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Peace stumbles, violence resumes…

March 4, 2020

Summary: The reduction in violence week was successful and caused much optimism.  As did the US-Taliban deal, signed on 29 February.  Since then, ambiguity and dispute have clouded this picture.  The Taliban have resumed fighting in some areas, although they appear careful to avoid target Americans

As expected, the US and the Taliban signed the long-awaited peace deal on Saturday 29th February.  Ambiguity and flexibility have likely been key in moving dialogue forward, creating historic levels of optimism and lessening the fighting.  The reduction in violence (RiV) week before that was broadly successful, heightening expectations.  Although there was fighting and casualties,  most accounts suggest a drop in violence of between 80 – 90%.  

Now it seems that the lack of clarity could present stumbling blocks.  In principle, the US is now committed to start withdrawing its soldiers, perhaps 4,000 of its 12,000 troops by around June 2020.  The issue of prisoner exchange is supposed to see 5,000 Taliban fighters swapped for 1,000 Afghan military prisoners.  But it is not entirely clear who decides about the prisoners.  President Ghani has declared that the Afghan government decides.  The Americans seemed to be of the impression that they are the ones to decide this.  The Taliban have resumed fighting – although they currently appear keen to avoid targeting American soldiers.  Ashraf Ghani has pointedly asked the Taliban to set up an office in Afghanistan and quit Pakistan if they really are Afghans.  The Taliban and the Afghan government have yet to start talking.  Even resolving logistics, agenda and participants for these talks looks likely to take a long time.  It will doubtless generate posturing and argument.

Commander of international military forces in Afghanistan, US General Austin Miller, said on 4th March that the peace agreement is fragile.  He also noted that US airpower was operational and ready to support Afghan ground forces as necessary.  The US military has said it has carried out its first airstrike for 11 days, dropping bombs on Taliban forces in Helmand.

Tolo News, 3 March 2020: A fresh spate of violence kicked off in at least seventeen Afghan provinces on Tuesday, a day after the Taliban announced they would resume military operations against the Afghan security forces. The Afghan Ministry of Interior said there were 33 attacks by the Taliban and at least six civilians were killed in the past 24 hours.

Analysis from all directions says essentially the same thing – the agreement between the Americans and the Taliban is a very optimistic and historically significant moment but large doses of caution and pragmatism are essential.  Not far from anyone’s thinking is the risk of a collapse into a multi-faction civil war, such as was seen in the 1990s.  Spoilers, such as Islamic State, and even neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan, may cloud and complicate further.

The new violence does not mean a total collapse in negotiations.  All sides are feeling each other out.  These are the first bumps in a very bumpy long road ahead.   One aspect of the US/Taliban deal that does seem most likely to progress is the American troop withdrawal, largely for US domestic political reasons.  Unless the security situation significantly crumbles by summer, the first stage of the US pull-out should take place.  We should watch to see if the Taliban announce a Spring offensive this year – they usually do this in May.  But the peace process overall depends on Afghans: Taliban, Government, power-brokers and population working things out.  This will take years, with absolutely no guarantee of success.  Violence looks likely to form a regular part of this process.


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