US-Taliban Peace Talks: So Close, Yet So Far

The United States slowly inched toward a peace deal with the Taliban since talks in Doha, Qatar began some months back. There is a strong desire in Washington to pull its troops out of Afghanistan since the 2001 intervention turned into the longest war in US history. Peace talks between the US Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban reached what seemed to be an agreement. Such a deal was contingent upon the Afghan government and this added factor makes the process more difficult.

The Afghan government was critical of any possible resolution because they feared loss of political power and held concerns over national security. They consider it unwise to relinquish any sort of political influence to the Taliban, an easily identifiable enemy of the state for many years.

The proposed agreement consisted of four main parts. First, a timeline of US troop withdrawal. Second, the upcoming presidential elections were to be secured so that they are free and fair. Thirdly, the Taliban were to be incorporated into the mainstream government. Lastly, an overall cease-fire between the US, Afghanistan, and Taliban forces. Simply put, the key factor throughout is that US would leave at the same time that the Taliban promised to become a peaceful and cooperative actor within the Afghan political system.

This would have been beneficial for the US because they would be finally relieved from military deployment to the region. Washington had a primary goal of pulling out 5,000 troops within 135 days, where there are currently 14,000 troops stationed. Further, the agreement was advantageous to the Taliban because they would finally be considered a legitimate political group.

The Afghan government had its reservations with the proposed US-Taliban deal because they believe the country would become unstable without the US military presence and they remained skeptical that the Taliban would uphold their end. This is a reasonable assumption as the Taliban is considered an enemy that has terrorized civilians with terrorist attacks, such as mass shootings, bombings, and kidnappings for years. The government is entitled to this viewpoint as it makes little sense to place trust in a group that has tried to destroy the political system of the country.

Terror attacks in recent days support the Afghan government’s hesitation towards giving the Taliban additional political power. Bombings left 10 civilians and 2 NATO service members dead. Nevertheless, Khalilzad stated that the US will not just merely withdraw, but seek “a peace agreement that enables withdrawal.” He was optimistic about the US-Taliban talks, where he viewed both sides getting what they wanted.

On September 7, President Trump canceled a Camp David secret meeting with Taliban and Middle Eastern leaders. He called off the summit due to the recent Taliban attack that killed a US soldier and others. Since the 2016 campaign, Trump has been a supporter of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and as president, he took steps to finally complete the task. It seems all has been lost on the mission now.

Dealing with any terrorist group can be problematic because they do not play by international rules like nation-states.  In this example, the Taliban expressed that they are ready for peace and then committed an attack that killed a dozen people the next day. In this sense, Trump was justified to cancel the contested meetings because the Taliban demonstrated they are not a peaceful actor.

Trump has said that Taliban negotiations are now “dead.” This could prolong the 18 year war; already the longest war in US history. The president has been critiqued for being hawkish at times insofar as his decisions often align with National Security Advisor John Bolton. In recent weeks, the media speculated that Bolton has been distanced from the Oval Office because his hawkish perceptions of foreign policy are more severe than both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Only the future will reveal if Afghanistan can finally achieve peace.

Image Credit: Associated Press. Photographer Alex Brandon. Shutterstock.

Intra-Afghan Peace Talks in the Absence of Afghan Government

Members of each delegation in Moscow beside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Image credit: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters.

Afghanistan has a long history of participating in local and international conferences on peace. The Bonn Conference was the start of a series of other conferences on peace and stability hosted in Afghanistan. The Afghan government has put together or at least sent a delegation to myriad conferences to gain international support for their peace efforts with opposition groups in the country.

Despite this trend, the last Moscow Peace talks were held in Russia without the presence of an Afghan government delegation. Organized by an Afghan-Russian Association, the conference took place six days after successful talks between the US and the Taliban occurred in Doha, according to US Special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. The Taliban refused any direct conversation with the Afghan government, but agreed to sit down with delegations from the United Sates, India, Pakistan, China, and prominent Afghan political figures including Hanif Attmar- a favorite to take over as president in the upcoming presidential elections- to talk peace. In the meantime, the Afghan government, the main absentee of the conference, called them traitors and urgently called for direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

After two days of negotiations in Moscow, an agreement was reached. The Taliban, accusing the Kabul government of being an “American puppet”, asked for a withdrawal of American forces from the country, the release of detainees, and the inclusion of the principle of Islamic Religion in the constitution. Former president Hamid Karzai, leading the Afghan delegation, declared the talks a “big achievement” that would bring peace and stability in an “Afghanistan free of foreign forces”. Current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani declared the Afghan delegation in Moscow illegitimate to represent Afghanistan in the conference.

Russia has been a low-key player in Afghan affairs since the beginning of the War on Terror. The Russian government, concerned about  security in the Central Asia, keeps a close eye on Afghanistan. The latest peace talk in Moscow was a step by Russia towards taking a major role in influencing Afghan governmental affairs, and sets precedent for future Russian involvement in Afghanistan.

Seeing the Taliban sitting at the table with decades-old political enemies to talk peace is the long-awaited desire of all Afghans, but it certainly poses risks. The Taliban went to Moscow demanding what seems to be the return of the Taliban regime of the 1990s, the withdrawal of foreign forces, Sharia Law, and no sign of womens’ appearance within the government. The Afghan delegation, on the other hand, was comprised mainly of political figures who fought on the front lines of the fight against the Taliban. Thanks to differences  between these two parties and the disparity in their motivations for negotiating, the fear is that an agreement between them would be more of a political move to grasp power in Kabul than a long-term solution for peace.

Afghanistan: What Does Peace with the Taliban Mean for Women?

Source: PRI (2016)

The United States and leaders of the Afghan Taliban are currently in the process of discussing peace talks and negotiations to end the 17 years of conflict. For many, this is a signal of hope that deadly violence and war will finally come to an end. For others, the peace talks have stimulated fear and uncertainty.

Her name is Laila Haidari. She is an Afghan woman, who owns and operates a rather unruly cafe in Kabul. Ms. Haidari is not your typical woman living in Afghanistan. In fact, she drives her own car, owns her own business, and chooses not to wear the required hijab.

The cafe she runs, “Taj Begum”, allows men and women to eat and drink together, even if they are not married. In addition, within the walls of her cafe, women can choose whether or not they dine wearing the hijab; a decision woman don’t typically have in Afghanistan.

Ms. Haidari is an example of an Afghan who isn’t completely convinced on the Taliban-U.S. peace process. Despite the progress of the talks, she insists the Taliban and their severe rulings are coming back. For Ms. Haidari and many other women living in Afghanistan, the peace talks have provoked fear and worry of what will happen in the aftermath of the withdrawal of western troops. Ms. Haidari states, “We are face to face with an ideology, not a group of people.” Ms. Haidari and the many other women in Afghanistan feel optimism at the possibility of peace, but they remain concerned at the distrust of what their lives and freedom will be like in the future.

When the Taliban seized the Afghan capital in 1996, life under the militants was brim, especially for women. The implementation of a brutal version of Sharia Law meant that women had very little to no independence or basic rights. They were forced to wear burkas, covering essentially every inch of their body.

Women of all ages were banned from schools and public life. Their lives were constantly under a magnifying glass. Everything they wore, everything they said, and everywhere they went was under supervision. Ultimately, it was the women in Afghanistan who paid the highest price under the Taliban and their government.

During the peace talks in Moscow, the Taliban seemed open to addressing the rights and concerns related to women. For example, the Taliban promised “that Islam guaranteed women’s rights to education and work”, but on the other hand, the Taliban also “attacked women’s rights activists for spreading immortality and indecency.”

These contradictory messages have given ammunition to the fears and concerns of women in Afghanistan that the Taliban is making false, empty promises to expedite the departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, only to eventually regress to old laws and rules that severely affect the daily lives of Afghans.

The fact that the Afghan government and its citizens have been excluded from the peace process is frightening for them. Many women fear that a peace deal giving power to the Taliban will result in a war on women and their rights. All of these concerns only solidify the notion that Afghans, especially women, should have a seat at the negotiation table.

Without their presence, the likelihood that women’s basic rights will be forgotten is painfully high. Their biggest fear is that women and all the freedoms they have achieved will fall victim to the peace process.

Afghanistan has made tremendous progress over the past decade in terms of women’s rights, independence and quality of life. Today, there are young girls being educated in many disciplines and pursuing careers in medicine, government and education.

But still today, there are provinces within the country that impose barbaric laws and treatment of women and girls. This brutality and oppression cannot be ignored and there is still significant headway ahead. For Afghans, the time has come to rebuild their country and continue to move forward. Peace, stability and happiness are all things the people of Afghanistan yearn for, but peace in Afghanistan should never come at the cost of women and their rights.

Humvees: Taliban’s new VBIED

The Afghan Taliban has deployed a new weapon in its fight against the Afghan National Security Forces: explosive-laden Humvees. The trend started in late September when a Humvee was detonated outside Maroof district police headquarters in Kandahar and came to a violent head this week[1]. Attacks in Kandahar, Farah, and Balkh left 58 security officers dead and at least nine more wounded[2]. Two days prior, a Humvee bombing in Paktia killed 52[3]. The method is a cross between standard car bombs and the ISIS tactic vehicle ramming. Attackers drive the vehicle into their target and detonate it, sometimes following with an additional firearm assault. Thus far, the targets have always been police and military bases. The three most recent attacks of this variety were part of a larger wave of violence against police and government facilities that killed over 100 security forces across the country [4].

Humvees are large, off-road vehicles, a product of AM General, a defense contractor based in South Bend, Indiana[1]. The US government has often contracted them to manufacture Humvees, a term short for High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs), for the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police[2].

So how do these weapons wind up being used by the Taliban against these forces? The most likely explanation is that the vehicles are seized when the Taliban seizes the military bases housing them[7].  One Afghan military analyst, Mohammad Agul Mujahed, proposed that a so-called “fifth pillar,” a rumored sect of the saboteurs within the Afghan government was selling the Humvees to Taliban forces[8], but claims like these are controversial[9]. The US and NATO have also long had problems with supplies being stolen en route to their destinations in Afghanistan, but these instances of theft have always involved smaller items like boots, army uniforms, and night vision goggles, nothing even approaching the size of a Humvee[10].

Taliban used two Humvees and one Ford Ranger (military Vehicles) to conduct a deadly attack on October 17 killing Paktia Police chief and 43 other Afghan soldiers.

Whatever the source, Taliban Humvees represent a new development in a worrying trend of ANSF equipment falling into enemy hands. Terrorist groups like ISIS[11] and Jaish-e-Mohammad[12] have dressed in stolen security force uniforms and driven stolen army vehicles to mask their attacks in the past. Such tactics raise concerns about ensuring the security of ANSF equipment. Especially concerning is the lack of a set method for tracking whether or how much equipment has gone missing in Taliban raids. Without that information, all that can be said for certain is that Afghanistan’s security forces are facing a new threat of unknown magnitude.

 


Sources:
[1] “Suicide Car Bomb Kills At Least 12 Afghan Police” Reuters, (September 28, 2017).
[2] Sultan Faizy and Shashank Bengali, “Using a Grim New Tactic — the Humvee Bomb — Taliban Kill 43 in Attack on Afghan Army Camp” Los Angeles Times, (October 19, 2017).
[3] Faizy and Bengali, “Using a Grim New Tactic” (October 19, 2017).
[4] Amir Shah “Afghan Taliban launch twin suicide bomb attack on Kandahar army base killing at least 43 soldiers” Independent, (October 19, 2017).
[5] “Our Story” AM General. http://www.amgeneral.com/our-story/ (October 19, 2017).
[6] “AM General To Build 1,673 Humvees for ANSF by 2017” http://www.bakhtarnews.com.af/eng/security/item/24094-am-general-to-build-1673-humvees-for-ansf-by-2017.html?tmpl=component&print=1 (October 19, 2017).
[7] Gulabudin Ghubar “Taliban Seizing Humvees To Use As Vehicle Bombs” Tolo News, (October 9, 2017).
[8] Ghubar “Taliban Seizing Humvees” (October 9, 2017).
[9] Muhammad Hassan Khetab “5th pillar term’ being used for political gains: Lawyers” Pahjwok Afghan News, (October 6, 2015).
[10] Eloise Lee “This Is How More Than 15,000 Containers Of NATO Military Gear Are Stolen Each Year” Business Insider, (April 6, 2012).
[11] Jon Sharman “Suicide bomb and gun attacks on Iraqi restaurants and a police checkpoint kill at least 60 people” Independent, (September 14, 2017)
[12] Deepshikha Ghosh and Vishnu Som “Terrorist Pretended To Be Soldier, Then Turned His Gun On CRPF” NDTV (October 3, 2017).