Like malign swallows arriving ahead of season, the Taliban are gathering in Afghan orchards early this year, long before the trees have budded and the weather has warmed. Moving westward over the border from their traditional winter sanctuaries in Pakistan, and joining fighters already resident in Afghanistan’s southern provinces, over the past month they have flocked towards Kabul by foot, motorbike and truck, using the absence of US air strikes to gather around the capital, six weeks before their usual annual migration.
The Doha “peace deal” has brought them here. Scarcely has the ink dried on the agreement signed between the US and the Taliban on 29 February in the Qatari capital, and already the omens for war far exceed those for peace.
“We are getting ready in case there is some kind of coup in Kabul,” one Taliban field commander told me earlier this March when we met in hills east of Kandahar near the Afghan border with Pakistan. Cradling a PK machine gun in his hands as his fighters peered down from the rocks above him, he explained that hundreds of Taliban fighters, joined by units from Pakistan’s Taliban movement the TTP, were on the move. This was part of a general mobilisation in response to the political crisis in Kabul, where two rival claimants to the presidency have paralysed the Afghan government’s ability to engage with the terms of the Doha accord.
“We are sending our forces along with others to the areas around Kabul in case the government fights among itself,” said the commander, a 30-year-old Pashtun fighter who goes by the name Khalid Agah.
Word of the Taliban build-up was relayed across the country. The Taliban boasted of it; tribal leaders detailed it; Afghan forces feared it. When I called the press office of the US-led mission in Afghanistan, Resolute Support, and asked a senior spokesperson for comment on the post-Doha march of war, I received a deflective response.
“It’s not our war any more,” the American remarked testily, in the same tones military press officers the world over adopt when confronted with a reality that flies in the face of the narrative they’ve been told to peddle. “We are just supporting the Afghan security forces here in their fight, so we wouldn’t be the ones to ask about a Taliban build-up.”
It is a cruel irony that a deal advertised to lay the foundations for potential peace should so quickly have conjured the threat of violence, even civil war. Afghans are exhausted by four decades of conflict, and deserve the peace they crave. More than 10,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in 2019 alone, according to the United Nations’ mission in the country, contributing to a figure of more than 100,000 civilian casualties in the country in the past decade.
It is understandable that the US wishes to leave its longest ever involvement in a war, which has cost it more than 2,400 American lives and a total investment of up to $2trn, for so little obvious result.
Yet the Doha agreement seems flawed from the start, described by non-US diplomats and analysts in Kabul as “an emperor without clothes moment”. In the weeks since the accord was signed Afghanistan has been riven, succumbing to a three-way calamity involving a resurgent Taliban, a political crisis with two claimants to the presidency that has resulted in $1bn dollars of US funding being cut, and the onset of coronavirus. The nexus is so dire that some analysts predict Afghanistan may fall apart before detailed peace talks with the Taliban even begin.
The Doha agreement is directly responsible for much of the trouble. Made to the advantage of the insurgents and at the exclusion of the Afghan government, the bilateral treaty has boosted Taliban morale. Designed to fulfil Donald Trump’s earlier pledge to extract US troops from the war, the deal was based on a number of key pillars: the denial of Afghan territory for use by terror groups; a timeline for the withdrawal of all 12,000 US troops in Afghanistan within 14 months, even in the absence of an ultimate peace agreement; the start of intra-Afghan dialogue between the Taliban and Afghan government on 10 March; the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the government and reciprocal release of 1,000 detainees in Taliban detention; and the removal of leading Taliban members from US and UN sanctions lists.
The agreement acquiesced to every one of the Taliban’s main demands, without giving anything concrete to the Afghan government. Women’s rights? Democracy? Human rights? They had no meaningful mention in Doha. It was no wonder that the first stumbling block came when the Kabul government bridled over releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners, including insurgent commanders, bomb-makers and their trainers. The government had never agreed to these men’s release in the first place, and it was improbable that it would let go such strong negotiating assets before its own talks with the Taliban had even begun.
Guns in their hands, high on a narrative of impending victory in Doha’s wake, and dazzled by the disarray of their enemies in Kabul, the Taliban cannot quite believe their luck. “We have just defeated a superpower,” Khalid Agha assured me when I met him and his Taliban fighters in a frontier district. “Once the Americans have gone it will be easy to sort out the Afghan government.”
Boastful and assured, scarred by shrapnel wounds and the shadow of jail time in his memory, he had a profile typical of the Taliban’s newer generation of commanders: one forged by a lifetime of conflict, irreconcilable, and certain that the religious idealism for which he fought should not be compromised by any power-sharing deal with a republic.
I asked if after Doha he was ready for peace and he replied that he was ready for war. “We haven’t been shedding blood all these years with the intent of sharing power with the Kabul government,” he added. “We fight for sharia, for the Islamic emirate, not to make deals with democrats in the time of our victory.”
Such sentiment is widespread among the movement. The Taliban see violence as a major part of their leverage in any future talks and have intensified their operations across Afghanistan. On 20 March they killed 24 Afghan soldiers in a single raid in Zabul province, burning the bodies so that they were unrecognisable.
Yet if the Taliban were wrongly advantaged by Doha, the Afghan government has done little to help itself. Ashraf Ghani, the incumbent president, declared himself winner of a bitterly disputed election in February, as did his opponent, Dr Abdullah Abdullah. The two men held rival inauguration ceremonies in Kabul on 9 March. Rather than wait until the crisis was solved, the US Afghan envoy and chief negotiator at Doha, Zalmay Khalilzad, attended Ghani’s inauguration, further entrenching the division.
Knowing that until this political impasse is solved the intra-Afghan talks required by Doha are impossible, on 23 March the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo met with Ghani and Abdullah in Kabul in an effort to break the gridlock.
That such a senior American figure should fly halfway round the world in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic to mediate in Afghanistan showed how gravely the US is concerned by the failing peace process. Yet Pompeo failed to get the political rivals to agree, and subsequently announced a $1bn cut in US aid to Afghanistan.
Surveying the discord among their enemies in the aftermath of the Doha deal, the Taliban have never been more buoyed. Weariness and their own losses are apparently no impediment to their belief in the necessity of future fighting.
“It is 40 years we have been fighting now to establish an Islamic emirate, either as the Taliban or as the Mujahedin,” Khalid Agha told me as a slow breeze danced dust around the desert plains beneath us. “It is true we are sick of killing and dying. Who wouldn’t be? But if it takes another 40 years of fighting and killing to achieve what we fight for, then so be it.”
Anthony Loyd is a reporter for the Times
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021