The two of us witnessed the signing of the agreement between the United States and the Taliban in Doha on Feb. 29. Since then, we have observed delay upon delay in implementation as the novel coronavirus pandemic outpaces armed conflict as a source of global death and destruction.
Today, representatives of the Taliban were supposed to arrive at Bagram air base to monitor the release of up to 5,000 Taliban detainees as a confidence-building measure brokered by Qatar and the United States. Members of the Taliban had committed themselves to “start intra-Afghan negotiations with Afghan sides” by March 10 in the belief that their detainees would be released. In return, the Taliban had promised to release up to 1,000 detainees of those it holds. The Afghan government, which was not involved in the agreement, was reluctant to release captured fighters who might return to violence, leading to the Taliban’s refusal to start talks. The government did not announce its delegation for the negotiations until March 27. The spread of the pandemic also hindered talks as travel and meetings risked spreading the coronavirus.
Under pressure from the United States, the Afghan government agreed to release the prisoners. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to Kabul on March 24 to try to resolve the electoral dispute between President Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, and begin the negotiations. When the two failed to reach agreement, Pompeo announced the United States would slash $1 billion of aid this year and another $1 billion of aid next year. While the electoral dispute remains unresolved, the Afghan government gained praise from Washington by agreeing to start prisoner releases and announcing a 21-member delegation for the peace negotiations on March 27. Then, on March 31, the Afghan government delayed the releases again, pending technical meetings with the Taliban delegation.
The Taliban imposed another delay as well. In a March 28 statement, the organization said it would not negotiate with the government delegation. It claimed that a “majority of other sides have rejected” the team. Major opposition leaders such as Dr. Abdullah and former President Hamid Karzai have made no public statements about the delegation, but the Taliban claims that opposition leaders are privately reaching out to say they do not accept it.
The issue of who would represent the coalition that supports today’s Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has bedeviled the process all along. While the Afghan government has insisted that it must lead the process, the constitutional opposition has argued for a broad-based delegation representing all the forces of the Islamic Republic. The Taliban interprets the agreement’s reference to other Afghans as “sides” as reinforcing their denial of legitimacy to the government, refusing it any status distinguishing it from other groups. On Feb. 29 the United States signed in Doha an agreement with the Taliban, which does not mention the Afghan government, and in Kabul a joint declaration with “The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, a member of the United Nations and recognized by the United States and the international community as a sovereign state under international law.” The U.S.-Afghan government declaration supports “a political settlement resulting from intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations between the Taliban and an inclusive negotiating team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” The phrase “inclusive negotiating team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” was ambiguous enough to be acceptable to the United States, the Afghan government, and the constitutional opposition.
Secretary Pompeo welcomed the delegation as meeting that criterion. The delegation’s members are largely pro-government, but they include all major political and ethnic groups though without opposition heavyweights. The delegation also includes a higher proportion of women than the U.S. Congress. Opposition leaders, however, are jockeying for a stronger position in the talks while the Taliban exploits the split amongst the Kabul elite. Meanwhile, the Afghan minister of public health has estimated that half of his country’s population will be infected by the coronavirus and that over 100,000 individuals could die.
During the Vietnam War, Washington and Hanoi haggled for four years over the shape of the table, but the pandemic and U.S. aid cuts mean that Afghanistan might not even have four months.
Now that the government has announced its delegation, it should start releasing prisoners and state its readiness to open negotiations without a ceasefire as a precondition. According to the agreement, “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” will be on the agenda of the talks. The first agenda item should be a humanitarian truce to limit the pandemic and treat its victims.
It would be more constructive for opposition leaders to publicly state their objections to the delegation while urging the Taliban to start talks with the delegation nonetheless. In return, the government should consider the opposition leaders’ proposals for inclusion in the negotiations.
Ghani and Abdullah could show leadership by setting aside the issues between them to facilitate the peace process. Abdullah could assume a lead role in the talks while deferring his demands for a prime ministerial position to the intra-Afghan negotiations, which will determine the future of the country. The U.S. could then restore its assistance.
The Taliban’s repeated delays in engaging with the Islamic Republic and messages to its fighters are making it harder for any opponent to meet with its members. In a widely circulated speech recorded on March 25 during a visit to Pakistan, senior Taliban military leader Mullah Fazel, a former Guantanamo detainee who is now part of the negotiating team in Doha, is reported to have ruled out any compromise on three issues: naming the Amir, or leader, of any future government; the Islamic emirate form of government; and basing the entire system on Sharia. Mullah Fazel was granted a waiver of a travel ban in force against him so he could persuade skeptical Taliban fighters to support the agreement. His speech contained some criticism of past Taliban actions and justified a break with al-Qaeda though without mentioning it by name but attempted to reassure hardliners. However, messages to supporters have a way of reaching opponents.
Of course, negotiators tend to enter talks with their most hardline positions. Combined with the Taliban refusal to meet the delegation, however, this explicit articulation of the most extreme position reinforces the perception that the Taliban plans to recover its prisoners, drag out the negotiations, wait for the United States to leave, and then impose its “Islamic Emirate” by force. The Taliban’s refusal to meet a relatively inclusive delegation confirms the worst suspicions.
The Taliban may mitigate these suspicions by agreeing to immediately start talks with the existing delegation. It can then ask to broaden the delegation. No process ends with the same participants with which it began. The Taliban political effort in Doha today is led by Mullah Beradar and Mullah Fazel, senior leaders who were in detention elsewhere when junior Taliban officials established the office. No peace process takes place in a single room — physical or virtual. Many Afghan groups and regional stakeholders who are not at the table will influence the outcome and be called upon to endorse it.
Ongoing violence reinforces these fears. The Taliban had observed a partial ceasefire during a seven-day “reduction in violence” that led up to the signing of the agreement but quickly resumed offensive acts that the agreement permitted — even in areas of the country facing COVID-19 — though at a lower level than before the reduction in violence. The Taliban should end these attacks on the Afghan security forces. Its fighters are killing dozens of Afghans while tens of thousands on all sides will soon die of disease. The longer that violence and disputes delay negotiations, the more likely it becomes that the conflict in Afghanistan will deteriorate into a battle over who gets to bury the dead rather than who sits around the table.
Sultan Barakat is director of the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies, Doha Institute, and honorary professor at the Department of Politics, University of York.
Barnett R. Rubin is director of the Afghanistan Regional Program, Center on International Cooperation, New York University, and former senior adviser to the U.N. special representative of the secretary-general for Afghanistan and the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This article first appeared on warontherocks.com.