The United States and the Taleban have agreed to reduce violence for seven days, an agreement which would also apply to the Afghan government forces. While not a full ceasefire, it would be a ‘test’ of the seriousness of the parties before the signing of a bilateral deal agreeing the withdrawal of US troops, Taleban guarantees on al-Qaeda and the start of intra-Afghan talks. Criticism of the reduction of violence deal has focussed on the short time period slated for it, the fact that it will likely fall in winter when the number of operations is lower than in the rest of the year, and on whether it can be verified. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig, here assesses the deal, focussing on all three aspects.
Contours of the ‘reduction of violence’
It is widely expected that the US and the Taleban will announce a seven-day ‘reduction in violence’ in Afghanistan any day. If all sides honour it, this would lead to the rapid signing of a US-Taleban agreement with a timetable for the gradual withdrawal of US and other NATO troops in exchange for anti-terrorism guarantees from the Taleban. Some media outlets, the first being Arab News in Pakistan, reported a “tentative date” of 29 February for the signing. This seems to have consolidated, so that the reduction in violence period should latest start on 22 February, if no short period of taking stock over what happened in those seven days is envisaged. Ten days after the test period, it reported, intra-Afghan peace negotiations would be scheduled to start.
The details of these two agreements – on the reduction of violence and the withdrawal/anti-terrorism quid pro quo – are not yet public or certain. (See AAN analysis of what has been reported so far here and here.)
However, it seems that the parameters of the reduction of violence agreement have widened over the last round of the Doha talks. Earlier versions appear to have been far more limited, covering only certain provinces – such as Kabul, which has the heaviest international presence, both military and civilian, and Parwan, where the US has its main military base, in Bagram – or only a little wider – covering areas with a US military presence and the roads and probably air routes connecting them. Such a version of this agreement would have excluded the many major population centres which do not have a US military presence, as well as most rural areas. However, these limited versions failed to find support from the Afghan government and large parts of the public.
Now, according to The New York Times, which said it had interviewed “nearly a dozen current and former Afghan and Western officials as well as Taliban leaders who have followed the negotiations closely,” the Taleban have agreed “not to attack population centers, highways and government institutions, with some exceptions (…).” The Associated Press on 14 February and the BBC on 15 February, reporting from Germany, where the annual high-profile Munich Security Conference is currently taking place, attended by US Secretaries of State, Mike Pompeo, and Defence, Mark Esper, US chief Afghanistan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, both quoted an ‘un-named US official’ as saying the agreement would cover “the entire country, including Afghan government forces” and the Taleban would “halt (…) roadside and suicide bombings as well as rocket attacks.”
One of the exceptions the Taleban had reportedly insisted on is retaining “the right to attack if they believe government convoys are using the period of calm to supply areas otherwise out of their reach.” If true, the same option would likely be given to the US and the Afghan government forces. Such difficult-to-supply district centres for the government – where it has only token civilian or sometimes even only a small military presence – are considerable in number. Tolonews, looking at the issue of limited government presence in mid-2019 found 64 districts in 19 provinces where the local government administration was not present in the district centre for security reasons; 44 of them still had a government military presence and the rest no government presence at all.
There is less reporting on what the US and Afghan government forces would commit themselves to in this deal. It was reported previously that the US and Afghan government forces would halt airstrikes, including for the US by drones, and night raids. It is not clear whether the Afghan government has agreed to this or not, or will do so over the next few days, either publicly or tacitly (as it is not party to what appear now to be two US-Taleban putative agreements, on the reduction in violence and US troop withdrawal in return for Taleban guarantees on not allowing al-Qaeda – and possibly other groups – to operate in Afghanistan). President Ghani is reported to have been updated on the agreements in Munich and has sounded as if he supported the draft deal, saying the US and Afghanistan were now “on the same page.” No instructions appear to have been given yet by the Afghan leadership to ground forces, according to Afghan media reports. This is expected to happen after his return from Munich on 16 February.
To sum up: the reduction in violence would not be a total ceasefire. But it appears that it would at least cover the major population centres and government institutions there but possibly be extended countrywide, and it would prohibit certain types of particularly lethal violence – airstrikes, night raids, suicide attacks, rocketing. It would probably cover all three parties to the conflict. Overall, the impact should be decidedly fewer fighting and fewer civilian casualties over the seven-day period.
Even if all parties are now in agreement, the US would probably not have wanted to announce the deals on the anniversary of the completion of the Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which took place 31 years ago on 15 February. It can also be assumed that Ghani wants to make any statement on the agreement from Afghan soil.
The deal has its critics, however, who have focussed on its length, timing and problems with verification.
Too short and the wrong time of the year?
It has been widely argued by critics that the time period of reducing violence for seven days is too short to really gauge whether the Taleban are serious about negotiating an end to the war. This period is short indeed, very likely motivated – on the US side – by the consideration related to its own election campaign insofar as only a successful ‘reduction in violence’ period could lead to an early US-Taleban agreement and intra-Afghan negotiations and a visible, significant withdrawal of US troops bringing President Donald Trump’s elections promise of full withdrawal closer. Seven days might also have been the most that Khalilzad could extract from the Taleban. It is certainly less than the full one-month long ceasefire he, initially, and Kabul up to now had been insisting on.
Previous ceasefires have been even shorter, but have largely be seen as a success. They are important precedents for the current deal, particularly on whether both sides can exert command and control over their forces. Most prominent was the only official ceasefire – overlapping, but separately announced by the Taleban (three days) and the Afghan government (one week, backed by the US military) – over the Islamic festival of Eid ul-Fitr in June 2018 (see AAN analysis). Despite some small-scale violations (see AAN reporting here), it was considered a success. The Taleban displayed good command and control and government forces and officials took the risk of allowing Taleban to enter into the cities, sometimes even with their weapons. Although fighting picked up immediately after the declared period was over, the period of calm and the space for fraternisation between the enemies were important for demonstrating what an Afghanistan at peace might look like. For the Taleban leadership, in particular, though, it also highlighted the danger of allowing their fighters to stop the ‘jihad’ even temporarily with the risk of their fighters, like the government forces, beginning to view the other side as fellow nationals and ordinary human beings.
There have also been several unannounced ceasefires during United Nations-run polio vaccination campaigns. True, these have been less consistent over the past few years, starting around 2014. However, it seems this was less a Taleban command and control issue than problems stemming from suspicions that the National Directorate of Security (NDS) was trying to pressurise vaccinators to gather intelligence. Taleban accusations (see AAN reporting) along those lines were confirmed by media reports (see here and here, in German; on the current situation here). These precedents, however, cannot fully exclude the possibility that some local field commanders may chose to act against any agreement. Important here is whether the Taleban leadership has been briefing field commanders about the agreement and preparing the ground for reducing violence; AAN has received information from some provinces that this is under way.
This issue of command and control exists on both sides. The government has not only regular and special forces, but also a broad array of pro-government militias and quasi-militias, such as the Afghan Local Police) or Uprising Forces nominally under the Ministry of Interior or the NDS, but also informal ones which are sometimes called upon to fight with the government (see AAN recent research on militias in Takhar province, for example.)
A number of observers, such as former United Nations and European Union official in Afghanistan, Michael Semple, have also said that a reduction of violence falling in winter time – when the frequency of fighting is lower than in other seasons – would not be a sufficient yardstick to demonstrate the willingness and ability, particularly of the Taleban, to seriously reduce violence. Semple told The Guardian on 12 February: “It’s frankly ludicrous. It’s snowing. Who wants to go fighting when it’s snowing?”
This, however, is only partly correct. There is an established pattern of a winter lull in fighting, as insurgents take a break and commanders with families in Pakistan take the opportunity to spend time with them. However, the seasonal difference in fighting has markedly weakened over the past few years. AAN and others have received increasing reports from various provinces of the Taleban leadership ordering commanders to stay in the field and not take their usual ‘winter break’; rather, they should keep up the pressure on government troops also over the winter months. In May 2015, for example, AAN reported from Kunduz that the province “did not … really see the normal lull during the winter” in 2014/15. In spring 2016, AAN reported that “Taleban operations did not stop over winter and the term ‘spring offensive’ as well as the notion of a winter stop or lull in fighting has become increasingly meaningless” (see also this February 2018 Crisis Group report).
Weather, however, does still have a marked effect on the levels of violence, especially on the Taleban side. While in the warmer regions, from Farah in the west and all across the south (the lower areas of Greater Kandahar) to lower-levels of Nangrahar in the east, the fighting never has to stop in winter, in colder areas or if fighters have to travel through mountainous areas, the impact of the winter, especially a harsh winter with heavy snowfall, is always noticeable. As for cities, such as Kabul, there is no seasonal pattern to urban war-related violence; they have been regularly struck by terrorist attacks during winter and summer (see AAN analysis here).
AAN wanted to try and get a sense of the level of violence in a ‘normal’ February. Based on data provided by international security observers, we have compared the number of security incidents recorded countrywide in February since 2015, the first year after the ISAF mission ended and the number of foreign troops was drastically reduced. The data set shows that in the month of February, between 273 and 505 security incidents directly related to the war were recorded each week in the years 2015-2019 (401 on average), or 39 to 72 per day (57 on average). It also indicates that harsher weather in February – such as in 2019 – only reduced the number of incidents to the level of the least active weeks in the previous years. In February 2019, there was a reduction of around a quarter in the recorded security incidents compared to the five year average. The statistics for war-related incidents for the two first weeks of February 2020 are yet not available. (2)
In contrast, peak fighting periods – such as the months of July and August of 2017 – roughly registered 625 conflict-related incidents per week, over 50 per cent more than an average February week. The weekly average in the usually highly kinetic third quarter of a year was 540 war-related incidents.
These figures show that a snowy winter is, on average, the least violent time of the Afghan year – and therefore the easiest for parties to the conflict to carry out a reduction in the violence they perpetrate. However, there are still enough security incidents that a reduction in violence during a week in February should be discernible, measurable and make a difference to the population. Looking at these data, Afghans would very likely want to see a lot fewer than the so far minimum, 273 war-related security incidents, for such a winter week, or fewer than about 40 per day countrywide, to indicate that the truce had succeeded.
Chart by AAN
Verification of a reduction in violence
Given the data above, it should be possible to measure any reduction in the incidents of violence by already-available means. Moreover, US officials, including Secretary of Defence Esper, quoted by the BBC, said that “the specifics of what defines violence are down on paper.” Afghans and the Afghan and international media will also be providing additional scrutiny of any incident after the reduction in violence goes into force.
It would be relatively easy to see whether the Taleban continue to refrain from terrorist attacks in the provincial centres (in none of them was a high-profile attack registered between November 2019 and 11 February when an unclaimed suicide attack in Kabul against the National Defence University killed six people) and other major population centres under government control. It will also be noticeable whether the agreement also applies to a cessation in assassinations and the use of magnetic mines, forms of attack which have carried on unabated since November 2019.
However, it might be difficult to deal with accusations of violations, particularly in areas where territorial control is difficult to define, given that there are often no real frontlines in this war. Rather, there are large areas of the Afghan map usually described as ‘influenced’ or ‘contested’ by this or that side.
Verification, and the attribution of responsibility of possible incidents will further be complicated by the wide array of pro-government militias and non-Taleban insurgent groups, mainly in eastern Afghanistan, among them ISKP, the Pakistani Taleban Movement (TTP) and smaller, separate groups of Pakistani and Kashmiri origin. There is also the Taleban splinter group mainly operating in the west of the country, calling itself High Council of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which broke away after disputes over the succession of Mullah Muhammad Omar in 2015 (AAN analysis here). Other splinter groups could also emerge, if field commanders are unhappy with their leadership talking to the Americans and ‘diluting’ the jihad.
Verification remains possible then. During the week of violence reduction, a particular focus should be given to the warmer areas of the country where it should be most obviously felt, such as Kandahar and Helmand (with a number of highly-contested district centres) and Nangrahar (also among the provinces with the highest number of civilian casualties, some committed by ISKP). Farah is also significant as its capital has been subject to repeated Taleban attacks for example in 2018 (AAN reporting here) and 2019 (see here and here) and including during winter, for example in February 2018 and February 2019.
However, it remains largely unclear how (and by whom exactly) any breach of the agreement would be examined, in order to determine the perpetrator. However, the US officials quoted by the BBC at the start of this section, also reportedly said that there was “an acceptance that there may be violence from other sources and each and every incident will need to be clarified” and that there“would be a communications channel between the US and the Taliban.”
There does also appear to have been some looking ahead to what happens after the seven days. If Time magazine is right about there being secret annexes to the US-Taleban agreement, the thinking about verification already goes beyond the seven day period of the reduction in violence. According to this report, one of these annexes “contains a mechanism to monitor whether all sides are honouring the semi-truce while talks between warring Afghan parties proceed” (emphasis added by AAN).
This relates to the time after the signature of the US-Taleban ‘withdrawal’ agreement and has apparently been on the table for quite some time. The spokesman of the Taleban’s Doha office, Suhail Shahin, had already hinted at this in a 18 January 2020 interview with the Pakistani daily Dawn:
Asked whether the reduction in attack would continue after the signing of the peace [sic] agreement, the Afghan Taliban spokesman said the day the agreement was signed other clauses contained in the document would come into force. He did not elaborate on what those clauses would be.
If the ‘reduction of violence’ agreement falls short of a countrywide measure, it would leave large parts of rural areas and district centres outside this agreement. These are the places from which US and other western military forces withdrew during the transition period of 2011-14 (AAN analysis here and here) and where much of the very recent violence, ie in early 2020, has taken place – authored by the Taleban and pro-government forces. This includes incidents such as the 9 February car bomb attack against a police post in Gereshk, a district centre in Helmand without western troop presence; repeated lethal attacks on police posts along the ring road in Baghlan province in January 2020 (see here and here); the government troops’ recapturing of a district in Baghlan in late January and; airstrikes in six provinces with a total of 51 civilian casualties, including 17 children killed, as registered by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in January 2020. US media also reported a “near record” of US bombs dropped in Afghanistan for January 2020.
However, if the un-named US official quoted by several media saying “the entire country” would be covered by the deal is correct and there is a countrywide quasi-ceasefire, the deal looks much more interesting. US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad would have extracted less than he was originally hoping for – a month-long ceasefire – but far more than reports of earlier discussions suggested. Those earlier, more limited versions of an agreement would likely not have resulted in the rural population seeing any improvement in their security. Also, if the entire country, including rural areas and district centres are covered, verification will be much easier. If there is a deal to cover the post-‘reduction of violence’ period, there is also a chance that a bounce back into unabated violence could be avoided.
Even with what looks like a well-thought out agreement, there is always the (dreadful) possibility that violence continues despite the agreement, or that, after a short calm, incidents lead to accusations and counter-accusations, anda quick breakdown of the agreement and the derailing of the planned follow-up, the US-Taleban agreement and intra-Afghan peace talks. It is not known how large a reduction the US, in particular, would consider to be a credible demonstration of the Taleban’s good intent.
As to the length of this deal, the Afghan government and large parts of the public may not be impressed, given it falls far short of their demand for a month’s cessation of all violence. However, for the Taleban, the seven day reduction in violence is a concession, as it follows the almost-signed September deal which reportedly included no accompanying reduction in violence at all. The deal’s limitations and the hard diplomatic struggle necessary to extract it from the Taleban just reflect the how gridlocked the positions of the parties to this protracted war have become, 18 years into its current phase. (1)
The two agreements the US and the Taleban seem set to conclude soon are currently the only political plan that might bring peace closer in Afghanistan is under practical consideration. Despite all their flaws (see AAN analysis here and here) – the lack of a ceasefire and the fact that the actual peace talks have been relegated to the future intra-Afghan negotiations –, they should be given the benefit of the doubt, while keeping a watchful eye on all conflict parties’ behaviour in the crucial coming weeks. For the time being they seem to be set to continue fighting each other to the day the ‘reduction in violence’ comes into force, see another airstrike that killed another eight civilians in Surkhrod district (Nangrahar) and the five children killed and the three injured by a roadside bomb in Dasht-e Archi (Kunduz) on 14 February; the reported hanging of an Afghan soldier by Taleban in Baharak district (Takhar) on 15 February and the drive-by shooting of two Afghan policemen in Kandahar on 16 February.
Whether, then, the Afghan parties really sit down with each other and start seriously discussing an end to the war and the nature of the future political system of the country – and take into consideration the interests of the large majority of unarmed Afghans that will not be represented there – will show us whether they are genuinely searching for peace.
Edited by Kate Clark and Jelena Bjelica
(1) The phases of the war could be categorised as follows:
- 1978-1980 PDPA government facing local rebellions
- 1980-1989 Soviet occupation (the anniversary of its departure was on 14 February) and mujahedin resistance
- 1989-1992 Najibullah government and the mujahedin
- 1992-1996 Intra-mujahedin factional war
- 1996-2001 Taleban versus United Front, aka Northern Alliance
- 2001-current US-led intervention and Taleban insurgency
The latter is the longest phase so far of modern Afghanistan’s wars that began in the 1970s, and the most violent since the Soviet occupation ended in 1989 (see a graph and figures here: https://ucdp.uu.se/country/700).
(2) Data available so far (which is aggregated with criminal incidents) shows that they have increased from the same period in 2019 again to around the average, with more than 510 per week (73 per day).