Reduction in Violence Agreement

Iqbal Khan

The United States has secured a seven-day ‘reduction in violence’ truce with Taliban to help seek a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said on February 14. Concurrently, a Taliban official said that the group would begin a “reduction of violence” on the following day. The New York Times has reported that President Donald Trump had given conditional approval to a deal with the Taliban to allow him to start withdrawing US troops. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has expressed cautious optimism in the truce.  National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said on February 11 that he is “cautiously optimistic that there could be a US agreement with the Taliban over the next days or weeks”, but a withdrawal of American forces is not “imminent.”

United States’ 2021 military budget request for Afghanistan is lowest in a decade, it “assumes a drawdown of forces.” Once again, the US and the Taliban are apparently close to striking a deal. This ‘close to striking a peace deal’ saga has come and gone past many a times. Now, peace is no longer envisaged—at least in immediate to short term timeframe— and an intermediary stage agreement on ‘reduction in violence’ is being touted; that could lead to all-Afghan negotiations to end the decades-long conflict and outline a political future for the country.

Violence had skyrocketed in Afghanistan as the US had opted for the hammer to push the Taliban to make a deal and reduce hostilities in the country. Six US service members have been killed in Afghanistan since the start of 2020. Last year, 20 US service personnel died in combat and there were two non-combat deaths. A recent UN report detailed that during September 2019, following President Donald Trump’s decision to temporarily halt peace talks with the militant group, there were 2,780 recorded “security incidents” —a 44 percent increase  viz a viz September 2018. Increased violence also came as Afghans headed to presidential polls to vote on September 28, 2019. Both Taliban-led and insider attacks spiked following the breakdown of peace talks. A December 2019 Defence Department report cautioned that “sustained levels of violence” and Afghan security force casualties on the battlefield was impacting attrition and “outpacing recruitment and retention.” The endless marathon of peace talks to end the war has precipitated a tit-for-tat escalation in violence between Taliban and US and Afghan forces resulting in one of the bloodiest years of the conflict.

Reconstruction and stabilization activities in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2018 have resulted in thousands of casualties, including hundreds of American deaths. “Unless the US Government considers the human costs, the true costs of reconstruction and stabilization efforts in Afghanistan are not accurately captured,” a new report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said.

Altogether, the report “conservatively” tracked 5,135 casualties in Afghanistan derived from reconstruction and stabilization activities: 2,214 deaths and 2,921 injuries. This casualties figure did not take into account those from combat and counter-terrorism missions, nor did it factor in casualties from natural causes or accidents. There have been more than 2,400 US military deaths since the US military got involved in Afghanistan in 2001.

The “reduction in violence” agreement would bind the Taliban and US forces to refrain from conducting attacks or combat operations for seven days. “I think that we’re making significant progress,” O’Brien said at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington. “You hate to make predictions when it comes to Afghanistan … but I’ll say that we’re cautiously optimistic that some good news could be forthcoming on that front”, he added.

If a reduction in violence holds, the US and Taliban would be expected to sign an agreement to begin talks within 10 days involving the Taliban and Afghans from across the nation, including some who hold government positions but don’t represent the government. Taliban continue to refuse talking to the Afghan government. O’Brien added: “The president had made it very clear that there will have to be a reduction in violence and there will have to be meaningful intra-Afghan talks for things to move forward.

“If both those things and a number of other conditions are met and we are able to get agreement on them, I think we could have some good news coming out of Afghanistan”.

According to SIGAR findings, Afghan security forces averaged one insider attack every 4 days in the closing months of 2019. Members of Afghanistan’s security forces turned their weapons on each other every four days on average during the closing months of 2019.

Afghan National Defence and Security Forces personnel carried out 33 insider attacks during the fourth quarter of 2019, resulting in 90 casualties.  ADNSF personnel carried out a total of 82 insider attacks in 2019, resulting in 172 deaths and 85 injuries. In one major incident, a Taliban infiltrator killed 23 Afghan National Army soldiers in their sleep at a military base in Afghanistan’s Ghazni Province in December 2019, the New York Times reported.

Since the Afghan government has been excluded from the US negotiations with the Taliban, it will have no say on whether the US leaves some troops in Afghanistan as part of a counter-terrorism force or if it ends its military presence in the country entirely.

It remains unclear why the US is so desperate to quit Afghanistan that it would agree to a peace deal with the Taliban that does not even include a lasting nation-wide ceasefire. Though a framework has been spelled out to ensure ‘systematic implementation’ of the truce, it has inherent flaws that could lead to faulty conclusions.