Winners and losers: The future of Afghanistan's fragile peace process
A meeting on 10 April between the US military commander in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, and the Taliban leadership in Doha was the latest attempt to reduce violence, which threatens to derail a fragile peace process in the war-wracked country.
The meeting was held after the Taliban declared that the peace deal had reached breaking point due to US violations.
The historic peace deal was signed on 29 February between the US and the Taliban in Qatari capital Doha, to end the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan. Under the deal, the Taliban agreed to stop harbouring terrorists and to enter into peace talks with the Afghan government, while the US in return pledged to withdraw all troops within 14 months.
The Afghan peace process is currently limping on amid pitched fighting between the Taliban and the US-backed Afghan government. The Afghan government came out as a spoiler of the US-led efforts last month after it postponed a plan to release Taliban prisoners.
Under the US-Taliban deal, the Afghan government was to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the militants would release 1,000. The agreement also called for holding comprehensive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
|Read more: A country with many rulers: What's next for Afghanistan?|
US and NATO allies agreed to withdraw all troops within 14 months if the militants upheld the deal. The US was to reduce its forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 within the first 135 days of the deal.
President Ashraf Ghani last month announced that the government would release 1,500 captives if the insurgents reduced violence, with plans to free another 3,500 prisoners after intra-Afghan negotiations begin.
Kabul's decision could sabotage the peace deal after the armed group rejected the decision and demanded the release of nearly 5,000 captives, calling it a violation of the US-Taliban agreement that excluded the Afghan government.
But as the US battles to push the peace process forward, an emerging challenge from Afghan stakeholders has put the effort in jeopardy. The Taliban on 7 April broke off talks with the Afghan government over the release of the prisoners, accusing it of refusing to comply with a key part of the US peace deal.
By showing its reservations over the release of some 5,000 Taliban prisoners, the Afghan government was actually proving that it was not a puppet of the US, as the Taliban had always claimed.
Read more: New video evidence of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan must spur ICC inquiry
The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced a $1 billion cut in American aid to Afghanistan on 23 March after his efforts failed to end a feud between President Ashraf Ghani and his main rival in last September's presidential polls, Abdullah Abdullah, after both men declared themselves president. The feud has jeopardised the US-Taliban peace deal.
Pompeo was on a day-long visit to Kabul last month in an effort to salvage US-led peace efforts, which had virtually come to a halt after the war-battered country plunged into a political crisis over the Ghani-Abdullah feud. This hampered the way for intra-Afghan negotiations, the next step in the Afghan peace process.
|As the US battles to push the peace process forward, an emerging challenge from Afghan stakeholders is putting the effort in jeopardy|
But the Afghan government, under pressure from Washington, on 28 March announced a 21-member team to participate in intra-Afghan talks, a crucial step in bringing the warring parties to the table.
The Taliban, however, in a statement said the government had failed to put forward an "inclusive" team. The Taliban objected that the team was not constituted in accordance with the laid-out principles. The group declared that it would only sit for talks with a negotiation team that conformed with the agreements.
Future of Afghanistan
Does the US want to leave Afghanistan in a hurry? Has the US-Taliban deal provided a face-saving exit from Afghanistan for the so-called superpower? It is a fact that there is no military solution to Afghanistan, and the US is reluctant to fight for another 18 years for nothing.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the upcoming US presidential elections this year also seem to have accelerated the withdrawal process from the war-battered country.
|Read more: Is Afghanistan on the brink of a Middle-East proxy
war as US looks to exit?
What would be the future of Afghanistan in the absence of US and NATO forces? The Taliban has already declared that it would fight to establish an Islamic government after the US exit from the war-ravaged country. The Taliban is religiously committed to making the country an Islamic Emirate, a development that will face stiff opposition from the US, Russia and the West.
There are also concerns in the US that the Taliban could overrun the US-backed Afghan government after any withdrawal of the US troops. If it succeeds in restoring an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, then it would mean that the US fought for 18 years for nothing and paid a heavy price in terms of huge collateral damage and economic losses for a security assurance from the Taliban.
The US agreed to withdraw all foreign troops in return for guarantees from the Taliban that Afghanistan would not become a launchpad for terrorist attacks on the US and other western countries. Indeed, the Taliban is calling the shots in today's Afghanistan, and that determines the stability of the whole region.
Winners and losers in Afghanistan's endgame
Washington and Moscow have declared that the international community would not accept or support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The Taliban, however, insists that their leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is the only legal ruler of Afghanistan, and after the withdrawal of foreign forces the armed group is duty-bound to restore the Islamic government that existed in Kabul before the 2001 US invasion.
|The Taliban currently controls over 50 percent of Afghan territory and would emerge as the biggest player in the country's internal power struggle and politics|
Prior to signing the Doha peace deal, every time US and Taliban negotiators had been close to agreeing a peace pact to end the war in Afghanistan, the situation on the ground took a violent turn, delaying any deal.
Read more: Afghanistan: Asia's next coronavirus epicentre?
After the pull-out of US forces, the Taliban would control over 50 percent of Afghan territory and emerge as the biggest player in the country's internal power struggle and politics. This would be the worst-case scenario for the Afghan government and its regional allies, whose stakes depend on the strength of the regime in Kabul.
India will have no future in this regard after the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, and with the continued presence of the Taliban. However, the prospects of China - Pakistan's closest ally - deepening its involvement in the country could get brighter.
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'