Listen to article
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, reported on March 7, 2021, has created a diplomatic kerfuffle globally. The apparent reason behind the letter was the need to push the stalled intra-Afghan peace process and accelerate compliance with the US-Taliban peace deal. The intra-Afghan talks had resumed in Doha in February 2021 for the first time since the swearing-in of the Biden administration in the US, however, they ended as inconclusively as the January rounds. The January 2021 talks had seen the Afghan government prioritise a ceasefire with the Taliban more eager to reach an agreement on the shape of a future government. Experts then felt it was a delay tactic as it was mere weeks before the new administration was to be sworn-in in Washington, and that both sides wanted to know the Biden administration’s opinion of the Trump-era peace deal signed on February 29, 2020 between the US and the Taliban.
The world is now keenly watching what materializes in Afghanistan in the next two months. While questions were raised on troop withdrawal – whether the current troop levels will be maintained or increased back to that of the previous year – amidst rising incidents of violence in Afghanistan, the latest missive by Secretary Antony Blinken makes it clear that the US is seriously considering an entire troop pull-out, while continuing financial assistance for Afghanistan.
More questions shadow the future of the intra-Afghan talks. While there was talk of an interim national government (power-sharing proposal) with the Taliban on board as prelude to further intra-Afghan talks, the Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani denied and is expected to continue to reject such proposals. While analysts watch the role of the Biden administration in the formation of an interim government, Secretary Blinken’s letter suggests that Washington favours what it calls “future constitutional and governing arrangements”, and “roadmap to a new, inclusive government”. Meanwhile, Amrullah Saleh, First Vice President of Afghanistan, has rejected any compromise on the constitution as well as people’s right to vote, hinting that an interim government giving the Taliban any positions will be illegitimate.
Afghanistan’s road to peace has had a skewed history, starting with the revival of the Taliban insurgency by 2003 and President Karzai’s administration’s initial attempts to reach out to the Taliban. In 2018, a breakthrough in the peace process was achieved and US President Donald Trump appointed Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, to start talks with the Taliban with the end goal of establishing a permanent intra-Afghan peace process.
Ambassador Khalilzad began meetings with the Taliban in Qatar, where the Taliban had established their political office. With the Taliban refusing to allow the Government of Afghanistan to be invited to the meetings, the negotiations for a peace deal were restricted to the US and Taliban without Afghan government representation. However, all has not been well in this past year since the signing of the US-Taliban peace deal. Afghan President Ghani had immediately criticized the deal for not including his government as a party and pointed out that the US had no authority to commit the Afghan government to free Taliban prisoners, as required by the deal.
At the Geneva Donors Conference in November 2020, President Ghani underlined the increase in violence across the country since February 2020. He said that even though Afghanistan had released the Taliban prisoners as per the conditions of the deal, peace had not materialized. He highlighted the continued suffering and killing and the palpable uncertainty it has bred, and asked all partners to confront these challenges in light of any future political settlement with the Taliban. This statement cannot be seen in isolation as donors’ pledges totalling USD 12-13Bn came with riders.
The United Nations Assistance Mission (UNAMA) has come under immense political and diplomatic pressure. UNAMA has to ensure fulfilment of both the Donors’ demands of progress in the peace process as well as those of the Afghan government that feels that the Taliban’s demands could undo years of humanitarian progress and strengthening of democratic institutions, while ensuring the development of Afghanistan as articulated under the Afghanistan Partnership Framework.
The UN’s task has become even more complex as Secretary Blinken has asserted the US’s intention to have the UN convene meetings and bring the US, Russia, China, India, Iran and Pakistan to the table to “discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan”. This has added to the burden of UNAMA’s political and diplomatic wing. Secretary Blinken’s letter can also be understood as calling for an enlarged role for the UN in Afghanistan, starting with the convening of the meeting and not ruling out the possibility of changing the mandate of the UN Mission in Afghanistan.
Experts feel the security situation on the ground may not be conducive to troop withdrawal with violence increasing in many districts. In the second week of February 2021, an UN convoy was reportedly attacked 60 km off Kabul. In the last week of February 2021, the UN released a report on the rise of civilian casualties in Afghanistan following the start of the peace talks in September 2020.
NATO partner Germany, with some 1100-1300 troops in Afghanistan, has decided to extend its military mandate till the end of January 2022, whilst New Zealand is staging a symbolic withdrawal of its remaining six troops in May 2021. However, over a telephonic call with President Ghani, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on February 27, 2021 reiterated UK’s support for the Afghan government’s fight against the Taliban and to ensure a sovereign and democratic Afghanistan.
These events led analysts to believe that the Biden administration’s earlier announcement of a review meant that the US could potentially defer troop withdrawal till a sharp reduction of violence is achieved. Blinken’s letter, however, has baffled experts as it sheds no light on the role Washington sees itself playing in Afghanistan as the Secretary of State reiterates that the US is considering full withdrawal of forces by May 1st, while simultaneously expressing concern at the Taliban’s territorial gains in Afghanistan; the epistle also makes no mention of NATO or the future of its Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan (coalition partners as mentioned in the February 2020 peace deal).
Finally, regional actors India and Pakistan have a crucial role to play in Afghanistan. Recently, Pakistan reaffirmed support for the US-Taliban agreement and asked the Afghan government to uphold it. However, India insists that any peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban should be Afghan-owned, Afghan-led, and Afghan-controlled.
Previously, India was never officially invited to the discussions held between Pakistan, Iran, China, US and Russia. Now, Secretary Blinken’s letter to President Ghani officially brings India to the negotiating table, albeit under the UN umbrella. Following this move from Washington, Moscow concurs that New Delhi will “eventually” join the dialogue, though India has not been invited to the peace conference proposed to be held in Moscow on March 18.