Pakistan and Qatar's key role in Afghan peace deal
Last week, Qatar's capital Doha became the venue for the penning of a landmark peace deal between the US government and the representatives of the Afghan Taliban. Having taken 18 months to clinch a breakthrough, the event became the focus of global attention.
Previously, the peace process reached a dead-end in September last year when a draft of the deal was cancelled by the American side.
In a sudden spike in attacks by Taliban fighters in Kabul, an American soldier was killed and the talks got derailed.
Taking precautionary measures this time, before signing the agreement, both sides agreed upon a "reduction in violence" for seven days to keep the peace and demonstrate the ability to rein in their forces.
Considering that 2019 had been one of the most violent years in the long-drawn conflict, this partial ceasefire was significant.
Arriving in Qatar over the weekend, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo witnessed the signing ceremony.
In the presence of representatives from almost fifty countries, including the foreign ministers of several countries, the agreement was signed on February 29 in Doha between the US Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, heading the Taliban side.
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Paving the way towards an inclusive Afghan dialogue, this historic deal has laid the ground for a peaceful Afghanistan and a permanent ceasefire.
Prospects of such an accord had been discussed for nearly a decade between US and Afghan leaders but the process would hit hurdles.
This time, at the request of the US president, Islamabad has helped in back-door negotiations while Doha has facilitated the peace process.
For nearly two years, Doha became the political headquarters of the Taliban and mediation efforts between the US and the Afghan side were carried out by Pakistan.
Pakistan's Prime Minister, Imran Khan visited Qatar just days before the US-Afghan deal. As it was just before the peace deal, it was perceived to have a connection with the signing ceremony of the peace accord.
|Prospects of such an accord had been discussed for nearly a decade between US and Afghan leaders but the process would hit hurdles|
During his meeting with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, Khan appreciated the key role played by Doha in brokering the deal.
Talks had reached the final phase, and just two days later, the peace agreement was signed under the auspices of the state of Qatar.
As peacemakers, both countries helped initiate an 'Afghan-owned and Afghan-led' peace process.
At last, the 18-month long peace process between Washington and the Taliban has culminated and entered the second phase in which the crucial intra-Afghan dialogue would be held.
A lot depends on the Afghan side, with President Trump saying, "If the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan live up to these commitments, we will have a powerful path forward to end the war in Afghanistan and bring our troops home."
Though it is a significant achievement, several immediate issues have to be dealt with; firstly, the ceasefire period would have to be extended upon as the seven day 'reduction of violence' does not specify any further commitments.
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Afghanistan's political problem?
Practically though, a complete ceasefire may not be immediately possible even though the US and Kabul would like a complete halt in violence. The past whole year has seen more casualties and violence than was seen in recent years.
However, the Taliban said it will resume attacks on Afghan security forces, ending a brief peace that centred on the deal signed between this weekend.
"The reduction in violence... has ended now and our operations will continue as normal," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP.
"As per the (US-Taliban) agreement, our mujahideen will not attack foreign forces but our operations will continue against the Kabul administration forces."
Read more here: Taliban to resume attacks on Afghan forces despite US peace deal agreement
Secondly, the political future of Afghanistan could remain unclear for a while.
When the US-Afghan deal took place, the Afghan government could not be a formal party as the Afghan Taliban do not recognise Kabul's legal authority.
In the past, they have always refused to speak directly to the government in Kabul, denouncing it as a 'puppet regime.'
But it is the Afghan government in Kabul which will appoint a team to negotiate with the Taliban by March 10.
Taking the peace process ahead into its most decisive phase, this panel would have to settle important issues like power sharing and a system of government acceptable to all stakeholders.
Constitutional or legal changes could be needed but as the recent election results were controversial, settling matters between the contenders in Kabul could take more time.
Thirdly, the deal provides for the swapping of thousands of Taliban prisoners in Afghan government custody with 1,000 Afghan security forces by the same date that the Afghan talks are initiated.
Just a day after the US-Afghan Taliban deal, the government in Kabul has stated that it is not committed to freeing 5,000 Taliban prisoners as they were not signatories.
|Just a day after the US-Afghan Taliban deal, the government in Kabul has stated that it is not committed to freeing 5,000 Taliban prisoners as they were not signatories|
It has been glitches like these which kept the negotiations pending since long and implementation of the deal would again face the same impediments.
Any friction or contravention of rules during the intra-Afghan dialogue might restart the same controversies all over again.
Thirdly, according to the joint statement, "The United States will reduce the number of US military forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 and implement other commitments in the US-Taliban agreement within 135 days of the announcement of this joint declaration and the US-Taliban agreement."
The US and NATO troops will be withdrawing from Afghanistan within 14 months. There are around 14,000 US troops and 17,000 from 39 NATO countries stationed there presently.
But any drastic reduction of troops from Afghanistan also creates a vacuum and there could be security issues until the country stabilises completely.
The Taliban have affirmed that they would not allow any terror outfits to target the Western troops, but at the same time the guarantee holds only for areas that they dominate or influence.
As NATO's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg had stated before the deal, "This is a critical test of the Taliban's willingness and ability to reduce violence and contribute to peace in good faith." Their pro-active efforts would be needed to maintain peace in Afghanistan.
Finally, most of all the transition to peace requires a good understanding between both the Afghan sides and lasting peace is only possible with goodwill and some compromise. Further negotiations require a long-term outlook and vision for the prosperous future of Afghanistan.
In this direction, the US-Afghan deal remains the first solid effort for peace and stability.
Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia.
Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi