Afghanistan's Long Road to Peace

Afghanistan's Long Road to Peace

How much sway does Pakistan hold over the Afghan Taliban?


THE FIRST significant round of negotiations between the Afghan state and the Taliban essentially came to an end on May 21, with the killing by an American drone strike of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour on the Pakistani border with Afghanistan. The Obama administration, it appeared, had abandoned hopes of successful talks with the Taliban in favor of a military-led strategy of decapitating the movement and provoking its fragmentation as a result. Leading figures in the Afghan government and security forces have urged Washington to adopt this strategy.

The death of Mullah Mansour did not fracture the Taliban, as hoped. Its leadership has come together to choose a new titular head, Maulavi Haibatullah Akhunzada, a respected religious figure, with an enhanced role for his deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, successor to his father Jalaluddin as effective leader of the formidable Haqqani network. This leadership would seem to be, if anything, even less pragmatic than that of Mullah Mansour. Meanwhile, Washington has emphasized the Haqqani network’s links to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.


Afghanistan will likely endure years more of conflict, and the United States will have to retain air power and special-operations forces to prop up the faltering Afghan National Army and to prevent the country from succumbing to its fissiparous tendencies. America will also almost certainly have to intervene repeatedly in Afghan politics in order to prevent political and ethnic rivalries from tearing the state apart, as they have done so often in the past, and—judging by what I saw and heard during recent visits to Afghanistan—as they are quite capable of doing again, even without the Taliban’s help.

The collapse of the peace process has led to further deterioration of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and between Pakistan and the United States. The Afghan government, and most U.S. officials, are convinced that Pakistan was never sincere about the peace process, and that its strategy is based on supporting the Taliban. The Pakistani establishment is convinced that Washington and Kabul were never sincere about the peace process, and that their strategy was to use peace talks to dismember the Taliban and provoke Pakistan into launching a new war against those remnants on its own soil. There is a good deal of truth to both propositions—but not the whole truth. Enough nuances remain in all sides’ positions to accommodate a renewed peace process, though probably not for several years.

Before peace talks can resume, the basic negotiating positions of the Taliban and the Afghan government will have to move a great deal closer together. Given the distance between them at present, there was never a chance of an early agreement; President Ashraf Ghani was foolish to give an impression otherwise. His mismanagement of expectations has led to increased disillusionment and bitterness on the Afghan side. Almost all peace processes have lasted a very long time and have been accompanied by continued fighting as even the more pragmatic elements on both sides seek to improve their bargaining positions.

This does not, however, make such initial talks (and the “track two” informal discussions between nonofficial elements that often run in parallel) pointless. Without them, it is impossible to establish the credibility of the negotiating partners, build basic mutual trust and learn the irreducible “red lines” of both sides. Without this, one cannot know whether there is anything to talk about, or whether the basic aims of the two sides are so utterly opposed that the only outcome can be complete victory for one, or—in deeply ethnically divided societies—partition and the exchange of ethnic populations.

In the case of the Afghan peace process over the past two years, unrealistic expectations of early progress were closely linked to unrealistic expectations in the United States and Pakistan that the other country is willing and able to push its respective clients towards a settlement, and will abandon them or (in the case of Pakistan) turn on them if they fail to obey. In the case of U.S. and Afghan government approaches to Pakistan, these hopes were not accompanied by either pressure or incentives on anything like the scale that would have been necessary to get Islamabad to reverse its long-term strategy and to adopt a position that most Pakistanis would see as acutely unfavorable for Pakistan.


WHAT ARE the basic positions of the Afghan government and the Taliban when it comes to peace? It is not possible to speak with certainty in either case, for the simple reason that neither side has set out its peace terms. The Taliban is also, of course, extremely opaque and not in the habit of giving press conferences in which one can interact with its leaders. Nonetheless, from public statements and private meetings that I have conducted over the past three years with Afghan officials and with figures close to the Taliban, the following would seem to be a reasonably accurate representation of the present positions of President Ghani’s followers and of the more pragmatic elements in the Taliban.

The Afghan government has repeatedly stated its position that the Taliban must accept the constitution and lay down its arms, in return for which they would be accepted into politics and allowed to run for office. This would presumably be accompanied by an amnesty for Taliban members. The model appears to be the deal aimed at with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-i-Islami party. A delegation from the Hezb visited Kabul during my stay there in May and conveyed its terms: Hezb would abandon its campaign against the state and join the political fray in exchange for government jobs and homes for its fighters. Though Hekmatyar has since retracted the offer (citing a lack of commitment to the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces), Hezb representatives are already sitting in parliament.

The Taliban, however, sees Hezb’s approach as surrender. Everything I know of the Taliban, and have been told by people close to its members, indicates that surrender is not an option. Take the Haqqanis, who for almost forty years have fought with an iron resolve against two superpowers, their Afghan allies and any Afghan regime they regard as illegitimate. Is there anything in this record to suggest that they are going to give up now, when they think that they are gradually winning?

As to the Taliban’s own terms for peace, it is important to understand two things: the divisions among the Taliban concerning peace; and the distinction between points of principle and points of substance (or power) in their aims.

From interviews with figures close to the Taliban, I formed the impression that the key division among members over the peace talks does not jibe with what most Western analysts perceive. It is not simply a question of ideological “moderates” versus “hardliners.” On the one hand are those who believe that complete military victory is possible, leading to the restoration of the Islamic Emirate as it existed before its destruction in 2001; on the other hand are those who believe such a victory impossible, given the array of national and regional forces opposed to the Taliban and the changes in Afghan society that have taken place since 2001. People of the latter persuasion believe that sooner or later a peace settlement will have to be negotiated, if Afghanistan is to escape unending warfare and avoid de facto partition.

Even these Taliban adherents (whom Mullah Mansour was rumored to be among) are implacably opposed to anything that looks like surrender and are willing to go on fighting for a very long time in order to improve their position at the eventual negotiating table. Moreover, the boundary separating the two groups is not fixed but fluid because it is constantly being shaped by progress or the lack thereof on the battlefield and by perceptions of the fragility or durability of the government in Kabul. According to a Pakistani journalist who spent time with the Haqqani network earlier this year, whom I interviewed, the great majority of the commanders and fighters loyal to the Haqqanis are strongly opposed to peace talks and believe in fighting on to complete victory. If Sirajuddin Haqqani has a different view, he has not given any indication of it.

Nevertheless, from my own meetings, other published materials and the suggestions emanating from the Pugwash meetings with Taliban representatives, it is possible to cobble together the pragmatic Taliban’s minimal conditions. These can be divided into elements of principle and elements of power. Most Western analysis points to issues of principle as the main obstacles to an agreement. (Crucially, no one I have spoken with on the Taliban side has described the exclusion of international terrorists as an obstacle to peace, especially since ISIS appeared in eastern Afghanistan and began recruiting Taliban dissidents and launching murderous attacks.)

The chief points of principle for the pragmatic Taliban are the complete withdrawal of non-Afghan forces and a new constitution to be agreed by a national assembly (loya jirga) and premised on the notion that sovereignty comes from God.

Concerning the first point, the current U.S. basing agreement expires in 2024. So long as U.S. forces stick with that schedule—rather than retaining permanent bases as part of a strategic rivalry with China and Russia—the withdrawal question could be a moot point.

Concerning the second point, the constitution has already, in effect, been amended by the power-sharing agreement between President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. This is supposed to be ratified by a loya jirga. Moreover, this agreement creates a kind of prime ministerial position, which the pragmatic Taliban would clearly prefer since it allows the division of power between different forces represented in parliament. As to the supremacy of sharia law, this is recognized formally at least by a large number of Muslim states including some democracies; it should not be beyond the wit of man—or God—to devise a formula by which sovereignty comes from the divine but is exercised by the people.

Much more difficult are the issues of power—in the central government and, more importantly, in core Taliban strongholds. Chief among these issues is military force. The Taliban is not going to disarm. No one ever does in Afghanistan, unless they are defeated or dead. This has been emphatically true of the warlords and ethnic militias that Washington and the new Afghan state inherited in 2001. The Taliban would therefore have to be turned into an autonomous part of the Afghan security forces—as warlord forces have been in various parts of the country.

Territory subjected to these security forces would also see their elections fall under Taliban control. Leading supporters of the Afghan state in the core Taliban areas would be destroyed or forced to leave, possibly under the official banner of a new anti-heroin campaign, like that of 1999.

Central to the collapse of the latest peace process is the fact that the idea of accepting permanent armed forces and control of large parts of the country has been utterly unacceptable to the Afghan government and the great majority of its supporters. Such an arrangement, they said, would inevitably lead to a new war, with the government forces in a greatly weakened position. Surely, the Taliban would only pretend to accept such a compromise, would wait until U.S. forces had withdrawn and then launch a new attack to achieve total victory.

Analysts in Kabul told me that such a settlement could not be reached because it would radically change the terms of the patronage arrangements for the distribution of Western aid on which the present system is founded. A peace settlement would almost certainly lead to a reduction in existing levels of aid from the United States and Europe, thereby reducing the overall pool and increasing competition between groups. The introduction of the Taliban into a share of government would reduce the available patronage still further. In particular, it would greatly increase tensions over the issue of who represents the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, who enjoy a plurality of the population (most estimates put them between 40 and 45 percent, though almost all Pashtuns think they are an absolute majority).

Ghani has been heavily criticized by many Afghans and some Western observers for allotting too many jobs to Pashtuns (and in particular to Ghilzai Pashtuns, the loose tribal grouping from which he himself originates). He appears, however, to be merely following the logic of the power-sharing arrangement brokered by John Kerry in 2014, which involved a tacit assumption that the president must be Pashtun and that Abdullah (whose father was Pashtun and mother Tajik, but who was closely associated with the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance) would be compensated with a quasi–prime ministerial position. It seems, therefore, to be President Ghani’s view that he will favor the Pashtuns with jobs, and Abdullah can look after the rest. Pashtun forces long accustomed to these benefits are not eager to share their patronage spoils with the Taliban.


GIVEN THE deadlock in direct talks with the Taliban, both Washington and Kabul had to fall back on the strategy of persuading Pakistan to force the Taliban leadership to make peace on Afghanistan’s terms. Since Pakistan provides safe havens (well, more or less safe, as Mansour’s death demonstrates) and a limited measure of support for Taliban operations, Pakistan obviously has the ability to bring pressure to bear. Moreover, Pakistani support for the Taliban is not as strong as in the past. The rise of the Pakistani Taliban insurgency changed Pakistani military attitudes to the Afghan Taliban considerably since the 1990s, when Islamabad backed the group unconditionally and was instrumental in its rise to power.

Pakistan is also influenced by China. Though China is generally sympathetic to Pakistan’s agenda in Afghanistan, Beijing most definitely does not want Taliban rule over the whole country, which could then lead to a wave of Islamist militancy in Central Asia and Chinese Xinjiang. Finally, Islamabad’s successful offensive against the last Pakistani Taliban strongholds in North Waziristan in 2014–15 seemed to make possible further action against the Afghan Taliban. In pursuit of help against the Taliban, President Ghani wooed Pakistan intensively and even visited Pakistani military HQ in Rawalpindi, a move bitterly criticized by many Afghans.

This effort by Kabul and Washington foundered both because Ghani did not offer any real incentives to Pakistan and because of a set of interlinked Pakistani beliefs and goals, a kind of strategic dogma in Islamabad. Pakistani generals and officials believe that India is seeking to undermine Pakistan through Afghanistan, above all through support for the ethnic separatist rebellion in Baluchistan; that the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), is controlled by bitter enemies of Pakistan and is closely allied to India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing; that since the remaining leadership and cadres of the Pakistani Taliban were driven across the border into Afghanistan, they have become tools of the NDS against Islamabad (something that is also believed by many well-informed observers in Kabul, and was strongly implied by the arrest of a Pakistani Taliban leader, Latif Mehsud, in Afghanistan in March 2013 after he had been in contact with Afghan officials); that the Afghan state since 2001 has been dominated by Tajiks, and that its Pashtun leaders (presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani) have been impotent figureheads and American stooges; that the Afghan Taliban are the real representatives of the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and have strong support in the Pashtun territories; and that Kabul is hopelessly weak, the country is divided and dependent on Western support, and is bound to collapse.

Whether developments in Afghanistan lead to a peace settlement with the Taliban or anarchy and civil war, the Pakistani establishment is determined to ensure that the bulk of the Taliban will remain friendly to Pakistan. Islamabad believes that India, Iran and Russia will all acquire their own client groups in Afghanistan, that Pakistan will require the same and that the Taliban is the most viable contender. Central to Pakistani policy is an absolute determination not to fight another war against the Afghan Taliban on home soil, just when Islamabad has managed to end an extremely bloody war against the Pakistani Taliban, in which thousands of troops and police and tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives.

Any analysis of Islamabad’s strategy hinges on uncertainty over the patron-client dynamic between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban. The problem here is that statements by the Pakistani and the Afghan secret services are almost completely worthless. Until recently, Pakistan even denied giving shelter to the Taliban. During a March 1 talk at the Council on Foreign Relations, the prime minister’s foreign-affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz, justified harboring the Taliban leadership and their families. Only with the resulting leverage could Pakistan drag the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Western intelligence ought to be more reliable—but a close reading of WikiLeaks reveals that too much of its information comes originally from the NDS and from the interrogation of Taliban prisoners. I have little doubt that after a few days in NDS custody anyone would say whatever his/her captors wanted, as would prisoners in the hands of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI).

The difficulty of pinning down anything on the subject of Pakistani support—as opposed to shelter—was made abundantly clear during my latest visit to Afghanistan in May and June of this year. Concerning the source of a massive truck bomb in Kabul on April 19, which killed sixty-four people, one very well-informed Western official with an international organization told me that the truck had contained weapons-grade explosives, part of a consignment of almost a ton that the ISI gave to the Taliban earlier this year. Another equally well-informed Western official in the same organization told me that the bomb had been made from a base of ordinary nitrate fertilizer, and that only the detonator was weapons grade—nitrate fertilizer is freely available in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has been used in the past to make many bombs, including in Oklahoma City.

While safe havens in Pakistan have undoubtedly been of great importance to the Afghan Taliban, overall support has been much more limited and mostly limited to attacks on Indian targets conducted by the Haqqanis. If Western intelligence services are correct in assessing the Taliban’s annual budget between $300 and $600 million (around one-tenth of what the United States provides the Afghan security forces), then the Taliban can finance its own campaign from heroin and sympathizers in the Gulf without Pakistan’s help. So far, Taliban weaponry has also been limited and far beneath what the mujahideen in the 1980s enjoyed as a result of U.S., Pakistani and Saudi aid: rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and IEDs, but nothing heavier than that. In other words, the notion that Pakistan could assert greater pressure on the Taliban is obvious. That they could simply shut down the Taliban campaign is greatly exaggerated.

There is ample evidence, however, that the Pakistani intelligence relationship with the Taliban does go far beyond mere shelter. Credible sources from Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas told me that the leadership of the Haqqani network was indeed removed from North Waziristan after the Pakistani Army reconquered that territory in 2014—but they moved to the Tirah Valley in Khyber Agency, from there to Parachinar and then into Afghanistan. If true, this move could not possibly have taken place without the help, or at the very least acquiescence, of Pakistani intelligence.

In private, many Pakistani soldiers and officials explain that the terms set out by pragmatic Taliban interlocutors for peace are the most that the Taliban could ever be brought to accept and, therefore, that Pakistan will urge upon them. Senior officials say that at the very start of the peace process Islamabad laid down the following conditions, which they claim U.S. officials accepted: that Pakistan would influence the Taliban to come to the negotiating table, but would not try to force it to accept any given settlement; that such a settlement was for the Afghan government to propose; and that Pakistan would take no responsibility for the actual implementation of any agreement.


WHAT CAN Washington and Kabul do to change Islamabad’s approach? Kabul could take concrete measures to restrict Indian influence, for example by closing Indian consulates. This course was rejected by almost everyone with whom I spoke in Kabul, whether on the grounds of national pride and independence or because powerful forces in Afghanistan do in fact regard India as an essential future backer. Kabul could join the international community and finally recognize the Durand Line, the frontier drawn by the British Empire between Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan, as an international frontier (thereby also falling into line with the almost-universal international tradition of recognizing the borders left behind by colonialism). This was also rejected by almost everyone with whom I spoke in Kabul and Jalalabad, whether out of nationalist, irredentist passion (“the sacred soil of Afghanistan”) or because they feared that it would lead to insuperable fragmentation in the Afghan political system and provide a vehicle for mass protests that former president Karzai could use to overthrow the present power-sharing government and return to power.

Karzai has been using this issue assiduously in his rhetoric in recent months, and when the United States (which does recognize the frontier) suggested this to Karzai in 2007, his response was so furious that Washington dropped the idea and has never revived it. As for the prospect of the United States distancing itself from India and reinstating Pakistan as its chief regional ally, Islamabad’s spotty record and New Delhi’s key place in Washington’s strategy of containing Beijing make this scenario highly unlikely.

America’s ability to put economic pressure on Pakistan is severely restricted by China’s aid. The $46 billion promised in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and associated projects is more than three times greater than all U.S. nonmilitary aid since 2001. An expansion of the American drone campaign against the Taliban leadership raises the question of just how far the United States is prepared to go. If the leaders withdraw into major Pakistani urban centers, firing drones at them would bring about a collapse of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship (including crucially important cooperation against terrorist attacks aimed at the U.S. homeland) and further radicalize Pakistani society. The killing of Mullah Mansour may seem an American victory, but the best that U.S. officials with whom I have spoken have been able to come up with as justification is that “it hasn’t made things any worse than they were already.” Even that is not true, since the killing has increased the power of the Haqqanis.

Unfortunately, it seems likely that these differences cannot by their very nature be decided by negotiation, but only by “life itself” (as the Soviets used to say). Above all, this means changing the calculations of the Pakistani establishment and the Taliban leadership concerning the durability of the Afghan state and of U.S. support for it. Such a change could come about if four years from now the Taliban has still not captured and held a single provincial center; if the Afghan National Army remains resilient and American military support and European economic support hold firm; and if the present Afghan government, having survived until 2019, holds more-or-less legitimate elections leading to a relatively legitimate new government. At that point, Pakistani analysis will have been proved wrong, more Taliban fighters will be willing to surrender on terms and a peace along the lines envisaged by Kabul and Washington may be a possibility. If, conversely, Afghanistan faces recurrent internal political crises, elections are seen as illegitimate, U.S. support wanes and the Afghan army loses significant ground (or collapses altogether), Kabul and Washington will have to seriously reevaluate the terms put forward by Taliban pragmatists and by Pakistan.

Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and a visiting professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London. In the 1980s he was a British journalist in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. His most recent book is Pakistan: A Hard Country (2011). Between 2013 and 2016 he conducted five trips to Afghanistan for research.

Image: “070719-A-6849A-365 - Two Afghan National Army Soldiers talk with a local Afghan during Operation Saray Has July 19 near Forward Operating Base Naray, Afghanistan. The ANA worked with Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment (Airborne), during Operation Saray Has.