Despite Flaws, the 2020 U.S.-Taliban Deal Should Still Be Implemented

Despite Flaws, the 2020 U.S.-Taliban Deal Should Still Be Implemented

Insisting on the implementation of the deal should be the firm basis for U.S. and international engagement with the Taliban, due to key provisions it contains.

Two years ago, on February 29, 2020, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation representing the United States, signed a deal with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Chief of Taliban’s Political Office in Doha representing the Taliban, to end the twenty-year U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Since the signing, pundits and foreign policy practitioners from all sides have widely criticized the deal for its flawed language and unnecessary concessions. One needs little legal background or foreign policy expertise to identify these flaws—a mere glance at its contents and it almost appears as if its terms were primarily dictated by the Taliban at the time. Indeed, on the day of the signing, the Taliban celebrated their victory by marching with their flag from their political office to the Sheraton Hotel, where the two parties inked the agreement in front of international observers. That march was a harbinger of things to come, culminating with the Taliban’s complete takeover of Afghanistan on August 15, 2021.

Despite the deal’s deep flaws, the Biden administration should still insist that the remaining parts of the deal be implemented; namely, intra-Afghan negotiations and the termination of support for foreign terrorist groups. Implementing these provisions could eventually lead to the formation of an “inclusive” Afghan government that could guarantee basic human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan. Such a government would be able to attain recognition from the international community and begin the difficult process of Afghanistan’s post-war reconstruction, serving the long-term interests of both the United States and Afghanistan. 

The Flaws of the Deal

The 2020 agreement has six primary flaws.

First, the whole concept of the United States directly negotiating, and eventually signing, a deal with the Taliban—a non-state actor under U.S. and UN sanctions, and led by internationally designated terrorists—was not a good look for Washington. The United States can certainly engage with non-state actors around the world, but only tactically to achieve its immediate, and short-term objectives. Getting into public negotiations such as those in Doha, and eventually signing a deal with the Taliban that indirectly legitimized them and elevated their status from non-state to a state actor, proved to be inimical to both U.S. and Afghan interests.

Second, throughout the text of the deal—which was negotiated without the participation of the Afghan government—the turn-of-phrase “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which the U.S. doesn’t recognize as a State but is known as the Taliban” appears repeatedly, but there is not a single reference to the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” which the U.S. did recognize as a State. There was a missed opportunity to mention the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in the prisoner’s exchange clause—itself deeply problematic, but the deal instead refers to the “prisoners from the other side.” These textual errors represented wins for the Taliban, who never wanted to hear, see, or talk about the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. This wholesale disregard for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was deeply demoralizing for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). The subsequent, sudden collapse of government and the rapid victory of the Taliban in August 2021 arguably derived in some part from that demoralization.

Third, it was not wise to include the prisoner exchange in the U.S.-Taliban deal as a trust-building measure. That should have been the first item on the agenda at the intra-Afghan negotiations, since the relevant prisoners were being held under the jurisdiction of the Afghan government. The inclusion of the prisoner exchange in the deal unnecessarily caused many months of challenging and at times difficult moments in the bilateral relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The Taliban prioritized the releases and may have engaged substantively in intra-Afghan negotiations to achieve them. Instead, the Taliban got an exponential win, as the insurgents received their prisoners and the Ghani administration’s relations with Washington grew deeply strained. The United States put pressure on the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to release the Taliban prisoners for the sake of implementing the deal, reinforcing the Taliban’s narrative that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was nothing but a U.S. puppet.

Fourth, the language that made Taliban accountable for passports and visas, while they were not in control of issuing such documents, sent a crushingly disheartening signal to various elements of the society, including the ANDSF, who interpreted it as an indication the United States no longer stood by the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and instead considered the Taliban as the legitimate Afghan state. No number of references to an “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”—which the United States doesn’t recognize as a state but is known as the “Taliban”—could alter that interpretation. 

Fifth, the text of the deal was a surprise to Afghans (many in the U.S. government) and troop-contributing NATO allies, who only obtained a copy mere days before the signing and saw that the deal contained references to withdrawing “all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel.” These non-military elements were not supposed to be on the negotiating table. If the Taliban wanted the U.S. combat forces to withdraw, and if Washington and its allies were willing to withdraw their combat forces, then that should have sealed the deal. Including these non-military elements meant that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and especially the ANDSF, were on their own, which only further demoralized the Afghan forces, especially the Air Force, as they were fully dependent on contractors. 

Sixth, there is no verification mechanism for the United States to hold the Taliban accountable on their counter-terrorism commitments, especially their cutting of ties with Al Qaeda. The deal rests solely on the Taliban’s verbal commitments to instruct their commanders to avoid cooperation with Al Qaeda. Any questions about the Taliban’s commitment to uphold this portion of the agreement were answered when the U.S. operatives unilaterally found and eliminated Al Qaeda leader Aiman Al-Zawahiri in a Taliban safehouse in Kabul

And Yet…

Despite its many flaws, the deal did contain valuable elements, especially the repeated references to the initiation of the intra-Afghan negotiations, which was to lead to the establishment of a “Post-settlement Afghan Islamic Government.” The United States and the rest of the international community should continue to insist that the Taliban honor and implement this important provision of the agreement.

Insisting on implementation of the promises made in the 2020 U.S.-Taliban Deal—especially the formation of an inclusive Afghan government and the termination of assistance and sanctuary to foreign terrorist groups—should be the firm basis for U.S. and international engagement with the Taliban. Any move toward diplomatic recognition or reconstruction assistance should be based on this concept. 

The plight of the 40 million Afghans, especially women and girls, as well as the sacrifices of countless Afghans, Americans, and Western allies and their families demand that we do more to bring real peace to Afghanistan. The investments of blood and treasure have the potential to pay dividends so long as the United States seeks to encourage real progress. 

Such progress can be achieved by completing the implementation of the 2020 Deal; the United States and its Western allies should help jump-start a UN role in catalyzing the intra-Afghan negotiations between the Taliban and all of the Afghan factions; including the women, and youth, that could lead to the establishment of an inclusive Afghan government.

Such a broadly represented government, which would include the Taliban, can then agree on establishing a verifiable on-the-ground mechanism to monitor and detect terrorist threats. Such a government could then be recognized by the international community and could facilitate the re-opening of the diplomatic outposts necessary to engage directly with the Afghan population. This would lay the basis for helping the new government with technical, economic, and security assistance needed to deliver basic services to the people of Afghanistan, and build a stable and sustainable future. 

Sadiq Amini is a program manager at ORF America, overseeing external relations and outreach. He was previously a political assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and worked at Afghanistan’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations. The views expressed here are strictly his own.

Image: Leonid Altman/Shutterstock.