The US-Taliban peace deal 2020: Heading for annulment?

Iqbal Khan

Biden administration plans to review US-Taliban withdrawal deal of February 29, 2020. Trump administration had struck a deal to begin withdrawing its troops in return for security guarantees from the militants and a commitment to ki-ck-start peace talks with the Afghan government.

Specifically, new administration wants to check that the Taliban are “living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afgh-anistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations w-ith the Afghan government and other stakeholders.”

However, violence across Afghanistan has surged despite the two sides engaging in intra-Afghan talks since September. The US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, spoke with his Afghan counterpart Hamdullah Mohib and “made clear the United States’ intention to review” the deal. Sullivan “underscored that the US will support the peace process with a robust and regional diplomatic effort, which will aim to help the two sides achieve a durable and just political settlement and permanent ceasefire.” He also discussed the United States’ support for protecting recent progress made on women and minority groups’ rights as part of the peace process.

Taliban have stated that they remain “committed to the agreement and [would] honour our commitments”. “We expect the other side to remain committed to the agreement too,” Mohammad Naeem, Taliban’s spokesman in Qatar, told AFP. Afghan national security advisor, tweeted that during the call the two sides “agreed to work toward a permanent ceasefire and a just and durable peace” in the country.

Another top Afghan government official lambasted the Taliban’s failure to live up to the February 2020 deal, saying the agreement had failed to achieve its stated goals. “The agreement so far, did not deliver a desired goal of ending Taliban’s violence and bringing a ceasefire desired by the Afghans,” Sediq Sediqqi, Deputy Interior Minister and former spok-esman to President Ashraf Ghani said on Twitter.

Washington’s move has met with a sigh of relief from government officials in Kabul after months of speculation over how the new administration would potentially recalibrate the Afghan policy.

Deadly attacks and high-profile assassinations have increased in recent months, particularly in Kabul where several journalists, activists, judges and politicians have been murdered in brazen daylight attacks. The Taliban have denied responsibility for these killings, but Afghan and US officials have blamed the group for the violence.

Secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told during his Senate confirmation hearing that “we want to end this so-called forever war.” The US had committed to reducing the number of its troops in Afghanistan from 13,000 to 8,600 within 135 days of signing the deal, and working with its allies to proportionally reduce the number of coalition forces in Afghanistan over the same period. Currently, there are 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan. “We want to retain some capacity to deal with any resurgence of terrorism, which is what brought us there in the first place,” Blinken said in his confirmation hearing. “We have to look carefully at what has actually been negotiated. I haven’t been privy to it yet.”

Afghanistan’s acting minister of state for peace said the outcome of the review should be a truce to end attacks in the war-ravaged country. It is expected the review will lead “to the demand of the Afghan people, which is an immediate stop to violence and achieving permanent peace”, Abdullah Khenjani said.

Though, Tony Blinken, said he wanted to review the US-Taliban peace deal but clarified that the new administration would also continue the peace process started by the Trump administration. Blinken, who is a former State Department official, would undertake a review of the peace deal because like the outgoing Trump administration, which negotiated the deal, the new US rulers also want to end the almost 20-year long war in Afghanistan.

“We want to end this so-called forever war,” he insisted. “We want to bring our forces home”, Blinken added.

Joe Biden has stated that while he would reduce the number of combat troops in Afghanistan, he would not withdraw US military presence. Last year, during a debate between Democratic presidential candidates, Biden had said: “We can prevent the United States from being the victim of terror coming out of Afghanistan by providing for bases — insist the Pakistanis provide bases for us to air lift from and to move against what we know.” Blinken has promised to consider the rights of Afghan women and girls whose freedoms were severely curtailed during the Taliban regime. “I don’t believe that any outcome that they might achieve,” Blinken said of nascent talks between Taliban and the Kabul government, “is sustainable without protecting the gains that have been made by women and girls in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.”

Washington’s actions are also of vital importance. According to CRISIS Group, the US has been the primary driver of progress in peace talks, nudging two mistrustful parties forward. Peace in Afghanistan will ultimately depend on the conflict parties’ willingness to compromise.

Afghan peace talks have stalled in their opening rounds, as all parties wait for the incoming Biden administration to reveal what changes it might make to the US Afghanistan policy, particularly vis-à-vis the peace process and the US military presence.

After the US elections, the intra-Afghan talks had slowed down to time-out President Trump. Negotiators took three months for just reaching agreement on a mere three-page set of procedures for the talks and were just beginning to discuss what substantive topics to put on their agenda when they took a weeks-long break.

With the Trump administration a lame duck, the incoming Biden administration’s approach to the peace process uncertain, Taliban violence on the rise, and the Afghan government struggling to manage multi-dimensional security and political challenges, it is far from clear where negotiations are headed. A path is open to achieving a political settlement – by far the best outcome for a country that has been continuously at war for the last four decades.

It appease that the Biden Administration would like to invoke Obama era Bilateral Security Agreement between the US and Afghan government that provides for an open-ended arrangement for keeping some troops in Afghanistan.

However, this preposition is a red line for the Taliban, who do not want even a single occupation soldier to stay back. These diverse positions may not bode well for smooth continuation of Trump era agreement. The situation could, very well, tailspin into a chaos.