Amid the ongoing dialogues on Afghanistan involving the Taliban and new proposals by the US to jumpstart the intra-Afghan dialogue for bringing peace to Afghanistan and the region, the Taliban have issued an ultimatum to the US on March 19; of repercussions if US troops did not withdraw by May 1, 2021, as agreed to in the US-Taliban deal signed on February 29, 2020. Suhail Shaheen, part of the Taliban dialogue team in Moscow said, “They (American troops) should go. If the US troops stay past May 1, it will be a kind of violation of the agreement. That violation would not be from our side. … Their violation will have a reaction. We hope that this will not happen, that they withdraw and we focus on the settlement, peaceful settlement of the Afghan issue.” Taliban issued this statement in a press briefing on the sidelines of the dialogue on peaceful settlement in Afghanistan held on March 18, 2021 at Moscow’s President Hotel between representatives of Russia, China, Pakistan, the United States, Qatar, Afghanistan and the Taliban.
Highlights of the joint statement after the conference on March 18 at Moscow included: agreement that sustainable peace can only be achieved through a negotiated political settlement; call on all parties to reduce the level of violence and Taliban not to pursue a Spring offensive; no support for restoration of Islamic Emirate; Afghan government to openly engage with Taliban for negotiated settlement; immediate discussion for intra-Afghan negotiations including drawing a political roadmap for an inclusive government; call for democratic, and self-sufficient Afghanistan; ensure terrorist groups and individuals do not use Afghan soil to threaten security of any country, and; appreciation of international efforts to facilitate and support negotiated early settlement in Afghanistan.
Significantly, while the above joint statement does not support restoration of Islamic Emirate, Suhail Shaheen, from the Taliban delegation, told reporters in Moscow that Taliban are demanding the return to an Islamic government in Afghanistan. He also stressed that the current Afghan government does not fit the Taliban’s definition of an Islamic government. This indicates that the Taliban aim to re-establish their old rule in Afghanistan; hardcore Islamic rule (call it Islamic Emirate or not) under Sharia laws – a far cry from democracy. With Turkey recently quitting the European Treaty on ‘Violence Against Women’, condition of women in Afghanistan under Taliban rule can well be visualized.
In first week March 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote a letter to President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan about reviving efforts for reconciliation in Afghanistan and ushering peace. Blinken’s letter, which was published in Afghanistan’s media, outlines four ways to move matters more fundamentally and quickly toward peace: one, ministerial-level talks amidst Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the US to discuss a unified approach: two, a senior-level meeting between the Taliban and the Afghan government hosted by Turkey in coming weeks; three, proposal to implement a 90-day reduction in violence intended to prevent a spring offensive by Taliban, and; four, President Ghani to consider US proposals for a roadmap toward a new Afghan government.
US officials have been saying periodically that the Taliban have yet to uphold their end of the bargain. More importantly, US President Joe Biden said in a recent interview that meeting the deadline of May 1 for withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan would be tough, and that he is still deciding whether to go through with the withdrawal. He specifically stated, “The fact is that this was not a very solidly negotiated deal (US-Taliban peace deal) that the president, the former president worked out. And so we’re in consultation with our allies, as well as the government.”
According to US media, in a recent discussion with members of the national security team, Joe Biden was against US troop presence in Afghanistan beyond May 1. However, Pentagon has been telling Biden that Taliban is not living up to its end of the agreement, and there is no guarantee what will happen if the US just precipitously pulls everyone out. Also, the US military has presented several options to Biden, which include: pulling troops out by or close to May 1; keeping troops in the country indefinitely, and; keeping troops in Afghanistan for a defined period to be determined by the President. There is speculation that Biden may extend the US troop withdrawal by six months, however, no decision has been taken yet.
Violence levels shot up exponentially in Afghanistan after the US-Taliban peace deal which only forbade Taliban from attacking US and NATO troops. The Taliban went all out against the Afghan government, security forces and the Shia community, albeit number of bombings and targeted killings were not claimed or were deflected on other terrorist groups who are otherwise operating in synch with the Taliban. The Taliban area of influence has been increasing by the day, assisted by closure of US military bases. The Taliban are taking control of key highways and are conducting operations to choke off Afghan towns and cities. When Taliban have not kept their side of the promise of the US-Taliban peace deal, why would they go slow now?
On becoming president, Donald Trump had first tried to get close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But this was quickly reversed, perhaps on behest of the CIA. Joe Biden has started his presidency with a full-blown cold war against Russia, driving China and Russia in closer embrace. Whether this is a diversion from America’s internal problems is not known but Biden’s focus will remain more on Western Pacific, North Korea, Iran, Iraq-Syria, Yemen and Libya, aside from dealing with the pandemic and economy at home. He was against Trump increasing US troop strength in Afghanistan. What will be his decision now with the Taliban having served an ultimatum remains unknown?
Ideally, the question of total US-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan should be left open ended till the Taliban show sincerity by giving up violence. If Trump could pull out from the Paris Accord and Iran Nuclear Deal or the JCPOA without any compunction, there is no reason Biden should not scrap the US-Taliban peace deal and go for fresh negotiated settlement, making the Government of Afghanistan party to the deliberations. A hasty pullout will imply Afghanistan back to Taliban rule of yore, turning entire Af-Pak region into a terrorist cauldron which will be exploited by America’s adversaries. China’s influence will spread throughout Afghanistan, which along with Chinese presence in Pakistan and Iran will increase US headache in the Persian Gulf.