Land mines on the road to peace in Afghanistan By OWAIS TOHID

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As President Joe Biden wades through the mess of Trump’s legacy, he doesn’t need Afghanistan decoded for him. He doesn’t need a crystal ball or an orientation crash course, he’s an old hand. With Obama, he’s led the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda for eight years.

And he has walked in with a strategy. Weeks after the Trump administration signed a peace truce with the Taliban, Biden spelt out his strategy vis a vis Afghanistan, differing with the comprehensive pull-out plan.

“We should bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission as defeating Al-Qaeda and Daesh,” Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine last year.

But he intends to do so at his own pace, unlike Trump’s hasty policy of complete exit from Afghanistan. There are only 2,500 US troops left in Afghanistan, remnants of a war that has already cost roughly one trillion dollars and 2,400 deaths of US soldiers.

Biden’s message indicates DC won’t let Afghanistan slip into the hands of Taliban, the militia will not get a free hand and footprints of US troops will remain.

The Trump administration in its agreement with Taliban, commonly known as the Doha Agreement, pledged US troops would leave Afghanistan by May 2021. In turn, Taliban promised to cut off its ties with terror networks and work for a political settlement.

But Biden is confronted with surging violence and the promised peace is nowhere in sight. The Taliban have increasingly targeted government officials, civil society leaders, journalists and security personnel. The report by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconciliation quotes the NATO mission reporting 2,586 casualties in Taliban attacks from October to the end of December last year.

The Pentagon has announced that it won’t commit to troop withdrawal by May as the Taliban are not honoring commitments to the US. The possible policy review coincides with a report requested by Congress, calling for the Biden administration to extend its May deadline.

The rethinking has created ripples. It’s made the Taliban jittery. It puts Pakistan in an awkward position since it was a facilitator of the peace process. Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, who brokered the deal for the Trump administration, is now balancing on a knife’s edge.

Owais Tohid

The Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan congressionally mandated panel under the USIP, recommended in a report released on Wednesday that US troops be kept on, in order to “give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result.”

Biden’s key person for realigning American foreign policy, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has hinted at the possible review of the US-Taliban agreement in his first contact with President Ashraf Ghani. The review would include Taliban’s fulfilment of “commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders.”

Washington plans to rethread the US-Taliban agreement signed last year. Critics have pointed out the agreement gave Taliban too much leverage against very little in return, since it ensured the release of Taliban prisoners and a troop exit announcement without achieving comprehensive cease-fire.

The rethinking has created ripples. It’s made the Taliban jittery. It puts Pakistan in an awkward position since it was a facilitator of the peace process. Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, who brokered the deal for the Trump administration, is now balancing on a knife’s edge. His position as America’s envoy for reconciliation in Afghanistan has been retained by the Biden administration.

The Taliban on the other hand won’t settle for anything short of what was decided in the Doha agreement, which they trumpeted as a ‘defeat of occupation forces.’ Their delegation, including prominent leaders Mullah Baradar and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, is now visiting Iran and Russia and planning to go to China, connecting with America’s adversaries to counterweight against reviewing the agreement.

The Ashraf Ghani-led Kabul government was meanwhile skeptical in the first place and nodded at the peace process under US pressure. After Trump’s departure, it has ramped up its criticism. Sensing a change in Washington’s policy, they are using the opportunity to push the Taliban off the table.

Ghani’s deputy Amrullah Saleh, in a recent interview to the BBC, expressed Kabul’s concerns about the US-Taliban agreement. Saleh, a former intelligence chief, blamed America for conceding too much to the Taliban. “The US delegation came to us and swore on every holy scripture that there will be no violence if we release these 5,000 Taliban prisoners,” Saleh told the BBC.

Signs of the alteration in US policy have been communicated to the Afghan government. Secretary Blinken in his call with Ghani reiterated an “enduring US-Afghan partnership’ and emphasised the need to preserve the progress made over the last 20 years “with regard to human rights, civil liberties, and the role of women in Afghan society.”

Taliban have their own dilemma. They cannot sustain a war for years; two decades of conflict has battered them down. They cannot rule Afghanistan by imposing a strict code of Islam and will have to concede to get space in the future. Yet they have warned of a “dangerous escalation in violence” if the Doha agreement is breached. “It will lead to a major war,” Taliban stated in a statement.

It would suit the American establishment to maintain a military presence through some military bases in Afghanistan to keep an eye on its rivals, Russia, Iran and China. The challenge for it is how to do so without blowing up the US-Taliban peace deal, and without triggering a violent backlash from the Taliban.

For now, Biden has put the peace process on hold by announcing its possible review.

If there is to be a renegotiated deal, America would rely on Pakistan to use its influence to get the Taliban to agree to new terms, including ‘tacit’ acceptance of US forces’ presence in Afghanistan.

The path to peace in Afghanistan runs through a live minefield, and every misstep threatens to take Afghanistan back into its dark past.