Categories: Rise to Peace blog

Problems in the Way of Progress: Uncertain US Troop Withdrawal and New Challenges Facing the Afghan Peace Process

On February 29, 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace agreement, widely referred to as the ‘Doha Deal’, which is considered to have provided a foundation upon which a more stable and prosperous Afghanistan can be built.

One of the primary tenets of the ‘Doha Deal’ focuses upon the gradual reduction of the remaining 12,000 US troops currently stationed in Afghanistan, with plans for an eventual full-withdrawal. Throughout the first half of 2020, the US has already significantly reduced the numbers of its troops in Afghanistan to 8600, therefore greatly surpassing the agreed upon reduction (as defined in the Doha Deal) to 12,000 remaining troops. However, whilst this major tenet of the deal has been accomplished seemingly with no major complications, the satisfying of other primary elements of the Doha Deal can be seen to have experienced various considerable setbacks.

Even days after the agreement was originally signed, the progress was largely overshadowed by issues arising from each constitutive party. The Afghan government immediately raised concerns regarding another of the deal’s primary components: the numbers and time-span of the agreed upon release of 5000 Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government. These concerns regarding the prisoner swap have not only caused major problems in developing the peace process further in the last months, but the anticipated nation-wide reduction in violence (which was expected to arise as a direct result of the agreement) has also failed to occur.

Although there have been notable periods since the signing of the deal within which the violence between parties can be seen to have subsided (e.g. The Eid Ceasefire), the country has still experienced regular sparks of conflict. In fact, this conflict has escalated to such a point that, in mid-June 2020, the deadliest week for Afghan government forces in Afghanistan’s 19 years of conflict was recorded.

Alongside the multitude of issues which have arisen as a direct consequence of the Doha Deal’s signing, Afghanistan’s stabilization, and the progression of the Afghan Peace Process, has been largely stunted by the Afghan state’s attempted resistance to the global COVID-19 pandemic. With over 34,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (14.07) and over 1000 deaths in Afghanistan alone, the resolution of the Doha Deal, and the progression of the Afghan Peace Process as a whole has been largely inhibited by the national prioritization of a new kind of challenge for the Afghan state.

However, aside from this aforementioned environment, which presents an array of complex new challenges and concerns for the Afghan government, trepidation surrounding the potential negative consequences of the US withdrawal of troops has retained focus in the midst of this climate. These concerns have especially been raised in relation to the remaining presence of various violent-extremist groups in Afghanistan, particularly Al-Qaeda. It has been argued that, without the support and presence of US troops, Afghanistan is vulnerable to both continued attacks from the Taliban itself and from the other aforementioned violent-extremist groups.

This concern is also not entirely unfounded as, despite the fact that under the Doha Deal the Taliban agreed to not allow extremist groups (Al-Qaeda in particular) to operate in Taliban controlled areas, recent information suggests that the Taliban has not been working towards challenging the presence of such groups. Therefore, a scenario in which violent extremist groups, such as Al-Qaeda, will re-establish/strengthen their footholds throughout Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan following the US withdrawal of troops is not inconceivable. In fact, a recent United Nations report specifically warned of the remaining active links between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. According to the report, “The Taliban regularly consulted with Al-Qaida during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honor their historical ties.”

This information, as presented by the UN, clearly states that the Taliban is failing to fulfill this particular component of the peace deal, as they have seemingly failed to sever their bonds with Al-Qaeda. This perhaps consequently suggests that, upon acknowledging this continued relationship between the Taliban and violent extremist groups, the US will consider halting the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan until the Taliban has evidently severed such relationships, which would subsequently also fulfil one of the Taliban’s key commitments to the Doha Deal.

However, the decision of the US in this case not only depends on the actions of the Taliban, but also on US domestic interests. Some US officials are concerned that, regardless of the shortcomings of the Taliban in absolutely fulfilling their agreed upon components of the Doha Deal, all US troops are going to be withdrawn before the US presidential election in November 2020. This is a direct consequence of statements made by President Trump during his 2016 election campaign and throughout his ongoing 4-year administration, in which a full withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, prior to the on-coming 2020 presidential election, was promised.

Although these aforementioned challenges are obstructing progression of the Afghan Peace Process, there is hope for the change which the long-awaited intra-Afghan talks may bring for the dynamics of the implementation of the overarching peace deal. However, due to the interdependent nature upon which each of the constitutive parties’ commitments rely, it can be reasoned that until a greater degree of dedication to satisfying key components of the Doha Deal from each party is established, the intra-Afghan talks may fail to bring the long-awaited constructive solutions which they are hoped to result in.

Anja Apfel

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