suspended until after an election is held.
Naim has also underlined that transitional governments were formed after the American occupation, some of them transitional, others participatory, but none of them have solved the country’s problems. In this context Naim further elaborated that “We want an Islamic system that is strong and independent in order to solve the country’s problems”. Naim also reaffirmed the need for foreign troops to withdraw from Afghanistan, as stated in a landmark agreement reached with the US in Doha last year.
In the meantime the United Nations Security Council has expressed concern at the number of targeted killings aimed at civil society activists, journalists, lawyers and judges. The ISIL (ISIS) group has taken responsibility for many but the Taliban and the government blames each other for the spike in attacks. This was reflected in the recent comments made by Afghanistan’s Minister of the Interior Masoud Andarabi who said that nearly 70 percent of Afghanistan’s police force is battling the Taliban who are eroding efforts to maintain law and order. He also added that every day, the police confront over 100 Taliban attacks throughout the country.
Political and human rights analysts have pointed to these contrary observations and mentioned that if peace is to be discovered in Afghanistan then, despite disagreement from the Taliban, the United States and its allies must try and create a transitional government. It could be constituted on a non-political basis. They could then address the national challenges and embark with regional and international powers to agree on a neutral and peaceful future for Afghanistan.
Consistent with this new inclusive peace process, the transitional team can usher in an honest and transparent election that would be conducted under international monitoring. No transitional government member would however be eligible to hold public office in the future.
It has also been suggested that members of this transitional group could however form an Ethics and Good-governance Council to scrutinize the future government and private sector actions and then suggest immediate corrective measures in cases of breach of ethics and law through a legal process.
It is being underlined that such a step might usher in peace in Afghanistan and defeat terrorism.
We also need to remember that a significant source of conflicts in Afghanistan has been the unequal historical treatment of its diverse populations by their different governments. Hopefully effective equal rights and opportunities and good-governance instead of nepotism, cronyism, and tribalism will constitute the basis of a peaceful future.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance