The peace deal that the US signed with the Taliban on February 29, 2020, in Doha, Qatar had two main tenets: the first one stated that in 135 days, the “United States, its allies, and the Coalition…will reduce the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to eight thousand six hundred (8,600) and proportionally bring reduction in the number of its allies and Coalition forces.” In another nine- and one-half months the rest of the forces will withdraw from the country.
The other tenet was that “the Taliban will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups including Al-Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.
The Taliban will send a clear message that those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies have no place in Afghanistan, and will instruct members… not cooperate with the groups or individuals threatening the security of the United States and its allies.”
As suspected, they have not respected their end of the bargain or one of the two tenets of the agreement, that is that Afghanistan will not be used by any terrorist groups against the US. The fact is that the Taliban are the proxies of Pakistan and are themselves terrorists and have been under the UN and US sanctions. At least five of the 14-member delegation of the Taliban were prisoners in Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of terrorism. One would rightly ask what is the difference between the Al-Qaeda terrorists and the Taliban ones. So, what is the logic in dealing with one terror group to stop another one? They will never turn against each other, if that is the intention. There is no doubt about the nature and motive of the Taliban. The point, that a lot of people ignore and it was intentionally or otherwise ignored in Doha, is that as a terror group the Taliban will not and cannot stop their cooperation with the international terror network such as Al-Qaeda, LeJ, LeT, etc.
First, let us examine whether they are willing to dissociate themselves from the other groups. Will they do that? The answer is an emphatic no. They are comrades in arms; they have been associated with each other for almost three decades since Osama bin Laden (OBL) went to Afghanistan from Sudan. Protecting OBL was one of the main reasons that the Taliban brought the wrath of the US on themselves. They refused to hand him to the US or Saudis, their only financier, and benefactor. They protected him for as long as they could. There has never been any break in their relationship and if past is any indication, there will never be any break. They have intermarriages and in Pashtun tradition, it is a taboo to hand over their fellow guest and OBL was not only their fellow believer, relative but also a guest of honor. Besides, they believe in the same cause and at times they have similar if not exact objectives for their terror activities. The Al-Qaeda scope of activity is wider and more inclusive. They want to destabilize governments and countries that they consider un-Islamic and/or impure. They want to bring change to those countries employing only one technique that they know and believe, thru terror and chaos. Their theater of operation is the globe especially in the developing countries as well as the soft spots for bombings and suicide activities in various capitals in the West. The Taliban, however, is more focused in the region especially as a first step Afghanistan and later wherever that their sponsors direct them.
Second, here is where their ability comes to mind, can they dissociate themselves from Al-Qaeda and other terror outfits sponsored by Pakistan? Here, too, the answer is negative. Most, if not all of the terrorists, are trained or nurtured by the same outfit, the ISI so they are mostly under the control of Pakistan. They have been used by Pakistan as its proxies in Afghanistan and in fact, they are probably the only reason Pakistan succeeded to push the US out of Afghanistan. Now that these groups have proved their value, Pakistan will keep them as its assets to control Afghanistan and to keep India on its nerves. So, for all practical purposes, Pakistan will never let the Taliban raise a finger against any of these groups even if the latter will desire. Since the emergence of OBL, he was financier and sponsor and Pakistan has been the trainer and supporter of the terror outfit.
Now the Deal, Can it work?
Mr. Trump in his infinite wisdom wanted to score a point in the coming elections by bringing the troops home. He wanted to be the president that ended America’s longest war and saved money. But perhaps little does he know that what he saved today will be paid multiple times in the future should things go wrong, as they will if Pakistan’s designs are to be implemented. Trump did not learn from another military blunder when he withdrew US forces from Syria, where thousands of Kurds had given their lives for US success but Trump left them out in the cold. It was so outlandish that General James Mattis the highly decorated and respected defense secretary left in disgust.
Not this time. Mr. Trump found a very ambitious Pashtun from Washington to negotiate with his fellow kinsmen. Perhaps Mr. Trump did not know or did not care to know who Mr. Khalilzad was and how the tribal and ethnic affiliations work in the region. But probably unknowingly, he played in the hands of a shrewd ethnic Pashtun who also used his status as the special US envoy to secure the release of his other fellow kinsman Mulla Abdul Ghani Baradar from Islamabad jail. With his release the band of the veteran terrorists was complete and they started negotiations in Doha, Qatar.
When Khalilzad signed the agreement with his fellow Taliban Pashtuns he very well knew who they were. He knew that nothing will change their thinking, attitude, or behavior. They can agree to a hundred things on paper, but it is just paper that neither they nor their sponsors and protector will honor.
True to their nature, now reports have surfaced that the Taliban have still close contacts with Al-Qaeda and in fact, they were in regular contacts and consultations with their fellow terrorists while they were negotiating with the US. “U.N. experts, drawing their research from interviews with U.N. member states, including their intelligence and security services, plus think tanks and regional officials, say the Taliban has[have] played a double game with the Trump Administration, consulting with Al-Qaeda senior leaders throughout its 16 months of peace talks with U.S. officials and reassuring Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, among others, that the Taliban would “honor their historical ties” to the terrorist group.
Al-Qaeda has 400 to 600 operatives active in 12 Afghan provinces and is running training camps in the east of the country.”
What is interesting is that Khalilzad as a Pashtun also knew that the Taliban will not honor the commitments that they made in the agreement, but he carried on anyway. He did so because he achieved much of what he wanted for his fellow kinsmen. First, it is the legitimacy that he got for the Taliban is unprecedented. He brought a proxy terror group to be accepted as a negotiation partner with the US. The Taliban would never dream of this achievement. Secondly, he managed to get the agreement for the release of about 5,000 Taliban prisoners, although not all are as yet not implemented.
But alas, the outcome may not be what Mr. Trump dreamed. The closest parallel that comes to mind is the Paris agreement between the US and the North Vietnamese. We do not know what Kissinger had in mind, but it is not difficult to guess what the North Vietnamese were thinking. They were waiting for the American resolve to be broken and they were buying time to overtake the South by force and that is exactly what they did. Here, too, the Taliban are seeing the US enthusiasm for withdrawal no matter what the outcome and all they have to do is wait. They have all the time in the world. They have an unlimited supply of fighters who would like to go to heaven as soon as they are called upon by their masters; they have plenty of drug revenue from within and oil money coming from the Arab Shaikhs; and they have a sponsor, Pakistan, who waited patiently for 19 years to see the fruits of its labor. What happens to Afghanistan and its non-Pashtun majority is anyone’s guess. But it certainly it may not be a smooth sail for the US, Pakistan and the Taliban.