processes can be surprisingly violent. On September 2nd Zalmay Khalilzad,
America’s envoy to Afghanistan’s “reconciliation”, as the State Department calls
it, gave tolonews, an Afghan news service, details of a draft agreement
hammered out after nine rounds of negotiation with the Taliban. As the
interview was being broadcast late into the evening, a truck-bomb exploded in
Kabul, killing at least 30 people, the third attack in the country in three
days claimed by the Taliban. These came just weeks after a massive
suicide-bombing by Islamic State killed at least 80 people in the Afghan
capital, and days after a Taliban assault on two northern cities. For many
Afghans, this looks less like impending reconciliation and more like an ominous
taste of things to come.
Khalilzad’s announcement was largely as expected. Subject to the deal’s
approval by President Donald Trump, America would withdraw 5,400 of its 14,000
troops in Afghanistan (the fate of another 8,500 foreign troops, mostly
European, is uncertain) from five bases within five months of the deal being
signed. America is insisting that the withdrawal is based on conditions on the
ground, and that it could “stop the clock” on the pullout. Precisely what those
conditions are is uncertain.
Khalilzad was even less clear on what America would get in return under the
accord. He has previously said that any deal must include three elements:
Taliban commitments to counter-terrorism against international jihadist groups
like al-Qaeda; an “intra-Afghan” dialogue, ideally between the Taliban and the
Afghan government; and a ceasefire.
Khalilzad seems to have given ground on the ceasefire, saying only that the
provinces of Kabul and Parwan—home to Bagram airfield, the largest American
base in Afghanistan—would see a “reduction in violence” in the first stage of
the deal. But he also said that any return of an Islamic emirate—the Taliban’s
term for the government toppled in the American-lead invasion in 2001—was
unacceptable, suggesting that America would not allow the insurgents to dictate
terms to the Afghan state.
completed the latest round of talks in Doha, Qatar’s capital, Mr Khalilzad
travelled to Kabul to break the news to Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president.
Mr Ghani was shown a paper copy of the agreement—which was later whisked away.
“We will consult and comprehensively study this,” said his spokesman.
Afghanistan would respond “based on our national interests”. Many Afghans are
nervous that America, in its haste to leave, will shred those interests.
watering-down of American demands is a worrying sign, in their eyes. Whereas
America once insisted that the Taliban would need to negotiate directly with
the Afghan government on a political settlement for the country, it now seems
more likely that the insurgents will hash out the issue with a more nebulous
group of political elites and civil-society representatives.
the Taliban have made a “significant compromise” of their own, says Graeme
Smith, of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. They had vowed never to
negotiate the future of their country while American boots remained on Afghan
soil; now they are agreeing to talk during a gradual withdrawal.
result, says Mr Smith, “Afghanistan is now on the brink of serious peace talks
for the first time in a generation.” He says both the Taliban and the Afghan
government are already preparing negotiating teams and policy positions, and
that European governments are getting ready to host talks, possibly in Norway.
matters is an Afghan presidential election scheduled for September 28th. The
Taliban have threatened to disrupt the poll and some opposition candidates have
threatened a boycott, accusing Mr Ghani of manipulating the vote. But Mr Ghani,
widely expected to win re-election, seems determined to plough ahead.
If and when
talks begin in earnest, the Afghan government fears that the Taliban may seek
to run down the clock with extreme demands—such as sweeping changes to the
Afghan constitution or a dramatic roll-back of civil rights. Mr Khalilzad is
said to have reassured Afghan leaders that America would reserve the right to
assist Afghan forces if they were attacked by the Taliban.
will be ever harder to do with a dwindling force and diminishing political
appetite for renewed military entanglement. On August 19th Mr Trump promised
that, even after the departure of troops, America would be leaving “very significant”
intelligence assets in Afghanistan—something that may have come as news to both
the Taliban and the Afghan government. But lingering spooks are more likely to
focus on counter-terrorism against groups such as Islamic State, who will aim
to spoil any deal by peeling off disaffected Taliban members and intensifying
violence. “We’re not fighting a war over there”, declared Mr Trump on August
29th. “We’re just policemen.”
Headline: America’s long Afghan war nears an end
Source: The Economist