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April 21, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 215

Handing Afghanistan Over To The Taliban – The Menacing Brinkmanship In Kabul As Ashraf Ghani Government Is Badgered By Both The U.S. And The Taliban

April 21, 2020 | By Yigal Carmon, Tufail Ahmad
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 215


U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leader Mullah Baradar Akhund sign deal in Doha

Introduction

On February 29, 2020 – after 18 months of talks sponsored by Qatar in Doha – the U.S. and the jihadi group Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Taliban organization) signed an agreement in the Qatari capital on the future of Afghanistan. The democratically elected government of Afghanistan, headed by Ashraf Ghani, was excluded from the talks and from the agreement, and, despite the fact that the Taliban rejected any ceasefire as a precondition for the talks, the U.S. capitulated and agreed to a one-week "Reduction In Violence" on the part of the Taliban.[1]

The agreement was hailed as victory and as an American surrender by Al-Qaeda[2] and by the Taliban leaders at celebratory events across Afghanistan.[3] The agreement was titled "Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan Between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Which is Not Recognized by the United States as a State And is Known as the Taliban, And the United States of America," but the Islamic Emirate issued a statement in which it dubbed the pact the "Termination of Occupation Agreement Between the Islamic Emirate and U.S."[4]

A month after the Doha agreement, the democratically elected government of President Ashraf Ghani is being badgered by both the U.S. and the Taliban to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners.[5]

The date to free the 5,000 Taliban prisoners, as per the U.S.-Taliban agreement, was set as March 10, 2020, but the Ashraf Ghani government laid down a condition that the inmates would be released only after they sign an undertaking that they would not return to fighting and that they would be tracked using their biometric data. The ensuing delay in the release of prisoners led to a game of menacing brinkmanship in early April.

Around April 1, the Taliban began raising their stakes against the U.S., while the democratic government in Kabul was at the receiving end of the Taliban's continuing terror attacks and of American high-handedness. The U.S. released about 1,500 terrorists of the Haqqani Network it was holding in exchange for the release of a CIA official soon after the agreement was signed.[6] On March 23, in order to pressure the Ashraf Ghani government, the U.S. slashed $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan, directly affecting the funding of Afghan security forces, and threatened to cut the same amount next year.[7]

At the same time as the U.S. cut the budget to the government of Afghanistan, it is reasonable to believe that Qatar is continuing to fund the Taliban.[8]

The Taliban's Continuing Brinkmanship Against The U.S.

The issue of the 5,000 Taliban prisoners' release remained unresolved. On April 5, the Taliban published a report on their website accusing the U.S. of crimes against civilians in Zabul and Uruzgan provinces.[9] "The committing of these crimes by U.S. and internal [Afghan] forces is a clear violation of the agreement made with the Islamic Emirate; hence the perpetrators will be responsible for its worse consequences," it noted, in a first sign that the Taliban were escalating their criticism against the U.S.[10]

Two days later, on April 7, the Islamic Emirate issued a statement specifically accusing the U.S. of violating the U.S.-Taliban agreement.[11] The very next day, on April 8, the Taliban upped the game by publishing another story accusing the "invaders" – a term they use for the Americans – of carrying out a drone strike against civilians in Kandahar:[12] "Contrary to the peace agreement with the invaders, [an] American drone has brutally bombed innocent civilians in Khushab area of Daman district of Kandahar province."[13]

Then, in the early morning of April 9, five missiles were fired at the U.S. airbase at Bagram. The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack;[14] Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied any Taliban involvement;[15] and Afghan security officials said the Taliban had fired the missiles, which, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Arian noted, were from a car-mounted launcher.[16] Although ISIS seems to act independently in Afghanistan, a large number of its recruits are from the Taliban ranks, and there is some fluidity between the two jihadi groups.

On April 10, the Islamic Emirate again mounted pressure on the  Americans. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid warned of the continuation of jihad in Afghanistan, saying: "If such interruptions prevent intra-Afghan negotiations, the preconditions are ignored, and new terms are imposed, then it means that the continuation of the war and the resolution of issues through it are preferred. So the Islamic Emirate, which has fought for 19 years for the elimination of occupation and internal corruption, and for the rule of the Islamic system, is forced [to carry out] only the military struggle and the continuation of jihad."[17]

The Afghan Government Under Mounting American Pressure

The democratically elected Afghan government – which is in the midst of fighting the coronavirus epidemic – came under unprecedented pressure from the Americans after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slashed $1 billion in aid to the Afghan security forces.[18] This is a major issue for the funds-starved Afghanistan. In particular, the Afghan government fears that the Taliban's strategy, now that it has subjugated the U.S., is to fight their way to seize power in Kabul and dislodge the elected government of President Ashraf Ghani.

While the Afghan government was under pressure from the U.S., the Taliban also refused to proceed with intra-Afghan talks, which they were supposed to start on March 10, claiming that the 21-member delegation nominated by the Afghan government was not representative. The truth is that the delegation included all factions in Afghanistan and was indeed endorsed by Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the rival presidential candidate now engaged in a high-stakes political brinkmanship of his own to share power with President Ghani.[19] Thus, the real reason for the rejection is that the Taliban do not recognize the democratically elected government.

 
Taliban prisoners freed by Afghan government

However, a Taliban technical delegation did meet with Afghan security officials on March 31, 2020 in Kabul to discuss the limited issue of the release of the 5,000 prisoners.[20] On April 2, the Afghan government began the process of freeing 100 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 20 members of the Afghan security forces held by the Islamic Emirate.[21] The issue of prisoner exchange again ran into difficulties. Matin Bek, a government official and negotiating team member, said that the reason for the delay in the release of Taliban prisoners was the Taliban's demand for "their 15 senior commanders who are involved in big attacks."[22] Matin Bek's statement came on April 6, a day after the Taliban began making a series of statements, as discussed above, accusing the U.S. of crimes.

On April 7, the Islamic Emirate raised the stakes by halting the technical talks. Suhail Shaheen, the Islamic Emirate's spokesman in Doha, tweeted: "We sent a technical team of the prisoner's commission to Kabul for verification and identification of our prisoners as release of prisoners was to start as per the signed agreement and the promise made (to us)"; "But, unfortunately, their release has been delayed under one pretext or another till now. Therefore, our technical team will not participate in fruitless meetings with relevant sides starting from tomorrow."[23]

The Doha-based Taliban spokesman raised the stakes further in the third week of April, accusing the U.S. of carrying out drone strikes against the Taliban. The Political Office handed over a document to the U.S. enumerating 50 attacks, including 33 drone strikes, against the Taliban in nine provinces of Afghanistan between March 9 and April 10.[24] Responding to the Taliban claims, Gen. Austin S. Miller, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told the Afghan TOLONews TV: "All sides, but especially the Taliban, must reduce violence to allow the political process to take hold."[25]

The Afghan Government Capitulates Under Joint U.S.-Taliban Pressure

Other than this political brinkmanship, the Taliban have never ceased their terror attacks against the Afghan security forces. Even after the agreement was signed in Doha, the Islamic Emirate has consistently carried out a number of terror attacks in different parts of the country, targeting the Afghan security forces. This is one reason the Afghan government fears that the Taliban seek to dislodge it from power in Kabul soon after American and other foreign troops leave. On April 14, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that at least 83 Afghan civilians were killed, 35 civilians were taken hostage, and 119 others were wounded in different parts of the country following the U.S.-Taliban agreement.[26]

On April 7, the Afghan Defense Ministry noted that the Taliban were engaged in a silent, unreported war.[27] A study carried out by TOLONews TV revealed that after the February 29, 2020 signing of the agreement, the Taliban carried out 2,162 terror operations against Afghan security forces – 31 to 96 attacks per day.[28] The period covered by the study was March 3-April 7. In response to these attacks by the Taliban, Afghan security forces carried out 302 security operations.[29]

The Afghan government's fears are not unreasonable. During this period of brinkmanship, there were attempts by unknown assailants to assassinate the elite guards of the Presidential Protective Service (PPS); these attacks appear to be aimed at weakening or assassinating the Afghan president. "Lately, it has been seen that the brave PPS colleagues are being assassinated in a cowardly manner," said Rahmatullah Nabil, the former Afghanistan intelligence chief who established the PPS.[30]

On the evening of April 3, armed men targeted two PPS personnel in Paghman district of Kabul province; in the attack, one guard, Qeyamuddin Maqsoodi, lost his life.[31] On the afternoon of April 11, another member of the PPS, Syed Ataulah Mirzayee, was gunned down in the Second Street of the Kaimani area in Kabul city.[32] Earlier, on April 1, Sharmila Frough, who headed the women's team at the Afghan intelligence National Directorate of Security (NDS), was killed in a bomb blast.[33] The tactic of assassinating the Afghan presidential guards is particularly worrying during this period.

By April 8 – within a week of this mounting pressure and brinkmanship – the Afghan government was forced to its knees by the Taliban and the U.S. On April 8, the Ashraf Ghani government released the first batch of Taliban prisoners. Afghanistan's National Security Council said in a statement that "the 100 prisoners were on the broader list that the Taliban technical team shared and discussed during meetings" with the government team in Kabul.[34]

On April 10, a second batch of 100 Taliban prisoners was released by the government.[35] On April 12, the Afghan government freed the third batch of 100 Taliban prisoners, taking the total to 300 in exchange for 20 Afghan security personnel released by the Taliban,[36] "as part of ongoing efforts to kickstart the intra-Afghan talks aimed at ending the conflict."[37] The Taliban freed another 20 Afghan security personnel on April 17.[38] The Taliban's demand to free the 5,000 Taliban prisoners "as a prerequisite" for the intra-Afghan talks remains[39] – whereas the Afghan government aims for freeing 1,500 of the 5,000 Taliban prisoners for the intra-Afghan talks to begin.[40]


Afghan Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar

Thoughts About An Alternative Strategy To Exit Afghanistan

President Donald Trump's objective to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan is an understandable political goal. The question is not whether to withdraw, but how, and whether handing Afghanistan over to the Taliban is the only strategy for doing so. It appears that this strategy has evolved under the sponsorship of Qatar, which has deep roots among jihadi organizations worldwide. The Qatari royal family's role in proactively shielding Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the 9/11 mastermind, as well as its roots among the Taliban and Doha's emergence as a safe haven for the Taliban commanders were documented by MEMRI research in November 2019.[41]

President Trump has shown, with his decision to remove IRGC Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, that he does not endorse a strategy of appeasement. So why is it that in regard to Afghanistan, his policy is entirely different? It appears that the difference between these two strategies lies in the role of Qatar.

Indeed, the president has repeatedly emphasized that he wants a deal in Afghanistan, and it is reasonable to assume that this will reduce military expenditures and bring American boys home. It will accomplish what neither Bush nor Obama could – which will of course help him in November. However, the president was advised that this is achievable, and that it is achievable through securing powerful roles for the Taliban in Afghanistan's future. And here lies Qatar's crucial role as having promised, including with assurances of aid to Afghanistan, that this can be done only if the U.S. goes with the Taliban, even at the expense of the democratically elected government.

And while Qatar has maintained a low profile, it was the one who engineered the entire agreement – together with U.S. Special Representative Zalman Khalilzad, who played an instrumental role in coordinating with Qatar.[42] American officials believed the Qatari ploy, naively or not. During the 18 months of negotiations, Khalilzad's  objective was to embrace the Taliban and their demands – the worst of which was to exclude the democratically elected government of President Ashraf Ghani from the entire negotiation process.[43]

Even during this April brinkmanship, American officials were meeting with Taliban leaders whose purpose seemed to be to pressure the Afghan government to strengthen the Taliban's status. On April 13, Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. Miller visited Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar Akhund, the deputy emir for political affairs of the Islamic Emirate, in Doha.[44] Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman of the Islamic Emirate's Political Office in Doha, said: "They talked about complete implementation of the agreement as well as delay in the release of the prisoners. Violations of the agreement and other issues and ways of their solutions were also discussed."[45] Just two days after Mullah Baradar Akhund's meetings with Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. Miller, the Taliban spokesman warned: "We will not enter or start inter-Afghan negotiations until [Taliban] prisoners are released."[46]

In the second week of April 2020, a charter for shari'a rule in Afghanistan was circulated by the Taliban leaders for discussion in Kabul. TOLONews TV, which accessed the document, titled "The Charter of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," noted that the list of the charter's 149 articles "looks very similar to those of the former Taliban regime, which was in power in Kabul from 1996 to 2001."[47] It observed: "According to the document, final decisions in all affairs are made by the emir, and the Islamic Emirate is not obliged to implement United Nations laws that are in contravention of Islamic values. The charter says that free speech, human rights, and civil rights are to be implemented within the framework of Islamic teachings."[48]

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid rejected the media reports about the existence of this charter, making the situation even worse by explaining: "Yesterday [April 13], some media outlets published documents with many articles and claimed it was the charter of the Islamic Emirate. We reject this report and the papers. The Islamic Emirate, during its full rule, had a constitution called the Islamic Emirate Order, which was not finalized and signed. After the occupation of Afghanistan by the United States, the Islamic Emirate has only a jihadist [charter], and the Taliban commissions are regulating this."[49]

Some observers believe that since the Taliban has undertaken in the agreement not to serve as a base for attacks on the U.S., the U.S. should settle for that and have nothing further to do with Afghanistan. This approach is utterly naïve; it is based on the belief that the Taliban will meet this commitment, and also reveals ignorance of the essence of the Islamic Emirate – which, like other Islamist entities, considers the U.S. to be an enemy – and their goals. It reveals a mistaken certainty that the Taliban will honor this commitment. It also shows a misunderstanding of why the Taliban was willing to undertake this commitment: in truth, it is merely a tactical move to facilitate the American withdrawal, and later the Taliban will have ample pretexts to confront the U.S.

So the question remains: Is the only possible American strategy to exit Afghanistan to support the terrorists and to hand over the state to the terrorists? Why not just leave Afghanistan and leave President Ashraf Ghani to fight for the country's freedom and democracy against the terrorists, and support him without any American boots on the ground?

Sooner or later, the Trump administration will learn that Qatar's involvement is not part of the solution but rather the problem itself.

Tufail Ahmad is Senior Fellow for the MEMRI Islamism and Counter-Radicalization Initiative; Yigal Carmon is President and Founder of MEMRI.

 

[1] Even during the week-long Reduction In Violence period, the Taliban carried out 195 terror attacks, as per a by ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), April 13, 2020.

[4] MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1503, Just Days Old, The U.S.-Taliban Agreement On Afghanistan Threatens To Blow Up, March 4, 2020.

[5] Although the Afghan government was not a party to the U.S.-Taliban agreement, there was a separate declaration by the U.S. and the Afghanistan which upheld the spirit of the agreement. See Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, Afghan Presidential Palace, February 29, 2020. The other issue is a dispute over the presidential election by Ashraf Ghani's rival Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and both are expected to agree a power-sharing arrangement.

[7] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), April 5, 2020. The U.S. claimed at the time that the $1 billion cut in funds was to pressure the Ghani government to reach a political settlement with his rival Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Nevertheless, this unexpected step mounted all-round pressure on the government.

[8] MEMRI Daily Brief No. 197, The US-Taliban Negotiations: A Deadly Qatari Trap, September 1, 2019.

[9] AlemarahEnglish.com (Afghanistan), April 5, 2020.

[10] AlemarahEnglish.com (Afghanistan), April 5, 2020.

[12] AlemarahEnglish.com (Afghanistan), April 8, 2020.

[13] AlemarahEnglish.com (Afghanistan), April 8, 2020.

[15] Khaama.com (Afghanistan), April 9, 2020.

[16] Khaama.com (Afghanistan), April 9, 2020.

[17] AlemarahEnglish.com (Afghanistan), April 10, 2020.

[18] It is reasonable to assume that the pressure was also aimed at forcing Ghani and Abdallah to reach an agreement with each other.

[19] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), March 31, 2020.

[20] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), March 31, 2020.

[21] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), April 2, 2020.

[22] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), April 6, 2020.

[23] Twitter.com/SuhailShaheen1, April 7, 2020.

[24] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), April 19, 2020.

[25] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), April 19, 2020.

[26] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), April 14, 2020.

[27] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), April 7, 2020.

[28] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), April 14, 2020.

[29] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), April 14, 2020.

[30] Khaama.com (Afghanistan), April 12, 2020.

[31] Khaama.com (Afghanistan), April 4, 2020.

[32] Khaama.com (Afghanistan), April 12, 2020.

[33] Khaama.com (Afghanistan), April 1, 2020.

[34] Khaama.com (Afghanistan), April 8, 2020.

[35] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), April 12, 2020.

[36] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), April 12, 2020.

[37] Khaama.com (Afghanistan), April 8, 2020.

[38] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), April 17, 2020.

[39] Khaama.com (Afghanistan), April 8, 2020.

[40] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), April 17, 2020.

[42] Globalsecurityreview.com/does-us-taliban-deal-devalue-american-sacrifices-betray-afghan-people, April 21, 2020.

[43] MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1503, Just Days Old, The U.S.-Taliban Agreement On Afghanistan Threatens To Blow Up, March 4, 2020.

[44] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), March 14, 2020.

[45] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), March 14, 2020

[47] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), March 14, 2020.

[48] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), March 14, 2020.

[49] ToloNews.com (Afghanistan), March 14, 2020.

 

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