The deal signed in Doha on 29th February was historic and momentous; the culmination of an agonisingly long awaited 18 months of negotiations between the two sides. AfghanEye asks: what do the finer details of the released text reveal?
Terrorist rebel group or state?
The way in which the Taliban are referred in the deal is noteworthy. Throughout the entirety of the text, they are described as ‘the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban’. This is significant. This is because the Taliban have claimed themselves to be the real government of Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion that ousted them.
Controversy surrounding how the Taliban self-identify has been a distinct feature of the war on the political front. It was in fact responsible for the rupturing of the negotiating process in June 2013, where the Taliban unveiled their office by hoisting their flag and referring to themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Then President Hamid Karzai accusing the Taliban of using the occasion to institute a government in exile, and under US and Afghan pressure, the Qatari government duly shut down the office.
Things have changed since 2013, however. The US and the government in Kabul are no longer on the same page concerning the peace process. The latter has repeatedly objected to its jurisdiction being undercut by its exclusion from US negotiations with the Taliban, upon the latter’s insistence. This is all the more significant given the Taliban having declared the Afghan government an illegitimate puppet of the US masquerading as a government. In the immediate aftermath of the Qatar deal, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani objected to the deal’s stipulation of a prisoner exchange to serve as a precondition for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations. In an almost desperate attempt to salvage his government’s sovereignty, real or imagined, Ghani declared that the decision ‘is not in the authority of the United States to decide’ and that ‘they [the US] are only a facilitator’ in peace talks.
Whilst Ghani plays spoiler in chief, the divergence of Kabul’s interests with the US is now clear. It manifests itself in the designation of the Taliban throughout the deal. Essentially, this means that whilst the US does not recognise the Taliban as an Islamic Emirate, it has dropped its opposition to the Taliban self-designating themselves as such.
No mention of opium. Why?
A major factor in perpetuating the war is the gargantuan opium trade in Afghanistan. The opium trade in 2011/2012 was estimated to be roughly worth between $3.6 billion to $4 billion per annum, with the Taliban having pocketed roughly $100m from opium in the same period. At the same time, the total revenue of the Taliban was estimated to have been $400m annually. Thus, the opium trade accounted for a large part (roughly a quarter) of the Taliban’s revenue, even if their share in the total trade is relatively minimal, pointing to the involvement of other actors in the narcotics.
In more recent years, as it is estimated the Taliban’s annual revenue has increased to as much as $1.5 billion, it is highly likely that the concurrent growth of the opium trade in Afghanistan has helped to augment the Taliban’s coffers. It is thus possible that the share of its revenue derived from opium has increased. Matthew Reid recently estimated that the drug trade provides 65% of the Taliban’s total revenue.
The Taliban, for their part, have generally denied direct involvement in the opium trade. Despite this, the US has generally devoted significant resources to fighting the drug war in Afghanistan, estimated at a staggering $1.5m a day since the beginning of its invasion in 2001.
Thus, without going into semantics regarding the size of the opium trade, the actors involved and their share of the trade, it is curious and noteworthy that the signed deal does not mention at all opium. The only vague assurance given vis-a-vis anything financial is the stating that ‘the United States will seek economic cooperation for reconstruction with the new postsettlement Afghan Islamic government…and will not intervene in its internal affairs.’
Does this mean that the size the opium trade was exaggerated? Or was its alleged importance to Taliban finances overblown? Or, does the US simply no longer see the issue as important?
Food for thought
The signing of the deal included speeches from Mullah Bradar and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pompeo’s speech included quotes from Biblical scripture, emphasising the virtue of peace, and appealed to Afghan leaders to ‘look deep into their souls’ to work for peace.
Pompeo touted that the US had achieved much in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda was a shadow of its former self. There had been advances in education, healthcare, and political freedoms. Asserting that real victory for Afghans was peace and prosperity, his words were poignant, generally well received as people across the country hoped and prayed for a new dawn in their country’s war ravaged trajectory,
Then there was his statement that ‘we [the US] shouldn’t fight in perpetuity in the graveyard of empires’. Seen in context, this is an embarrassing admission. With a pledged military withdrawal within 14 months, the signed declaration of the US to not intervene in domestic Afghan affairs, $1 trillion dollars spent in America’s longest ever war and thousands of troops killed and maimed, this was perhaps unwittingly too illustrative of how many in DC have come to view the Afghan War.