The United States and the Taliban signed an agreement in February 2020 that called for peace talks between the two Afghan sides to start in March. Negotiations have been beset by repeated delays but early this December, the Taliban and Afghan government teams reached an agreement on a set of rules and procedures. This procedural agreement is a small but important step that may allow the two sides to move forward in their pursuit of a political settlement to end decades of war.
Here, Mehdi J. Hakimi, the executive director of the Rule of Law Program and lecturer at Stanford Law School, reviews the current status of the U.S.-Taliban agreement and the peace negotiations including the potential for a U.S. military drawdown during the final weeks of the Trump Administration and the challenges for the incoming Biden Administration.
What are the principal commitments of the parties under the U.S.-Taliban agreement?
Under the February 29 agreement, signed in Doha, Qatar, the United States has committed to a phased, conditions-based withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan within 14 months of signing the accord.
In return, the Taliban has pledged to prevent any group or individual from using Afghan soil to threaten the United States and its allies. The Taliban has also promised to sever ties with terrorist organizations including Al Qaeda—the group that perpetrated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 while harbored by the Taliban.
The February pact also envisioned, inter alia, a prisoner swap, the start of intra-Afghan negotiations, and sanctions removal. The Afghan government was not a party to the February agreement.
Has the United States implemented its military drawdown?
In accordance with the agreement, the U.S. initially reduced its military presence from 12,000 to about 8,600 troops, and closed several bases, by June. Any further military withdrawal was to be contingent on the Taliban’s compliance with its obligations. The Pentagon recently announced a further reduction down to 2,500 troops before President-elect Biden takes office.
What has been the Taliban’s response so far?
The Taliban has generally refrained from attacking American and coalition forces, although it did launch rocket attacks on U.S. bases in southern Afghanistan in July and August. Instead, the Taliban has intensified attacks against Afghan forces. This escalation of violence has been widely criticized, including by the United States.
In addition, despite its counterterrorism pledges under the February deal, the Taliban still seems to maintain close links with Al Qaeda inside Afghanistan. In fact, a very senior Al Qaeda leader was recently killed by Afghan security forces in a Taliban-controlled district in eastern Afghanistan.
That seems to complicate the task for the incoming Biden administration.
President-elect Biden and his administration will need to closely examine the Taliban’s conduct which, so far, seems to contravene its obligations under the February accord. A hasty withdrawal, while the Taliban maintains close links with terrorist groups, is very risky.
Another related issue is coordination with America’s allies. The February deal states that all foreign forces will leave Afghanistan within the stipulated timeline—a provision that poses a difficult dilemma for NATO and coalition partners especially in light of the actual conditions on the ground.
You mentioned that the February agreement envisioned a prisoner swap as well. Has that already been completed?
Yes. The February deal called for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan government captives as a “confidence building measure.” Despite questions over the legality of the Afghan government’s decision to release many Taliban convicts, the prisoner swap has been completed.
Unfortunately, contrary to the Taliban’s promises, reports indicate that many freed Taliban fighters have returned to the battlefield. The flawed process of releasing the Taliban prisoners, many of whom were convicted of grave crimes, may have other implications as well particularly in the context of the International Criminal Court’s investigation of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan.
What about the intra-Afghan peace negotiations?
After the controversial release of the last batch of Taliban prisoners, the intra-Afghan talks officially commenced on September 12, 2020 in Doha, Qatar. With the recent agreement on the procedural rules, the two sides are now discussing the agenda for the formal talks.
A pressing agenda item should be a comprehensive ceasefire. Defying repeated calls for a ceasefire, the Taliban has ratcheted up violence throughout the country, likely in a bid to gain leverage at the negotiating table. Other core issues will revolve around a mechanism for the Taliban’s reintegration, constitutional amendments, and sanctions removal.
Key concerns include the meaningful participation of all Afghans, especially women and minority groups, in the peace process and preserving the hard-earned achievements of the last two decades.
Mehdi J. Hakimi is the Executive Director of the Rule of Law Program and Lecturer at Stanford Law School. His research focuses on international law, comparative law, and global development. An expert on Afghan law, Hakimi was the former Chair of the Law Department at the American University of Afghanistan.