On September 8, US President Donald Trump, through a tweet, announced that he is calling off peace talks with the Taliban. This effectively ended— in a couple of tweets, no less— months of US negotiations with the Afghan Taliban to end the decades-long conflict in the country.
Significantly, in the tweet, Trump said that he had in fact been scheduled to meet the leadership of Afghan Taliban and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani at Camp David. But, he continued, that the meeting was off because the Taliban had admitted to a terrorist attack in Kabul “in order to build false leverage” in the middle of “very important peace talks”.Before we understand why these peace talks were “very important”— and what happens next now that they have been junked— let us try and understand how they began and progressed before being called off.
Since there are three major players involved here – Afghanistan, Taliban and the US – and a US promise to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, let us first try and understand the players involved in the peace agreement.
During the tense rounds of negotiations carried out in Qatari capital Doha last month, it was agreed that a deal would be sealed between the US and the Taliban. This would, in turn, open doors for direct negotiations between the Afghan sides – Taliban, the Afghan government and other stakeholders — and eventually culminate into a final peace deal. Experts have stated that the dialogue between various Afghan stakeholders is the greater challenge.According to Al Jazeera, the talks are focused on four key issues: a guarantee from Taliban that it will not allow foreign groups to use Afghanistan as a launchpad; an intra-Afghan dialogue; complete withdrawal of US and NATO forces; and a permanent ceasefire.
That is a difficult question to answer, but one that can be answered by laying down a bit of history. The Taliban rose to power in Afghanistan in the 1990’s, capturing Kabul in 1996 and ruling the country under Sharia law. The Taliban was not officially recognized by most other nations, since it also had links with terrorist group al-Qaeda.
Post the 9/11 terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda in the US, the then US President George Bush authorised the use of force against those responsible, i.e. al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which was backing the terror group. The US launched attacks in Afghanistan, and over the course of years, it has become America’s longest war, with over 2,400 US servicemen and women reportedly having lost their lives while serving in Afghanistan.
Cut to 2014, when the Afghan security forces officially took over the war against the Taliban, but the US troops remained to deal with the instability in the region. In 2015, the then US President Barack Obama announced that he is postponing the withdrawal of troops on Afghanistan’s request.During the 2016 Presidential election campaigning, Trump had promised the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The negotiations for the withdrawal of troops started in early 2019, but now they have been called off.
Trump spelt out the immediate reason for his backing out of the negotiations in his tweet itself. He said that the suicide car bombing in Kabul that killed a US service member along with a Romanian soldier and 10 civilians was the reason he cancelled the negotiations and the scheduled meeting.
However, experts have stated that while the bombing might have been the trigger, it could hardly have been the only reason.According to Time magazine, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, one of the two signatories on the deal, did not want to sign a deal that was "shaky", and did not contain any guarantees from Taliban. According to the report, Trump may have been looking for a pretext to jump out of the deal, which he got in the Kabul bombing.
For starters, not many knew about the Camp David meet until Trump’s tweet, so the details about what the meeting entailed are still a little unclear. But the few people who knew about the meeting, are those who were going to be in attendance.
The New York Times quoted a senior Trump administration official saying that the decision to scrap the meeting was taken on September 5, but Trump had delayed his announcement. Afghan officials, according to the publication, had confirmed a day later that a scheduled meeting of Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani in Washington had been cancelled.
Camp David, the US President’s retreat, is a historic place. The Camp David Accords, between Egypt and Israel, were signed there in 1978. But a meeting with the Taliban — which had sheltered Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks — at Camp David two days before the 9/11 anniversary would have meant bad optics for Trump.Taliban, on its part, was wary of the meeting because they felt that they will be forced into talks with Ghani, and eventually into accepting a ceasefire.
Experts are not sure about the 'forever' part, but the talks are dead for now.Trump is known to revive and resume talks after they have been halted. Case in point being the talks that he resumed with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un after announcing their cancellation.
Pakistan, one of the nations that had played a role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table, has stated that it hopes to see an “optimized engagement following the earliest resumption of talks”.However, at this point, it remains unclear if the talks will see any resumption. Trump might even go ahead and decide to withdraw troops without an agreement in place, something that his former National Security Adviser (NSA), John Bolton, was pushing towards. Bolton, however, was fired on September 10.
After Trump’s announcement, the Taliban stated that the decision will “harm America more than anyone else”.
“It will harm its credibility, and further expose its anti-peace stance to the world; it would (result in) an increase in financial damage and casualties to its forces; it would demonstrate its political interactions as untrustworthy,” Taliban said in a statement.The Afghan government, meanwhile, stated that it considers “the Taliban’s obstinacy to increase violence against Afghans as the main obstacle to the ongoing peace negotiations”.
When the negotiations were going on, India was wary of a deal being reached because of Pakistan’s role in it.Moreover, according to the Indian Express, India did not have any official contact with the Taliban, which might have come to power in Afghanistan. Now that the deal is off, it gives India some time to make contact with the sections of Taliban not under Pakistan influence.
Since the Afghan peace deal entailed the involvement of at least three countries, it had some important names handling the process from each of these stakeholders. Here are some of them:
Quite literally Donald Trump’s man, handling the negotiations. Khalilzad is Trump’s special envoy for Afghanistan – a job that comes at a cost. Throughout the peace talks, one of Khalilzad’s main challenges was to negotiate the tricky waters of Trump's decision-making process.
For instance, in August 2017, Trump had announced that he would be deploying more American troops in the US to train the Afghans, and a withdrawal would depend entirely on the conditions in the country. Then in December 2018, Trump had said that he wants to roughly halve the US military presence. Even as these announcements came, it became increasingly difficult for Khalilzad and his team to understand the parameters of an exit deal.In nine rounds of negotiations, Khalilzad had worked towards a phased peace agreement. He was reportedly eyeing a bigger role if Trump came to power again, a hope that will fade if the talks do not resume.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was announced as Taliban’s chief negotiator in January. According to a statement by the Taliban, Baradar’s appointment was to “strengthen and properly handle the ongoing dialogue”.
Baradar was reportedly one of the founding members of the Taliban. He had held several posts in the government when the Taliban was in power in the 1990’s. Baradar was also Taliban chief Mullah Omar’s trusted man.Reports suggest that bringing Baradar into the equation was an important step because his inclusion would have assuaged the concerns of the Taliban cadre fighting on the ground.
He is the head of the political office of the Taliban. According to the New York Times, Stanikzai also has an Indian connection, in that he was trained at the Indian Army cadet college.According to the same report, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Stanikzai went to Pakistan to join the anti-Soviet militia. Thereon, he went on to become close to the Pakistani military intelligence, and then, with the Taliban sweeping to power, became the deputy foreign minister.
The President of Afghanistan, he is reportedly the only person of the lot who could benefit out of the snapping of the peace talks. Ghani and Khalilzad reportedly share a history, and they have no love lost for each other. In fact, Ghani and his associates were worried that Khalilzad was trying to skirt his way around Ghani in reaching a deal, a charge denied by Khalilzad.Now that the peace talks are off the table, Ghani is reportedly in control, and it has cleared the decks for him to win the Presidential elections scheduled for September 28. His challenge, however, would be to ensure that the peace talks continue without the country descending into another round of violence.