The Financial Express

Finding peace in Afghanistan remains complex

| Updated: April 08, 2021 21:50:47

Finding peace in Afghanistan remains complex

In 2001, just three days after 9/11, when the al-Qaeda attacks took place in New York and Washington, DC, the US Congress passed a law known as the Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) - a declaration of war - giving the then President George W Bush sweeping authority to strike back with armed force on those who had attacked the United States-- the al-Qaeda and those who harboured the attackers, the Taliban. The US subsequently invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001.  Since then US troops have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years.

In 2002, the US Congress passed a second AUMF clearing the way for President Bush's planned 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. This AUMF was later used to justify the 2020 air attack aimed at Iranian General Soleimani at Baghdad airport in Iraq.

One may recall that United States President Joe Biden during his campaign for the White House had pledged to "end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East". Now, he is facing a difficult choice: withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan by May 1 as his predecessor Donald Trump had agreed with the Taliban or continuing the US and NATO military presence in the country.

This controversial process of defending US interests was seen again recently through President Biden's claiming legal authority for ordering an attack on a Hezbollah facility in Syria on  February 25, 2021. This time there was a backlash in the US Congress. Such a response however persuaded the Biden Administration to state that Biden is committed to working with Congress to "ensure that the authorisations for the use of military force currently on the books are replaced with a narrow and specific framework that will ensure we can protect Americans from terrorist threats while ending the forever wars".

This unfolding drama has now acquired special attention from strategic analysts all over the world who are expressing their own views over how and when the US and NATO troops will be able to leave Afghanistan. They have also noted how Biden and the US Secretary of State Blinken along with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin are carefully moving forward in this regard.

In the third week of March, the US President disparaged the agreement struck by former President Trump with Taliban in February, 2020 and criticised it as having not been 'very solidly negotiated'. This appears to have led Biden to review US troop levels in Afghanistan amid new talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. It is understood that he considers it will be 'tough' to meet the May 1 withdrawal deadline.

The US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin had already been to Kabul, Afghanistan and met the Afghan Defence Minister Yasin Zia, on March 21. Similarly, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has pledged not only to rebuild and revitalise the transatlantic NATO military alliance but also share Washington's efforts with NATO regarding time frame on any possible withdrawal from Afghanistan. This is important because there has been NATO presence in Afghanistan for many years. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has also gone on record that NATO will not withdraw its troops from Afghanistan "before the time is right". He has also pointed out that the Taliban must do more to meet the terms of a 2020 peace agreement with the United States first.

It would be important to note that the 2020 deal mandated measures to be taken by the Taliban in conjunction with a reduction in US troops, including cutting ties with fighter groups, reducing violence in Afghanistan and engaging in meaningful negotiations with the elected Afghan government. This premise has led the US to reduce its troop numbers, but the US and NATO officials have expressed doubt as to whether the Taliban has upheld its part of the deal. This has also led US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month to outline a US proposal for talks between Afghan parties and the Taliban on a transitional government.

It needs to be noted here that since the agreement between the US and the Taliban was signed, there has been a spike in violence and a rise in civilian casualties. Government, civil society figures, journalists and political moderates have been assassinated. This has affected the dynamics of reconstruction of Afghanistan -as a country. John Sopko, the US Department of Defence's special inspector for Afghanistan reconstruction has recently revealed that the Western-backed government in Kabul receives 80 per cent of its annual funding from the US and other nations. According to him, continuing uncertainty within the country has resulted in international annual development aid to Afghanistan decreasing from a high of US Dollar 6.7billion in 2011 to US Dollar 4.2billion in 2019, according to World Bank data. This is interesting because financial strategists have pointed out that since 2002, the US has spent US Dollar 143billion on reconstruction in Afghanistan, including US Dollar 88billion for training and support of the Afghan army. That is really amazing. Biden like Trump wants to end the nearly 20-year conflict and bring home the remaining slightly more than 2,500 American soldiers still in Afghanistan. This number has come down from about 13,000 a year ago. There is however still about 7,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan who rely on the US for logistics and security support.

Lyse Doucet and Mahfouz Zubaide of the BBC has mentioned that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has recently called on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to show "urgent leadership". They have also referred to a draft paper that sets out a new arrangement in three parts: guiding principles for Afghanistan's constitution and the future of the Afghan state; agreed terms to govern the country during a transitional period and a roadmap to a "durable and just settlement"; and finally -- and most urgently for Afghans -- agreed terms for a "permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and its implementation". Two possibilities for an executive administration have been offered: one similar to the current arrangement led by a President and Vice-Presidents and another which includes a Prime Minister. This draft peace agreement also includes a suggestion for a High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence to provide "Islamic guidance and advice" - though it's likely to fall far short of what the Taliban herald as the return of a "pure Islamic government".

It is understood that there are also hints that the UN, kept largely on the sidelines until now, will be shifting to centre stage to confer greater international legitimacy on the process, and make it easier for neighbours who have long been involved in Afghanistan to sit on the same table. Mr Blinken has apparently also hinted that there could be the convening of a high-level meeting outside Afghanistan to bring warring sides together. A Taliban spokesman, Muhammad Naim has however expressed scepticism over the discreet proposal by the United States for an interim government in Afghanistan, saying transitional governments have proven ineffective and that the group's vision for the country revolved around a strong central administration capable of enforcing their definition of an Islamic system of governance. Washington had earlier in March proposed replacing the current government with an interim administration until a new constitution is agreed and elections are held, while a joint commission monitors a ceasefire. Under the proposal, the national parliament could either be expanded to include Taliban members or suspended until after an election is held.

Naim has also underlined that transitional governments were formed after the American occupation, some of them transitional, others participatory, but none of them solved the country's problems. In this context Naim further elaborated that "We want an Islamic system that is strong and independent in order to solve the country's problems". Naim also reaffirmed the need for foreign troops to withdraw from Afghanistan, as stated in a landmark agreement reached with the US in Doha last year.

In the meantime the United Nations Security Council has expressed concern at the number of targeted killings aimed at civil society activists, journalists, lawyers and judges. The ISIL (ISIS) group has taken responsibility for many but the Taliban and the government blames each other for the spike in attacks. This was reflected in the recent comments made by Afghanistan's Minister of the Interior Masoud Andarabi who said that nearly 70 per cent of Afghanistan's police force is fighting the Taliban who are eroding efforts to maintain law and order. He also added that every day, the police confront over 100 Taliban attacks throughout the country.

Political and human rights analysts have pointed to these observations and mentioned that if peace is to be discovered in Afghanistan, then, despite disagreement with the Taliban, the United States and its allies must try and create a transitional government. It could be constituted on a non-political basis. They could then address the national challenges and embark with regional and international powers to agree on a neutral and peaceful future for Afghanistan.

Consistent with this new inclusive peace process, the transitional team can usher in an honest and transparent election that would be conducted under international monitoring. No transitional government member would however be eligible to hold public office in the future.

It has also been suggested that members of this transitional group could however form an Ethics and Good-governance Council to scrutinise the future government and private sector actions and then suggest immediate corrective measures in cases of breach of ethics and law through a legal process. It is being underlined that such a step might usher in peace in Afghanistan and defeat terrorism.

We also need to remember that a significant source of conflict in Afghanistan has been the unequal historical treatment of its diverse populations by their different governments. Hopefully effective equal rights and opportunities and good-governance instead of nepotism, cronyism, and tribalism will constitute the basis of a peaceful future.


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. [email protected]


Share if you like