On March 7, 2021, the United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken wrote a letter to the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, with four key suggestions to accelerate the discussions pertaining to the Peace Process and a lasting ceasefire in Afghanistan.The letter[i]was published by an Afghan news outlet Tolonews and it stated that Washington will be sharing a similar message with the Chairman of the Peace Council Abdullah Abdullah. While addressing a gathering on March 8, Abdullah confirmed that the letter was handed over to both him and the President, two days before Khalilzad’s visit to Kabul. According to reports[ii], US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is on a visit to Kabul, Doha and other regional capitals, his maiden trip since the change of presidency in the US and the Biden administration’s intention to “review” the US-Taliban deal.[iii]
The four major takeaways from Blinken’s three-page letter are[iv]: first, a proposal to convene a UN facilitated conference with foreign ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the US to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan. Second, Zalmay Khalilzad will share proposals with Ashraf Ghani and Taliban leadership in a bid to accelerate the discussion of a negotiated settlement and ceasefire. Some of these proposals reflect earlier ideas included in the roadmap to the peace process. Third, Turkey will be asked to host a senior-level meeting of both sides in the coming weeks to finalise a peace agreement. Blinken urged the Afghan President or his “authoritative designees” to attend that meeting. Finally, a revised proposal for a 90-day reduction-in-violence has been prepared with the intention to prevent a spring offensive by the Taliban and to support a political settlement between the parties.
Blinken’s letter mentioned that the US is undertaking high level diplomatic efforts “to move matters more fundamentally and quickly towards a settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.”[v] The first round of intra-Afghan-talks ended in December after the two sides agreed on preliminary rules. Amidst the surge in violence and targeted killing, the second round of the talks began in January 2021 and it was expected that the second round would finally address a multitude of critical issues; but those talks were suspended for more than a month. Reportedly, one of the important issues of discussion between Ashraf Ghani and Khalilzad in Kabul was on the revival of the stalled negotiations between the government and Taliban representatives in Doha. In order to give a push to the peace talks, the Ghani government expressed its willingness to initiate discussions on holding fresh elections in Afghanistan, insisting that any new government must emerge through a democratic process. Taliban spokesman Naeem Wardak confirmed a meeting between the armed group, Khalilzad and General Scott Miller, the head of US forces and the NATO-led non-combat Resolute Support mission, where both sides expressed their commitment to the full implementation of the Doha Agreement.[vi] During his meeting with Pakistan Army Chief, General Bajwa and senior civilian officials in Pakistan, Ambassador Khalilzad stressed the need “to accelerate progress towards a just and durable peace in Afghanistan.”[vii]
As far as the crucial decision about US troop withdrawal is concerned, the letter stated that Washington has not ruled out any option – including the full withdrawal of its forces by May 1. According to the US State department “all options remain on table” for the remaining 2500 troops.[viii] Earlier, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin had indicated that there would be no “hasty or disorderly withdrawal that put US and NATO forces at risk” and had stressed on the progress of the intra-Afghan dialogue accompanied by a reduction in violence.[ix] As soon as the discussion regarding a possible review of the US-Taliban Peace Agreement and a condition based troop withdrawal by the Biden administration began, there have been attempts by the Taliban and its supporters in Pakistan to highlight the importance of sticking to the deal. Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in an open letter[x] addressed to the American people urged the US to remain committed to the full implementation of the accord. General Bajwa apparently told US CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie Jr. that Secretary of State Antony Blinken should call Taliban leaders to request a deadline extension.[xi]Citing the six month delay at the beginning of the intra-Afghan negotiations, the eminent scholar Barnett Rubin has argued in favour of a six months extension and resetting of the timeline.[xii] Rubin made an argument in support of recalibration of the entire agreement with the US, using removal of UN sanctions and release of Taliban prisoners as leverage.
There has been a proposal for an interim administration (to replace the Ghani government) until a new constitution is agreed upon and elections are held in Afghanistan. Under that arrangement, the national parliament could either be expanded to include Taliban members or adjourned until after the elections are conducted. Zalmay Khalilzad, shared an eight-page draft Transitional Peace Government with the Ghani government and several other significant political constituencies in Afghanistan. The draft also outlines the terms of a ceasefire and its enforcement, calls for the protection of the rights of women, children and minorities and envisions a truth and reconciliation commission aimed at healing 42 years of conflict.[xiii] Considering that earlier Ghani had outrightly rejected the prospect of an interim government arguing that the Afghan people do not support the dissolution of democracy and making it clear that he was in favour of a peaceful transfer of power to his successor according to law; it remains to be seen how Kabul would react to the draft Transitional Peace Government.
As for India, New Delhi is watching the American military drawdown from Afghanistan and the intra-Afghan negotiations closely, as these developments will have implications on regional stability. While India has maintained cautious optimism about the accommodation of the Taliban in the Afghan political order, it has strongly backed an Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled peace process. In this critical phase of Afghanistan’s transition, New Delhi has stepped up its efforts to support Kabul – it was the first country to send 5,00,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines.[xiv] The two countries also signed an MoU for the construction of the Lalander (Shatoot) Dam in Afghanistan, as part of the new development partnership between the two countries to carry forward the long-term commitment towards the socio-economic development of Afghanistan. Being Afghanistan’s largest regional donor and an important development partner, India’s inclusion in the draft plan shared by the US Secretary of State to Kabul is a satisfactory development. As far as other regional actors are concerned, Iran’s inclusion is important to note but so is the absence of Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours.
To conclude, it is fair to state that Blinken’s letter to Kabul and the proposition of a Transitional Peace Government, are some draft ideas shared by Washington to accelerate the peace initiative and to ensure an orderly exit of American troops from Afghanistan. In a bid to complement all other international efforts to support the peace initiative in Afghanistan, Russia plans to bring together representatives of Russia, the United States, China and Pakistan as well as an Afghan government delegation and representatives of the Taliban for a talk that is scheduled for March 18.[xv] Under the given circumstances, there are bound to be imponderables both arising from Afghanistan’s domestic and external constituencies, and how these can be addressed and reconciled in the days to come remains to be seen.
*Dr. Anwesha Ghosh, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i]“Exclusive: US Secretary Antony Blinken in a letter to President Ghani--similar to one shared with Chairman Abdullah--presents four suggestions for Afghan peace process.” Tolo News Twitter Handle-@TOLOnews, March 7, 2021. Available at:https://twitter.com/TOLOnews/status/1368523273114419203?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1368523273114419203%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.aljazeera.com%2Fnews%2F2021%2F3%2F7%2Fblinken-proposes-plan-to-accelerate-peace-process-in-afghanistan
(Accessed on 8.3.2021)
[ii] “US envoy seeking support to shake up Afghan Peace process, warring parties object”, Reuters, March 7, 2021. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-afghanistan-khalilzad/u-s-envoy-seeking-support-to-shake-up-afghan-peace-process-warring-parties-object-idUSKBN2AY0MS?il=0(Accessed on 8.3.2021)
[iii] “Biden administration to review US-Taliban deal”.Al Jazeera, Jan 23, 2021. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/23/biden-administration-to-review-us-taliban-deal(Accessed on 8.3.2021)
[v]“Exclusive: US Secretary Antony Blinken in a letter to President Ghani--similar to one shared with Chairman Abdullah--presents four suggestions for Afghan peace process.” Tolo News Twitter Handle-@TOLOnews, March 7, 2021.Op.cit.
[vi]“US says decision unclear on May 1 ‘force posture’ in Afghanistan”. AL Jazeera, March 8, 2021. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/8/us-says-decision-unclear-on-may-1-force-posture-in-afghanistan(Accessed on 9.3.2021)
[vii] “Statement on the visit to Pakistan by Ambassador Khalilzad”.US Embassy and Consulate in Pakistan, March 8, 2021. Available at:https://pk.usembassy.gov/statement-on-the-visit-to-pakistan-by-ambassador-khalilzad-03082021/(Accessed on 8.3.2021)
[ix] “The US will not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, Says Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin”. BusinessLink, Feb 21. 2021. Available at: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/world/the-us-will-not-undertake-a-hasty-or-disorderly-withdrawal-from-afghanistan-says-defence-secretary-lloyd-austin/article33885769.ece(Accessed on 9.3.2021)
[xi] Seema Sirohi, “Pakistan doesn’t want Biden to renegotiate Afghan Peace Pact”,The Print, Feb 23, 2021, Available at: https://theprint.in/opinion/pakistan-doesnt-want-biden-to-renegotiate-afghan-peace-pact/610320/
[xii] Barnett Rubin, “How to bargain with the Taliban”.War on the Rocks, February 19, 2021.Avaialable at: https://warontherocks.com/2021/02/how-to-bargain-with-the-taliban/(Accessed on 9.3.2021)
[xiii] “US proposes interim govt could run Afghanistan until new polls”. AL Jazeera, March 9, 2021. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/9/us-proposes-interim-govt-could-run-afghanistan-until-new-polls(Accessed on 9.3.2021)
[xiv] “India becomes the first country to give Covid vaccines to Afghanistan.”Business Line, Feb8, 2021. Available at:https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/world/india-becomes-first-country-to-give-covid-vaccine-to-afghanistan/article33780029.ece(Accessed on 9.3.2021)
[xv] “Russia to host Afghanistan meet to advance intra-Afghan talks”. AL Jazeera, March 10, 2021. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/10/russia-to-host-afghanistan-meet-to-advance-inter-afghan-talks (Accessed on 16.3.2021)