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Afghans Wonder: Is the Peace Deal Just for Americans?
The Taliban are happily talking with Trump and standing down against U.S. troops, but they say they are "still at war" with Afghan national security forces.
There’s a grim new joke going around parts of Afghanistan: If you want to be safe from Taliban attacks, move next to a U.S. air base. “I have never seen a dead American soldier,” said Fatteh Sattar, a civil engineer from the northern province of Baghlan. “It’s Afghans killing Afghans, and I guess this will not stop so quickly.”
The Taliban, for their part, are now saying more clearly than ever that the peace deal signed Feb. 29 in Doha, Qatar, after 18 months of negotiations applies only to a truce with U.S. forces, not to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. “We signed an agreement with the Americans. But our jihad is not over,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Foreign Policy this week. “The stooges who supported the invaders during the last two decades are our enemies. This might change after additional talks but at the moment, we are still at war.”
Even before the deal in Doha was signed, skepticism among ordinary Afghans rose as they watched the elected government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani—who is currently engaged in fight for legitimacy with his election rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah—get left out of the negotiations between U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Skepticism changed to outright fear and terror as the Taliban launched dozens of military operations against Afghan forces in the last few days, killing both armed soldiers and civilians, according to the Afghan Ministry of Interior.
But perhaps nothing has deepened the cynicism of Afghans who support their government—or made them feel so delegitimized—as much as the news of a 35-minute phone conversation between Baradar and Donald Trump on Tuesday, the first ever such contact between a U.S. president and a Taliban leader. Afterward Trump told reporters: “We had a good conversation. We’ve agreed there’s no violence, we don’t want violence; we’ll see what happens.” According to Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman in Doha, during the call the U.S. president called the Taliban “a tough people” and described their cause as one of “defending their country.” The Taliban eagerly promoted news about the conversation.
In remarks at the White House on Friday, Trump went a step further, suggesting he might stand aside if the Taliban took over the country again. “Countries have to take care of themselves,” he told reporters. “You can only hold someone’s hand for so long.” Asked if the Taliban might seize control of the government, Trump said it’s “not supposed to happen that way, but it possibly will.”
Some observers suggested that Trump—who has a demonstrated habit of forming warm relations with autocrats who respond positively to him—might even be getting along better with the Taliban than with the current democratically elected government in Kabul. “If Trump really had a 35 minute conversation on a wide variety of issues with Mullah Baradar, after concluding a deal with him, is it too provocative to assert that the US government at this moment in time has better relations with the Taliban than it does with President Ghani?” tweeted Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington.
This is a touchy issue, since the peace agreement calls for the formation of a new “post-settlement Afghan Islamic government” and Trump has no relationship with Ghani, whose ascent to power came during the Obama administration. “I think that the formation of a new government will be one of the main issues of upcoming intra-Afghan talks,” said the Afghan American writer and analyst Wahed Faqiri.
For ordinary Afghans, all this recalls an old and bitter history dating to when the Americans abandoned their country the last time after funding the mujahideen against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and the Taliban eventually emerged to seize power. “A friend of mine joined the Taliban. I did not care about it, but he considers me and his other friends as enemies. But now he is fine with the Americans? What kind of deal is that? It does not help us,” said Ali Hazara, a driver and mechanic from Baghlan, one of the most unstable provinces of the country.
The Taliban began launching new attacks after Ghani criticized the U.S.-Taliban deal and announced that he would not release 5,000 prisoners, one of the major pillars of the agreement. After the deal was signed, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, who leads Taliban’s political office in Doha, claimed that there is no real government in Kabul and that the Taliban do not accept it anyway. According to Faqiri, the new Taliban relationship with Washington could even lead to a strengthened Taliban movement. “When they meet, their mutual trust may grow,” he said.
All this would be a strange historical irony for the Americans, since it was a previous Taliban government that harbored the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Central to the new deal is a Taliban guarantee that they will not do so again and will cut all ties with al Qaeda as well as prevent the nation from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups that might plot against the United States. In return, the United States will begin a significant drawdown of U.S. troops within the first 135 days and a total withdrawal within 14 months.
The Taliban also have to participate in upcoming intra-Afghan talks between various political factions, but the new round of peace talks may have a hard time getting underway in these conditions. “The deal between the Americans and the Taliban made us very optimistic. But it does not make sense if such attacks continue,” Shah Mohammad Takal, a resident of the Nadir Shah Kot district of Khost, told a journalist friend of mine, Mohammad Zaman. On Monday a bomb detonated near a soccer field in the district and killed three civilians.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack, and the Taliban declared they were not linked to it. “The mujahideen are not responsible for the attack in Khost. We also don’t know who was behind it, but there are many other problems, like enmities among different tribes, and they have nothing to do with us,” Taliban spokesman Mujahid said. But that explanation also raised the possibility that other groups such as Islamic State are seeking to further undermine the peace deal by renewing violence.
The United states says that for withdrawal to go forward, the Taliban must observe the conditions of the agreement. On Wednesday, after more than a week-long reduction in violence, the U.S. military also conducted an airstrike against Taliban fighters in southern Helmand province to “defend” their partners within the Afghan military. There were no reports of casualties.
That same day U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper complained that the Taliban were making compliance with the deal difficult. “The results so far have been mixed,” Esper told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The Taliban are honoring their piece in terms of not attacking U.S. and [Western] coalition forces but not in terms of sustaining the reduction in violence.”
And so confusion reigns. Ordinary Afghans, meanwhile, are starting to ask themselves what a new Afghan government joined by the Taliban would look like. Many plainly fear another reign of terror like that in the 1990s. “The Taliban distanced themselves from their old regime and its practices. If they are serious about that and respect our freedoms, it’s fine. But if they don’t, I truly fear their return,” said Nazifa Niazi, a retired army officer from Kabul, in an interview with Abdul Rahman Lakanwal, a local journalist. Like many other Afghan women, she emphasized that going to work, school, or university must not be prohibited by the Taliban, who have made no such promise.
Other women share Niazi’s opinion—and her deepest fears. “I hope for peace. But I don’t think that the Taliban will respect us as women,” said Fahima, who works as a civil servant in Kabul and didn’t want her last name used. “They oppressed us in the past, and they might continue to do so. They attack girls’ school and burn them. They also use our young men as cannon fodder. I do not welcome their return if they don’t change their attitude and behavior.”
March 6: This story has been updated with Trump’s comments on Friday.