Conflict Alerts # 330, 18 February 2021
In the news
On 17 February, the Taliban published an open letter urging the United States to remain committed to the Doha agreement regarding the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan. The letter signed by Taliban’s deputy leader Mullah Abdullah Abdul Ghani Baradar stated, “We are fully confident that the Afghans themselves can achieve the establishment of an Islamic government and enduring peace and security through intra-Afghan dialogue.” Similarly, in a message to the NATO leaders, the Taliban said, “Our message to the upcoming NATO ministerial meeting is that the continuation of occupation and war is neither in your interest nor in the interest of your and our people.”
On 15 February, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in a pre-ministerial press conference reiterated that the presence of the alliance’s troops in Afghanistan is “conditions-based,” saying “we will not leave before the time is right.” On the same day, Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, stated, “At this moment, the Taliban has taken a hard stance, which unfortunately is not helping the situation.”
On 15 February, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released a report in which it stated that 65 journalists, media professionals and human rights defenders were killed in Afghanistan between 1 January 2018 and 31 January 2021, with 11 losing their lives since the start of negotiations in September 2020. Further, the report also documented a “changing patterns” of attacks as it identified the recent killings as an intentional, premeditated and deliberate targeting of individuals with perpetrators remaining anonymous.
Issues at large
First, the question of troop withdrawal. Presently, there are roughly 8,000 NATO troops and nearly 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan. While the Taliban has voiced its strong opposition to the presence of international troops in Afghanistan, the Afghan government expects the continued support of the alliance in its train, advice and assist mission. However, as the new US administration under President Joe Biden is reviewing the Doha agreement signed with the Taliban in February 2020, according to which the US pledged to withdraw all international troops by April 2021, the question of complete troop withdrawal remains in question.
Second, surging violence and targeted killing. Despite the ongoing negotiation, violent conflict continues unabetted across Afghanistan. Apart from the UNAMA report, TOLO News, a local news agency has stated that 340 people were either killed or wounded in security incidents in Afghanistan since the start of February 2021 as a result of magnetic IEDs, roadside bombs and targeted killings.
Third, the stalled intra-Afghan negotiations. The negotiations in Doha been stalled for almost four weeks as both sides have not held meetings on the agenda of the second phase of the Intra-Afghan dialogue which started on 5 January. The Taliban’s missing presence in Doha is one of the main reasons behind the deadlock.
First, the presence of international troops has not curbed the surge in violence, however, this does not mean that the troops should leave. The continuing presence of the US and NATO forces has helped prevent the Taliban from tilting the balance of power on the ground in its favour. Further, it has also helped curb hard-line armed groups from exploiting the security vacuum that may arise. Thus, the Biden administration will have some difficult decisions to take, however, it is unlikely that there will be a complete withdrawal of troops given the situation in Afghanistan and the status of the negotiations.
Second, violence is a manifestation of the stalled negotiations that have seen limited progress and vague statements from both sides. Further, it shows that the two sides have failed to reach a consensus on the most important and first agenda of the talks which is the call for a reduction in violence.
Third, the US-Taliban agreement and intra-Afghan negotiations provide a singular opportunity to bring peace to war-torn Afghanistan. However, with the Taliban prioritising the Doha agreement over the intra- Afghan talks the opportunity seems to be slipping away.