Withdrawal of foreign troops by April 2021: peace negotiations in Afghanistan? There is also a lot at stake for Germany
The controversial release of dangerous Taliban by the Afghan government has caused a stir. But the last hurdle before peace talks came to a standstill. What’s next
After nearly twenty years of NATO mission and ongoing fighting in Afghanistan, the country is now facing possible peace negotiations and a political solution with the radical Islamic Taliban movement, whose regime was overthrown by the USA and its allies in 2001. A peace agreement would recognize the Taliban internationally and bring it back to power as a political party.
On February 29, the United States signed an agreement with the Taliban in Doha that is intended to pave the way for intra-Afghan peace negotiations and a political solution to the conflict. The agreement provides for the withdrawal of foreign troops by April 2021 and the removal of the Taliban from international terrorist and sanctions lists. In return, the Taliban promised to end their cooperation with international terrorist groups.
About the guest author
Dr. Ellinor Zeino is the head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s office in Kabul. Her work focuses on building trust and dialogues in the Afghan peace process, as well as regional interests and threat perceptions.
Difficult struggle in the run-up to the negotiations
The US has so far set the dynamics. President Trump has made the American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan an important issue in his first term, right through to the campaign for this year’s US presidential election. At the end of 2018, the US began official peace talks with the Taliban for the first time. Now the process must be transferred from a bilateral agreement to an intra-Afghan process.
As a confidence-building measure for negotiations, the Taliban are demanding that the Afghan government undertake an extensive exchange of prisoners agreed with the USA. The release of Taliban prisoners has repeatedly stalled due to constitutional and political concerns. A ceasefire or a reduction in violence is a priority for the government. A ceasefire was left open in Doha as the subject of intra-Afghan negotiations.
Which negotiation points on the way to a peaceful solution?
The Taliban’s main concern is their political recognition and return to government. They demand the withdrawal of all foreign troops, their participation in political power and an Islamic form of government. At the same time, they are very interested in their deletion from international sanction lists and the funds from international donor states. Tactically, the Taliban insist on vague maximum demands. You want to start with a strong negotiating position. They also remain vague because they have not internally defined the concrete form of an Islamic government.
The negotiating team set up by the Afghan government is divided by political rivalries. The common basic consensus is the greatest possible preservation of the status quo and a republic that reflects the ethnic, religious and pluralistic society.
It is open where both sides can meet in terms of content. A first point of negotiation would be a ceasefire, which the Taliban are delaying for tactical reasons. Whether the Taliban are ready to part with their idea of the “Islamic Emirate” depends on the extent to which their ideas can be realized in an Islamic republic. Tough “step-by-step” concessions await all sides.
What would a peace agreement mean for security in Afghanistan?
The disarmament and reintegration of the around 50,000 Taliban fighters in the country will play a key role in the long-term success of the peace and reconciliation process. Sections of the Taliban could split off and join the struggle of international terrorist groups.
A peace deal will not necessarily end the violence. Other militant groups, above all the Sunni jihadist terrorist group Islamic State (IS), which has been active in Afghanistan since 2015, have increased their violence against civilian targets in the country. Local IS offshoots networked in South Asia are said to have been responsible for several large attacks in the recent past, including against a maternity hospital or a Sikh temple in Kabul.
What does a US troop withdrawal and peace agreement mean for Germany?
With the withdrawal of US troops, the other NATO allies will also have to prepare for their withdrawal. The Bundeswehr, as the second largest provider of troops, would not be able to act without the US military as an “enabler” and has always linked its mandate to joint action by the alliance (“in together, out together”).
In the medium and long term, a withdrawal of NATO partners and donor states would mean that the new Afghan government will increasingly look for new or additional allies and economic partners in the future. The current Ghani government stands for a pro-Western order despite all the tensions with the USA. In the future, Afghanistan will possibly turn increasingly politically and socially towards the neighboring states.
The countries in the region, above all Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, China and the neighboring countries in Central Asia have a strong interest in the political course in Afghanistan, trade and economic relations and the reorganization of the security architecture in the region according to their own ideas shape.
For Germany, Afghanistan will continue to play a role as a partner in migration policy. To date, Afghanistan’s economy has not been well integrated into the global economy or regional trade.
The Afghan national budget and the private sector are existentially dependent on international money. A reduction in these funds as a possible consequence of the NATO withdrawal, for example in the area of the security sector, infrastructure promotion and further development cooperation, would have a direct impact on the country’s economy and lead to new emigration movements if private investments and alternative economic development are not used at an early stage.
What lessons from Afghanistan?
The international partners are demanding more personal responsibility and saying goodbye to their state-building and stabilization mission. The Afghan government would also like to see more independent external relations geared towards its national interests. Investments in the economy, trade, resources, energy, infrastructure and education, and international and regional cooperation in counter-terrorism and prevention would be helpful.
All sides are in favor of an “Afghan-specific” state and social order. In the cities, a young generation is hesitantly calling for a future they have designed free of the interests of former warlords. A culture of political debate that is open in comparison to neighboring countries and a considerable diversity of media and opinions have become anchored in society.
It remains to be seen whether these developments can be continued with the Taliban in power and in peace. In the future, Afghans will have to make more demands themselves and find consensus if they do not want to become the plaything of other interests.