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Even after 30 days since the US-Taliban peace deal, there is no substantial progress towards reconciliation and power-sharing between the Taliban and the Afghan government. However, the attacks on foreign forces have largely reduced, and the US has begun withdrawing its troops.

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IPRI # 39, 1 April 2020

Afghanistan
One month after the deal with the Taliban: Problems Four, Progress None

  Sukanya Bali

Over the last 30 days, the historic US-Taliban deal witnessed several obstacles in its implementation and did not result in expected outcomes. A month after signing the deal, four different but interrelated challenges to the deal have emerged that have delayed the intra- Afghan talks and threaten to derail the progress of the US-Taliban deal.  

1. Differences within Kabul
The political feud between the two rival leaders, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, grew deeper, since the last week of February, complicating intra-Afghan talks and limiting the progress of the deal. Ashraf Ghani, who was declared the winner in the presidential elections, attained 50.62 per cent, whereas Abdullah Abdullah secured 39.52 per cent votes. Abdullah Abdullah refused to accept the election results and announced to form a parallel government.

On 9 March, as President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani took oath in the presence of international diplomats for his second term. Simultaneously, Abdullah Abdullah, former Chief Executive also took an oath to form an alternative government. He is supported by several prominent political leaders and has significant influence in the country's north and west. Abdullah Abdullah's approval over any steps towards intra-Afghan talks is important, considering his influence. 

Advisors to Abdullah Abdullah have said that they were ready to form an inclusive government, not unlike the prevailing setup. They indicated their interest to retain the Chief executive's office which is an extraconstitutional arrangement created in 2014 but refused to accept the decisive election victory of Ashraf Ghani. According to a report by Reuters, Abdullah Abdullah wants to 'amend' the constitution and create the position of a' prime minister' to reduce the powers of the President.

Ashraf Ghani's spokesperson said that the President issued a decree to end the post of the CEO. Ghani expressed that he is ready to offer Abdullah Abdullah a central role in the peace talks and position in his cabinet but refused to amend the constitution. 

Primarily the absence of unity within the government of Afghanistan and lack of respect towards the constitution will weaken the government's position as a stakeholder in the future of the country. It will hinder the progress of intra-Afghan talks and erode the US-Taliban deal. Cracks in the Kabul government are likely to give the Taliban an advantage to enforce their demands in intra-Afghan talks when it happens.

2. Ghani's dissatisfaction with the deal
The government of Afghanistan had been side-lined from the US-Taliban talks. President Ashraf Ghani had several times expressed his disaffection towards US-Taliban negotiations and soon after the deal was signed, he rejected several elements of the deal. The government also cited differences in agreement between the US and the Afghan government, and the US and Taliban. On the other hand, rival leader, Abdullah Abdullah, called the deal a "historic event" and expressed hope for "an inclusive, national and countrywide delegation to take part" in the talks.

Ghani also pointed out that "the reduction in violence", would continue with a goal to reach a full ceasefire. It was opposed by the Taliban which continued to carry out attacks. The attack in Khost province happened soon after the Taliban said it was resuming 'offensive operations' against the government.
According to the deal, 5000 Taliban prisoners were to be released by 10 March before the beginning of Intra Afghan talks. Ashraf Ghani said that the release of Taliban prisoners was not under the authority of America but the Afghan government's decision. Ashraf Ghani rejected the release of Taliban prisoners citing security reasons and said it could not be a precondition for the talks.

The government, on the contrary, proposed a phased release of prisoners. President Ghani issued a 'decree' for the release of 1500 Taliban prisoners, on the conditions that the prisoners would give a 'written guarantee to not return to battlefield'. Taliban, however, rejected this.

The release of Taliban prisoners, a precursor to the intra-Afghan talks, proved to be a bone of contention between the Taliban and Afghan government. Some progress is believed to have been made over prisoner release after the first virtual meet between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Government sources say that 100 Taliban prisoners would be released by the end of March. However, it is unlikely that the Taliban would agree to anything less than the complete release of all Taliban prisoners.
Afghan security forces and the government are at higher risks in their fight against the Taliban amidst the withdrawal of foreign troops.  The US-Taliban deal may fail to bring a political settlement in Afghanistan unless, the Taliban and Ashraf Ghani's government, come to an agreement on the prisoner release and begin the intra-Afghan talks immediately.

3. Taliban's reluctance to deal with the elected government  

Afghan government set up a team headed by Masoom Stankezai, former chief of the National Directorate of Security will include politicians, former officials, representatives of civil society and five women members. Taliban refused to meet the government's 21-member negotiating team and said that the team was not 'inclusive' enough.

Taliban had also refused President Ghani's 'phased' release of prisoners. They projected prisoner-swap as a confidence-building measure before bringing internal powers together to the negotiation table. Taliban insisted that all 5000 prisoners should be released, all at once, as a forerunner to the Afghan talks.

Taliban reduced their attacks on foreign forces but continued to attack the Afghan security forces. 27 Afghan security personnel were killed in a recent spree of attacks over a weekend. In another insider attack on an army base, 25 soldiers were killed. The Ministry of defence vowed to 'avenge' the attacks and switch to 'active defence posture'. Such attacks indicate that the Taliban is not likely to be accommodative towards the Afghan. They seem to be enforcing their demands on the government. The scale of attacks and casualties might also turn the Afghan government indifferent to the US-Taliban deal. Additionally, as groups like ISIS and the Haqqani network have increased attacks, there is no peace in sight for the common people.

4. US arm-twisting the Afghan government

On 23 March, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo visited Kabul, to mediate between the rival leaders. Later, he visited Qatar for a 75 minutes meet with Taliban leaders. Soon after his return, the US cut aid to Afghanistan by $1 billion and ordered to review all the programs and projects, to identify additional reduction and reconsider their pledge to future donor conferences for Afghanistan. The Secretary of State was frustrated by the reactions of the rival leaders. Pompeo also added that these moves would be reversed if the leaders ended their disputes and formed an 'inclusive government'.

Pompeo's visit to Doha to meet Taliban representatives indicates the importance that the US gives to the Taliban. Later after the team of negotiators was identified by the Afghan government, Pompeo expressed his approval and said that the team was inclusive 'enough'. The US seems to be using a 'carrot and stick' approach towards the Afghan government, to save the deal and end the war.

Withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is a priority of Trump's foreign policy agenda. According to the New York Times report, the US shared its troop location with the Taliban to facilitate its peaceful withdrawal after 18 years, from the region. Location data was shared in order to prevent attacks on foreign troops.   
Additionally, after the deal, the US has been seen least interested in the attacks on Afghan security forces in the region. The US has given away a lot in the deal at the expense of the Afghan government. Also, the US seems to have pressurised Ashraf Ghani to yield to the demands of the Taliban and begin the intra-afghan talks, but excessive pressure may turn the Afghan government hostile towards the deal.  

To conclude, the prospects of peace remains grim in Afghanistan. Even after 30 days since the US-Taliban peace deal, there is no substantial progress towards reconciliation and power-sharing between the Taliban and the Afghan government. However, the attacks on foreign forces have largely reduced, and the US has begun withdrawing its troops, the intra-Afghan talk has been delayed for 20 days and events happening over the week indicate that talks are not likely to begin anytime soon. It is likely that the US-Taliban deal will reach a stalemate if political leaders fail to resolve disputes immediately.

The above commentary was first published as an IPRI Comment. 

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China and Islam
February 2019 | IPRI # 3
IPRI Comments

Harini Madhusudhan

Sinicizing the Minorities

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Terrorism
January 2019 | IPRI # 2
IPRI Comments

Sourina Bej

Maghreb: What makes al Shahab Resilient?

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Global Politics
January 2019 | IPRI # 1
IPRI Comments

Aparupa Bhattacherjee

Myanmar: Will 2019 be better for the Rohingya?

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