DESPATCH FROM KABUL | International

A deal for an uncertain future

On February 29, a date that comes only once in four years, the U.S. administration signed a deal with the Taliban, whom they have been fighting for almost 19 years in Afghanistan.

The historic deal signed in Qatar was a result of nearly 18 months of negotiations between the U.S. Special Representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban leadership. Among other things, the deal promises the Taliban the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, which has been a key demand of the group. However, except for a few consultations, the talks did not involve the Afghan government, although the deal has set the stage for an intra-Afghan dialogue, scheduled to begin on March 10.

“Given the entire structure of the process, the U.S.-Taliban deal was intentionally very narrow in its goals and objectives because it is still a very early step in the process,” explained Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst on Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group. “An official in Kabul put it really well: ‘In this deal, the Taliban received specific points of assurances, while the U.S. received flexibility’. This is important in the long term because it allows the U.S., knowing that there will be many challenges, to be a judge of whether or not the Taliban met their obligations,” he said.

However, even as the deal holds hope for an end to the steadily increasing violence, Afghans remain deeply concerned over the complex nature of the negotiations, in which they have not found a voice yet. “On social media, I saw that Taliban leaders were celebrating this deal as a victory for the Taliban. The way Abbas Stanekzai, the Taliban’s representative, has been talking about it is scary,” said one Afghan student living in Kabul, who did not want to be identified.

“He compared it to Afghanistan’s victory against the British colonialism over 100 years ago, and talked about kicking out American invaders,” he added.

Also read| American lawmakers seek assurances, transparency on U.S.-Taliban peace deal

It is not surprising that the Taliban would use this opportunity to boost the morale of its fighters, said Mr. Watkins. “This is not surprising because if you look at the Taliban’s messaging directed towards its own members, one thing that you see is their insistence on victory. This is a huge part in the Taliban’s organisational unity, the ability for them to keep such a large group of people as a coherent movement, fighting against the government. If they drop this narrative, the members, many of whom fight for different reasons, may question their leadership what they are fighting for,” he added.

Life in fear

However, it has left Afghans fearful of what it may mean for their future. “As someone who has lived under the Taliban regime, I am terrified of seeing a future where Kabul is once again under the Taliban’s control,” said the student from Kabul, recalling the horrors of growing up in Kandahar in the 1990s when the Taliban regime took control of the country after a bloody civil war. “They had their own benchmark for the length of beard and hair and even hairstyles. I remember them destroying video cassettes and televisions. I remember how they were beheading people in stadium, I remember how we lived in fear.”

The deal does not provide specific safeguards for the progress made in the last two decades since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, leaving many Afghans, especially the women and minorities, feeling betrayed. However, Mr. Watkins is hopeful that this deal will evolve in the coming months to include more definitive demands of the Afghan people.

“As of now, this is intended to initiate the negotiations that will deal with the substantive issues: the future of Afghanistan’s state and society. And of course, that includes women’s rights, minority rights, and press freedom, among other things,” he said.

Afghans latch their hopes on the Afghan government to ensure the protection of their freedoms and rights, while also negotiating with the Taliban for reduction of violence.

Meanwhile, the promised intra-Afghan peace process has hit a snag, as the Afghan government refused to support the U.S.’s promise to release nearly 5,000 Taliban prisoners.

Also read: Explained | Talking with Taliban

“The release of prisoners is not the U.S.’s authority, it is the authority of the government of Afghanistan,” President Ashraf Ghani told local media a day after the deal was signed. The same was reiterated by Sediq Seddiqi, a spokesperson to the President: “It is not reasonable or logical to release 5,000 prisoners before the Taliban agrees to the Afghan people’s demand for a ceasefire.”

(Ruchi Kumar is a journalist based in Kabul)


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Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 11:29:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/a-deal-for-an-uncertain-future/article31009901.ece

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