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Q&A: What the US-Taliban agreement means for Afghanistan and why Iran should be involved

A power sharing agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government is going to be extremely difficult and the available evidence indicates that the violence and tension will not end any time soon.

Analysis | Reporting | Global Crises

Now that some of the dust has settled from the U.S.-Taliban agreement, Fatemeh Aman, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, explains just what the deal means for the future of the Afghan government, what the regional implications are, and what the Iranians — despite being left out of the process — have to say about it:

RESPONSIBLE STATECRAFT: What are the prospects for the next steps envisioned under the U.S.-Taliban agreement? We’ve already seen that the Ghani government is not prepared to release Taliban prisoners. Why has Ghani taken this position? Is he trying to bolster his position in advance of prospective Taliban-government talks, or is he acting as a spoiler?

FATEMEH AMAN: First of all, we have to note that the Taliban is in a very strong position right now. For years they have insisted on talking directly with the U.S. government, which was strongly opposed by the Afghan government and rejected by the U.S. But now, not only have they gotten their much-desired direct negotiations with Washington, they’re even getting phone calls from the White House.

The Taliban understand well that the Trump administration wants a dramatic accomplishment before the upcoming U.S. presidential election and is willing to make significant concessions to get it. To be fair, there are not many options left for the United States. The reality is that the Taliban are indigenous. They are not some kind of foreign terrorist group that can be kicked out of the country. They are part of the Afghan population, they have considerable financial resources, and they are going to stick around. The question is: can they reconcile with the Afghan government?

Another complication has emerged in terms of Afghanistan’s political environment. Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah are disputing the results of September’s presidential election, and the U.S. has convinced Ghani to postpone his own inauguration to avoid exacerbating these tensions on the eve of talks with the Taliban. With the attack on Ghani’s inauguration this week, it’s clear this is another major challenge that the Taliban was going to exploit. It remains to be seen whether Ghani and Abdullah can put aside their differences, even temporarily, to prepare for negotiations.

RS: If the U.S. had been willing to hold direct talks with the Taliban sooner, would that have made a difference?

 FA: I believe so. There are several factors that finally convinced the U.S. to talk with the group directly. Among these are President Trump’s political goal to end the war in Afghanistan and bring the troops home; the steady strengthening of the Taliban’s position, which has prolonged and escalated the conflict; multiple rifts within the Afghan government; and a growing sense of pessimism among the Afghan population.

Only two days after the agreement was signed, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid, stated that, according to the deal, the Taliban will stop attacking foreign forces in Afghanistan. But he made it clear that the group will resume its attacks on Afghan security forces.

Another interesting statement came from Taliban's chief negotiator, Abbas Stanekzai, who reiterated to BBC Persian that the Taliban don’t recognize the Afghan government and said that “the intra-Afghan talks” will not be between the Taliban and the government directly. “A representative of the government can also participate in the talks with various Afghan groups… but there won’t be direct talks with the government,” Staneksai said, “The Afghan government is not a legal entity.” 

RS: Could Taliban-government negotiations realistically result in a power-sharing arrangement? Or do you believe the conflict is likely to intensify? 

FA: Power sharing is going to be extremely difficult and the available evidence indicates that the violence and tension will not end any time soon. The Taliban allegedly attacked Afghan forces 43 times on March 3 alone. The U.S. was compelled to undertake a “defensive" airstrike against the Taliban on that same day, only hours after President Trump had his "very good talk" by phone with a top Taliban official, Mullah Baradar Akhund.

The other thing we should not forget is that the Taliban is not a unified group with a central command. There are multiple Taliban factions, some of which are at odds with each other. It is very possible that the organization will be divided over the agreement with the U.S.

RS: Is it possible that the current Afghan government will suffer the same fate as South Vietnam?

FA: There are some similarities with South Vietnam, but more differences. First, although some parts of Afghanistan are under Taliban control, the Afghan government is an elected entity whose authority is still recognized in most of the country. Second, there is no powerful country like former Soviet Union supporting the Taliban. The group may receive funding and financial help from different sources, but those sources are not as powerful as those that were supporting North Vietnam. Additionally, Afghanistan is very different from Vietnam in terms of culture, economy, and power structure. For example, there are parallel governments and powerful autonomous warlords active in many parts of Afghanistan, which was not the case in Vietnam and which will hinder any Taliban effort to take over the country entirely.

However, as I say there are some similarities. As the U.S. once intensified its air campaign in Vietnam, there are now talks of U.S. forces being pulled back on the ground and emphasis being shifted to the air war. That would be a disaster. The United States and the Afghan government have had a hard enough time winning the hearts of Afghans already — bombarding them further is only going to increase their animosity toward Kabul and the U.S. 

A more useful comparison would perhaps be with Mohammad Najibullah’s government in 1988, when the Soviet Union started withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan. However, Moscow continued sending billions of dollars in military aid to Najibullah’s government. That helped Najibullah to hold on to power for another three years after Soviets left Afghanistan, but eventually he was forced from power. However, Najibullah’s regime had no friend except the Soviets, while today no country prefers the Taliban over the current government of Afghanistan. The world has sympathy with the Afghans. That said, this time there are no billions of dollars ready to flow to the Afghan military after the U.S. withdraws.

RS: How do you see Pakistan reacting to this accord? 

FA: Pakistan was heavily involved in the negotiating process. In fact, it was Pakistan that facilitated direct talks between the U.S. and the Taliban in 2018. And they warned of “spoilers inside Afghanistan and outside Afghanistan…who would play a negative role.” They are likely satisfied with the way things have progressed thus far.

RS: Is India satisfied with the agreement?

FA: India is generally suspicious of whatever Pakistan supports with respect to Afghanistan. India has invested heavily in Afghanistan and has always opposed the Taliban and any agreement with the Taliban. India’s external affairs spokesperson emphasized New Delhi’s support of “the government and people of Afghanistan.”

Since China has also heavily invested in Afghanistan, India views the Taliban’s possible return to the government as smoothing the way for more Pakistani and Chinese influence in Afghanistan.

Analysts in India called the agreement imbalanced and tied it to Trump’s desire to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan before the 2020 election. They question the credibility of an agreement that does not refer to the elected government of Afghanistan and call the agreement “fragile and limited in its objectives.” Also, while Islamabad maintains that the release of Taliban prisoners in the agreement “was logical,” Indians believe that it will embolden the Taliban even more than before.

RS: If Iran is not directly engaged in the Afghan peace process, due to a U.S. veto or for some other reason, do you see it taking steps to undermine it? If so, how?

FA: It was odd that representatives of many countries were present at the deal signing, but Iran was absent.

I mean how can representatives of countries such as Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey, India, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan be present, and Iran — one of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors — be absent?

I believe Afghanistan may have been a window of opportunity for some much-needed communication between the U.S. and Iran. Had the Trump administration involved Iran in the negotiations, it would have shown good will and seriousness. Excluding Iran sends the opposite message.

It is interesting that while the Trump administration is blamed in some quarters for rushing to leave Afghanistan, Iranians blame the U.S. for trying to stay in Afghanistan. The Iranian Foreign Ministry opposed the deal in a statement, and characterized it as an attempt to legitimize a permanent U.S. military presence. “The presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan is illegal and the main causes of war and insecurity. Reaching peace and security requires foreign forces to leave Afghanistan,” the statement said.

Iranian officials, while being concerned about the vacuum that might be filled by the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (IS-K) and other terrorist groups once U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, are uncomfortable having several thousand U.S. troops at their doorstep. Their concern is more serious knowing that the administration wants regime change in Iran and could use Afghanistan as a base to attack Iran.

RS: Is the agreement really just a cover for Trump to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and thus fulfill a campaign promise? Is that how it’s seen in the region? And if so, what are the implications of that perception?

FA:  The biggest loser in this process will be the Afghan people and the winner will be chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad. If the agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban lasts, it would add to the credibility of Khalilzad as a peace maker. If the Taliban and the Afghan government can’t come to an agreement, blame will fall on them rather than on Khalilzad or the U.S.

As I mentioned earlier, there are not too many options out there for breaking today’s stalemate in Afghanistan. If the agreement fails, the administration can claim it did everything it could to bring peace to Afghanistan. We have seen Donald Trump suddenly change his mind about U.S. military deployments in other parts of the world (Syria most prominently). It would not be out of the question for him to do so here.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (via Shutterstock)
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A U.S. Special Forces Soldier demonstrates a kneeling firing position before a live fire range, March 6, 2017 at Camp Zagre, Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso Soldiers also practiced firing in seated position, standing position, and practiced turning and firing. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Britany Slessman 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) Multimedia Illustrator/released)
A U.S. Special Forces Soldier demonstrates a kneeling firing position before a live fire range, March 6, 2017 at Camp Zagre, Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso Soldiers also practiced firing in seated position, standing position, and practiced turning and firing. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Britany Slessman 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) Multimedia Illustrator/released)

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