How spoilers are trying to derail Afghanistan's peace process

How spoilers are trying to derail Afghanistan's peace process
Analysis: A surge in deadly attacks has raised fears that attempts are being made to sabotage Afghanistan's peace process following US elections.
5 min read
10 December, 2020
The US-Taliban agreement calls for the withdrawal of all US forces. [Getty]
Afghanistan has witnessed a surge of violence in recent weeks, leading to fears that active attempts are being made to sabotage the country's fragile peace process at a time when the United States is in a period of political transition following presidential elections. 

A suicide car bomb on 29 November was one of the deadliest attacks in recent months, with more than 30 security personnel killed in the eastern province of Ghazni. 

On the same day, another suicide car bomber targeted the convoy of a provincial council chief in Zabul province, killing at least three people and wounding 21 others. 

One week earlier, a barrage of rockets was fired at the heavily fortified Green Zone in Kabul, killing at least eight civilians and wounding dozens. The Taliban has denied involvement in the attacks, despite accusations of responsibility by Afghan officials.

Since February, when the US and the Taliban signed a peace accord in Doha after 18 years of war, spoilers have been actively trying to undermine its implementation, both locally and regionally.

The deal called for the withdrawal of all US forces by May 2021 in return for assurances from the Taliban that Afghanistan would not become a launchpad for terrorist attacks on the US or its allies.  

Since the US and the Taliban signed a peace accord, spoilers have been actively trying to undermine its implementation, both locally and regionally

The Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani, who played no role in the talks, has long been unhappy with the terms of the accord. Indeed, it was completely sidelined during the two years of negotiations beforehand.  

The deal has also stoked tensions between Pakistan and India. Islamabad was a key facilitator of the talks, but its active role has raised eyebrows in New Delhi, which enjoys a close relationship with the Ghani government, who together both accuse Pakistan of supporting Taliban insurgents.

But despite the recent violence, a breakthrough emerged early in December when the Afghan government and Taliban representatives reached a preliminary deal to continue intra-Afghan talks. 

Read more: Will Biden scrap Trump's US-Taliban peace
deal in Afghanistan?

The deal, the first written agreement between the parties in nearly two decades, lays out a roadmap for future talks in which more substantive issues such as a comprehensive ceasefire will be discussed.  

It also outlines the agenda of future talks, which will be prepared by a joint working committee with members from both sides. All relevant stakeholders, including the Taliban, Afghan government, Pakistan and the US, have hailed the agreement as a positive development and a step forward towards the peaceful settlement of the 19-year-old conflict.

US withdrawal

The withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, meanwhile, has proved a politically charged issue in the US, with President Donald Trump desperate to cut troop numbers before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Amid the domestic wrangling, Trump fired Defence Secretary Mark Esper last month, with some speculating that his opposition to a speedy withdrawal of US troops was one of the reasons behind his dismissal.

Trump has instead installed a slate of loyalists to top Pentagon positions who share his frustration with the continued US troop presence in war zones, despite international unease. 

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, for example, warned of the consequences of a hasty withdrawal of Western forces from the war-torn country, saying "Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organise attacks on our homelands." He said the price for leaving too soon could be "very high", with a possibility that the Islamic State (IS) could rebuild its "terror caliphate" lost in Syria and Iraq. 

Afghanistan has witnessed a surge of violence in recent weeks, leading to fears that active attempts are being made to sabotage the country's fragile peace process

Nonetheless, Trump is expected to reduce troop numbers in Afghanistan to 2,500 before Biden takes office. The removal of a large number of forces could reduce US leverage over the Taliban, and the Biden administration will not be able to place the group under greater scrutiny. The Afghan government would also face a militarily stronger, politically more powerful and resurgent Taliban after the sharp reduction.

The Biden administration is expected to continue the Afghan peace accord with the Taliban without radically changing course, but could slow down the process and make changes to safeguard US strategic interests. Some experts believe that Biden will place more pressure on the Taliban, given its ties to Al-Qaeda, and ensure there is a peace deal and not just a withdrawal agreement. 

Read more: India-Pakistan proxy war a real threat in
post-US Afghanistan

Future challenges

Post-US Afghanistan is bound to face tough challenges on the political and security front. Regionally, India sees the Doha deal as a victory for its arch-rival Pakistan, and New Delhi is seriously concerned that it could be sidelined in the future due to Pakistan's leverage over the Taliban. 

The Ghani government is India's key pawn in the war's endgame and as such has often played a spoiler role in US-led peace efforts. After the withdrawal of US troops, the Afghan government will not be able to serve India's interests given the presence of a strong Taliban militia. 

India's future in post-US Afghanistan will depend on its relationship with the Taliban and it is worth remembering that New Delhi was forced to leave the country in 1996, when the Taliban established its rule in Kabul.

The challenge, however, on the economic front is even greater, with widespread corruption and a lack of accountability. The Afghan government has been unable to check rampant corruption in efforts to rebuild the country. 

A recent report by the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) – a US oversight body – detailed that the US has spent $63 billion on reconstruction in the country since 2002. Of that amount, at least $19 billion, or 30 percent, has been lost to "waste, fraud, and abuse."

Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a contributing analyst at South Asia desk of Wikistrat. He is a freelance columnist and the author of several books including the 'Economic Development of Balochistan'