Afghan peace process

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The Afghan peace process comprises the proposals and negotiations in a bid to end the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Although sporadic efforts have taken place since the war began in 2001, negotiations and the peace movement intensified in 2018 amid talks between the Taliban, which is the main insurgent group fighting against the Afghan government and American troops; and the United States, of which thousands of soldiers maintain a presence within the country to support the Afghan government.[1] Besides the United States, regional powers such as Pakistan, China, India and Russia, as well as NATO play a part in facilitating the peace process.[2][3][4]

Two peace treaties have been signed so far: an agreement between the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani and the Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin militant group on September 22, 2016,[5] and a conditional agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban on February 29, 2020,[6][7] which calls for the withdrawal of American troops within 14 months if the Taliban uphold the terms of the agreement.[8][9] Since September 2020, ongoing talks between officials from the Afghan state and the Taliban are ongoing in Doha, Qatar.

Background[edit]

The Taliban, which refers to itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,[10] is a Sunni Islamic organization that operates in Afghanistan, a country in Central/South Asia. The Taliban emerged in 1994, taking advantage of the power vacuum that was left following the aftermath of the Afghan Civil War.[11] The group was mainly composed of religious students in Pakistani madrassas (who had fought in the Soviet–Afghan War) under the leadership of Mohammed Omar.[12]

Al-Qaeda, an international terrorist network, were granted sanctuary in Afghanistan on the condition that it did not antagonize the United States, but Osama bin Laden reneged on the agreement in 1998 when he orchestrated bombings of US embassies in East Africa. The episode was indicative of tensions that emerged between the two groups. The Taliban was fundamentally parochial while Al-Qaeda had its sights set on global jihad.[12]

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. under President George W. Bush made a request to the Taliban leadership to hand over Osama bin Laden, who was the prime suspect in the attacks.[13] The Taliban refused to hand bin Laden over, demanding evidence of his participation in the attacks.[14] Consequently, the U.S., together with its NATO allies, launched the United States invasion of Afghanistan, code-named Operation Enduring Freedom, on October 7, 2001. By December 17 that year, the U.S. and its allies had driven the Taliban from power and begun building military bases near major cities across the country. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was later created by the United Nations Security Council to train Afghan National Security Forces to oversee military operations in the country so as to prevent any resurgence of the Taliban group. The Taliban has launched numerous attacks on the Afghan forces, government facilities, and any organization that they believe are in alliance with the US.[15]

The US has been on the ground and directly involved in the war for 18 years, with analysts describing the situation as a stalemate.[16] Although al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan are now considered to be "diminished", the war with the Taliban insurgents continues.[17] Ending the 18-year conflict has eluded former US presidents, and Donald Trump has said that he considers the war too costly.[16] Similarities with the process to end the Vietnam War—America's longest war prior to 2010—have been noted, which resulted in the Paris Peace Accords in 1973.[18][19]

Issues of peace negotiations[edit]

Ideological differences have resulted in arised issues, particularly human rights. The 2004 Constitution of Afghanistan protects women's rights such as of speech and education, and press freedom including freedom of expression[20] - both of which had been suppressed under Taliban rule of Afghanistan. Khalilzad, Ghani, Abdullah, and several other senior Afghan officials have all stated that these rights should be protected,[21][22][23] and should not be sacrificed in a peace agreement.[24] The First Lady of Afghanistan, Rula Ghani, has been active in protecting women's rights.[25] Afghan journalists have demanded the press to be protected in any potential peace deal.[26]

Continued violence on both sides remains an obstacle to a final peace agreement. While preliminary talks were going on, the Taliban continued to fight on the battlefield and launch terror attacks in the capital city, and also threatened the 2019 Afghan presidential election on September 28.[27] According to US Air Force statistics released in February 2020, the US dropped more bombs on Afghanistan in 2019 than in any other year since 2013.[28]

The US ambassador to Afghanistan warned that a peace agreement could risk the Taliban coming back into power, similar to the aftermath of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, during which the US-supported South Vietnamese government was defeated in the Fall of Saigon.[29][30] Pakistan warned that rising tensions in the Gulf region after the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani could affect the already-delayed US-Afghanistan peace process.[31]

Peace process[edit]

Following the Fall of Kabul and the election of Pashtun tribal chief Hamid Karzai as a national interim leader, the Taliban surrendered Kandahar following an offer of amnesty by Karzai. However the U.S. rejected a part of the amnesty in which Taliban leader Mullah Omar could "live in dignity" in his native Kandahar.[32] The Taliban were not invited to the Bonn Agreement of December 2001, which many cite has been the cause of the Taliban's battlefield resurgence and the continuation of conflict.[33] This was partly due to the Taliban's apparent defeat but also a U.S. condition that the Taliban would not be allowed to participate. By 2003 the Taliban showed signs of a comeback and not long afterwards their insurgency was underway. UN negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi admitted in 2006 that not inviting the Taliban to Bonn was "our original sin".[34] Insurgent attacks in the country reportedly grew fourfold between 2002-2006;[35] by late 2007 Afghanistan was said to be in "serious danger" of falling into Taliban control despite the presence of 40,000 NATO-led ISAF troops.[36]

Early outlook (2007–2010)[edit]

Negotiations had long been advocated by the former Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, as well as the British and Pakistani governments, but resisted by the American government. Karzai offered peace talks with the Taliban in September 2007, but this was swiftly rejected by the insurgent group citing the presence of foreign troops.[37] By 2009 there was broad agreement in Afghanistan that the war should end, but how it should happen was a major issue for the candidates of the 2009 Afghan presidential election[38] that re-elected Karzai. In a televised speech after being elected, Karzai called on "our Taliban brothers to come home and embrace their land"[39] and laid plans to launch a loya jirga. Efforts were undermined by the Obama administration's increase of American troops in the country.[40] Karzai reiterated at a London conference in January 2010 that he wanted to reach out to the Taliban to lay down arms.[41] US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautiously supported the proposal.[42] At the United States Institute of Peace in May 2010, Karzai stated that a "peace process" would be with the Taliban and other militants "who are not part of al-Qaeda or other terrorist networks or ideologically against us". Of the Taliban specifically, he stated, "They're countryside boys who don't hate the United States, perhaps a lot of them would like to visit the United States given the opportunity".[43]

Exploratory meetings and peace jirga (2010-2016)[edit]

The Taliban's co-founder and then-second-in-command, Abdul Ghani Baradar, was one of the leading Taliban members who favored talks with the US and Afghan governments. Karzai's administration reportedly held talks with Baradar in February 2010; however, later that month, Baradar was captured in a joint US-Pakistani raid in the city of Karachi in Pakistan. The arrest infuriated Karzai and invoked suspicions that he was seized because the Pakistani intelligence community was opposed to Afghan peace talks.[44][45] Karzai declared after his re-election in the 2009 Afghan presidential election that he would host a "Peace Jirga" in Kabul in an effort for peace. The event, attended by 1,600 delegates, took place in June 2010, however the Taliban and the Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin, who were both invited by Karzai as a gesture of goodwill did not attend the conference.[46]

At the same time, talks with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's group Hizb-i Islami Gulbuddin went underway. Hekmatyar, who was the main beneficiary of American and Pakistani support during the Soviet-Afghan War, had a softer stance regarding the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country compared to the Taliban.[47]

A mindset change and strategy occurred within the Obama administration in 2010 to allow possible political negotiations to solve the war.[48] The Taliban themselves had refused to speak to the Afghan government, portraying them as an American "puppet". Sporadic efforts for peace talks between the US and the Taliban occurred afterward, and it was reported in October 2010 that Taliban leadership commanders (the "Quetta Shura") had left their haven in Pakistan and been safely escorted to Kabul by NATO aircraft for talks, with the assurance that NATO staff would not apprehend them.[49] After the talks concluded, it emerged that the leader of this delegation, who claimed to be Akhtar Mansour, the second-in-command of the Taliban, was actually an imposter who had duped NATO officials.[50]

Karzai confirmed in June 2011 that secret talks were taking place between the US and the Taliban,[51] but these collapsed by August 2011.[52] Further attempts to resume talks were canceled in March 2012,[53] and June 2013 following a dispute between the Afghan government and the Taliban regarding the latter's opening of a political office in Qatar. President Karzai accused the Taliban of portraying themselves as a government in exile.[54] In January 2016, Pakistan hosted a round of four-way talks with Afghan, Chinese and American officials, but the Taliban did not attend.[55] The Taliban did hold informal talks with the Afghan government in 2016.[56]

Afghanistan-Gulbuddin deal (2016)[edit]

Following months of negotiations, the Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin, the second largest domestic militant group after the Taliban, signed a peace agreement with the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul. It was the first peace treaty since the war in Afghanistan started in 2001. Government officials praised the deal as a step towards peace and potentially a deal with the Taliban too.[57] However others shared concern due to controversial leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's alleged war crimes. The deal included the U.S. to whitelist him from a list of "global terrorists". Some parts of Afghan society protested the peace treaty due to his past actions.[58]

2017-2020[edit]

US President Donald Trump accused Pakistan of harboring the Taliban and of inaction against terrorists, first in August 2017 then repeated the accusations in January 2018.[59][60]

On February 27, 2018, following an increase in violence, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani proposed unconditional peace talks with the Taliban, offering them recognition as a legal political party and the release of the Taliban prisoners. The offer was the most favorable to the Taliban since the war started. It was preceded by months of national consensus building, which found that Afghans overwhelmingly supported a negotiated end to the war.[61][62] Two days earlier, the Taliban had called for talks with the US, saying "It must now be established by America and her allies that the Afghan issue cannot be solved militarily. America must henceforth focus on a peaceful strategy for Afghanistan instead of war."[63] On March 27, 2018, a conference of 20 countries in Tashkent, Uzbekistan backed the Afghan government's peace offer to the Taliban.[64] However, the Taliban did not publicly respond to Ghani's offer.[citation needed]

A growing peace movement arose in Afghanistan during 2018, particularly following a peace march which the Afghan media dubbed the "Helmand Peace Convoy".[65][66] The peace march was a response to a car bomb on March 23 in Lashkar Gah that killed 14 people. The marchers walked several hundred miles from Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province, through Taliban-held territory,[67] to Kabul. There they met Ghani and held sit-in protests outside the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and nearby embassies.[68] Their efforts inspired further movements in other parts of Afghanistan.[69]

Following the march, Ghani and the Taliban agreed a mutual ceasefire during the Eid al-Fitr celebrations in June 2018. During the Eid ceasefire, Taliban members flocked into Kabul where they met and communicated with locals and state security forces. Although civilians called for the ceasefire to be made permanent, the Taliban rejected an extension and resumed fighting after the ceasefire ended on June 18, while the Afghan government's ceasefire ended a week later.[70][71][72]

American officials secretly met Taliban members in July 2018, at the latter's political office in Qatar.[73] In September 2018, Trump appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as special adviser on Afghanistan in the US State Department, with the stated goal of facilitating an intra-Afghan political peace process.[74] Khalilzad led further talks between the US and the Taliban in Qatar in October 2018.[75] Russia hosted a separate peace talk in November 2018 between the Taliban and officials from Afghanistan's High Peace Council.[76] The talks in Qatar resumed in December 2018,[77] though the Taliban refused to allow the Afghan government to be invited,[78] considering them a puppet government of the US.[79] The Taliban spoke with Afghans including former President Hamid Karzai, held at a hotel in Moscow in February 2019, but again these talks did not include the Afghan government.[21]

A further round of talks in Qatar were held in February 2019, this time including Baradar in the Taliban delegation[79] - he had been released by Pakistan in October 2018 at the US' request.[80][81] Khalilzad reported that this round of negotiations was "more productive than they have been in the past" and that a draft version of a peace agreement had been agreed. The deal involved the withdrawal of US and international troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban not allowing other jihadist groups to operate within the country.[79] The Taliban also announced that progress was being made in the negotiations.[79]

A delegation of Taliban officials and senior Afghan politicians met in Moscow for peace talks in February and May 2019.[82][83] Reuters reported that "Russian officials as well as religious leaders and elders had asked for a ceasefire."[84]

Between April 29 and May 3, 2019, the Afghan government hosted a four-day loya jirga to discuss peace talks. The Taliban were invited but did not attend.[85] Later in May, a third meeting was held in Moscow between a Taliban delegation and a group of Afghan politicians.[86] An eighth round of US-Taliban talks in Qatar was held in August 2019.[87] The Washington Post reported that the US was close to reaching a peace deal with the Taliban and was preparing to withdraw 5,000 troops from Afghanistan.[88] In September, Khalilzad stated that an agreement had been reached by the US and the Taliban, pending approval by Trump.[89] However, less than a week later, Trump canceled the peace talks in response to an attack in Kabul that killed an American soldier and 11 other people.[90] Following the collapse of the talks with the US, the Taliban sent a delegation to Russia to discuss prospects for a withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.[91] On September 18, 2019, the Taliban stated that their "doors are open" should Trump decide to resume peace talks in the future.[92]

Peace negotiations resumed in December 2019,[93] leading to a seven-day partial ceasefire which began on February 22, 2020.[94]

US-Taliban deal (2020)[edit]

US representative Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Taliban representative Abdul Ghani Baradar (right) sign the agreement in Doha, Qatar on February 29, 2020

On February 29, 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace agreement in Doha, Qatar, officially titled the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.[95] The provisions of the deal include the withdrawal of all American and NATO troops from Afghanistan, a Taliban pledge to prevent al-Qaeda from operating in areas under Taliban control, and talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.[96] The United States agreed to an initial reduction of its force level from 13,000 to 8,600 by July 2020, followed by a full withdrawal within 14 months if the Taliban keeps its commitments.[7] The United States also committed to closing five military bases within 135 days,[97] and expressed its intent to end economic sanctions on the Taliban by August 27, 2020.[98]

The deal was supported by China, Russia and Pakistan, although it did not involve the government of Afghanistan.[99]

The resulting intra-Afghan negotiations were scheduled to begin on March 10, 2020[98] in Oslo, Norway.[100] The composition of the Afghan government negotiating team has not yet been determined, because the results of the 2019 Afghan presidential election are disputed.[101] The deal requires the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners by the start of the talks, in a prisoner exchange for 1,000 government soldiers held by the Taliban.[97] The Afghan government was not a party to the deal, and on March 1 Ghani stated that he would reject the prisoner exchange: "The government of Afghanistan has made no commitment to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners. [...] The release of prisoners is not the United States authority, but it is the authority of the government of Afghanistan."[102][103][104][105] Ghani also stated that any prisoner exchange "cannot be a prerequisite for talks," but must be a part of the negotiations.[106] On March 2, a Taliban spokesperson stated that they were "fully ready" for the intra-Afghan talks, but that there would be no talks if about 5,000 of their prisoners are not released. He also said that the agreed-upon period of reduction in violence was over and that operations against Afghan government forces could resume.[107]

Aftermath and surge in insurgent attacks[edit]

Despite the peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, insurgent attacks against Afghan security forces were reported to have surged in the country. In the 45 days after the agreement (between 1 March and 15 April 2020), the Taliban conducted more than 4,500 attacks in Afghanistan, which showed an increase of more than 70% as compared to the same period in the previous year.[108] More than 900 Afghan security forces were killed in the period, up from about 520 in the same period a year earlier. Meanwhile, because of a significant reduction in the number of offensives and airstrikes by Afghan and U.S. forces against the Taliban due to the agreement, Taliban casualties dropped to 610 in the period down from about 1,660 in the same period a year earlier. The Pentagon spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, said that although the Taliban stopped conducting attacks against the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, the violence was still "unacceptably high" and "not conducive to a diplomatic solution." He added: "We have continued to do defensive attacks to help defend our partners in the area and we will continue to do that."[108]

On 22 June 2020, Afghanistan reported its "bloodiest week in 19 years," during which 291 members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) were killed and 550 others wounded in 422 attacks carried out by the Taliban. At least 42 civilians, including women and children, were also killed and 105 others wounded by the Taliban across 18 provinces.[109] During the week, the Taliban kidnapped 60 civilians in the central province of Daykundi.[110]

On July 1, 2020, the U.S. House Armed Services Committee overwhelmingly voted in favor of a National Defense Authorization Act amendment to restrict President Trump's ability to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.[111][112]

Prisoner swap negotations[edit]

The Taliban resumed offensive operations against the Afghan army and police on March 3, 2020, conducting attacks in Kunduz and Helmand provinces.[113] On March 4, the US conducted airstrikes on Taliban fighters in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province.[114]

The intra-Afghan negotiations did not begin as planned on March 10, 2020. However, on that day Ghani signed a decree ordering the Afghan government to start releasing 1,500 Taliban prisoners on March 14 if they agreed to sign pledges guaranteeing they will not return to battle[115] If they do not sign the pledges, the decree will not go into effect.[115] The same day, the U.S. started withdrawing some troops.[116] Despite the fact that the terms of the peace agreement also received unanimous backing from the UN Security Council,[117] sources close to the Taliban, including Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, afterward announced that the group had rejected Ghani's prisoner swap decree and still insisted on the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners.[118][119][120] On March 14, 2020, Javid Faisal, a spokesman for the National Security Council, announced that President Ghani had delayed the release of Taliban prisoners, citing a need to review the list of the prisoners, thus endangering the peace agreement between the U.S. government and Taliban.[121]

On 27 March 2020, the Afghan government announced the formation of a 21-member negotiation team for the peace talks. However, on 29 March the Taliban rejected the team, stating that "we shall only sit for talks with a negotiation team that conforms with our agreements and is constituted in accordance with the laid out principles."[122] On 31 March 2020, a three-person Taliban delegation arrived in Kabul to discuss the release of prisoners.[123][124] They are the first Taliban representatives to visit Kabul since 2001.[123] The Afghan government had also previously agreed to hold the talks in Bagram Prison.[123] The same day, however, the Afghan government announced that the Taliban's refusal to agree to another ceasefire and the Taliban delegation's refusal to show up at the prison at the scheduled time both resulted in the postponement of the prisoner swap.[125][126][127] Following the arrival of the Taliban delegation, a senior Afghan government official told Reuters "the prisoner release might go ahead in a few days if everything goes as planned.”[124]

On 31 March 2020, the UN Security Council urged for all warring parties to declare a ceasefire in order for the peace process to progress further.[128][129] On 1 April 2020, it was revealed that the both the Taliban and Afghan government did in fact hold face-to-face talks in Kabul the previous day, unlike the previous video conference talks, and that they were overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).[130] However, Afghanistan's Office of the National Security Council stated that the only progress made so far was "on technical matters" and Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid afterward stated, "There will be no political talks there."[130] Outside the talks, tensions between the Afghan government and Taliban also showed when Afghan authorities blamed the Taliban for a 1 April 2020 explosion which killed several children in Helmand.[130] On the second day of negotiations, it was agreed that on 2 April 2020, up to 100 Taliban prisoners would be released in exchange for 20 Afghan military personnel[131]

On 7 April 2020, the Taliban departed from the prisoner swap talks, which Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen described as "fruitless."[132][133] Shaheen also stated in a tweet that hours after walking out of the talks, the Taliban's negotiating team was recalled from Kabul.[133] The Taliban also failed to secure the release of any of the 15 commanders they sought to be released.[132] Arguments over which prisoners to swap also resulted in a delay of the planned prisoner swap.[132] The next day, Faisal maintained that only 100 Taliban prisoners would be released.[133] Faisal later stated that the 100 prisoners, who were incarcerated at Bagram, were released.[134] The Taliban refused to verify these releases, in part due to the fact that the Taliban's withdrawal from Kabul prevented its "technical team" from making verifications of the prisoner identities.[134] As the Afghan government solely determined which prisoners were released, it also could not be confirmed if any of the prisoners released were on the Taliban's list of preferred names.[134]

On 17 May 2020, Ghani signed a power-sharing deal with his rival Abdullah Abdullah. This deal ended the long-running dispute about the results of the 2019 Afghan presidential elections, and assigned responsibility for peace negotiations to Abdullah.[135]

By August 2020, the Afghan government had released 5,100 prisoners,[136] and the Taliban had released 1,000.[137] However, the Afghan government refused to release 400 prisoners from the list of those the Taliban wanted to be released, because those 400 were accused of serious crimes.[138] President Ghani stated that he did not have the constitutional authority to release these prisoners, so he convened a loya jirga from 7 to 9 August to discuss the issue.[139] The jirga agreed to free the 400 remaining prisoners.[138]

On 14 August 2020, one of the 21 members of Afghanistan's peace negotiating team, Fawzia Koofi was attacked by gunmen, along with her sister Maryam Koofi, near Kabul. Fawzia Koofi is a prominent human rights activist of Afghanistan, who has been vocal in denouncing the Taliban. She was also a part of the team representing the Afghanistan government in the peace talks with the Taliban.[140]

Taliban officials have accused the Afghan government of intentionally postponing the release of 100 Taliban detainees in order to hamper intra-Afghan negotiations. To date, the Afghan government has freed about 5,000 Taliban prisoners under request from the Trump administration. The Afghan government denies the claims and insists that all Taliban prisoners have been freed. A government mediation team is on standby to travel to Doha for talks with the Taliban but delays have been persistent.[141]

Intra-Afghan negotations (2020)[edit]

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with the Taliban delegation in Doha, Qatar, on September 12, 2020

Talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in Doha, Qatar on September 12, 2020. The negotiations were set for March but have been delayed over a prisoner exchange dispute. Mawlavi Abdul Hakim will lead negotiations for the Taliban, he is the group's chief justice and a close confidant of Haibatullah Akhundzada. Abdullah Abdullah will be one of the leading figures for the Afghan government negotiating team. The Afghan government team also comprises women's rights activists.[142]

Regional actors[edit]

India and Pakistan[edit]

Both rivals India and Pakistan have been in conflict regarding the Afghan peace process. Following a May 2020 attack at a hospital in Kabul, which the Afghan state blamed on Taliban while the U.S. blamed the regional ISIS branch, Pakistan accused India of trying to derail the process. The US-Taliban deal signed in February 2020 was seen in India as a "victory for Taliban and Pakistan". The Afghan government denied Pakistan's claims and cited that India is a partner.[143] India has been a major military and developmental assistance partner for Afghanistan.[144]

High Council for National Reconciliation chairman Abdullah Abdullah visited leaders in Islamabad and New Delhi in October 2020 to convince them to support an Afghan peace deal.[145] A senior Pakistani official said that India wants to "spoil" peace in Afghanistan.[146] Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi voiced his commitment to a peaceful Afghanistan.[147] India confirmed "active involvement" in the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha.[148]

See also[edit]

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