The peace deal between Washington and the insurgent group is just the first step in a lengthy process to end violence in Afghanistan.
Donald Trump on Tuesday became the first US president to speak with any senior Taliban leader.
“I spoke to the leader of the Taliban today. We had a good conversation. We don’t want violence,” Trump said after he spoke with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the chief negotiator for the insurgent group.
But the violence did resurface in war-torn Afghanistan after a pause of a few days leading up to the ‘peace’ deal between the US and the Taliban. It’s just that it didn't involve American soldiers. The eight people killed in separate Taliban attacks in the first two days of the week were Afghan civilians and security forces.
The deal signed over the weekend helps the US gradually pull out its 12,000 personnel from the 18-year-old conflict, which has not produced a clear victor.
“US officials have sent out a pretty clear message that they don’t see the Taliban attacks as something that endangers the deal,” Andrew Watkins, Senior Analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group, told TRT World.
“Officials as high as (US) Secretary of State of Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper are saying that this is something that they expected.”
In return for the withdrawal of US forces, the Taliban have agreed not to let Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups use Afghan territory under their control.
The US attacked Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, which were blamed on Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, on the pretext that he was hiding there at the time.
Trump has achieved what has evaded his predecessors — he has extracted the US from a costly war that left more than 2,440 American soldiers dead. Yet, it’s just a fraction of the 100,000 Afghan civilians, soldiers and Taliban fighters who have been killed in the bloody conflict.
If the plan goes through, it will give Trump something to cheer about during his campaign for the presidential election later this yea
The Taliban have agreed not to attack American soldiers as they gradually pull out over the next 14 months.
Watkins says that by continuing to target the Afghan government forces, the Taliban also want to keep its fighters as a “unified and cohesive force.”
In the meantime, the contested government of President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban are expected to start the more crucial phase of the intra-Afghan talks from March 10.
Sidelined but not silenced
Throughout the multiple rounds of negotiations spanning over 18 months, the Kabul government was absent as Taliban representatives refused to sit across with what they saw as a puppet regime.
“There is no precedent in the study of peace negotiation of modern conflict that shows the government of the country where the conflict is taking place being put under this kind of pressure where it feels that it's not a party in the early stages of the talks,” says Watkins.
This is probably one of the reasons that Ghani has refused to abide by the condition of US-Taliban deal that envisages the release of around 5000 Taliban fighters who are in government custody.
The Taliban have, for years, made the release of its members a condition for starting peace talks. Ghani says that it's not up to the Americans to decide. It’s something that can be discussed when the intra-Afghan talks begin.
This attitude at such a critical juncture is sure to draw the ire of the US and regional countries, such as Pakistan, who has played a role in bringing the Taliban to the table.
Ghani is seen as clinging to power despite the fact that his presidency is challenged by the opposition including powerful politician, Abdullah Abdullah - who has set up what is being called a ‘parallel government’.
Amina Khan, a senior researcher at the Islamabad-based Institute of Strategic Studies, says that it’s time to form an interim government that has representation from different groups including the Taliban.
“The Taliban have said that they are not seeking a monopoly of power. The longer Ashraf Ghani challenges it, the longer the political settlement is going to remain elusive,” she says.
Despite being left out of the US-Taliban negotiations, Ghani has made overtures towards the Taliban. Last year he ordered the unconditional release of 900 Taliban fighters, offered direct talks and supported a three-day ceasefire over the Eid festival holidays.
The US has further complicated the situation by letting the Taliban be referred to as the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ in the text of their agreement.
Even though it says that the US doesn’t recognise the Islamic Emirates as a state, experts say that the language will be used by the Taliban to its advantage in the Afghan-to-Afghan talks.
“Taliban have guns and now they will claim to have international political legitimacy while the other side’s political capital is weak,” says Amir Rana of Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, referring to Abdullah Abdullah’s claim to power in Kabul.
“The coming weeks are going to be crucial as the Taliban will try to dominate the talks and a possible interim government.”
A post-settlement government is envisaged as part of the US-Taliban deal.
What about the ordinary Afghan?
While the Taliban might have gained some territory, the group of rag-tag fighters, which is answerable to a governing council mostly based in Pakistan and other countries, is far from being ready to run in any democratic election.
“They don't have the political support which allows them to contest elections,” says Rana.
“Their real power lies with the guns. This does not make them compatible with a democratic process and they will try to come up with an idea of an Islamic Emirate and a Shura (a council) where people will have less role in choosing their representatives.”
But, he says, the Taliban must realise that Afghanistan has changed from the mid-1990s when the group ruled it with an iron fist. Urbanisation, a higher literacy rate and better social mobilisation have made people more aware of their rights.
The US officials who negotiated with the Taliban did not touch upon any of the issues that can shed light on the future outlook of Afghanistan, says Watkins of Crisis Group.
That doesn’t mean Afghans are not talking about it. “There’s an intense conversation going on among the Afghans and its diaspora about the women and basic human rights, freedom of expression and media.”
Last year, female Afghan activists confronted Taliban representatives in a meeting in Doha, Qatar — something that was inconceivable a few years back.
“They told the Taliban about their demands. This might not have happened if the Afghans were not so concerned about their future,” says Watkins.