The attacks that took place on September 11th, 2001 have had profound impacts on the world and have ultimately changed the course of history. One of the many consequences was the War on Terror, in which the United States and its allies launched a full-scale attack on global terrorism, more specifically on terrorist organizations affiliated with the Islamic faith. The United States and its allies clearly did not realize what they were getting themselves into, as the ongoing invasion of Afghanistan is approaching the twenty-year mark, making it the longest war in American history. However, a glimpse of hope was ignited as the first formal peace agreement was signed in 2020, bringing with it the chance that 2021 may bring the end of this drawn-out conflict.
Since the Soviet Army invaded the country to fight for a communist government in 1979, Afghanistan has been in a constant state of conflict. Amidst the violent chaos that ensued long past the Soviets’ departure, the Taliban – a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist group – emerged and took control of Afghanistan in 1996.
Less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush began a bombing raid in Afghanistan. As the Taliban provided shelter for al-Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks, they became the US’ first target in the “War on Terror.” When they refused to hand over the terrorists, specifically the leader of the operation, Osama bin Laden, Bush accused the Taliban of harbouring terrorists and used this as the driving reason to invade Afghanistan.
Although the Taliban quickly lost control of the country after the US invasion, they have never been defeated and are still behind much of the violence in Afghanistan to this day. After toppling the Taliban, the US military attempted to reconstruct Afghanistan as a democratic state. At this point, an interim Afghan government was created separately from the Taliban. However, the efforts to rebuild the country have proved futile, as the Taliban continues to exert influence in the region. Whatsmore, every administration since Bush’s presidency has similarly refused to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan due to lack of an agreement.
Almost two decades later, the war continues due to many factors including the Taliban’s resistance, the failure of the US to restore stability in the region, the limitations of the Afghan government’s forces, and the failure of any of the actors to see eye-to-eye on a peace deal. A peace agreement that is respected by all sides of the conflict is not only extremely important to bring stability to a country that has faced decades of war, but also to prevent the collapse of Afghanistan. If the country descends into further conflict, it would increase the likelihood of it becoming a safe haven for terrorists once again.
First Round of Peace Talks
Despite members of the Taliban travelling to Qatar multiple times since 2011 in attempts to negotiate a peace deal, the first successful efforts began in 2018 in Doha, Qatar. The negotiations were conducted over eighteen months, consisted of nine rounds, and involved various actors including the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, and numerous Taliban representatives. A final agreement was signed on February 29, 2020, between the US government and the Taliban.
It included four main goals. First, the Taliban ensured that it would not use Afghanistan as a hub to target the US and its allies (namely NATO troops), nor would they tolerate other armed groups from doing so. Second, all US and NATO troops must withdraw from the country within 14 months of signing the agreement as long as the Taliban upholds its part of the deal. The US also agreed to decrease its number of troops in the country from about 13,000 to 8,600 within 135 days of signing the agreement. The US came through on their side of the agreement and reduced the number of troops by June. The Pentagon further promised to withdraw troops until only 2,500 were left in Afghanistan by mid-January.
Third, peace negotiations between the Taliban and the current Afghan government were scheduled to begin on March 10, 2020. However, this date was contingent on the release of one thousand prisoners by the Taliban in exchange for the release of five thousand prisoners by the Afghan government. Fourth, the peace negotiations between the Taliban and the government should include discussion on a permanent ceasefire and the reconstruction of the future of Afghanistan.
It was notable that the US chose to initiate the first peace agreement with the Taliban, not the Afghan government. This is because the Taliban could arguably be recognized as a terrorist group under the American governments’ definition, thus the American decision to engage in diplomacy with the Taliban means that they are perhaps disregarding their own values. While talks with the Taliban were a major milestone in the conflict, the exclusion of the Afghan government in the initial round of talks can come across as the US regarding the Taliban having more political legitimacy than the actual Afghan government. The Afghan government was eventually brought in the second round of negotiations, although little progress has been made thus far.
Second Round of Peace Talks
Although the second round of peace talks was scheduled to start on March 10th, as outlined in the US-Taliban agreement, they were repeatedly delayed due to the controversy of releasing prisoners – specifically the Afghan government releasing Taliban fighters. The peace talks were met with constant disagreements over minor issues and ongoing violence diminishing the will to come to an agreement. Both sides also sit on decades of mistrust towards one another, making it difficult for them to see eye-to-eye and consequently making the peace process more difficult.
The second round of negotiations was stalled after a couple of weeks and there was limited progress made until a new set of procedural guidelines was agreed upon in December. After both sides agreed to the rules, negotiations were scheduled to resume on January 5th in Doha. Unfortunately, the recent talks were off to yet another slow start, as the two parties came in with different priorities. In the current stage of the negotiations, the Afghan government wants to reach a ceasefire first, with discussions on creating a stable post-conflict society coming later. The Taliban on the other hand wants to focus on the future of the country first and a ceasefire second. For the talks to progress, they will need to decide which to focus on first. The ongoing violence happening in the background of the negotiations has also caused hesitancy on both sides, doing nothing to help the distrust between them.
The peace negotiations between domestic actors – mainly the Taliban and the Afghan government – are arguably the most integral part of the whole peace process. If Afghanistan plunges into a civil war after the US withdraws its troops, the future of the country will be grim. Additionally, if Afghanistan’s efforts to rebuild fail, the country could become a haven for terrorism all over again, making the last twenty years of US occupation and the subsequent peace talks meaningless.
Experts fear that the deep-seated mistrust between the Taliban and government may cause negotiations to sit in a deadlock for months, or worse, completely derail into civil war. For the peace talks to be successful, both sides need to take action to prove to one another that they are trustworthy and willing to create sustainable peace in Afghanistan. While the release of prisoners on both sides was a start and afforded both parties enough trust to begin the negotiations, it has still not been sufficient to truly progress.
Furthermore, as per the US-Taliban agreement, all US and NATO troops need to withdraw from the country by this coming April, adding pressure to reach an agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. As the stakes of these peace agreements are high, especially for Afghan civilians, the world is holding its breath that the second round of peace talks end in a positive result.