In Doha, Qatar on February 29, 2020, the United States and the Taliban agreed to a peace deal in an attempt to “officially” end America’s longest war. However, its effectiveness has faltered due to a lack of true diplomatic initiative and cooperation to actually stimulate long-lasting peace in the region. The current state of affairs in Afghanistan suggests that these issues may be exasperated by unreliable commitments by Taliban forces. Before examining the deal itself, it is important to understand Afghanistan for its complex history of political instability.
After the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan on December 24th, 1979, the United States provided arms, munitions, and financial aid to an anti-Communist militia group known as the Mujahideen. The aid continued to flow in for the next decade until the eventual defeat and full withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Political leaders in the United States regarded Afghanistan as another proxy-war that the United States could use to triumph against the Soviet Union.
“The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, “We now have the opportunity of giving to the Soviet Union its Vietnam War.”– Zbigniew Brzezinski, NSA Advisor to President Jimmy Carter
After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the country faced an immense power vacuum which led to a political civil war between competing Mujahideen factions and warlords. One faction of the Mujahideen prevailed and formed what we presently call the Taliban. In the 1990s and up until the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Taliban remained in total control of Afghanistan and implemented an extremist Islamic totalitarian state. Women and minority ethnic groups were routinely discriminated against, stoned and killed. Education for girls was forbidden, and women were forced to wear a dress known as a “burqa” covering their entire body when out in public. Afghans who did not abide by Taliban law would be killed or tortured.
After the September 11th terrorist attack on the United States, orchestrated by Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, President George W. Bush launched the “War on Terror.” The goal was to wipe out Al-Qaeda and find Osama Bin Laden, who was believed to be hidden by Taliban forces in Afghanistan. After a swift U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban government was toppled.
The newly created Islamic republic was formed from the ashes left by the previous Taliban government. The new Islamic republic promised “free and fair” elections that helped place Hamid Karzai as President of Afghanistan. Throughout Karzai’s time in office from 2001 until 2014, the Taliban’s influence and presence grew in the country, even after its government was toppled. The Taliban used coordinated terrorist attacks and maintained de facto control of many parts of Afghanistan.
President Obama, during the second half of his administration, proposed incremental troop reductions in Afghanistan with the paramount goal of an eventual total withdrawal in 2014. While the number of forces during the Obama administration decreased from about 100,000 in 2010 to 8,400 by 2016, President Obama’s overall goal of complete troop withdrawal failed. Given the resurging Taliban presence in Afghanistan, President Obama determined it was necessary to maintain a modest level of U.S. forces in the country.
In the 2016 presidential election, then Republican candidate Donald J. Trump campaigned on a platform advocating for reducing United States troop presence overseas, specifically in regard to both Iraq and Afghanistan. President Trump argued that the money spent overseas for so long on costly wars could be better spent domestically. However, in August of 2017, Trump decided to increase the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan from 8,400 to 14,000, arguing that leaving so soon would mean a “hasty withdrawal.” The Trump administration believed that due to an increased presence of the Taliban in the region, more U.S. troops would have to be sent. This level was maintained until peace talks started between the Trump administration and the Taliban in September of 2019.
It is important to also note that the peace deal agreed upon in Doha, Qatar between the Taliban and the U.S. did not include the current government of Afghanistan led by President Ashraf Ghani. The peace deal agreed upon had many specific strings attached to them, most significantly a prisoner swap of 1,000 Afghan military prisoners for 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Another aspect of the deal called on U.S. troop reductions in Afghanistan by July 2020 from 13,000 to 5,000 and a total withdrawal within a year.
Between March and May of 2020, both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Taliban authority did not fully follow the guidelines agreed upon in the peace deal. President Ghani was hesitant on releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners all at once as the Taliban continued attacks throughout parts of Afghanistan. As of June 2020, about 500 Afghan government prisoners have been released by the Taliban and 3000 Taliban prisoners have been released by the Afghan government as well. However, the Taliban, like the Afghan government, did not immediately release the prisoners that were required of the peace deal.
On top of this tug-of-war battle of who is going to give in to the other’s demands first, the COVID-19 pandemic had added another degree of uncertainty in the implementation of the peace deal. As COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise in Afghanistan, the country is not equipped well enough to handle the health crisis and is likely to divert attention to the pandemic over the battle with the Taliban.
However, violence continues to ravage the country as groups affiliated with the Islamic State have coordinated recent attacks in the city against civilians, such as a maternity ward in May and a Mosque in June 2020. While the Taliban has not claimed responsibility for some of the recent attacks in the country, violence still impedes on any potential future peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Violence and the COVID-19 pandemic will not aid in creating lasting peace in the region in the long-term.
President Trump’s peace deal with the Taliban was a big shift in American foreign policy in Afghanistan. It is difficult to say whether this was the right step to eventual peace in the region, or whether this peace deal was a waste of time in preventing violence in the country. The future is uncertain, and the COVID-19 pandemic only helped delay the potential peace or lack thereof that comes with the Trump-Taliban peace deal.
The history of the past 41 years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is necessary to learn in order to better understand the country as it is today. The United States’ involvement in Afghanistan has not left the country in a better position than it was prior to the Soviet invasion. The Trump administration’s plan to negotiate with the Taliban was a needed first step to help end our involvement in Afghanistan. However, for peace to come to the Afghan people, the Afghan government must be given a seat at the negotiation table. President Trump should himself facilitate a negotiation between the Taliban authority and the Afghan government. While most of our involvement in Afghan affairs and politics has been negative, President Trump still has the ability to help end this long war and finally bring peace to the Afghan people.