A Draft Peace Framework
U.S. and Taliban negotiators reached a draft peace framework after six days of marathon talks in Qatar. This draft framework builds on years of direct and indirect talks between the two parties. According to media reports, the Taliban would be required to deny safe haven to international terrorist groups like al-Qaida and the self-proclaimed Islamic State. In exchange, the United States would withdraw forces from Afghanistan within eighteen months of a final agreement.
The U.S. negotiator, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, said the framework is based on the understanding that the Taliban must enter into direct talks with Kabul and, at the same time, agree to a ceasefire. Details of the U.S.-Taliban draft framework, including whether it contains assurances about the rights of Afghan women or minorities, have not been disclosed, nor have the terms of monitoring and verification, which would be part of any final agreement.
The fact that the United States and the Taliban reached the framework without the direct participation of the Afghan government has stoked controversy. The Afghan government has long asserted that all peace talks must be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led,” but this claim is undermined by Kabul’s dependency on international military and financial support. The next test will be whether and how the Afghan government become core actors in the dialogue.
What Was Notable About the Talks
This is a moment of cautious hope for Afghanistan’s future, though optimism is still a ways off. There are three main reasons why these negotiations are important.
U.S. Troop Presence On the Table
The U.S. troop presence appears to be up for discussion for the first time. Previous U.S. efforts to negotiate with the Taliban were impeded by a lack of willingness to put concessions on the table, including the U.S./NATO military presence. In the past, every U.S. administration (including this one) chose to press for military advantage before pursuing peace. U.S. President Donald Trump’s desire to exit Afghanistan has disrupted this self-reinforcing dynamic and opened new space for diplomacy, even if unintentionally.
The Taliban Are Serious About Making a Deal with the United States
The Taliban are aggressively publicizing talks with the United States. They are framing the talks in triumphant terms as the end of what they say is the foreign occupation of Afghanistan. In addition, the appointment of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as deputy emir and head of political affairs is significant, particularly after his years-long detention in Pakistan. Mullah Baradar was founding Taliban emir Mullah Omar’s closest confidant. He led previous peace overtures to Kabul before being captured in Karachi by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (allegedly in cooperation with the CIA) in early 2010. Mullah Baradar’s association with the founding leader could have a palliative effect on hardliners in the movement who have been skeptical of talks. But his lengthy detention by Pakistan likely could lead some on all sides of the talks to doubt his loyalty.
The Taliban Accepted as a Unified Political-Military Actor
There is mounting evidence of Taliban unity, contrary to hopes that the movement would splinter due to sustained pressure on the battlefield and leadership transitions. In June 2018, the Taliban’s top leadership, the Quetta Shura, ordered and carried out a unified Eid ceasefire across the country. And in 2014, political representatives of the Taliban showed they could negotiate and execute a complex military agreement in real time, when they exchanged captured U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl in return for five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.
Next Steps to Watch For
For the talks to succeed, current efforts will require the alignment of the Afghan government, the Taliban, the United States and its international partners, and regional stakeholders. The existing U.S.-Taliban draft framework is an important step forward, but the hard choices are still to come.
Elections Could Make an Afghan Government Consensus Harder
The Afghan government, thus far barred from talks by the Taliban, is going to have to reach a consensus on its negotiating positions. That debate will be public, perhaps disruptively so, because of the Afghan presidential elections scheduled for July 2019. The terms and process for engaging the Taliban will be front and center for the elites contesting the election.
There is a high risk that the coming elections could be disastrous. Each election since 2004 has produced a weaker government than the one it replaced. Or the elections could galvanize a national consensus behind peace, perhaps due to the increasing war weariness of the Afghan people. The challenge for Afghan elites vying for office is to rise above short-term, competitive interests and pull a consensus together. Trump’s irascible fixation on drawing down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan could focus Afghan elites’ attention on peace.
The other question is whether elite power brokers will consent to an agreement that forces them to share authority (and profits) with enemies. The long war has left deep mutual enmities, particularly across ethnic lines among Afghan power brokers. For a peace process to succeed, these animosities will need to be overcome, though never forgotten.
But many of these same elites may chafe at the consequences of peace. Economic, military, and political dividends of rule will need to be split among a broader group, including recent blood enemies. It was a relatively easy choice to accommodate rivals and even enemies when assistance and foreign contracts were increasing and seemingly bottomless. It will be harder to reach such accommodations as these cash flows dwindle. To stretch a metaphor—the question is whether these power brokers will accept the notion that splitting the shrinking pie is better than not having a pie to split at all.
Taliban Intentions Will Be Tested Immediately
The draft peace framework is well-designed to test the Taliban leadership’s intent. The leadership shura will need to answer the U.S. challenge to agree to a ceasefire (by freezing the battlefield and negotiating positions) and engage in direct talks with Kabul. Without a ceasefire agreement, the conflict could become more vicious still, as the Taliban presses its battlefield gains for leverage in talks. This is particularly concerning because Afghanistan was already the most lethal conflict in the world in 2018, accounting for 30 percent of global conflict fatalities, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
The Taliban benefit from current battlefield trends, often described as a deteriorating stalemate. A ceasefire agreement, as the United States has demanded, would be a dramatic concession, even for only a portion of the prescribed period. One point of leverage is that Taliban leaders may be convinced that a U.S. withdrawal without a peace agreement would be a disaster, perhaps because they accept that Afghanistan will rely on international support for years to come. If they achieve power in Afghanistan again, The Taliban would prefer to do so without sacrificing international donor support and political legitimacy. Whether Taliban leaders believe they need a full peace agreement with Kabul to achieve that veneer of international credibility they lacked during their previous rule is unknown, but the framework established by the U.S. negotiating team is a smart way to test Taliban intentions in the near term.
The U.S. Withdrawal Schedule Is a Valuable Bargaining Chip
The United States will need to manage a bipartisan, civilian-military consensus that is extremely rare under the current administration. The first question is whether Trump will insist on an immediate and unconditional withdrawal, ignoring the peace process.
A partial withdrawal, returning to pre-2016 troop levels, may not be disastrous to the peace process. There is a risk that it could destabilize the Afghan armed forces’ battlefield capabilities, and thus Kabul’s confidence and negotiating position, given that Afghan forces still depend on air support from U.S. and coalition forces. But a limited withdrawal could also be used as a diplomatic instrument, perhaps as an intermediate concession alongside the start of direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban.
Alternatively, if Trump persists in his desire to draw down U.S. military forces quickly from Afghanistan, he could use a Taliban assurance that it will deny safe haven for terrorist groups who could threaten the United States as a minimum pretext for withdrawal. That risk could be more likely if he thinks that Afghan political elites do not support his administration’s peace initiative. The irony is that Trump’s volcanic petulance could be constructive to this effort, if it can be channeled at all.
How to Handle Monitoring and Accountability
If a framework agreement is finalized, the challenge for the United States (and NATO) will be to define a post-drawdown presence in Afghanistan that allows for careful monitoring and accountability of the agreement’s various parties. This is a space where the UN should have a central role. To achieve a consensus, the administration will need to provide assurances that the draft framework offers a reasonable guarantee that the gains of the last seventeen years, including in terms of the rights of women and minorities, will be protected.
With or without a final peace agreement, U.S. counterterrorism efforts involving Afghanistan will continue, even after a peace settlement. The United States will likely demand an enhanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platform and access rights to strike against potential terrorist threats, until the Afghan state is stable enough to give Washington and other states confidence in its ability to prevent terrorists from operating in its territory. The Taliban’s desire for international legitimacy may be the strongest leverage available for earning the group’s consent to such a counterterrorism framework.
The Need for International Support
Washington will also need to bring along its broad coalition of international partners. Despite constant indications of Trump’s disdain, traditional U.S. allies and partners continue to play vitally important roles in Afghanistan. The United States is the largest single-country donor, but most international development assistance to Afghanistan actually comes from combined contributions of the World Bank, the EU, individual European states, and Japan. The survival of the Afghan state as constructed will depend on continuing foreign support.
Criticism of the draft peace framework has focused on speculation about the future of Afghan women and minorities. Concerns about the Taliban’s intentions in this regard are well founded. They must be central to the agenda of the serious intra-Afghan peace talks that this draft peace framework is meant to produce. The bottom line is that the United States and the rest of the international community will have a better chance of protecting the human development gains made in the country since 2002, and particularly a better chance of monitoring and influencing the treatment of women and minorities, under a responsible peace framework than they would without such an agreement.
What Other Countries in the Region Might Do
The effort to achieve this draft peace framework was made possible with the help of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar at various stages. Yet the framework does not make clear what role regional states will play in achieving a final settlement. Just as regional competition fueled Afghanistan’s long war, regional states have a role to play in resolving it.
Pakistan has been a central participant in all phases of Afghanistan’s long war. The Trump administration promised to pursue a pressure strategy aimed at punishing Islamabad for its malign behavior, including by allowing Taliban leaders and fighters to freely live and organize from its territory. But Pakistani civilian and military leaders probably feel optimistic about the current draft framework, as its pursuit delayed the escalation of this pressure campaign. Perversely, Pakistan may have actually benefited from Trump’s ineffectual belligerence, thanks to short-term economic relief from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and China meant to stave off (but not resolve) Islamabad’s growing financial crisis. The best-case scenario for Pakistan is likely a narrow agreement that does not force Islamabad to take responsibility for its past actions in Afghanistan.
China’s interests in Afghanistan are most closely aligned with Pakistan, although Beijing’s concerns about violent extremism and terrorism are out of step with Pakistani behavior. U.S. and Chinese diplomats have worked together to support an Afghan peace process, and Beijing will want to be involved enough to account for its counterterrorism and border security concerns. China has much to offer in terms of inducements to support a peace agreement in Afghanistan, particularly economically through Belt and Road Initiative investments in Pakistan (the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) or Central Asia (the Silk Road Economic Belt).
The Possibility of More Talks in Moscow
Russia will reportedly host a second round of Taliban talks in February 2019. It is not yet known whether the United States or the Afghan government will take part this time. But the Russian special representative for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, has said he wants to include senior Afghan leaders in the forum, even if Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his administration decline to join, as they did during the first round of Moscow-convened talks in November 2018. Such a gambit risks easing pressure on the Taliban and further bolstering its standing, but could be leveraged to help the U.S. diplomatic effort. The U.S. and Afghan governments should find ways to take advantage of Moscow’s efforts and show up to any Russia-hosted talks, even if only to deny the Taliban an uncontested boon.
Meanwhile, Iran is very likely to take part in any Moscow-led talks. Tehran has already demanded assurances from Kabul and the Taliban that its security and economic interests will be protected, particularly in western Afghanistan. Iran stands to benefit from the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO military forces, with or without an agreement.
For its part, India is likely concerned that any deal that could introduce the Taliban back into the Afghan government could dilute its political influence in Kabul. New Delhi’s hedge toward Iran, by investing in the construction of the Chabahar port (the only Iranian port with direct access to the Indian Ocean), could pave the way for a continuing economic role. But India would probably see a peace agreement, particularly one championed by Pakistan, as a short-term setback to its interests in Afghanistan.
It is a truth of U.S. policy on Afghanistan that there is no military solution to the conflict. But instead of putting the full power and resources of the United States behind a diplomatic push, successive administrations have chosen to put the military mission first. They have often deployed just enough resources to have an effect on the ground, while minimizing attention from increasingly weary constituents in the United States. It is long past time for a different approach.
The U.S.-Taliban draft framework is exactly the type of high-stakes diplomacy needed to end Afghanistan’s long war, or even just the U.S. period of that conflict, which is the longest war in U.S. history. Will the Taliban agree to negotiate with Kabul? Is a partial or complete ceasefire possible while talks take place? Can Afghan political leaders achieve a consensus approach to peace talks for the first time? If Afghan leaders and the Taliban enter into talks, is it possible to find an arrangement that allows the Taliban a political role yet protects the rights of all Afghans, including women and minorities? Can U.S. diplomats keep enough pressure on all sides to keep the process moving forward, while avoiding histrionic and self-destructive disruptions? Will regional states help foster an Afghan peace process as much or more than they simultaneously hedge against its failure? The hard choices are still to come.