After US deal, Afghans see long road to peace. Still, they hope.

Afghans watch a live TV broadcast at a restaurant in Kabul, Afghanistan, during an agreement signing ceremony held in Qatar between the U.S. and the Taliban, Feb. 29, 2020.

Omar Sobhani/Reuters

The modest Khorshid Party Hall, damaged in a September bombing, has been rebuilt with the same ingredients Afghans are now applying to the landmark U.S.-Taliban withdrawal deal signed Saturday: a measure of hope, and a heavy dose of caution.

It was a Taliban suicide attack on a checkpoint near this hall in downtown Kabul that killed an American and more than a dozen others and prompted President Donald Trump to abruptly end nearly a year of closed-door talks with the Taliban as they were on the cusp of a deal.

Today this wedding venue has been repaired – its bouquets of fake flowers restored, its small glass chandeliers rehung – with the hope that weddings and spending will flourish once again, if intra-Afghan talks due to start March 10 yield a long-term peace.

Why We Wrote This

Hope is powerful, and hard to relinquish. So Afghans, no strangers to violence and uncertainty, are holding on to hope for peace, even as the details of the U.S.-Taliban deal require they do so cautiously.

But after sweeping up the glass smashed by the Sept. 5 blast, builders replaced it with plywood – hidden by curtains and wallpaper – as a precaution, in case this peace effort fails to stop the war in Afghanistan, and explosions resume.

U.S. officials heralded the deal, which followed a seven-day reduction in violence, as a “monumental” step toward ending America’s longest-ever war, with an initial drawdown from some 12,000 to 8,600 U.S. troops by May.

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But the conditional, step-by-step process spelled out in the four-page document, signed with such fanfare Saturday in Doha, Qatar, is very specific on the withdrawal of “all foreign forces” in 14 months, while very vague on how intra-Afghan talks will reconcile sworn enemies with opposing worldviews.

Indeed, the day after the signing, President Ashraf Ghani – whose government was left out of the U.S.-Taliban negotiations – rejected the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, in exchange for up to 1,000 government detainees held by the Taliban, which the deal requires before March 10.

In response, the Taliban spokesman announced Monday that the reduction in violence was over, and that the insurgent group would resume “normal” operations against Afghan security forces – though not U.S. targets.

As a result, many Afghans are tempering their hope, and recognize that the heavy lifting to end conflict here has barely begun.

“Everyone wants peace, and we are hopeful for this deal,” says Mohammad Najib Nasrat, manager of the wedding hall, who still bears a deep shrapnel scar on his leg from the explosion.

“Not only us – all Afghans are happy,” he says. “But we don’t know our future.”

No cease-fire in deal

That uncertainty has only been amplified by the U.S.-Taliban deal for many Afghans, who were surprised to read that a “permanent and comprehensive cease-fire” – in a war that has been killing and wounding 10,000 civilians a year since 2014 – is no more than an agenda item in talks between the Taliban and “Afghan sides.”

The deal does not name the official U.S.-backed government of President Ghani, which the Taliban dismisses as illegitimate, but which will by necessity lead a team at intra-Afghan talks.

And the jihadist force that the U.S. ousted from power in 2001, in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, is described elliptically in the text as “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban” – a legitimizing nod to Taliban insistence that they be called by the name of their former Islamist government.

NATO forces remove a damaged vehicle after a car bomb explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 5, 2019.
Rahmat Gul/AP/File

The Taliban are repeatedly sending messages to their estimated 80,000 fighters that the withdrawal deal marks a victory for them, and the surrender of a superpower.

Taliban chiefs in Pakistan have also been sending voice messages encouraging fighters to kidnap local officials, to increase leverage for a prisoner exchange.

By sundown in Wardak Province alone, the Taliban stronghold southwest of Kabul, officials reported that three policemen and 55 civilians had been kidnapped.

Agreement as prologue

“In the book that’s written about the peace process that hopefully ends and resolves the 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan, [the Doha deal] is the Prologue, this isn’t even Chapter One,” says Andrew Watkins, senior analyst for Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group.

The deal is the culmination of a difficult, 18-month process, he notes, and the two opposing Afghan sides have yet to even sit down at the same table.

In terms of global conflict resolution, from that point of face-to-face talks onward, it took four years to achieve peace in Colombia, and became multi-year processes in both the Philippines and South Sudan – despite far weaker insurgencies in every case.

Analysts and Afghans alike note that colossal, even existential issues remain, from the shape of any interim government and final power-sharing structure, to the mechanism to possibly integrate Taliban fighters and Afghan security forces after years in which the insurgents portrayed their enemy as infidels.

“This deal doesn’t guarantee anything. ... It is very, very conditional,” says Mr. Watkins. “The U.S. government has written [it] in a way that allows them to cancel all of this withdrawal, if they are uncomfortable or unsatisfied with the Taliban’s behavior at any point.”

And while President Trump has made clear his desire to end the 18-year American war in Afghanistan, the Taliban have sent mixed messages.

On one hand, the Taliban since last year began referring less to the government as a U.S. “puppet,” and instead say “Kabul administration.” Shortly before signing the deal Saturday, Taliban leaders staged a small parade in Doha with a conciliatory message.

“For them to speak to their followers, in their most victorious moment of this conflict ... one of the first things out of their mouths is, ‘Brothers, don’t be inflammatory, don’t taunt your Afghan brothers, don’t use this as a chance to pick a fight,’” says Mr. Watkins. “That’s an interesting message, that’s new language.”

Deal is with U.S., “not Afghans”

On the other hand, a Taliban spokesman stated Sunday that the insurgents struck a deal with the U.S. alone, “not Afghans.” That suggested that the Taliban have changed little, especially to those in Kabul supportive of the U.S.-backed government, which has overseen years of significant progress in women’s rights and civil society.

“That was confusing us. We were just worried about what that means: Are they going to harm Afghan forces, or the nation, again?” asks Mina, a twenty-something who works at the Afghan Finance Ministry and would only give her first name.

“For decades we were kept away from education and from our basic rights, especially women were so harmed. ... Unfortunately since childhood we have those dark memories,” says Mina, who wears turquoise nail polish and a headscarf that slips off while she talks.

“As a citizen of this country, of course we are all striving for peace. [The deal] was again making me happy and giving me strong feelings [of] a brighter future,” she says.

But the text makes no mention of preserving women’s rights, about access to education, or not wearing the all-enveloping burqa – all issues the Taliban strictly forbade when in power in the late 1990s.

Other issues abound. For the government, Mr. Ghani was only last week declared to have been reelected in a September vote, but his main challenger disputes the result, leading to disunity – and therefore a weaker hand – among the political elite, says Fawzia Koofi, a former lawmaker and the first woman head of an Afghan political party, the Movement for Change in Afghanistan.

The Taliban also must control fighters who may prefer war over peace.

“I think it will give them zero credibility, if [the Taliban] continue to respect their agreement with the Americans but fight with Afghans,” says Ms. Koofi, who twice met with Taliban leaders in Moscow in the past year.

“Some of these Taliban are born and grow up fighting. ... Their weapons give [them] a life and identity,” she says. “How do you distance them from that identity, how do you bring them back to normal life? That is an opportunity, but that is a challenge.”