Any deal will do

The tension among Kabul's political elite is palpable. Washington has been conducting negotiations for a peace deal with the insurgent Taliban in the Gulf emirate of Qatar for quite some time now, and the government in Kabul feels side-lined. Yet regardless of who is sitting around the negotiating table, almost all players in Afghanistan agree: the need for peace is urgent. By Emran Feroz

By Emran Feroz

On his recent return from Doha, Zalmay Khalilzad, spoke of the "significant progress" that had been made. Khalilzad is not just anyone. Unlike Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Khalilzad is the man of the hour. The Afghan-born Khalilzad is U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan. He not only led the recent peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar, he has been shaping American policy in Afghanistan for almost 40 years.

After a full six days of talks in Doha, a withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan – which is top of the Taliban's list of demands – could soon become a reality. According to reports, a pull-out of U.S. troops within 18 months is on the table. Two-thirds of the roughly 22,000 foreign soldiers in the country are Americans.

"No Afghans want foreign troops to be permanently stationed in their country," said President Ghani in an address directly after the talks in Doha. A short time later, speaking in an extensive interview with the Afghan private TV channel Tolo, Ghani referred to Khalilzad as a "friend". But it wasn't all sweetness and light; Ghani also took a side-swipe at Khalilzad: "He is an American. I am the President of Afghanistan," he said, among other things.

A peace deal reached over the heads of the people?

The fact that all negotiations in Qatar have taken place without a representative of the Afghan government at the table is all the more problematic. The Taliban have repeatedly voiced their lack of interest in talking with the Kabul government, saying that they do not want to negotiate with a "puppet regime". 

This is why many Afghans suspect that a peace deal could be reached over their heads and that this deal would above all serve American and not Afghan interests. First and foremost this would impact on Afghanistan's political elite, which now fears losing its grip on power.

U.S. President Trump visits high-ranking members of the U.S. military in Fort Meyer, Arlington (photo: picture-alliance)
"America First" – and that includes the war in Afghanistan: there is growing concern in Kabul that the USA could withdraw its troops from Afghanistan before a long-term peace with the Taliban has been achieved. U.S. President Donald Trump wants to withdraw about half of the 14,000 U.S. soldiers currently stationed in Afghanistan. However, no timetable has yet been set. A continuation of talks in Doha with the Taliban is scheduled for 25 February

It is an open secret that Ghani's government would fall apart in no time were foreign troops to leave the country. The reasons for this include not only the Taliban, but also countless inner-Afghan disputes between brutal warlords and corrupt politicians, which make the Afghan state seem very fragile indeed. 

No refuge for al-Qaida and co.

 Washington's main worry is that Afghanistan could develop as it did in the 1990s and up until 2001. In short, the U.S. does not want Afghanistan to return to the days when it was a refuge for extremist terrorist groups such as al-Qaida. This demand has to all appearances been accepted by the Taliban too.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the "terrorist threat" emanating from Afghanistan has often been dramatised and blown out of proportion. "The transnational terrorist threat from Afghanistan has been exaggerated. For years, I have puzzled over claims by American and Afghan officials that 20 terrorist groups operate in Afghanistan," says Afghan analyst Borhan Osman of the International Crisis Group.According to Osman, the war in Afghanistan is often portrayed as being more complicated than it actually is. "The conflict in Afghanistan is simpler than the multi-factional wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Almost every battle in Afghanistan involves the Taliban fighting the government forces,  which makes insurgency almost synonymous with the Taliban," he says.

IS gaining power and influence in the Hindu Kush

But while virtually nothing is known about al-Qaida's current presence in the Hindu Kush, the Afghan "Islamic State" cell has been gaining in power and influence in recent months and years and has been carrying out devastating attacks in Kabul and elsewhere. The Taliban, who have always pursued a largely nationalist agenda, are also fighting IS in Afghanistan. 

This and other points beg the question as to how likely the war in Afghanistan is really to end after a pull-out of international troops. At present, most of the combat fighting involves Taliban fighters and Afghan soldiers. About two weeks ago, in the province of Wardak, near Kabul, alone, over 100 soldiers were killed in a single Taliban attack.

Moscow also involved

However, the negotiations with the Americans were not the only ones to take place in recent weeks. Only a short time after the round of negotiations in Doha, a Taliban delegation arrived in Moscow, where it met with high-ranking Afghan politicians and warlords, headed by the former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.

When facing the press, Karzai stood alongside Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, the Taliban's lead negotiator and spoke of an "historic moment". The scene took place at the President Hotel in Moscow, which belongs to the Kremlin. Once again, representatives of the government in Kabul were not in attendance. Instead, it looked as if all those who had been driven away or deprived of power by President Ghani had come together in an attempt to regain a grip on power and influence. 

Significance of "inner-Afghan" dialogue

This could well happen if, in the wake of a peace deal, an interim government is formed to replace Ghani's administration. Such a step would also pose a threat both to the presidential elections that are due to take place in July and to Ghani's re-election. However, Washington has repeatedly emphasised how important "inner-Afghan dialogue" is.

"There is still hope that the government in Kabul will participate in the next round of talks in Qatar. Participation in Moscow would have been important too. Kabul must not resist this and has to acknowledge that there is a difference between the Taliban and other militant groups in Afghanistan," says Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen, a political analyst and Taliban expert from Kabul, who attended the talks in Moscow.

According to reports, the Moscow conference was organised by exiled Afghans in Russia.

Emran Feroz

© 2019

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan