Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jan 31, 2021

President Biden has been left in charge of responsibly withdrawing from Afghanistan, while holding the Taliban accountable and not leaving the Afghan government and civilian population in the dust. In other words, a mammoth task.

The Biden administration’s inheritance — US-Taliban deal: Review, recalibrate or replace?

Source Image: Karim Jaafar — AFP via Getty

The Biden administration has recently announced the “the intention to review” the US-Taliban peace deal reached in February 2020. President Biden’s security advisor, Jack Sullivan, is said to have confirmed this review with Afghan officials, in light of the continued targeted assassinations and attacks in Afghanistan. The Afghan government has welcomed this announcement, as the intra-Afghan talks held in Qatar have made little progress due to the continued violence, ideological differences, and increasing mistrust between the parties.

The February 2020 deal signed by the US and NATO allies with the Taliban was the result of multiple rounds of negotiations between the US — led by envoy Zalmay Khalilzad — with Taliban officials. After nine rounds of talks, Khalilzad announced that the US would withdraw 5,400 troops from Afghanistan within 20 weeks, as part the agreement with Taliban representatives. The deal also promised a proportionate reduction in the number of other international forces in Afghanistan and efforts from both sides to support intra-Afghan peace negotiations and a prisoner swap. The Taliban also agreed to committing to reducing violence and preventing groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) from operating on Afghan territory.

Criticised for not involving the Afghan government and for agreeing to a significant number of commitments in comparison to the Taliban, the Trump administration is said to have pushed through with the deal to increase domestic appeal ahead of the 2020 US Presidential election. In October 2020, Khalilzad announced that the US had agreed with the Taliban to “reset actions” by strictly adhering to the terms of the agreement, amidst intensified terror operations in Afghanistan. However, this call for reset has not had the desired result.

Back and forth negotiations between the US and Taliban officials:

June 2013, Doha Taliban establishes presence in Doha These offices were quickly shutdown after Qatar removed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan flags when the Afghan government objected.
January 2016, Doha Doha Dialogue Pakistan hosted four-way talks with Chinese, US and Afghan officials to begin talks with Taliban.
21 September 2018 US State Dept appoints Zalmay Khalilzad Zalmay Khalilzad appointed as lead envoy for talks with Taliban, with the goal of facilitating the intra-Afghan peace process.
12 October 2018, Doha Round 1 of negotiations between US and Taliban officials Khalilzad meets Taliban representatives for the first time.
14-16 November 2018, Doha Round 2 Talks held post Pakistan releasing two more Afghan-Taliban leaders, creating the atmosphere for dialogue.
17 December 2018, UAE Round 3 Afghan-Taliban representatives meet with US officials in Abu Dhabi.
8 January 2019 Round 4 (cancelled) Shift in venue requested by Taliban officials.
25 February –12 March  2019, Doha Round 5 Peace talks end without a final agreement. Khalilzad says progress has been made.
1-9 May 2019, Doha Round 6 Khalilzad proposes cease-fire, proposal rejected by Taliban who continue attacks on government buildings and foreign organisations.
29 June–9 July 2019, Doha Round 7 Peace talks focused more on plan for military withdrawal.
3-12 August 2019, Doha Round 8 Talks focused on Taliban guarantee against attacks, as plan for military withdrawal solidifies.
22- 31 August 2019, Doha Round 9 Crucial talks conclude, reportedly framing the “roadmap for peace.”
2 September 2019, Doha Announcement of draft peace deal Khalilzad shows draft of US-Taliban agreement to Afghan leaders, declaring they were “at the threshold” of a deal.
7 September 2019, Doha President Trump calls off talks via Twitter Trump abruptly calls off talks after Taliban car bombing at NATO mission headquarters in Kabul.
29 February 2020, Doha The February 2020 deal is signed between US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar of the Taliban, with Mike Pompeo as witness. Under the agreement, the US would draw its forces down to 8,600 from 13,000 in the following 3-4 months, with the remaining US forces withdrawing in 14 months.
20 October 2020 Reset towards deal Amidst rising violence, Khalilzad announced a reset towards commitment from both parties to the deal.
22 January 2021 Biden advisor Jake Sullivan announces review US top security advisor announces intention to review February 2020 deal upon consultation with Afghan government officials.

Sources: BBC, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, and Crisis International

Status quo Kabul

Violence has surged in Afghanistan while the intra-Afghan talks have progressed slowly. The Taliban has not lived up to its commitments as the number of high-profile assassinations and deadly attacks have increased in the last few months. There is no official cease-fire in place, and attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians resumed less than a month after the February 2020 agreement was signed. The ISI-K has also continued attacks targeting civilians and has expanded its presence in many eastern Afghan provinces, increasing unease amongst the Afghan public over a complete US troop pull-out.

The intra-Afghan talks between Taliban and Afghan government representatives have been progressing at a slow pace. The February 2020 agreement was viewed as the necessary first step towards the intra-Afghan peace process yet has not resulted in either a ceasefire or any resolution. The talks commenced on 12 September 2020 in Doha and three months later both sides had only agreed to the rules and procedure for future negotiations. This document on procedure addresses the type of jurisprudence that will be used for dispute settlement, commits to the withdrawal of all US troops, calls for mutual respect and information sharing between the two parties, and sets the objective of the negotiations. The Taliban’s insistence on using the Sunni Hanafi School of jurisprudence as the sole authority for resolving disputes in the process was previously a main point of contention in the progression of talks. This has now been settled with both parties agreeing to a joint dispute resolution committee consulting diverse jurisprudence references in the event of disagreements. Now that the agenda has been set, progress in the intra-Afghan peace process largely hinges on the reduction in violent attacks. An additional challenge to progress has been the division within the Afghan government itself, with political differences between President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah persisting amidst talk from the latter’s camp of a proposed interim government to replace the former. The second round of talks began on the 5 January 2021, yet a lack of urgency is apparent from both parties, being attributed to the change in US administration and an undetermined Biden policy on Afghanistan.

The intra-Afghan talks between Taliban and Afghan government representatives have been progressing at a slow pace.

The new US administration has inherited a precarious situation, with only 2,500 troops left on the ground in Afghanistan and a signed deal with the Taliban currently leading nowhere.

The Biden administration’s next steps

President Biden’s administration will seek to move with caution in their review of the February 2020 agreement, with the Taliban already having reiterated the importance of the new administration not straying from agreed commitments. While the Taliban has clearly violated the terms of the accord on multiple accounts, they accuse the US of the same, claiming that the US has engaged in “excessive” aerial attacks and bombings in Taliban stronghold, Helmand province.

Khalilzad has been asked to continue as lead envoy under the Biden administration, especially since certain commitments made by both sides as part of the accord were not made public. The Biden administration has a few ways forward in addressing the situation. They may decide to retain 2,000 troops on the ground and consult and review with other allies before proceeding with a complete withdrawal. Along with affirming its support for the intra-Afghan peace negotiations, the Biden administration must hold both parties accountable. It must make it clear that the Taliban must fully meet its commitments to the agreement before it withdraws completely while emphasising the importance of the Afghan government negotiating in good faith with the Taliban and overcoming internal division.

Along with affirming its support for the intra-Afghan peace negotiations, the Biden administration must hold both parties accountable.

A common criticism of the US-Taliban deal is the lack of mechanisms to penalise the Taliban and hold them accountable for breaching the terms. The Biden administration might look to use sanctions as a more formal instrument to consider for this purpose while reviewing the deal. Additionally, they may consider revisiting the ceasefire stipulated in the deal as a precondition to the intra-Afghan political resolution. It must be reiterated that this precondition should be reached by both parties before further troops are withdrawn or further support is provided to the Afghan government.

It remains unclear how the Biden administration will choose to proceed in regard to their review of the US-Taliban deal. President Biden has been left in charge of responsibly withdrawing from Afghanistan, while holding the Taliban accountable and not leaving the Afghan government and civilian population in the dust. In other words, a mammoth task. The next step in the process will be in understanding how to move forward in recalibrating the deal with the Taliban while exercising prudence in ensuring the Afghan question is answered through peaceful political settlement.

The author is a Junior Fellow at ORF.

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