The deal, signed Feb. 29 in Qatar’s capital, also leaves the Afghan government in a weakened position as it prepares for its own round of talks with the Taliban, according to the Afghan officials and analysts.
The provisions included a commitment to a controversial prisoner swap that robs the government of key leverage before the talks, which had been scheduled to begin by Tuesday. And a reference to the Taliban as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” is seen as giving the group greater legitimacy, despite language that the United States does not recognize any such political standing.
“We were thrown under the bus for a photo op and a handshake,” said a senior Afghan government official.
He complained that the deal did not extract enough concessions from the Taliban, and instead made controversial pledges on behalf of the Afghan government. The result, he said, is the Taliban will probably enter talks with the Afghan government from a stronger negotiating position.
Many Afghans who see themselves most closely allied with American values — and most dependent on U.S. support — fear they have the most to lose from the peace deal. Supporters of women’s rights, civil society and some sectors of the country’s political and security establishment described reading the deal with a mix of disbelief and anger.
“I want peace. All Afghans want peace. But I don’t think this deal will bring us peace,” the Afghan official said, describing it as a step in the wrong direction that will further destabilize the country.
His sentiment was echoed by two other Afghan officials. All spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Since deal, a spike in violence
Violence across Afghanistan has risen since the deal was signed. On Friday, Kabul saw its deadliest attack in months. Islamic State gunmen shooting down on a religious gathering from a nearby multistory building killed at least 32 people and wounded 81. Some civilians at the site of the attack blamed the peace talks for the carnage.
The Taliban quickly issued a statement Friday saying it was not behind the shooting.
Under the peace deal, the Taliban made several commitments to fight terrorist groups such as the Islamic State in exchange for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 14 months. But what the deal did not include were Taliban commitments concerning what a future Afghan government would look like.
Democracy and women’s rights were the ideals described as central to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan following the launch of the war after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks. For years, the Taliban had given haven to Osama bin Laden and other top leaders of al-Qaeda.
In his State of the Union address the following year, President George W. Bush cited advances in women’s rights.
“The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school. Today women are free,” he said in 2002.
More than 18 years later, Shogofa Danish is one of many Afghan women who say they have seen the benefits of the freedoms brought with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. But the peace deal signed in Doha filled her with dread.
“This is my dream job,” she said, speaking from the slick studios of Tolo broadcasting in Kabul, where she presents the news in Dari. “I don’t want to go back. I want this life.”
Danish said she fears that the deal signed by the United States and the Taliban will bring the extremists back to power and allow them to curtail her freedom.
Even without the Taliban in a position of formal power, Danish’s work is dangerous. Her employer has been attacked and repeatedly threatened by the militants. A maze of blast walls and checkpoints surround the modern office buildings where she works.
“I’m worried, but I will not accept [returning to Taliban rule]. I will never give up,” she said.
‘We spilled blood together’
Fawzia Koofi’s adult life has straddled both Taliban rule and the United States’ war in Afghanistan. The 45-year-old former parliamentarian and prominent women’s rights activist said she was saddened by the text of the peace deal, but not surprised.
She has participated in several rounds of informal meetings with the Taliban and U.S. negotiators over the past few years, and said she has noticed a shift in U.S. policy in Afghanistan: away from democratic ideals to focus almost entirely on drawing down U.S. forces.
“I was told that if everything else is going well in Afghanistan, we are not going to keep letting our soldiers get killed for Afghan women,” she said, recounting a briefing she had with a senior U.S. official in the past year. She refused to name the official because of the sensitivity of the matter.
On the outskirts of Kabul, at a military base shared by U.S. and Afghan special operations forces, Lt. Gen. Mohammad Farid Ahmadi’s office is dotted with plaques, coins and other tokens from U.S. commanders who have come and gone.
Ahmadi, now the commander of Afghanistan’s elite commandos unit, has had his military career defined by the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. As a young man, he served alongside U.S. Marines in Konar and Kandahar before being one of the first to join the elite commandos unit when it was established in early 2007.
He said that despite what the peace deal may say, he does not believe the United States will completely leave anytime soon.
“I fought alongside the Americans, and many American troops fell beside me. We spilled blood together. You cannot describe that high level of trust,” he said.
He cannot imagine U.S. forces would draw down to zero in the 14 months prescribed by the peace deal.
“I trust they will withdraw in a more accountable and responsible way,” he said.
Ahmadi said he is most concerned with the lack of a provision in the deal to leave behind a small U.S. counterterrorism force in Afghanistan. He said Afghan troops are still dependent on close U.S. support for counterterrorism operations.
“We will have some type of insurgency or terrorism in this part of the world forever,” he said.
“Leaving counterterrorism [forces in Afghanistan] helps us and it helps them,” he said, referring to the United States and other NATO members. Without assistance in that area, he said he fears much higher levels of violence.
Like many of the other Afghan officials and civilians interviewed for this story, Ahmadi said a quick, complete American withdrawal would be a move similar to the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, after which Afghanistan collapsed into years of bloody civil war.
“I think that Americans are wiser than this and won’t make the same mistake,” he said.
Koofi, the prominent women’s rights activist, also hit tones of optimism despite her concerns for the future.
“But we decided this is just the first step,” she said. When the Afghan government begins its own talks, she said she is hopeful they will manage to extract more concessions from the Taliban regarding women’s rights and democratic values.
“Our battle starts now,” she added with a smile.
Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.