The Afghan peace process comprises the proposals and negotiations in a bid to end the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Although sporadic efforts have taken place since the war began in 2001, negotiations and the peace movement intensified in 2018 amid talks between the Taliban, which is the main insurgent group fighting against the Afghan government and American troops; and the United States, of which 20,000 soldiers maintain a presence within the country to support the Afghan government. Most of the talks have taken place in Doha, the capital of Qatar. It is expected that a mutual agreement between the Taliban and the United States would be followed by a phased American withdrawal and the start of intra-Afghan peace talks. Besides the United States, regional powers such as Pakistan, China and Russia, as well as NATO play a part in facilitating the peace process.
On February 29, 2020, the U.S. signed a conditional peace agreement with the Taliban, which calls for the withdrawal of foreign troops in 14 months if the Taliban uphold the terms of the agreement. On March 1, 2020, however, the Afghan government, which was not a party to the deal, rejected the U.S. and Taliban's call for a prisoner swap by March 10, 2020, with President Ghani stating that such an agreement will require further negotiation and will also not be implemented as a precondition for future peace negotiations. On March 10, 2020, Ghani signed a decree agreeing to swap 1,500 Taliban prisoners starting March 14, 2020, but on the condition that they sign pledges agreeing to not return to combat. The same day, it was also revealed that there were no plans for a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. On March 10, the United Nations Security Council unanimously backed the U.S.-Taliban peace deal.
On March 11, 2020, however, the Taliban rejected Ghani's prisoner swap proposal. On March 14, 2020 the U.S.-Taliban peace deal became endangered when Ghani delayed the release of Taliban prisoners. On April 7, 2020 The Taliban officially withdrew from prisoner swap talks, which had been taking place in Kabul starting 30 March 2020 and only resulted in the release of 100 Taliban prisoners on 8 April 2020.
The Taliban, which refers to itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, is a Sunni Islamic organization that operates in Afghanistan, a country in Central/South Asia. The Taliban emerged in 1994, taking advantage of the power vacuum that was left following the aftermath of the Afghan Civil War. The group was mainly composed of religious students in Pakistani madrassas (who had fought in the Soviet–Afghan War) under the leadership of Mohammed Omar.
Al-Qaeda, an international terrorist network, were granted sanctuary in Afghanistan on the condition that it did not antagonize the United States, but Osama bin Laden reneged on the agreement in 1998 when he orchestrated bombings of US embassies in East Africa. The episode was indicative of tensions that emerged between the two groups. The Taliban was fundamentally parochial while Al-Qaeda had its sights set on global jihad.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. under President George W. Bush made a request to the Taliban leadership to hand over Osama bin Laden, who was the prime suspect in the attacks. The Taliban refused to hand bin Laden over, demanding evidence of his participation in the attacks. Consequently, the U.S., together with its NATO allies, launched the United States invasion of Afghanistan, code-named Operation Enduring Freedom, on October 7, 2001. By December 17 that year, the U.S. and its allies had driven the Taliban from power and begun building military bases near major cities across the country. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was later created by the United Nations Security Council to train Afghan National Security Forces to oversee military operations in the country so as to prevent any resurgence of the Taliban group. The Taliban has launched numerous attacks on the Afghan forces, government facilities, and any organization that they believe are in alliance with the US.
The US has been on the ground and directly involved in the war for 18 years, with analysts describing the situation as a stalemate. Although al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan are now considered to be "diminished", the war with the Taliban insurgents continues. Ending the 18-year conflict has eluded former US presidents, and Donald Trump has said that he considers the war too costly. Similarities with the process to end the Vietnam War—America's longest war prior to 2010—have been noted, which resulted in the Paris Peace Accords in 1973.
Negotiations had long been advocated by the former Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, as well as the British and Pakistani governments, but resisted by the American government. Karzai offered peace talks with the Taliban in September 2007, but this was swiftly rejected by the insurgent group citing the presence of foreign troops. By 2009 there was broad agreement in Afghanistan that the war should end, but how it should happen was a major issue for the candidates of the 2009 Afghan presidential election that re-elected Karzai. In a televised speech after being elected, Karzai called on "our Taliban brothers to come home and embrace their land" and laid plans to launch a loya jirga. Efforts were undermined by the Obama administration's increase of American troops in the country. Karzai reiterated at a London conference in January 2010 that he wanted to reach out to the Taliban to lay down arms. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautiously supported the proposal. At the United States Institute of Peace in May 2010, Karzai stated that a "peace process" would be with the Taliban and other militants "who are not part of al-Qaeda or other terrorist networks or ideologically against us". Of the Taliban specifically, he stated, "They're countryside boys who don't hate the United States, perhaps a lot of them would like to visit the United States given the opportunity".
The Taliban's co-founder and then-second-in-command, Abdul Ghani Baradar, was one of the leading Taliban members who favored talks with the US and Afghan governments. Karzai's administration reportedly held talks with Baradar in February 2010; however, later that month, Baradar was captured in a joint US-Pakistani raid in the city of Karachi in Pakistan. The arrest infuriated Karzai, and invoked suspicions that he was seized because the Pakistani intelligence community was opposed to Afghan peace talks. The Afghan Peace Jirga 2010 took place in June 2010, however the Taliban did not attend the conference.
A change of mindset and strategy occurred within the Obama administration in 2010 to allow possible political negotiations to solve the war. The Taliban themselves had refused to speak to the Afghan government, portraying them as an American "puppet". Sporadic efforts for peace talks between the US and the Taliban occurred afterwards, and it was reported in October 2010 that Taliban leadership commanders (the "Quetta Shura") had left their haven in Pakistan and been safely escorted to Kabul by NATO aircraft for talks, with assurance that NATO staff would not apprehend them. After the talks concluded, it emerged that the leader of this delegation, who claimed to be Akhtar Mansour, the second-in-command of the Taliban, was actually an imposter who had duped NATO officials.
Karzai confirmed in June 2011 that secret talks were taking place between the US and the Taliban, but these collapsed by August 2011. Further attempts to resume talks were canceled in March 2012, and June 2013 following a dispute between the Afghan government and the Taliban regarding the latter's opening of a political office in Qatar. President Karzai accused the Taliban of portraying themselves as a government in exile. In January 2016, Pakistan hosted a round of four-way talks with Afghan, Chinese and American officials, but the Taliban did not attend. The Taliban did hold informal talks with the Afghan government in 2016.
On February 27, 2018, following an increase in violence, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani proposed unconditional peace talks with the Taliban, offering them recognition as a legal political party and the release of Taliban prisoners. The offer was the most favourable to the Taliban since the war started. It was preceded by months of national consensus building, which found that Afghans overwhelmingly supported a negotiated end to the war. Two days earlier, the Taliban had called for talks with the US, saying "It must now be established by America and her allies that the Afghan issue cannot be solved militarily. America must henceforth focus on a peaceful strategy for Afghanistan instead of war." On March 27, 2018, a conference of 20 countries in Tashkent, Uzbekistan backed the Afghan government's peace offer to the Taliban. However, the Taliban did not publicly respond to Ghani's offer.
A growing peace movement arose in Afghanistan during 2018, particularly following a peace march which the Afghan media dubbed the "Helmand Peace Convoy". The peace march was a response to a car bomb on March 23 in Lashkar Gah that killed 14 people. The marchers walked several hundred miles from Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province, through Taliban-held territory, to Kabul. There they met Ghani and held sit-in protests outside the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and nearby embassies. Their efforts inspired further movements in other parts of Afghanistan.
Following the march, Ghani and the Taliban agreed a mutual ceasefire during the Eid al-Fitr celebrations in June 2018. During the Eid ceasefire, Taliban members flocked into Kabul where they met and communicated with locals and state security forces. Although civilians called for the ceasefire to be made permanent, the Taliban rejected an extension and resumed fighting after the ceasefire ended on June 18, while the Afghan government's ceasefire ended a week later.
American officials secretly met Taliban members in July 2018, at the latter's political office in Qatar. In September 2018, Trump appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as special adviser on Afghanistan in the US State Department, with the stated goal of facilitating an intra-Afghan political peace process. Khalilzad led further talks between the US and the Taliban in Qatar in October 2018. Russia hosted a separate peace talk in November 2018 between the Taliban and officials from Afghanistan's High Peace Council. The talks in Qatar resumed in December 2018, though the Taliban refused to allow the Afghan government to be invited, considering them a puppet government of the US. The Taliban spoke with Afghans including former President Hamid Karzai, held at a hotel in Moscow in February 2019, but again these talks did not include the Afghan government.
A further round of talks in Qatar were held in February 2019, this time including Baradar in the Taliban delegation - he had been released by Pakistan in October 2018 at the US' request. Khalilzad reported that this round of negotiations was "more productive than they have been in the past" and that a draft version of a peace agreement had been agreed. The deal involved the withdrawal of US and international troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban not allowing other jihadist groups to operate within the country. The Taliban also announced that progress was being made in the negotiations.
Between April 29 and May 3, 2019, the Afghan government hosted a four-day loya jirga to discuss peace talks. The Taliban were invited but did not attend. Later in May, a third meeting was held in Moscow between a Taliban delegation and a group of Afghan politicians. An eighth round of US-Taliban talks in Qatar was held in August 2019. The Washington Post reported that the US was close to reaching a peace deal with the Taliban and was preparing to withdraw 5,000 troops from Afghanistan. In September, Khalilzad stated that an agreement had been reached by the US and the Taliban, pending approval by Trump. However, less than a week later, Trump canceled the peace talks in response to an attack in Kabul that killed an American soldier and 11 other people. Following the collapse of the talks with the US, the Taliban sent a delegation to Russia to discuss prospects for a withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. On September 18, 2019, the Taliban stated that their "doors are open" should Trump decide to resume peace talks in the future.
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On February 29, 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace agreement in Doha, Qatar. The provisions of the deal include the withdrawal of all American and NATO troops from Afghanistan, a Taliban pledge to prevent al-Qaeda from operating in areas under Taliban control, and talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The United States agreed to an initial reduction of its force level from 13,000 to 8,600 by July 2020, followed by a full withdrawal within 14 months if the Taliban keeps its commitments. The United States also committed to closing five military bases within 135 days, and expressed its intent to end economic sanctions on the Taliban by August 27, 2020.
The resulting intra-Afghan negotiations were scheduled to begin on March 10, 2020 in Oslo, Norway. The composition of the Afghan government negotiating team has not yet been determined, because the results of the 2019 Afghan presidential election are disputed. The deal requires the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners by the start of the talks, in a prisoner exchange for 1,000 government soldiers held by the Taliban. The Afghan government was not a party to the deal, and on March 1 Ghani stated that he would reject the prisoner exchange: "The government of Afghanistan has made no commitment to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners. [...] The release of prisoners is not the United States authority, but it is the authority of the government of Afghanistan." Ghani also stated that any prisoner exchange "cannot be a prerequisite for talks," but must be a part of the negotiations. On March 2, a Taliban spokesperson stated that they were "fully ready" for the intra-Afghan talks, but that there would be no talks if about 5,000 of their prisoners are not released. He also said that the agreed-upon period of reduction in violence was over and that operations against Afghan government forces could resume.
The Taliban resumed offensive operations against the Afghan army and police on March 3, 2020, conducting attacks in Kunduz and Helmand provinces. On March 4, the US conducted airstrikes on Taliban fighters in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province.
The intra-Afghan negotiations did not begin as planned on March 10, 2020. However, on that day Ghani signed a decree ordering the Afghan government to start releasing 1,500 Taliban prisoners on March 14 if they agreed to sign pledges guaranteeing they will not to return to battle If they do not sign the pledges, the decree will not go into effect. The same day, the U.S. started withdrawing some troops. Despite the fact that the terms of the peace agreement also received unanimous backing from the UN Security Council, sources close to the Taliban, including Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, afterwards announced that the group had rejected Ghani's prisoner swap decree and still insisted on the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners. On March 14, 2020, Javid Faisal, a spokesman for the National Security Council, announced that President Ghani had delayed the release of Taliban prisoners, citing a need to review the list of the prisoners, thus endangering the peace agreement between the U.S. government and Taliban.
On 27 March 2020, the Afghan government announced the formation of a 21-member negotiation team for the peace talks. However, on 29 March the Taliban rejected the team, stating that "we shall only sit for talks with a negotiation team that conforms with our agreements and is constituted in accordance with the laid out principles." On 31 March 2020, a three-person Taliban delegation arrived in Kabul to discuss the release of prisoners. They are the first Taliban representatives to visit Kabul since 2001. The Afghan government had also previously agreed to hold the talks in Bagram Prison. The same day, however, the Afghan government announced that the Taliban's refusal to agree to another ceasefire and the Taliban delegation's refusal to show up at the prison at the scheduled time both resulted in the postponement of the prisoner swap. Following the arrival of the Taliban delegation, a senior Afghan government official told Reuters "the prisoner release might go ahead in a few days if everything goes as planned.”
On 31 March 2020, the UN Security Council urged for all warring parties to declare a ceasefire in order for the peace process to progress further. On 1 April 2020, it was revealed that the both the Taliban and Afghan government did in fact hold face-to-face talks in Kabul the previous day, unlike the previous video conference talks, and that they were overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). However, Afghanistan's Office of the National Security Council stated that the only progress made so far was "on technical matters" and Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid afterwards stated "There will be no political talks there." Outside the talks, tensions between the Afghan government and Taliban also showed when Afghan authorities blamed the Taliban for an 1 April 2020 explosion which killed several children in Helmand. On the second second day of negotiations, it was agreed that on 2 April 2020, up to 100 Taliban prisoners would be released in exchange for 20 Afghan military personnel
On 7 April 2020, the Taliban departed from the prisoner swap talks, which Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen described as "fruitless." Shaheen also stated in a Twitter that hours after walking out of the talks, the Taliban's negotiating team was recalled from Kabul. The Taliban also failed to secure the release of any of the 15 commanders they sought to be released. Arguments over which prisoners to swap also resulted in a delay of the planned prisoner swap. The next day, Faisal maintained that only 100 Taliban prisoners would be released. Faisal later stated that the 100 prisoners, who were incarcerated at Bagram, were released. The Taliban refused to verify these releases, in part due to the fact that the Taliban's withdrawal from Kabul prevented its "technical team" from making verifications of the prisoner identities. As the Afghan government solely determined which prisoners were released, it also could not be confirmed if any of the prisoners released were on the Taliban's list of preferred names.
Issues which are expected to arise during the negotiations include women's rights; the 2004 Constitution of Afghanistan protects women's freedom of speech and education, which had been suppressed under Taliban rule of Afghanistan. Khalilzad, Ghani, his rival for the presidency Abdullah Abdullah, and several other senior Afghan officials have all stated that these rights should be protected, and should not be sacrificed in a peace agreement. The First Lady of Afghanistan, Rula Ghani, has been active in protecting women's rights.
Continued violence on both sides remains an obstacle to a final peace agreement. While preliminary talks were going on, the Taliban continued to fight on the battlefield and launch terror attacks in the capital city, and also threatened the 2019 Afghan presidential election on September 28. According to US Air Force statistics released in February 2020, the US dropped more bombs on Afghanistan in 2019 than in any other year since 2013.
The US ambassador to Afghanistan warned that a peace agreement could risk the Taliban coming back into power, similar to the aftermath of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, during which the US-supported South Vietnamese government was defeated in the Fall of Saigon. Pakistan warned that rising tensions in the Gulf region after the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani could affect the already-delayed US-Afghanistan peace process.