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.
Negotiations may not secure even this. They could fail if the Taliban feel emboldened to try to win the war outright. They could fail if U.S. partners and the Afghan government feel so demoralized that the current order implodes, leaving the cities open to Taliban control. They could fail simply because the Afghan negotiators are unable to agree on a constitutional structure that enshrines this kind of decentralized politics. Failure on constitutional structure is a real risk, because the successful tools in other countries, like decentralization, federalism, proportional representation, and parliamentary government, are (for reasons I have never understood) anathema to most Afghan politicians.
They could also fail because of political wrangling among non-Taliban actors. President Ashraf Ghani’s term of office expires in May. There will not be an election before then. As a result, the government’s legitimacy will be diminished and hot presidential politics extended, making any intra-Afghan dialogue with the Taliban even more difficult. The Taliban will be tempted by Afghanistan’s history of terrible and divisive elections to see if they can further weaken the Afghan state and constitutional order just by waiting.
So far, there have been more bumps than road in the intra-Afghan process. An effort to convene an informal meeting of Afghans in Doha—each speaking in their “personal capacity” in a time-honored dodge to overcome challenges of recognizing the other side in a peace process—collapsed in mid-April amidst mutual recriminations, all with some merit. Ghani convened a consultative Loya Jirga to agree on a plan for negotiating with the Taliban at the end of April, but the effort to mobilize a traditional Afghan decision making forum fell flat from the beginning. A key organizer was the face of institutional fraud in the 2014 presidential elections, and most key opposition figures refused to attend, including former President Hamid Karzai, all of the current presidential candidates, and even Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive Officer of Ghani’s government. (Though Abdullah’s giant portrait, oddly, hung alongside Ghani’s on the dais.)
But the United States does have leverage to use in service of success. Most importantly, leverage provided by the continued U.S. troop presence will not diminish markedly until the very end of the drawdown. The bulk of the fourteen thousand U.S. troops now in Afghanistan are dedicated to missions with little political meaning, like the expensive and largely failed effort to build a modern Afghan National Security Force. With a tiny fraction of the current commitment—maybe just a few hundred troops—the United States can retain its most important threat to the Taliban, the counterterrorism forces successfully targeting Taliban leadership.
In addition, most Afghan leaders, including much of the Taliban leadership, recognize that they will remain dependent on the U.S.-led international donor community. No Afghan state has ever been able to mobilize sufficient domestic resources to keep the peace. When they succeed, it is by distributing international funds—British, Soviet, or American—to the regions. The promise of continued international support and the threat of its withdrawal are leverage to encourage and shape an intra-Afghan settlement.
The need for international financial support will remain a sticky long-term conundrum for the United States. The Afghan Government is already deeply corrupt and guilty of terrible human rights abuses. The presence of U.S. and NATO forces has forced donors, grudgingly, to overlook these failings. A government with strong Taliban participation and less day-to-day U.S. influence can only be worse, but if the international community responds by cutting off funds, whatever political and security accommodations Afghans reach among themselves will collapse.
Without being Pollyannaish, the United States should first and foremost use its influence to ensure broad Afghan representation in intra-Afghan talks, with a special focus on women, minorities, and other groups at special risk in a peace settlement.
Using U.S. leverage to craft an Afghan settlement demands incredible deftness in both Washington and Kabul. More, certainly, than either administration has yet displayed.
In particular, Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib’s public attack on Ambassador Khalizad and U.S. policy more generally is a disaster for Afghan policymakers. Even (or especially) if Kabul feels (or is) insufficiently consulted on U.S.-Taliban talks, its worst move is to advertise the distance between themselves and their main patrons. Ghani should instead ostentatiously embrace the U.S.-led peace effort, painting Ambassador Khalizad as his agent in the effort. If Ghani persuades other Afghan leaders, the Taliban, or regional actors that he and his government are not important to the United States, he and his government will quickly become unimportant to all of them.
Every civil war is a regional proxy war, and Afghanistan is no exception. Most famously, the Taliban depend on extensive support from Pakistan, but Iran, India, Russia, and the Central Asian states all have clients, too.
A quick rundown – without, of course, any endorsement—of each power’s perception of their interests in Afghanistan:
Pakistan—by far the most dangerous and influential regional player—wants enough influence over the border areas and over Afghan national security policy to believe that they have “strategic depth” and assurances against Indian intelligence infiltration or any Indian role in the Afghan security forces. Pakistan also has concerns about Afghan border claims and claims to the loyalty of some Pakistani ethnic groups, and at a minimum they evaluate any peace agreement based on whether the resulting political arrangements in Afghanistan would be inherently hostile to these Pakistani interests.
Iran wants to make sure that the United States cannot use bases in Afghanistan against Iran. Iran and Afghanistan are also deeply integrated in ways that Iran can find threatening. A huge Afghan diaspora in Iran is economically important but also eases narcotics trafficking—Iran may have the world’s worst opiate addiction problem. And Iran is worried about anti-Shi’a extremist groups like the Taliban adopting a regional agenda.
Russia is also worried about U.S. influence and about the potential for terrorism and extremist ideology to spread through Central Asia and potentially into Russian Muslim communities.
India wants to establish its position as a regional power with much greater economic, political, and cultural sway than its Pakistani rival, and it wants to limit the expansion of Pakistani-supported militant safe haven in Afghanistan.
China wants to protect its “all weather friend” in Pakistan, but it can be schizophrenic about whether that means helping Pakistan achieve its policy goals or protecting Pakistan against its own worst instincts in supporting ill-controlled militant proxies.
The five Central Asian states are all to one degree or another concerned about terrorism and extremist ideology, as well as narcotics and other trafficking.
It is worth noting that for all the powers worried about extremism, militancy, terrorism, trafficking, and other wages of Afghan disorder, there could be a virtuous cycle as they see the value of a political settlement and provide support. Historically, vicious cycles have been more common, as regional powers support their own proxies to achieve short-term security goals at the cost of continuing insecurity and ungoverned spaces.
For many years, conventional wisdom was that every regional country has the following preferences:
First choice, my side wins on the battlefield or at the negotiating table.
Second choice, the war continues.
Third choice, the other guy’s client is advantaged.
Under these conditions, a stable settlement would be hard to reach. Any disgruntled party would be able to find a foreign sponsor willing to support their ambitions, even at the risk of continued war. Recently, there have been indications that the regional players are becoming more concerned about the costs of chaos in Afghanistan—especially as they have become convinced that the United States may in fact actually leave.
Nevertheless, regional actors will disrupt any peace settlement if they feel it endangers their most important strategic interests. Avoiding this requires extensive consultations between the regional countries and Afghan leaders to create transparency and confidence in the peace process and to identify and communicate potential red lines. The international community, and especially the United States, have roles to play in regional dialogue, alternatively offering assurances or applying pressure to keep Afghanistan’s neighbors on side, or at least on the sidelines.
Unfortunately, given poisonous relations with Iran, Russia, and Pakistan and trade tensions with China and India, the United States is undermining its potential as a diplomatic broker. As with most problems, no other player can fill the void—but many will audition for the role.
Even a skillfully managed regional dialogue will confront a dire obstacle. Iran, Pakistan, and Russia will each need to decide whether their Afghan policy is to be guided by their interests vis-à-vis Afghanistan or by a deeper need to confound Washington. Withdrawal from Afghanistan will give them each many opportunities to do so.
This is where the contradictions of “America First” become so painfully evident—it is a fantasy of U.S. power that denies the need to make hard decisions about priorities. It is hard to share the burden when you pick fights with prospective burden-sharers.
The above description may seem irredeemably complicated, encouraging policymakers to think that it is not time for a real peace process.
This would be a tragic mistake in a long series of tragic mistakes. The negotiation underway now was available on better terms in 2011 and 2012. The United States had more leverage then, and the Obama administration better organized to use it. How many people have lost their lives in the meantime? More than five hundred five hundred U.S. and coalition soldiers and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians. According to Ghani, forty-five thousand Afghan soldiers and police officers have died since 2014.
As a whole, the U.S. government was happier with the risks of the status quo, of the forever war, than with the risks of a peace process, and so direct U.S.-Taliban dialogue on the core issues of the conflict was never broached during the Obama Administration.
A lot can go wrong in peace negotiations, and the best outcomes are far from ideal, but there is a way to end this longest of wars so that U.S. security interests are met and Afghanistan can develop—slowly and haltingly, no doubt, but with less violence.
Ambassador Bill Burns has written about “indiscipline” in the use of American power, and of a long-term, dangerous willingness to treat diplomacy as an “afterthought.” Afghanistan is a blood-soaked example.