On February 29, 2020, Zalmay Khalilzad, the Special Representative of the United States of America for the Reconciliation of Afghanistan, signed an agreement on behalf of the United States with Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Head of the Political Office of the Taliban in Doha. This agreement was made on behalf of the Taliban to end the United States’ twenty-year military intervention in Afghanistan.
Since then, foreign policy experts and practitioners from all sides have widely criticized the agreement for its textual flaws and unnecessary concessions. Even without being an expert in foreign policy, it is easy to identify these flaws by simply skimming through the contract, which was clearly dictated by the Taliban. On the day the agreement was made, the Taliban celebrated their victory by marching and waving their flag from their political office in Doha to the Sheraton Hotel, where the two sides signed the agreement. This march marked the beginning of the Taliban’s actions, culminating in their complete control over Afghanistan on August 15, 2021.
Despite the significant shortcomings of this agreement, the Biden administration still insists that its remaining components be implemented, such as intra-Afghan negotiations and the cessation of support for foreign terrorist groups by the Taliban.
In order to achieve this, the implementation of its articles will lead to the formation of a responsible, comprehensive, and all-inclusive government that guarantees the fundamental human rights of Afghans and the rights of women in the country. This government will be recognized by the international community and will be able to begin the difficult process of rebuilding Afghanistan after the war. Consequently, the long-term and common interests of the United States and Afghanistan will be safeguarded.
Flaws of the Agreement
The 2020 agreement has six main flaws.
First: The United States has the right to engage with non-state actors around the world, but the concept of directly negotiating and signing an agreement with the Taliban, a non-state actor under US and UN sanctions, and some of its leaders internationally recognized as terrorists, is not necessarily beneficial to Washington. Such negotiations and agreements may only be appropriate from a tactical point of view and only to achieve immediate and short-term goals. However, the Doha negotiations and the signing of an agreement with the Taliban, which indirectly legitimized them and elevated their position to a state actor, were not in the best interests of the United States and Afghanistan.
Second: In the agreement, which was discussed without the involvement of the elected government of Afghanistan, the phrase “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which the United States does not recognize as a government, but is known as the Taliban” is used multiple times. However, there is not a single reference to the ‘Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,’ which the United States recognizes as a state. The only mention of the ‘Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’ was in the clause related to the exchange of prisoners – which is highly concerning. The agreement refers to “prisoners of the other side.” These textual errors demonstrate the victory of the Taliban, as they did not want to hear, see or talk about the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
The total disregard for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan significantly weakened the national defense and security forces of Afghanistan. This likely contributed to the sudden collapse of the government and the swift victory of the Taliban in August 2021.
Third: It was unwise to include a prisoner exchange in the US-Taliban agreement as a confidence-building measure, as the relevant prisoners were under the jurisdiction of the Afghan government and should have been the first issue on the agenda of intra-Afghan negotiations. The inclusion of prisoner exchange in this agreement caused several difficulties in the bilateral relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The Taliban had prioritized the release of the prisoners and participated in intra-Afghan negotiations to achieve this goal, resulting in an exponential victory as they released their prisoners and strained the relations between Ashraf Ghani’s government and Washington.
Forth: The text holds the Taliban accountable for passports and visas, despite the fact that they did not manage the issuance of such documents. This sent a discouraging message to various sectors of society, including the national defense and security forces, who interpreted it as a sign of the lack of backing from the United States. The United States viewed it as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and that the United States may instead recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The frequent use of the phrase “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” (which the United States does not recognize as a government but is known as the Taliban) could not alter this interpretation.
Fifth: Many Afghans in the US government and its NATO allies were taken aback when they obtained a copy of the agreement just days before it was signed, as it included references to the withdrawal of “all non-diplomatic civilian, contractors of private security, professors, consultants, and personnel of support services.” These matters concerning civilians were not meant to be discussed at the negotiating table. If the Taliban wanted the US military forces to leave the country and Washington and its allies were willing to withdraw, the agreement should have been finalized and signed without the inclusion of these civilian cases. This meant that the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” and its national defense and security forces would be left to fend for themselves, which further weakened the morale of the Afghan forces, particularly the air forces, as they were dependent on contractors.
Sixth: There is no way to accurately measure the United States’ ability to hold the Taliban accountable for their anti-terrorism commitments, particularly the severing of ties with al-Qaeda. The agreement is based solely on verbal promises from the Taliban to instruct their commanders to refrain from collaborating with al-Qaeda. Any lingering doubts about the Taliban’s dedication to fulfilling this aspect of the agreement were put to rest when US forces located and eliminated al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a Taliban hideout in Kabul.
Despite its numerous shortcomings, this agreement contains beneficial initiatives, particularly the frequent references to the commencement of intra-Afghan talks, which were intended to result in the formation of a ‘post-negotiated Islamic government of Afghanistan.” The US and other international entities must persist in their endeavors to guarantee that the Taliban adhere to and execute this influential aspect of the agreement.
The primary basis for the interaction of the US and the international community with the Taliban should be the emphasis on the implementation of the promises made in the 2020 agreement, particularly the formation of a comprehensive and inclusive government in Afghanistan and the cessation of aid and shelter to foreign terrorist groups. Any move towards recognition or financial aid for rehabilitation should be contingent upon the fulfillment of these two conditions.
The plight of 40 million Afghans, particularly women and girls, and the sacrifices of countless Afghans, Americans, and Western allies and their families, necessitate that we do more to bring peace to Afghanistan. This can only be accomplished by fully implementing the remaining parts of the 2020 agreement. The US and its Western allies should assist in initiating intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban and all Afghan factions, including women and youth, under the auspices of the United Nations. This could lead to the formation of a responsible, comprehensive, and inclusive government in Afghanistan (which includes the Taliban, with broad representation from all Afghans), who can agree on the establishment and activation of a measurable mechanism within Afghanistan to monitor and detect terrorist threats. Such a government could be recognized by the international community and facilitate the reopening of diplomatic institutions.