Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani looks on during a news conference in Kabul. File/ Reuters
This deal bodes well for the war-torn country, which also witnessed a US-Taliban peace agreement in late February that requires a complete halt to violence and withdrawal of US troops, among other conditions, though its implementation looks far from certain.
If all goes well, the stage is set for intra-Afghan talks between the Ghani-Abdullah government on one side and the Taliban on the other to end decades of violence, thus opening a potentially new chapter of stability.
Afghanistan has been in battle mode since the 1970s, first with the Soviet Army, followed by civil wars, US-led invasion in 2001 and the war against terror thereafter. The cumulative effect has devastated the socio-economic fabric of the country. Between 2001 and 2019, the war on terror has reportedly claimed more than 150,000 lives, nearly one-third of them civilians.
Despite billions of dollars of international assistance for nearly two decades, Afghanistan remains dreadfully poor. The poverty level (earning less than $1 a day) soared from 35% in 2012 to 55% in 2019. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has added to the health worries of the nearly 40 million population.
A US-mediated peace deal in 2014 collapsed in quick time. Ironically, the same political leaders and warlords were involved then too. However, the US desire to withdraw its troops may serve as an incentive to ensure that the deal sticks this time, though the eventual consequences are unclear. The new intra-Afghan deal ends the political turmoil since September after former foreign minister Abdullah, who received 39% votes in the presidential election, challenged Ghani’s victory with 50% of the votes polled. In a dramatic show, both declared themselves president and held parallel swearing-in ceremonies.
Amid this drama, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal in February. The terms included a phased American troop withdrawal, contingent on peace talks between the government and the insurgents, ceasefire, and exchange of prisoners.
After initial excitement, the road to peace faltered and Washington withheld $1 billion in assistance. This may have partially influenced the two warring leaders to cooperate and strengthen their case while negotiating with the Taliban for the next phase of the peace process.
While the deal bars Abdullah from a direct government role, his leadership of the High Council for National Reconciliation means he has the authority to deliberate and decide all matters related to the peace process with the Taliban. A High Council of Governance has also been constituted to enable major political leaders to advise the president on national issues. Both factions have expressed optimism about adhering to the deal.
The US-Taliban deal and the power-sharing agreement, both signed within a span of three months, could be viewed as the most significant peace-oriented developments in the country’s recent history. These offer some respite and hope for Afghans caught in a maelstrom of ethnic divisions, war, religious extremism, and political differences, compounded by corruption and poverty.
At the backend of the deal was Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. A six-plus-two meeting – involving an informal coalition of the six countries bordering with Afghanistan (China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), along with the United States and Russia – also took place at the United Nations in April in order to buy-in international support.
Some of the Gulf countries also have huge stakes in Afghanistan’s peace process. They have invested financially and politically for decades to help the country achieve a semblance of order. The UAE, for example, is the only Arab country to send special forces to train Afghan soldiers. In a tragic incident, the UAE ambassador to Afghanistan, Juma Al Kaabi, and five other officials were killed in a 2017 terror attack. Further, a substantial round of US-Taliban talks have been held in Gulf capitals, including Abu Dhabi in December 2018.
But the future is ridden with uncertainties. It is feared that if the US troops withdraw, leaving only a small number of NATO forces, the Taliban may attempt to overthrow the government in Kabul and gain complete control of the country. Given the Taliban’s conservative and extremist ideology, combined with pockets of Al Qaeda and Daesh cells still active in the country, there is anxiety in the neighbourhood and the world at large.
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