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A Chance for Peace or a Rush to the Exit?

03 Mar 2020
By Emeritus Professor William Maley, AM FASSA, FAIIA
Secretary Michael R. Pompeo At a Press Availability After the Afghanistan Signing Ceremony. Source: Freddie Everett

The US has signed an historic agreement with the Taliban.  Immediate expectations for peace in Afghanistan should remain low.

On 5 October 1938, Winston Churchill rose in the House of Commons to speak about the Munich Agreement on the future of Czechoslovakia. He did not mince his words. Britain had suffered, as he put it, “a total and unmitigated defeat.” While the text of the Munich Agreement contained soothing provisions in paragraphs 3, 5, and 6 about an “International Commission” to soften the blow of Czechoslovakia’s dismemberment in the face of German threats, the historian Telford Taylor concluded that to the British and French signatories of the Agreement, “the International Commission was little more than a face-saving device.” Churchill had cut to the heart of the matter, and was completely vindicated when German forces occupied Prague in March 1939.

No analogy is ever perfect, but this one is worth bearing in mind when one examines recent developments with respect to Afghanistan. At a ceremony in the Qatari capital of Doha on 29 February 2020, the Trump Administration signed an “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” (Mowafeqatnamah-e awardan-e saleh be Afghanistan). Its partner in the agreement was what the agreement somewhat awkwardly called “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban.” The Taliban had reason to be delighted that a reference to “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the title by which they had long sought to be known, made its way into the text. The US also issued a “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan,” but nothing in this was either novel, or binding on the Taliban in any way. Ironically, while the Taliban seemed to be flavour of the month in Washington DC, the same was not true in Afghanistan: a major survey in 2019 found that 85.1 percent of Afghans had no sympathy at all for the Taliban.

On its face, the agreement is one of the most unsettling to emerge from a high-level negotiation process in many a long year. The agreement is completely silent on the issue of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. The agreement contains no provision for a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire in the country, simply listing such a ceasefire as an agenda item for future discussion in what it vaguely calls “intra-Afghan negotiations with Afghan sides.” Some, including the Australian Defence and Foreign Affairs ministers, have read this paragraph as implying that the Taliban have agreed to deal directly with the Afghan government, but the wording does not actually require this. There is a history of Afghan political figures seeking to engage with the Taliban in the absence of the Afghan government, and something like this could be attempted again if it seemed likely that such a group would prove more amenable to endorsing Taliban demands in a negotiation.

The text provides for a reduction of US troop numbers within 135 days to 8,600, to be followed by “withdrawal of all remaining forces from Afghanistan within the remaining nine and a half (9.5) months.” It also purports to bind not just the US but also its allies, including Australia, even though they were not parties to the agreement; and it includes “all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel.” This withdrawal provision is not conditioned on any progress being made in intra-Afghan negotiations, or on any Taliban commitment to protect human rights or democratic processes. The Taliban could stall on all these issues without violating the agreement, since it is exclusively conditioned on the Taliban honouring Part Two of the Agreement which deals only with preventing the use of “the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” The agreement arguably creates an incentive for the Taliban to escalate violent attacks on Afghan targets as a way of enhancing their bargaining position in any “intra-Afghan negotiations,” and indeed, Taliban attacks reportedly resumed just days after the agreement was signed. And nothing in the agreement would stop them from pushing for total power once the US withdrawal was completed.

The agreement further provides that up to five thousand Taliban “combat and political prisoners” held by the Afghan government “would be released by March 10, 2020, the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations,” with “the goal of releasing all the remaining prisoners over the course of the subsequent three months.” While the expression “up to” allows some leeway, the effect of the provision would broadly be to deprive the Afghan government of one of its main sources of leverage during any negotiations with the Taliban that might occur. The wording of the agreement went beyond what was contained in the Joint Declaration, which merely stated that the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan will participate in a U.S.-facilitated discussion with Taliban representatives on confidence building measures, to include determining the feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides.” The drafting of these provisions was either amateurish, or too-clever-by-half. Within a day, President Ashraf Ghani was reported as saying that there was “no commitment on the release of the 5,000 prisoners,” and he almost certainly saw the US commitments to the Taliban as a gross infringement of Afghanistan’s sovereignty. It is not hard to see why he would shrink from potentially providing the Taliban with 5,000 additional fighters when no ceasefire had been agreed. The Taliban, for their part, reportedly refused to take part in further talks until the 5,000 prisoners were released. For Australia, a critical question would be whether a prisoner release would see the freeing of the rogue soldier Hekmatullah, who killed three Australia soldiers, Rick Milosevic, Robert Poate, and James Martin, on 30 August 2012. For many Australians, this would be an outrage, but if it happens, the blame should be directed at Washington rather than Kabul.

The agreement and declaration also contain several very curious elements. One is the provision that “The United States and its allies will refrain from the threat or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Afghanistan, or intervening in its domestic affairs.” This largely mirrors the wording of Article 2.4 of the Charter of the United Nations, which already binds the US and its allies, but the Taliban may have wanted it in place as a protection against US action if the Taliban moved to seize Kabul, and it is interesting that the US agreed to it. Similarly, the assumption of a Taliban takeover also seems to underpin the wording in Part Two, which states that the Taliban “will not provide visas, passports, travel permits, or other legal documents to those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies to enter Afghanistan.” These provisions may reveal more about US objectives than the drafters fully appreciated.

As a result of all these features, the agreement is better seen as a “withdrawal agreement” than a “peace agreement.” It is no wonder that the Taliban are painting it as a victory. In remarks for social media, the architect of the agreement, US envoy Dr Zalmay Khalilzad, referred to 29 February as “A Day to Remember.” This reference seemed to echo the title of Walter Lord’s famous book A Night to Remember. Unfortunately, the subject of that book was the sinking of the Titanic. Withdrawal agreements dressed up as peace agreements have a bad history of being dishonoured. The 27 January 1973 Paris Accords on Vietnam were accompanied by written assurances from US President Richard M. Nixon to South Vietnamese President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu that “swift and severe retaliatory action” would follow any violation by North Vietnam of its commitments. These were to prove as worthless as the provisions for the International Commission in the Munich Agreement – Henry Kissinger wrote in 2003 that “the Watergate crisis prevented enforcement of the agreement” – and Saigon fell to forces of the North in April 1975.

Churchill concluded his 1938 speech on a sombre note: “All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness.” Afghanistan now risks the same fate. It is incumbent on those who purport to be its friends to do their utmost to ensure that this does not happen.

William Maley is Professor of Diplomacy, Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, The Australian National University, author of Transition in Afghanistan: Hope, Despair and the Limits of Statebuilding (2018) and The Afghanistan Wars (3rd edition, 2020), and co-author (with Niamatullah Ibrahimi) of Afghanistan: Politics and Economics in a Globalising State (2020). He also edited Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban (1998).

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.