The United States and the Taliban, the guerrillas that the superpower has fought for 19 years, have signed an agreement on Saturday for the total withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan before 14 months. The step, which does not guarantee the end of the war, tries to launch a process of internal reconciliation and has the commitment of the insurgents to initiate an inter-organ 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 what will be the result of talks with Islamic extremists who dispute control of the country to the Government of Kabul.
“The military victory was impossible,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has also asked the Taliban to “not sing victory” because the agreement will mean nothing if they do not do their part. Pompeo intervened before the signing in Qatar, where contacts between the representatives of Washington and the Taliban have taken place. It was not, however, he who signed the commitment but the respective negotiating chiefs, the US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban militia. Then they have shaken hands with applause and invocations of “God is the greatest.”
The limited scope of the pact is evident in its name. It is not a peace agreement, but “to bring peace to Afghanistan.” Even so, the presence of Pompeo with the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, sought both to stage the United States’ commitment to the Asian country, and to engage the Taliban in the inter-agency dialogue with the international community. Significantly, Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrived at Kabul almost at the same time on a visit with a similar goal. “We will not hesitate to cancel the agreement” in case of Taliban breach, Esper warned.
The agreement, negotiated over the past year and a half, provides for an initial reduction of US troops from 12,000 to 14,000 current soldiers to 8,600 within 135 days of signing. In return, the Taliban are obliged 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 guerrillas will free a thousand Afghan prisoners and expect the Kabul government to do the same with 5,000 of its militiamen.
“The Coalition will complete the exit of the rest of its forces in Afghanistan within 14 months following the announcement of this declaration … as long as the Taliban fulfill their commitments,” says 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 that are part of the NATO mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan armed forces.
Since the beginning of the talks, some analysts have interpreted the Trump Administration’s interest in the pact as the search for a foreign policy triumph for re-election. The most caustic see it as a mere concealment of defeat: after 19 years, the radical Islamists that the United States threw out of power in 2001 after 9/11 for housing 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 to its taxpayers a billion dollars (875,000 million euros).
For Afghans, the human cost and concerns are much greater. After the 1979 Soviet invasion unleashed an endless civil war, it was very frustrating to note that American intervention also did not bring peace. Immediately they saw that their goal was not so much to help them rebuild their battered state as to take revenge on Bin Laden, his followers and his godparents. And not always with you. Although politically Washington promoted the establishment of a liberal democracy, widespread insecurity and corruption eclipsed its benefits.
Now they fear paying the price of American peace again. Many, especially in urban areas and among those who have accessed education, fear that the Taliban are only faking interest in the agreement with the United States and that they seize power as soon as foreign troops have left. Although 70% of Afghans are under 30 and therefore have no direct memory of the Taliban regime, everyone has heard about their brutal form of Islamic government that banned television, music, wedding celebrations 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 advances of women (see attached story)? Will they 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 a message exchange. This academic, who participated in the first diplomatic contact between the US and the Taliban in 2010 as an advisor to the Obama Administration, has always defended the political-diplomatic path and supports the agreement. In a recent article, in which he remembered how the military imposed his line, he made it clear that Washington could not win the war with the available means.
The signing has been possible after the “reduction of violence” (not even called a truce) last week that Afghans have lived with as much hope as skepticism. “I worry that the fighting will resume when 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 mentioned as risks the interference of neighboring countries or the internal divisions of the Taliban. They do not quite believe that peace is near.
The cold figures barely help to understand the suffering of Afghans. Last year the war killed 3,403 civilians, it’s roughly 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 any civilian in Afghanistan who has not been personally affected in any way by the violence,” said UN special representative Tadamichi Yamamoto, presenting the latest data last week.
Violence has also slowed 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 largest issuer of refugees in the world, despite the return of nearly six million of them from Pakistan and Iran since 2002.
The Taliban do not recognize the Government of Kabul, but also at this time their presidency is again in dispute. As happened in 2014, the triumph of Ashraf Ghani in the elections last September is answered 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 Government’s capacity with one voice. Abdullah has attended in the front row the signing ceremony of the agreement between the United States and the guerrillas, which opened with an intervention by Ghani. “We hope that this pact will be a permanent ceasefire … It is the desire of our nation,” he said.