by Sandra Hochstöger
After one year of negotiations, President Trump recently declared the peace talks with the Taliban “dead”. How did it come this far and what does the future hold for Afghanistan?
The terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 constitute a significant landmark for US foreign policy. In a series of four attacks, almost 3,000 people were killed. Osama bin Laden, then head of the Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda, was soon identified as the person in charge for the attacks and was located in Afghanistan. Back then, the Taliban, a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political movement and military organisation, ruled the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan it had established in 1996. They safeguarded bin Laden together with al-Qaeda and refused to cooperate with the US. One month after 9/11, then US President George W Bush launched airstrikes against Afghanistan. At first, mainly Taliban military sites and al-Qaeda training camps were targeted. It did not take long to overthrow the Taliban government.
In 2004, a new constitution was adopted and Hamid Karzai became Afghanistan’s first democratically elected president. Yet, the Taliban’s influence had not simply disappeared. They upheld their power to a large extent and called the US-backed Afghan government a puppet regime. The US and its allies struggled to keep the new government alive, which for its internal differences, was weak from the beginning¹. 18 years later, with the Taliban still being a dominant force in large parts of the country, the US intervention in Afghanistan can hardly be called a success.
The end of hope?
One of President Trump’s electoral promises was to end the “endless wars” and to finally withdraw US troops from war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan after almost two decades. In October 2018, the US government and the Taliban finally launched peace negotiations. For both parties, the primary focus was to withdraw US and NATO forces from Afghanistan. To the US, a guarantee that Afghanistan would no longer provide a safe haven for armed groups such as al-Qaeda was critical. The negotiations further focused on establishing a permanent ceasefire and the start of an intra-Afghan dialogue².
The Taliban were to hold direct talks with the Afghan government only after the timetable for the US troops’ withdrawal was finalised. In fact, President Ashraf Ghani had to watch from the sidelines while the US and the Taliban negotiated in Doha, Qatar. Many Afghans are wary about this. Critics worry that the Taliban could leave the negotiating table strengthened by an agreement with the US, leaving the Afghan democratic section with less leverage in shaping the political future of the country, including in mapping out civil liberties, power-sharing, human and women’s rights.
Elections under threat
Following the ninth round of peace talks in late August 2019, President Trump invited Taliban representatives and President Ghani to finally sign off a deal at Camp David, the presidential country retreat in Maryland. On the table was the withdrawal of some 5,400 US troops, roughly a third of the present force, from five bases within 135 days. Just days before the meeting, a Taliban-claimed suicide attack in Afghanistan killed twelve people, among the victims was an American soldier. As a consequence, President Trump called off the meeting and ended the negotiations. Official statements on the way forward by the US president, his Afghan counterpart or the Taliban are yet to be made.
Although some observers claim that the Taliban are now a more moderate group, they lack trust within the Afghan society³. Violence is still raging and their fundamental theocracy has been particularly oppressive towards women4. Ahead of the most recent presidential elections this September, the Taliban had threatened to attack election rallies and polling stations, calling the election a US-led sham. Although, in the end, no major incidents took place during the first round of elections, voter turnout is estimated as low as 20%. In part, this was also caused by the fact that voters were turned away from polling stations due to technical issues with biometric identification devices. Whether current President Ghani will enter another term in office or his main opponent Abdullah Abdullah made the race will be announced in a few weeks – as well as whether or not the elections are declared valid.
After decades of instability and insecurity, the Afghan people still face an uncertain future. It is difficult to say if peace talks will resume eventually and also if the political climate will stabilise soon. Will sustainable peace be possible with the Taliban?
Join WIIS Austria, the Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens and the Vienna School of International Studies on Tuesday, 8 October 2019 at 7 p.m., for a discussion on the realities, hopes and visions from Afghanistan. Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to Austria Khojesta Fana Ebrahimkhel, Afghan experts and peace activists will examine the security situation in Afghanistan and will elaborate on possible ways forward for the Afghan people.
Find more information on this event here.
- BBC. 8 September 2019: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-49192495
- Al Jazeera. 27 September 2019: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/afghanistan-presidential-election-190924060851450.html
- Al Jazeera. 19 September 2019: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/future-afghanistan-questions-peace-talks-taliban-190919165716036.html
- The Daily by The New York Times. 3 September 2019: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/03/podcasts/the-daily/us-taliban-afghanistan.html