If you look at the record number of terrorist attacks by the Taliban movement and their allies in Afghanistan over the last year, you would probably assess that the Taliban movement does not seek peace. According to University of Maryland’s terrorism studies consortium (START*), 21% of all the terrorist attacks in the world occurred in Afghanistan in 2019. That is more than one out of every five terrorist events or 1,800 attacks—the Taliban movement was the deadliest terrorist group in the world. The Taliban murdered more people that the next 10 terrorist groups combined.
So, do the Taliban want peace? Are they honestly participating in a peace process, or are they just using this time to kill as many of their opposition as they can while international forces withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years assisting the Afghan security forces, Afghan people, and the elected Afghan government?
Doha Agreement Between the U.S. and the Taliban
Let’s first review and assess the February 29th Doha agreement between the United States and the Taliban movement. This agreement was made up of four interlocking parts designed to bring the internationally recognized legitimate Afghan government based in Kabul into direct and fruitful peace talks with the Taliban movement that is headquartered in Pakistan. (The U.S. was clear on every page of the Doha Agreement that they do not recognize any organization known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and refers to them as the Taliban)
First Two Parts of the Doha Agreement
1. Taliban were to renounce all violence by any group on Afghan soil against the U.S. or their Allies.
The Taliban has not done this yet and continues to lead record-breaking attacks daily against the largest U.S. Ally in the region – Afghanistan. The Taliban movement has been able to reduce their attacks on U.S. forces to almost zero, proving they do have the ability to direct their forces at specific targets and turn violence on and off on command.
2. The Doha agreement included creating various guarantees, an enforcement mechanism, and following an international military force withdrawal plan, that did not mention but also includes Pakistan’s military.
- 135 days to get down to 8,600 people and depart from 5 bases entirely
- 14 months to get to Zero forces
- The US would also try to get both sides to release prisoners before intra-Afghan talks. (Up to 5,000 Taliban and 1,000 Afghan security forces from each other’s prisons.)
The U.S. has met every withdrawal goal ahead of schedule. The Afghan government has released around 4,100 of the 5,000 Taliban prisoners, a strong bit of proof they are seriously seeking peace, as they were not a signatory to the Doha agreement. The Taliban have released less than half of the 1,000 Afghan security forces they agreed to release, and continue to kidnap Afghans; leading many to wonder if the Taliban movement ever had 1,000 Afghan security members to release, or if that number was merely for propaganda at the time of the agreement. On this second pillar, the Taliban have also not proven they are serious about starting peace talks.
Second Phase of Doha Agreement
Once the first two interlocking pillars were completed, the Taliban would move into the second phase which included:
1. Starting intra-Afghan talks between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban movement.
Here, the Afghan government has established a certified and nationally inclusive peace outreach team, headed by Minister Masoom Stanekzai and given the portfolio for Afghan reconciliation to Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. The Taliban has also created and reshuffled its members on their intra-Afghan talks team. The Afghan government and Taliban movement prisoner-exchange diplomatic teams have met numerous times during the prisoner releases proving the two sides are capable of sitting in the same room and negotiating towards a goal.
The talks were tentatively scheduled for March 10, but the prisoner release confidence-building-measure has pushed that overly-eager date farther into 2020. Some think talks may begin in July or August of this year. The start of intra-Afghan talks will also trigger the U.S. to seek the lifting of both U.N. and U.S. sanctions against the Taliban movement to better enable a comprehensive ceasefire.
2. Establishing a permanent and comprehensive cease fire was the final part of the U.S.-Taliban movement Doha agreement. This would trigger the final withdrawal tranche of U.S. military forces.
All four of the pillars above are to be upheld until new Afghan government is put in place. As all four have not yet taken hold, the withdrawal of U.S. forces is now being mostly slowed down by the Taliban, as they have the most left to complete from the Doha agreement. The fact that the Afghan government, who was not a signatory to the Doha agreement, is so far ahead of the Taliban is an indicator about who is serious about the peace process.
The Doha agreement was preceded by a U.S.-Afghanistan government agreement that stipulated the following.
1. No future terrorism from Afghan soil
2. The phased withdrawal of U.S. forces with an agreement to continue military operations at Afghan government’s request, and agreement that the U.S. DoD would annually request funds to support Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).
3. Afghans pledged to seek a settlement between the Afghanistan government and Taliban movement.
4. Afghans also pledged to seek a permanent and comprehensive cease fire in the nation.
The Afghan government and U.S. have moved seriously towards all the Kabul Announcement pledges so far giving further proof that the Afghan government is conscientiously working towards the benchmarks of this peace process.
What comes next for Peace with the Taliban
The Taliban are struggling to release the remaining prisoners they agreed to in the Doha agreement. The Afghan government is working from a Taliban prisoner list, and does not want to release some of the remaining prisoners due to the seriousness of their crimes. While the Afghan government is signaling that they would be willing to start intra-Afghan talks before all the prisoners are released, the Taliban movement has held fast to their demands for the release of all specified prisoners. It appears at the moment that the Taliban are not willing to start talks based on the confidence building measures to date.
The Taliban participated in their second limited cease-fire in two years recently, but as of July 12, they have stated clearly that they will not enter into a longer cease fire until they have started intra-Afghan talks. The Afghan government has continuously offered to start a cease fire at any moment to reduce the civilian death toll until the intra-Afghan talks begin.
Possible Taliban Motives
The Taliban are believed to be engaged in one of two options right now. First, they might be trying to kill as many Afghans as possible before they sit down at the peace talks to increase their leverage in the settlement with the Afghan government. They might simply be trying to show they are still a strong/capable fighting force, even after entering into a peace process, to both their foot-soldiers and the international community. The second option is that the Taliban movement continues to murder Afghan civilians and security force members because they are not interested in peace at all and are simply using this peace process as a cover for them to gain ground and soften their enemy in anticipation of a full withdrawal of international forces.
The Afghan government on the other hand has been rigorously following the reduction in violence protocols that took effect after the Doha Agreement and even kept their forces in a defensive posture for weeks until the Taliban violence became too much for the Afghan people. Now the Afghan security forces are in a limited offensive posture, not fully hunting and killing the Taliban forces, but using all means necessary to safeguard the Afghan people and themselves.
CENTCOM Peace Discussions with Afghan and Pakistani Officers
Earlier this year, I spoke to a group of South and Central Asia military officials at CENTCOM that included Afghan and Pakistani general officers (Pakistani ISI generals). We discussed the options for the future of security in the region. After three days of debate and discussion, even the Pakistani generals agreed that the Taliban movement had badly blundered in this campaign and turned the Afghan people against them with their brutality. The Pakistani generals when given a choice between siding with terrorists and the Taliban, instead of finding a way towards peace and prosperity, said the Taliban and Pakistan should side with economic prosperity in the region and peace.
Prospect of Peace Relies on Taliban Response
We will see if the Taliban are serious about peace this year. If they are not, it is likely that the ANDSF will go on a larger offensive campaign, NATO will slow and likely reverse their withdrawal plans, and the U.S. will fully unleash its counter-terrorism weapons on the Taliban. Right now, the Taliban are not designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. I think that will change if the Taliban movement misses this once-in-their-lifetime opportunity.
Many big pivot points of this decades-long war rest with the Taliban movement right now, the world should be watching them closely and convincing them to make the choices that will lead to peace.
*University of Maryland National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START)