May 1 deadline approaches without signs of US withdrawal from Afghanistan
May 1 is fast approaching but the US has yet to make up its mind on whether to stay beyond the deadline or withdraw its forces in keeping with a commitment made with the Taliban under the terms of the Doha peace deal signed on February 29 last year.
Rather, it is becoming harder to meet the deadline as the date nears due to logistics and tactical reasons. President Joe Biden’s statement that it can happen but will be tough to withdraw by May 1 added to the uncertainty. US allies in the NATO with troops in Afghanistan had made it clear they would pullout when the time is right, which in the context of violence-prone Afghanistan will be difficult to predict.
There has been a general reluctance on the part of the West despite the war fatigue and unpopularity of the Afghan conflict to withdraw unless it is sure Afghanistan won’t become a hub of global militants once NATO forces are gone. For this to happen, the US focus is on a negotiated political settlement through intra-Afghan talks.
The US and its allies don’t trust Taliban due to the group’s refusal to reduce violence, accept a cease-fire and dissociate from Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Taliban too don’t trust the US and this distrust will increase if the Americans violate last year’s Doha agreement on troop withdrawal.
It is increasingly becoming obvious that US forces will overstay in Afghanistan. Biden had hinted at this possibility by arguing that the US forces won’t stay much longer even if they don’t pullout by May 1. A three to six month extension has been mentioned by various quarters, but this needs to be negotiated with Taliban if the intent is to make the process orderly and ensure there is no escalation in violence.
As for the Taliban, the group’s stance is clear as it wants the US to withdraw its remaining soldiers by May 1 or risk violating the Doha agreement and forcing the Taliban hand to retaliate. The Taliban keep warning that the US failure to withdraw will have consequences, which obviously means a resumption of attacks on foreign forces. Not a single American or any other foreign soldier has been killed in Afghanistan since the signing of the February 2020 peace agreement.
Perhaps a hint of what to expect after May 1 in case there is no US forces’ withdrawal became evident on March 31 when Taliban claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on the Zara air base in Khost province. Taliban justified the attack by claiming that the air base served as the CIA station and housed the CIA-trained Afghan militia known as “Zarbati.”
Perhaps a hint of what to expect after May 1 in case there is no US forces’ withdrawal became evident on March 31 when Taliban claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on the Zara air base in Khost province. Taliban justified the attack by claiming that the air base served as the CIA station and housed the CIA-trained Afghan militia known as “Zarbati” that allegedly targeted civilians and committed human rights abuses.
This has been a season of meetings and conferences focusing on Afghanistan. Normally in the spring, first the mujahideen fighting the Soviet forces in the 1980s and early 1990s and subsequently the Taliban resisting US-led Nato and Afghan government troops undertook their new annual offensives as winter ended and the weather became warmer. However, this year and earlier in 2020 there was no Taliban spring offensive as peace talks with the US and the Afghan government were underway. Instead the focus has been on the peace process even though progress has been painfully slow.
Russia took the initiative as it hosted yet another meeting in Moscow on March 18 in a bid to break the stalemate in the Doha intra-Afghan talks. This time it invited only three countries – China, Pakistan and the US — along with the Afghan government and Taliban to ensure a more focused discussion. Turkey and Qatar as venues of Afghan peace conferences were invited as observers.
Taliban didn’t get the desired support at the Moscow meeting considering the group’s good contacts with Pakistan, China and Russia, which have backed Taliban inclusion in any transitional or power-sharing arrangement as a result of the peace process. The joint statement calling for reduction in violence was primarily directed at Taliban and so was the appeal to Taliban not to launch the annual spring offensive. China, Pakistan, Russia and the US opposed the return of Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which Taliban termed as unacceptable as only the Afghan people had the right to decide the future system of government.
The Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process held subsequently in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, was useful in the sense that it was organized in a country neighboring Afghanistan and worried about the fallout of the never-ending Afghan conflict on its borders, particularly in the context of radical Islam and narcotics.
All eyes are now on the Istanbul conference to be held later this month. The US wants to bring all stakeholders to this intra-Afghan conference with the high ambition to clinch a deal even though President Ashraf Ghani is planning to put forward counter-proposals to the US peace initiative and the Taliban leadership has yet to show any enthusiasm toward the Istanbul event.
The UN will for the first time get to play the peacemaker’s role at the conference. This will also be the last major chance to work for peace before the May 1 deadline as the security situation could deteriorate if the conference fails to achieve a breakthrough and the US refuses to pullout its forces.
*Rahimullah Yusufzai is a senior political and security analyst in Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998. Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1