The signing of the historic «Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan» between the United States of America and the Taliban on 29th of February 2020 (hereinafter U.S.-Taliban Agreement) raised hopes to peacefully end the decades old conflict in Afghanistan. However, one year later, little of these hopes remain, as fragile efforts for peace have virtually stalled. In an attempt to overcome the current impasse, the United States of America have recently proposed a new approach: to convene a grand conference that shall result in a transitional Afghan government. The chances of success for this solution are also slim though, amongst others as the Taliban have made it clear that they insist on sticking to the U.S.-Taliban Agreement. The Swiss Institute for Global Affairs (SIGA) gives an overview of efforts for peace in Afghanistan and shows how diverging opinions over the U.S.-Taliban Agreement exemplify core problems that can hardly be remedied with the new U.S. proposal.
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representative Mullah Baradar sign the U.S.-Taliban Agreement in Doha, Qatar, on 29th of February 2020 (State Department photo by Ron Przysucha / Public Domain)
Efforts for Peace in Afghanistan — an Overview
On 29th of February 2020, after having been at war for over 18 years, the United States of America and the Taliban signed the «Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan». At its core, this agreement foresees a withdrawal of all U.S. and allied troops from Afghanistan in exchange for counter-terrorism guarantees by the Taliban that shall prevent that Afghanistan again becomes a safe haven for transnational terrorists.
In addition, the U.S.-Taliban Agreement stipulates that the Taliban shall enter into intra-Afghan negotiations with other «Afghan sides» — the current Afghan government as the main other Afghan stakeholder was, in an apparent concession to the Taliban, not explicitly mentioned. These intra-Afghan negotiations shall, according to the U.S.-Taliban Agreement, lead to a «future political roadmap of Afghanistan» and a «new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government». Moreover, the U.S.-Taliban Agreement states that a «permanent and comprehensive ceasefire» should be an item on the agenda of intra-Afghan negotiations.
While the mentioned intra-Afghan negotiations should, according to the U.S.-Taliban Agreement, have started on 10th of March 2020, they effectively only kicked off on 12th of September 2020. This six-month delay was mostly caused by disputes over an initial prisoner release foreseen in the U.S.-Taliban Agreement. And since then, negotiations have been a fraught affair. Indeed, it took the Taliban and the Afghan government-led other negotiating team about three months to agree on the rules and procedures for the negotiations. And while the parties were, after a recess in late December 2020, meant to discuss and set the agenda for further negotiations, there have been only few, so far inconsequential meetings in 2021 and intra-Afghan negotiations have effectively stalled. One main reason for the lack of progress in these negotiations in 2021 was that all involved sides waited to see whether the new U.S. administration would alter course.
However, despite a looming deadline — the U.S.-Taliban Agreement, albeit conditionally, envisions a full U.S. and allied troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of April 2021 — the new U.S. administration has so far made no official announcements about their Afghanistan policy. But then, in the first days of March, reports and documents (see here and here) leaked, outlining a new U.S. proposal: to convene a conference comprising the highest leaders of the Taliban, the Afghan government, and other Afghan parties that shall, under the auspices of the United Nations, result in the formation of a transitional participatory government, whereas U.S. and allied troops would remain in Afghanistan at least during the first phase of the transition (for more details see this report). Such a plan would, in practice, abrogate and substitute the U.S.-Taliban Agreement and intra-Afghan negotiations.
While this has certainly shaken up efforts for peace in Afghanistan, this latest U.S. approach has little chances to succeed, as the Taliban as well as the Afghan government have clearly opposed the possibility of an interim government. For example, in late February 2021, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reportedly said that «[a]s long as I live, they (Taliban) will not see an interim government»; a sentiment that was echoed by his first Vice-President in a speech on 8th of March 2021. Similarly, in early March 2021, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid was cited as saying that the Taliban are against an interim government and «instead of coming up with new designs, it is important to implement the commitments made in the [U.S.-Taliban] Agreement.» Later, another Taliban spokesman described the idea of a transitional participatory government as a «tried and failed» approach.
In view of this, the U.S.-Taliban Agreement appears — despite it already being more or less ignored in favour of the new U.S. proposal in most news reports — to still be the main lynchpin of efforts for peace in Afghanistan. This derives from the fact that it is still the only document on current efforts for peace in Afghanistan that was negotiated and signed by two opposing parties of the conflict and as the Taliban made it clear that they will not let the U.S.-Taliban Agreement to just be cast aside. Furthermore, the actual or alleged breach of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement by either party would allow the respective other to blame a break down in Afghan peace efforts on the other side. As such, SIGA takes a closer look at the problems deriving from the U.S.-Taliban Agreement and what this means for the fragile efforts for peace in Afghanistan.
The Most Pressing Issue — Differing Interpretations Regarding a Full U.S. and Allied Troop Withdrawal
Currently, and despite the flurry of reports over the new U.S. proposal, the question that will arguably first and foremost determine whether ongoing peace efforts in Afghanistan will fail, falter, or continue is whether U.S. and allied troops will completely withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of April 2021, as, albeit conditionally, foreseen in the U.S.-Taliban Agreement. Indeed, during the past weeks the Taliban have already implied that the they would see the failure to withdraw all U.S. and allied troops by the end of April 2021 as a serious breach of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement and maybe even its effective abrogation (see for example here, here, and here). The Taliban’s insistence on a full U.S. and allied military withdrawal by the end of April 2021 would arguably also not change in the unlikely event that the Taliban should — contrary to their current statements — be open to the latest U.S. proposal of a participatory government.
U.S. Marines and sailors with U.S. Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan leave the southern Afghan province of Helmand on 27th of October 2014; already back then the United States of America wanted to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, but afterwards got again bogged down in the conflict, including in Helmand. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. John Jackson / Public Domain)
Whether the U.S. and its Allies have to withdraw all their troops by end of April 2021 is, however, dependent on whether the conditions to which the U.S.-Taliban Agreement ties the withdrawal are met. Strictly interpreted, the U.S.-Taliban Agreement makes the withdrawal only conditional on the Taliban’s implementation of their counter-terrorism commitments set out in Part Two of the Agreement (see Part One, Paragraph B of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement). However, a broader view would note that the U.S.-Taliban Agreement in its preamble explicitly declares that the U.S. withdrawal is not only interrelated to the Taliban’s counter-terrorism guarantees, but also to intra-Afghan negotiations and the discussion of a ceasefire.
Unsurprisingly, the Taliban espouse the narrow view and claim to have already implemented all their counter-terrorism guarantees and that, therefore, all U.S. and allied forces have to be withdrawn by the end of April 2021. Specifically, on 19th of July 2020, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid asserted that a message of the Taliban emir Haibatullah which was released shortly after the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement on 29th of February 2020 already constituted the implementation of their counter-terrorism guarantees. Said message included, however, only a general order to all Taliban to adhere to the terms of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement, but no specifics on Taliban counter-terrorism measures. More recently, on 13th of February 2021 an official Taliban statement argued that the fact that, since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement, no U.S. soldier has been killed in combat in Afghanistan and that «no entity has taken any steps against the United States of America and its allies from the soil of Afghanistan nor is anyone allowed to do so», would show the Taliban’s complete adherence to the U.S.-Taliban Agreement (the latter is more clearly stated in Dari here).
This Taliban argumentation is more than questionable though. The Taliban have since years denied that they cooperate with transnational terrorists and that fighters in Afghanistan might pose a threat to other countries. Accordingly, it is obvious that the counter-terrorism guarantees in the U.S.-Taliban Agreement are meant to be more than the repetition of such general assurances. Furthermore, the history of the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan in general and the negotiation of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement in particular leave no doubt that the counter-terrorism guarantees were meant to prevent the emergence of transnational threats from Afghanistan not only in the short, but — and arguably more importantly — also in the long term. Hence, citing the fact that no transnational attack emanated from Afghanistan since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement without showing what concrete actions the Taliban have taken or are taking to prevent threats to arise in the future, can hardly been seen as fulfilment of the Taliban’s obligation. In this context, the Taliban’s apparent internal unpublicised policy of trying to control foreign fighters currently present in Afghanistan, which was discussed in a previous SIGA blog post, might strictly legalistically speaking amount to an implementation of their counter-terrorism commitments; however, as the mentioned blog post showed, there are serious doubts about the viability of such a Taliban approach that the Taliban would have to address or at least explain.
Unfortunately, instead of pointing out the issues with the Taliban’s alleged implementation of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement and holding them accountable to the conditionality of a U.S. and allied troop withdrawal, the United States of America, at least judged by the leaked latest U.S. proposal, seemingly rather wants to forget about the U.S.-Taliban Agreement — which is as problematic as the Taliban’s approach. What exactly the U.S. reasoning behind this is remains unclear.
However, a possible explanation is that the new U.S. administration is looking for a way out of the conundrum that intra-Afghan negotiations have so far not yielded any tangible success and that the U.S.-Taliban Agreement, which it inherited from the previous U.S. administration, does not provide a clear solution to this. In this context, it has to be noted that it was from the beginning rather naïve to hope that the staunchly opposed views of the Taliban and the Afghan government could be bridged within the 14 months between the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement and the envisioned full U.S. military withdrawal.
In any event, and although a leaked letter from U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani from early March indicates that the United States of America are still «considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1st», a full withdrawal by that date is highly unlikely. In fact, with less than two months until the end of April 2021, such a full troop withdrawal by then is — in view of all the logistics involved — in practice barely possible anymore (while the withdrawal of all U.S. troops might in theory still be possible, a withdrawal of all U.S. and allied forces is not, unless they would decide to hastily fly out all soldiers and leave most equipment behind, which is a more than unlikely scenario). Accordingly, the United States of America and the Taliban will almost certainly soon find themselves even more at loggerheads over the U.S.-Taliban Agreement than they already are.
Other Issues - Questions About the Taliban's Sincerity
The described situation is further compounded by the fact that there are doubts whether or to what extent the Taliban are sincere about making peace with other Afghan stakeholders. This not only derives from victorious propaganda statements that include few signs for an actual readiness to at least partly compromise, but also from bold Taliban claims which do not correspond to reality.
For example, the Taliban, acknowledging to have agreed to a reduction in violence, asserted to have lived up to it since they signed the U.S.-Taliban Agreement. Specifically, an official Taliban statement on the occasion of the first anniversary of the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement claimed that «[n]o [Taliban] operations have targeted major military and intelligence centers, martyrdom operations have seized [recte: ceased], provinces have not been overrun, provincial capitals have not been attacked, [and] district centers have not been targeted» which would amount to the agreed reduction in violence (the latter is more clearly expressed in this Taliban statement). And the attacks that the Taliban conceded to have launched are displayed as merely defensive by them, while they at the same time bemoan alleged offensive operations and airstrikes by Afghan and U.S. forces which they see as violations of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement.
That said, data from several sources as well as reporting from the ground and even some Taliban claims of responsibility disprove the above cited Taliban assertion. Information from such sources rather shows that, since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement, the Taliban have — apart from reducing large bombings in cities as well as refraining from a direct attack on a provincial capital — not only not decreased their attacks, but in fact considerably increased them. At the same time, there have been fewer U.S. airstrikes and offensive operations by Afghan government forces (for a comprehensive overview with more details see this article).
Taliban watching the burning office of the Afghan government’s district governor of Maimai, Badakhshan Province, after having it set on fire after having temporarily overrun the district,
19th of November 2020 (unofficial Taliban propaganda video shared on Telegram)
As with respect to the conditionality of the troop withdrawal, the U.S. position in this regard is also anything but helpful. While U.S. officials have several times stated that levels of violence are «too high» (see e.g. here and here), they did little, if anything to clarify what kind of reduction in violence had been agreed upon in the first place or to substantially call out specific Taliban violations. Although it cannot be ruled out that U.S. officials decided that it would be more effective to address such issues only in meetings behind closed doors than through public statements, the current situation in which U.S. and Taliban representatives talk cross-purpose about their interpretations of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement makes it rather unlikely that this has been the case.
(For the sake of completeness, it should be noted that some statements and actions of Afghan government officials also have been anything but helpful for peace efforts; however, given that this blog post concentrates on the U.S.-Taliban Agreement to which the Afghan government is not a party, this issue would go beyond the scope of this post.)
In view of the above, the outlook is anything but rosy. As an outside observer, one is left with the impression of confusion, with the actions of neither party being conducive for meaningful efforts for peace.
The United States of America on their part appear to base their proposed solutions for peace in Afghanistan more on hopes than facts — be it in case of their apparent expectations that intra-Afghan negotiations would at least stabilise the situation in Afghanistan until April 2021 or, more recently, with their proposal of a grand conference that shall result in a transitional government in spite of the fact that the Afghan government as well as the Taliban left little doubt that they would not be amenable to such a solution.
The Taliban, on the other hand, seem to see the U.S.-Taliban Agreement as what they usually call it in their propaganda: an agreement for the «Termination of Occupation» of Afghanistan in which «the Americans have prostrated themselves at the feet of our mujahideen [i.e. the Taliban] and they are begging for us [the Taliban] to give them safe passage from Afghanistan». Accordingly, they see themselves apparently entitled to demand more or less everything they want without having to make significant, if any compromises.
As such, it is hard to see how current efforts for peace in Afghanistan can be salvaged. A sober approach would be a proper re-set of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement instead of coming up with new proposals, as the former is, after all, what the United States of America and Taliban have bindingly agreed upon after hard-fought, months-long negotiations. Such a re-set would mean that both parties — the United States of America and the Taliban — would have to abandon their questionable interpretations and rhetoric of parts of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement that were shown above and pledge to implement existing commitments whose status is currently unclear. Prime examples would be that the Taliban would have to clearly articulate with which concrete actions they have implemented their counter-terrorism guarantees instead of resorting to general assurances. The full U.S. and allied troop withdrawal would then take place as soon as the Taliban have fulfilled their counter-terrorism commitments and not necessarily on originally envisioned dates — as is foreseen by the U.S.-Taliban Agreement. On the other hand, the United States of America should, if it has not already done so quietly, «initiate an administrative review of current U.S. sanctions» against the Taliban as stipulated in the U.S.-Taliban Agreement and clearly state what the Taliban have to do for a partial or complete removal of sanctions. This could also be used as leverage as the United States of America should make it clear to the Taliban that, apart from a proper re-set of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement, there is no other way to have international sanctions against the Taliban removed. In this regard, it is important to note that the removal of sanctions is — contrary to what Taliban propaganda claims (see for example here and here) — not definitively pledged in the U.S.-Taliban Agreement, but only mentioned as a «goal».
Unfortunately, if past experience is an indicator, there are doubts that such a re-set could be successfully executed. U.S. officials had, already on 15th of October 2020 announced such a re-set of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement that was at least implicitly acknowledged by the Taliban, which then, however, failed to have a tangible effect and slipped into oblivion.
In view of all the above, the most likely outcome is unfortunately that the conflict at the Hindu Kush will — even if the currently fledging efforts for peace in Afghanistan should not completely break down and irrespective of whether U.S. and allied forces will withdraw from or stay in Afghanistan — continue on current high levels with no end in sight.
Franz J. Marty
 Transcript of statements from Zabihullah Mujahid that were shared in a Taliban-associated WhatsApp Group; copy of the messages are in the possession of the SIGA-Fellow in Afghanistan.
 For the sake of completeness, it should be noted that a letter from the Taliban Military Commission dated 13th of February 2021, which prohibits that foreign fighters serve in Taliban units, does not change the situation mentioned in the main text. The text of the letter itself implies that there may be exemptions to this rule and even if the order in the letter should be effectively enforced without any exemptions, this would still not overturn the apparent internal Taliban policy to allow foreign fighters to stay and separately operate in Afghanistan as long as they adhere to certain conditions (for more on these conditions and other details, see the already cited previous SIGA blog post).
 The clearest example for such victorious uncompromising propaganda statements is a speech that Mullah Fazl, a member of the Taliban negotiation team, gave to Taliban members in an unknown location in late March 2020. In said speech, Fazl stated that «[t]he U.S. has supplicated to us» and that «[w]e shall not compromise on our demands» (not publicly available; a translated transcript of the respective audio recording is in the possession of the SIGA-Fellow in Afghanistan). Another example is the Taliban leader’s message on the occasion of the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement.
 Speech by Mullah Fazl, a member of the Taliban negotiation team, to Taliban members in an unknown location in late March 2020 (not publicly available; a translated transcript of the respective audio recording is in the possession of the SIGA-Fellow in Afghanistan).