Afghanistan has entered a period of intense political uncertainty. In December, President Donald Trump reportedly ordered the Pentagon to draw up plans for drawdown options including a complete troop withdrawal from the country. By March, bilateral talks between the United States, led by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban had “agreed in draft” on counterterrorism assurances the Taliban will provide to the United States and on U.S. troop withdrawal, addressing Washington’s key objectives. Kabul is not at the table, and its needs (an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire) were much more loosely “agreed in principle.” An informal intra-Afghan dialogue planned for Doha in April was canceled, and a Loya Jirga to demonstrate non-Taliban unity in Kabul instead laid bare deep divisions, with most opposition leaders refusing to attend.
With Afghanistan’s bedrock security relationship with the U.S. apparently in flux, now they must manage a set of constitutional political transitions with institutions that have never managed previous transitions without severe crises. Afghan parliamentary elections originally due in 2016 finally took place in October 2018. Results were only finalized in May for large parts of the country, including Kabul, amid claims of fraud and mismanagement. Presidential elections have already been postponed from April until September, meaning that President Ashraf Ghani’s term will end in May without a successor in place.
Afghans are worried that their hard-fought gains since 2001 may be lost in all this uncertainty. And they are right. The risks to Afghanistan, to the region, and to the interests of the United States and the international community, are very high.
The conundrum Khalilzad is trying to address is not new; it’s something I know firsthand. The current peace process in Afghanistan dates to President Barack Obama’s first term, which is when the Taliban reached out through circuitous connections in Qatar and Germany. At the time, I was managing Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s outreach to third countries to support U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and eventually responsible for the only successful U.S.-Taliban negotiation to date.
Trump, who was a presidential candidate at that time, was critical of the deal that the United States cut to free Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for the transfer of five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo to a kind of “house arrest” in Doha, falsely claiming that the Taliban leaders were “right now back on the battlefield, trying to kill everybody, including us.” In fact, the five are now integral parts of the negotiating team facing the United States in Doha.
Trump’s rhetoric was fairly typical. Then-mainstream Republicans were generally bitterly opposed negotiations with the Taliban. Like now, Afghanistan’s government was anxious about being cut out. Faced with opposition in both Kabul and Washington, we limited negotiations in a variety of ways. We restricted the topics of discussion to “confidence-building measures” like opening an official office acknowledging the Taliban political commission’s residence in Doha or winning Bergdahl’s release. At times, we agreed to work only through intermediary.
We had troops, money, international support, and teams led by some of America’s most storied diplomats. But under our self-imposed constraints, we never got close to a deal to end the war.
Now we are here, and the Trump-led peace process launched between the United States and the Taliban provides the best opportunity for a transition that will allow for Afghanistan’s peaceful political development. Nurturing the peace process should be the single-minded focus of United States, Afghan, and international policymakers.
For at least ten years, it has been U.S. dogma that there was no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. But there has been little examination if this dogma. There has been no clear understanding of what a political settlement might look like, what compromises it would require, and how it would be achieved. Too often, the term “political solution” has become a shorthand explanation for “the Taliban’s negotiated surrender,” which is a fantasy.
With Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and senior Taliban leader Mullah Baradar in Doha negotiating, the messy realities of peace cannot be elided.
A political settlement will require navigating three separate but interdependent negotiations: a security-focused bilateral negotiation between the United States and the Taliban; a political negotiation between Afghans; and, a regional negotiation that ensures Afghanistan’s six immediate neighbors and regional powers like India and Russia have a minimally sufficient stake in sustaining a negotiated outcome. This is not a unique framework—change the proper nouns and similar analysis would apply to most civil wars with a great-power involvement.
The Trump administration restarted the peace process by making a long overdue concession to the Taliban. After years of insisting that the Taliban initiate talks by negotiating with the Afghanistan government, the United States agreed to start with direct, bilateral talks with the Taliban.
This led quickly to an agreement in principle on a “peace framework” that trades the core goals of each side: for the Taliban, withdrawal of U.S. troops; for the United States, a commitment by the Taliban not to allow Afghan territory to be used again as a safe haven for international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Also part of the framework is the need for an intra-Afghan dialogue and a ceasefire. This last goal is critical for the United States to protect its counterterrorism interests.
The substance of this framework should make obvious that direct U.S.-Taliban talks were a necessary starting point. The Taliban want U.S. troops to leave, and that is not something Kabul can negotiate or deliver. The United States wants Afghans to take the lead role in policing their territory against international terrorists, and the parts of the Afghanistan most likely to provide safe haven are—and for the foreseeable future will continue to be—more under the Taliban’s control than Kabul’s. It is hard to see how a negotiation on such a central interest could be safely outsourced to partners in Kabul.
Fleshing out agreement in detail will be difficult. The timeline for U.S. withdrawal prompts as much disagreement within the two negotiating sides as between them. Most U.S. military and diplomatic leaders would like a slow drawdown, but Trump wants the war finished, and fast. Perhaps surprisingly, the same debate exists within the Taliban. Some Taliban leaders are looking to declare victory and want the United States to withdraw quickly. Others, fearing that a precipitous withdrawal would further destabilize Afghan politics and risk their interests, would not mind a small, low-profile U.S. military mission to last a little longer.
Even more difficult will be agreement on what precisely it means for the Taliban to deny safe haven to terrorist groups. Will they be required to capture, expel, or kill foreign fighters, or simply prevent them from organizing? Given that even the United States and its NATO allies have never fully succeeded in policing Afghanistan, how will the Taliban’s inevitable shortcomings be evaluated?
And, of course, who is a terrorist? Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told students in Iowa that “I have a team on the ground right now trying to negotiate with the Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan.” The Taliban deserve the opprobrium, but it does not ease Khalizad’s task to remind Taliban negotiators of how elastic the word “terrorist” can be.
Agreement on the peace framework was reached so quickly that some observers have been tricked into believing that a full peace agreement can also be concluded quickly. Two long rounds of talks are far from sufficient to end a war that has lasted (depending on how you count) either two decades or two generations.
Afghans need to reach an agreement about how they will govern their country once the United States and NATO have left. The United States cares about the content of this agreement, not least because too many Americans have died on Afghan soil to pretend that human rights, especially women’s rights, do not matter.
The United States also has a hard security interest in seeing a workable intra-Afghan agreement. If U.S. withdrawal simply accelerates the ongoing civil war, then some Afghan parties—even if not the Taliban—will welcome support from international terrorist groups. It was not the Taliban who invited Osama bin Laden back to Afghanistan in 1996, but current U.S. partners. The Taliban inherited him as they swept across Afghanistan later that year, eventually building a deep partnership with Al Qaeda. Politics makes strange bedfellows; civil war, stranger still.
A survivable intra-Afghan agreement is not about trusting the Taliban. Like our partners, they are not ten feet tall. Reaching an intra-Afghan deal is instead about crafting an agreed balance of power that reflects the real division of power in the country, so that defecting from the agreement in the future would impose dramatic costs and risks on any actor, Taliban or otherwise.
In the best-case outcome, Afghanistan would still be poor, poorly governed, and violent. Very different communities would govern themselves. Rural areas near the Pakistani border would remain highly conservative in both religious law and women’s rights. The north and west, and urban areas around the country, would continue to be more modern and cosmopolitan. This would not be a happy outcome, but neither would it be very different from current conditions in Afghanistan. The pace of social progress in different parts of the country has been decidedly mixed, even in territory controlled by the government.