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Afghanistan: elections and cancelled talks

Published Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Donald Trump has declared the talks with the Taliban "dead". Where does that leave Afghanistan?

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The US-Taliban negotiations

An interim peace deal between the US and the Taliban was reportedly close to being signed, after a series of meetings in Qatar and the UAE.

The outlines were discussed for some time; although the text was not released.

The deal would have included these elements:

  • Taliban would promise not to host international extremists in Afghanistan that threatened the US or its allies
  • US and NATO troops would be drawn down by several thousand, perhaps reducing the present number from about 20,000 to about 12,000
  • There would be a sustained reduction in violence – a full ceasefire was mentioned earlier in talks but that now looks too optimistic.
  • The Taliban would subsequently agree to negotiate with the Afghan government over power sharingThe Taliban has refused to include the Afghan government in the talks. It considers the Kabul government to be the illegitimate creation of Westerners.
  • No further troop reductions would take place until the power-sharing arrangements were in place.

Talks cancelled

On 7 September president Trump abruptly cancelled the talks, as details emerged of a planned saigning meeting at the presidential retreat at Camp David. There had been strong opposition in Washington to the deal and the signing event, although Trump blamed the cancellation on a Taliban terrorist attack in Kabul that killed a US citizen.

Security

As the US and international troop deployment has declined, the Taliban has increased its control of Afghan territory. Violence against civilians is on the increase, although the Taliban may be causing a declining share of it. Many other terrorist groups operate in Afghanistan, including ISIS Khorasan, rivals to the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, who remain Taliban allies.

The NATO mission Resolute support is not a combat mission, but aims to train and support Afghan security forces. The deployment is about 16,000 personnel from NATO member states and supporter countries such as Georgia. The US accounts for about half of the mission’s personnel.

The US also runs a bilateral counter-terrorism mission of about 6,000, focusing on the Taliban, ISIS-Khorasan, al-Qaeda and other groups. Some counter-terrorist operations are conducted in partnership with Afghan forces and some by US forces alone.

2019 elections

The first round of the presidential election was held on 28 September. The two most important figures in the present government, Ashraf Ghani (President) and Abdullah Abdullah (Chief Executive) are probably the front runners. Turnout may have been exceptionally low, amid Taliban threats of violence to disrupt the process, but no official results are yet available. A second round is almost certain to be held. According to the law, it should be within two weeks of the publication of official results of the first round.

Afghanistan’s neighbours

As an agreement to allow US to draw down its troops has appeared increasingly possible, Afghanistan’s neighbours have been shifting their positions.

Pakistan has been encouraging the negotiations. It remains Pakistan’s strategy to secure a friendly government in Afghanistan and one that is not aligned with India. A dominant Taliban would play that role.

China is close to Pakistan and is interested in Afghan economic potential in connection with the Belt and Road programme. Beijing has hosted the Taliban for talks but is also wary of Islamic fundamentalism, especially given its own problems with the restive Muslim region of Xinjiang.

Russia has likewise been increasing contacts with the Taliban, hosting political talks. Moscow wants influence in a future Afghanistan but is wary of Islamic fundamentalism; the Taliban remains on Russia’s list of proscribed organisations.

India’s rivalry with Pakistan shapes its attitude to Afghanistan, so it has traditionally been close to the Kabul government, hoping to prevent Pakistan gaining too much influence and to protect investments in Afghanistan. India initially welcomed the cancellation of the talks, but no longer opposes the Taliban outright. If civil war returns to Afghanistan, some observers think India would side with anti-Taliban forces.

Iran has had secret contacts with the Taliban; in 2018 a meeting was publicised by the Iranian government, signalling a shift. Iran does not want the Taliban to dominate Afghanistan, but has a strong interest in stability, since it shares a long border and has problems with refugees and heroin coming over from Afghanistan.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8680

Author: Ben Smith

Topics: Asia, Military operations, Terrorism

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