If not for the shooting down of a civilian airliner by Iran, the death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex quitting the monarchy, the American presidential election and the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Afghan peace talks currently underway would be in the running for the most important news story of 2020. But while Canadians (and pretty much everyone else who isn’t an Afghan) could be forgiven for ignoring the tragicomedy unfolding right now, we should really pay it some attention. The peace deal is important, partly for what might come of it, but also for how it came about in the first place.
When the peace agreement was first announced on February 29, it was the result of lengthy negotiations that were conducted entirely between the Taliban and the Americans, without the input or participation of the Afghan government. What the deal amounted to was that the Taliban promised to behave, and the Americans promised to leave.
More specifically, the U.S. pledged to withdraw all of its 13,000 or so military and civilian personnel by May 2021. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to sever all ties with terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and promised not to let Afghanistan serve as a base of operations for attacks on the United States. The US also committed the Afghan government to a prisoner swap in which it would release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for the 1,000 members of the Afghan security forces currently held by the Taliban.
Following this agreement, intra-Afghan talks were to start on March 10 in Oslo, dealing with big ticket items such as the implementation of a long-term ceasefire, the status of women’s rights, the ultimate role of the Taliban in Afghanistan’s politics and even the very nature of the Afghan state.
The Oslo negotiations never got started, in part because when the February deal was signed it was not entirely clear at the moment who was in charge of the Afghan government. Following the September 2019 presidential election, both the incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah claimed victory, going so far as to hold parallel swearing-in ceremonies that Afghan television stations broadcast side by side.
There was also an ongoing disagreement over the prisoner exchange, which the Afghan government was never too happy about. The Taliban insisted that the agreement with the Americans allowed them to name 5000 specific prisoners they wanted released, including at least 400 Taliban that the government considered extremely dangerous. The government dragged its feet but the Taliban got their way, and the opening ceremony for the peace talks was finally held in Doha on September 12.
Yet six weeks later the two sides have done little more than shadowbox. Feeler groups from each side have made sporadic contact, but no actual negotiations have started. The current sticking points include the religious framework for the talks, the status of the original Taliban/US agreement (the Taliban want any backsliding by the US on their departure timeline to void the entire peace process), and even what to call the conflict. The government wants to call it a “war,” while the Taliban prefer “jihad.” They’ve settled on calling it the “problem.”
Ultimately this is just delaying the inevitable betrayal of everyone who has suffered under, or fought against, the Taliban over the past two decades and more. This includes the American troops and their NATO allies such as Canada who fought and died in the country, the hundreds of thousands of dead members of the Afghan security forces and who continue to die each month, the long suffering Afghan civilians and perhaps most of all the Afghan women who are terrified of what a return to even partial Taliban rule might bring.
Because in all likelihood, that is where things are headed.
Whenever the actual peace negotiations get started, there are two big questions that need to get resolved: the terms of a permanent ceasefire, and the nature of the Afghan state post-reconciliation. On both issues, the two sides are at almost impossibly cross-purposes.
With regard to the ceasefire, the government side sees an immediate ceasefire as a precondition for continuing the peace negotiations. For their part, the Taliban see a ceasefire as merely a possible outcome of negotiations. In the meantime, violence remains a viable parallel negotiating device.
When it comes to the constitutional foundations of the state, the current government would — for obvious reasons — like things to remain pretty much as they are, as a fledgling liberal democracy. The Taliban have been pretty cagey about what sort of system they want, short of conceding that they want something a little more “Islamic.” Still, they have never really denied that their end goal is a return to hardline theocracy, and it is telling that while the government’s negotiating team includes four women (out of 21), the Taliban have sent none.
Then there is the makeup of the respective negotiating teams. The Taliban have sent very high profile figures to Doha, including a number of people who were very close to Mullah Omar at the head of the Quetta Shura. The government’s side bears all the marks of the ongoing internal dissent. The negotiating team proper is led by a Ghani loyalist, but it is subject to the oversight of a supervisory body called the High Council for National Reconciliation, which is headed by Ghani’s rival Abdullah.
In the end though, it’s not clear how interested either side is in the actual peace talks, or even peace itself. With the Americans gone and their former prisoners now freed, the Taliban don’t have a huge incentive to come to the table in good faith. From the government’s perspective, they have everything to lose in negotiating with the Taliban and, absent a credible ceasefire, nothing really to gain. And the only guarantor of a ceasefire — not to mention the stability of the entire country — is the Americans, who have one foot out the door and the other getting ready to kick it shut behind them. As the economists like to say, solve for the equilibrium.
Perhaps none of this concerns Canadians anymore. We pulled down the flag on our combat mission in 2011 and packed up our trainers and headed home for good in 2014. This country has moved on from our decade long adventure in central Asia, without even a proper public memorial to show for it.
But if the outcome of the Afghan peace talks don’t bother us, how they came about should. It wasn’t that either side was so badly worn down by the unceasing violence that they had no choice but to sue for peace, it was that the Americans under Donald Trump decided to pack up and leave. They cut a crass no-terrorism deal with the Taliban, committed the Afghan government to a terrible prisoner swap and tried to force the two sides to a crooked negotiating table.
In a book about Trump released in August, the president’s trade advisor Peter Navarro was quoted making disparaging comments about Canada’s contribution to the war in Afghanistan. “Every time that a Canadian shows up in a uniform, it’s doing us a favour? How’s that work?” he was reported to have said.
Canadians were outraged. Retired former General Rick Hillier, who is probably as responsible as anyone for getting Canada into the thick of things in Kandahar, called Navarro ignorant. But if Navarro is so out to lunch, if Canada’s role in Afghanistan was more principled or high minded than just the military tagging along with the Americans, you would think we would care more about what is going on over there.