The United States and the Taliban, the guerrilla that the superpower has fought for 19 years, signed an agreement on Saturday for the total withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan within 14 months. The step, which does not guarantee an end to the war, tries to launch an internal reconciliation process and has the commitment of the insurgents to start an inter-Afghan dialogue in the coming days. After four decades of conflict, the population has received the gesture with as many expectations as caution. No one dares to predict the outcome of talks with Islamic extremists who dispute control of the country with the Kabul government.
“This agreement will test the sincerity of the Taliban,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after warning them not to “sing victory” because the pact will mean nothing if they do not do their part. Pompeo was speaking before the signing in Qatar, where contacts between the representatives of Washington and the insurgents took place. However, it was not he who initialed the commitment but the respective chief negotiators, the American ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban militia. Then they shook hands amid applause and invocations of “God is the greatest.”
The limited scope of the covenant is evident in its name. It is not a peace agreement, but “to bring peace to Afghanistan.” Still, Pompeo’s presence alongside Afghan President Ashraf Ghani sought both to stage the United States’ commitment to the Asian country and to engage the Taliban in inter-Afghan dialogue with the international community. Significantly, Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrived at almost the same time in Kabul on a visit with a similar objective. “We will not hesitate to cancel the agreement” in the event of a Taliban breach, Esper has warned.
The agreement, negotiated over the past year and a half, provides for an initial reduction of US troops from the current 12,000 to 14,000 soldiers to 8,600 within 135 days of signing. In return, the Taliban are forced not to allow the territory they control to serve as a base for terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. In addition, the guerrilla will release a thousand Afghan prisoners and hopes that the Kabul government will do the same with 5,000 of its militiamen.
“The Coalition will complete the departure of the rest of its forces in Afghanistan within 14 months of the announcement of this statement (…) provided the Taliban honor their commitments,” states a joint statement issued shortly before the signing by the governments of United States and Afghanistan. In addition to the Americans, there are another 8,500 soldiers from 37 countries who are part of NATO’s mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan armed forces.
Since the start of the talks, some analysts have interpreted the interest of the Trump Administration in the pact as the search for a triumph of foreign policy for reelection. The more caustic see it as a mere concealment of defeat: after 19 years, radical Islamists who were ousted by the United States in 2001 after 9/11 for hosting Osama Bin Laden have regained control of almost half from Afghanistan (insurgents boast of dominating up to two-thirds). The war, the longest waged by the superpower, has left 2,500 US soldiers dead and supposed its taxpayers a trillion dollars (875,000 million euros).
For Afghans the human cost and concerns are much higher. After the 1979 Soviet invasion unleashed an endless civil war, it was very frustrating to note that US intervention did not bring peace either. They quickly realized that their goal was not so much to help them rebuild their battered state but to take revenge on Bin Laden, his followers, and his godparents. And not always wisely. Although Washington politically pushed for the establishment of a liberal democracy, widespread insecurity and corruption overshadowed its benefits.
Now they fear to pay the price of American peace again. Many, especially in urban areas and among those who have accessed education, fear that the Taliban are only pretending to be interested in the deal with the United States and that they will seize power as soon as foreign troops have left. Although 70% of Afghans are under the age of 30 and therefore have no direct recollection of the Taliban regime, they have all heard of its brutal form of Islamic government that banned television, music, the celebration of weddings, and even Flying kites, one of the few hobbies in the poorest country in Asia.
Will the Taliban accept the current democratic system, freedom of the press, or the advancement of women? Are they going to be able to reintegrate into society when most of them have only known weapons and, if anything, a rudimentary religious education?
“The Taliban are already part of Afghan society,” says Barnett Rubin in an exchange of messages. This academic, who participated in the first diplomatic contact between the United States and the Taliban in 2010 as an advisor to the Obama Administration, has always defended the political-diplomatic route and supports the agreement. In a recent article, in which he recalled how the military imposed his line, he made it clear that Washington could not win the war with the means available.
The signing has been possible after the “reduction in violence” (not even called a truce) last week that Afghans have lived with as much hope as skepticism. “I am concerned that fighting will resume when the foreigners leave,” Abdul Rahim Faqirpur, 55-year-old school principal in Ghazni province, told the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN). Others interviewed by that independent political research and analysis center cited interference from neighboring countries or internal divisions of the Taliban as risks. They do not stop believing that peace is near.
The cold figures hardly help to understand the suffering of the Afghans. Last year the war killed 3,403 civilians, more or less the average since the UN began collecting statistics in 2009. Before, they weren’t even counted. But as much or more serious are the wounded, almost double, many of whom are disabled for life. “There is hardly a civilian in Afghanistan who has not been personally affected in any way by the violence,” stressed UN Special Representative Tadamichi Yamamoto, presenting the latest data last week.
The violence has also slowed down the construction of infrastructures that contribute to the development of the country and give work to its young population. As a result, Afghanistan has once again become the world’s largest emitter of refugees, despite the return of nearly six million of them from Pakistan and Iran since 2002.
The Taliban do not recognize the Kabul government, but also at this time its presidency is again in dispute. As in 2014, Ashraf Ghani’s victory in last September’s elections is contested by his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who threatens to form his own parallel government.
Although both support the opening of a dialogue with the Taliban, their confrontation can undermine the capacity of the Government with one voice. Abdullah attended the signing ceremony of the agreement between the United States and the guerrillas, which was opened with an intervention by Ghani. “We hope that this permanent pact to a ceasefire (…) is the desire of our nation,” he said.