After a year and a half of negotiations, the U.S. and Taliban have reached an interim agreement to reduce violence for a period of seven days. If that agreement holds, the two sides will formalize a pact that would lead to intra-Afghan negotiations and a phased U.S. troop withdrawal. Although the reduction in violence is an important achievement, it is but one step on a long, rocky road to peace, noted current and former senior U.S. officials on February 18 at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
“We believe we have established the conditions that can transform the trajectory of the conflict,” said Molly Phee, the U.S. deputy special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation. Phee’s remarks at the Institute were the first official statement from the U.S. negotiating team on the pending agreement. “We should do all we can to not let this opportunity pass,” she added.
How We Got Here
Back in July 2018, President Trump made what USIP Senior Advisor Scott Smith deemed a “bold, but risky decision” to open negotiations with the Taliban. Those talks, led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, nearly reached a deal in September 2019 but were scuttled by the president after a Taliban attack killed an American serviceman.
President Trump authorized the resumption of negotiations in November and challenged the Taliban to demonstrate that they were capable of implementing a significant reduction in violence, according to Phee. In response, the Taliban conducted consultations with its political, military and religious leadership in December. Then the group proposed a reduction of violence to the U.S., which formed the basis of the agreement announced last week. The agreement “serves as a test period of the Taliban’s intent and control of their forces,” said Phee.
The deal, stressed Phee and other former U.S. officials, is conditions-based. “The Taliban have to be held accountable to manage their own and impose discipline,” said Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration. If the de-escalation holds for a period of seven days, the U.S. and Taliban will sign a formal agreement on the withdrawal of U.S. troops and Taliban guarantees against harboring terrorists. Then, within a period of 10 days, intra-Afghan negotiations on a political settlement will begin.
The Real Challenge: Intra-Afghan Talks
The U.S.-Taliban deal opens the door to the complicated intra-Afghan negotiations process. “The hope is that the government appoints a delegation that is inclusive of the opposition, civil society, women and youth,” said USIP Board Chair Stephen J. Hadley, a former national security advisor for President George W. Bush. Ensuring intra-Afghan talks are inclusive of all Afghan society is seen as critical to not only achieving a sustainable peace, but to protecting the post-2001 gains Afghan society has made.
Afghan women have made clear that they are not willing to go back to the pre-2001 days and that their inclusion in the peace process is critical. The Institute has worked to equip Afghan women who could be part of an intra-Afghan dialogue with the negotiation skills they would need in such talks. “When women are at the table, peace processes work better,” said Flournoy.
Just what the Afghan government and civil society delegation will look like has been up in the air. That may have been cleared up somewhat this week when Afghanistan’s election commission finally announced that incumbent President Ashraf Ghani won the September 2019 presidential election. It could help the non-Taliban side to have a clear leader with a fresh mandate, but many Afghans fear that Ghani could exclude them from the talks.
What emerges from the intra-Afghan talks and who will hold power is up to Afghans themselves. While the Taliban will assuredly push for an emirate style of governance and strict adherence to their version of Islam, the Afghan government and civil society will defend the democratic gains the country has made. How the two sides can meet in the middle is the ultimate question.
Phee said that the U.S. would “support whatever consensus the Afghans are able to reach about their future political and governing arrangements.” But, there is wide acknowledgement that even getting there will be an immense challenge. “This is just the first step,” said Flournoy. “The really difficult part now is intra-Afghan talks.”
“At the end of the day,” said Hadley, “Afghans are going to have to make peace happen—this is a test of the Afghan nation.”
Testing the Taliban’s Sincerity
It remains uncertain if the Taliban will even adhere to the reduction in violence. Dissenting field commanders could attempt to stoke confrontation with U.S. or Afghan forces. “I don’t think anyone has a Pollyannaish view of the Taliban. They will only [agree to] an acceptable peace if they’re forced into it. What is likely to force them into it? A recognition that we won’t leave unless … there is a sensible and sustainable agreement,” said Hadley.
The hope is that the Taliban, exhausted by years of war, moderated their views and are willing to compromise. “The indications of moderation in the Taliban position largely come from interactions with the Taliban in Doha with the political commission … The whole structure of the peace process has to be based on testing premises and some of the premises to be tested are whether the view of the Taliban out of Doha is the accurate one,” said Rick Olson, a former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who moderated the discussion.
Flournoy said that the U.S. can use long-term assistance as a source of leverage over the Taliban. Afghanistan cannot survive without that assistance. So, the U.S. can condition it on the outcome of intra-Afghan talks, pressing the Taliban to ensure that whatever government emerges protects and promotes human rights.
Spoilers and Supporters
Regional countries will also play an important role in the peace process. Phee and Hadley addressed the role of Pakistan and Iran at length:
- Phee on Pakistan: “Pakistani support has been positive and real. The Pakistanis assisted in opening an important channel to the Taliban leadership for our negotiations and have been clear on the importance of reducing violence … Pakistan’s support of this process has allowed for some positive momentum in our bilateral relationship. But we have been clear that further steps to build the U.S.-Pakistan relationship will remain directly tied to Pakistan’s responsiveness on our core regional security concerns, particularly in Afghanistan.”
- Hadley on Iran: “[Iran] is threatened by the drug problem that comes out of Afghanistan … and it’s going to be Afghanistan’s neighbor long after this conflict is over. So, I would argue that it is in Iran’s interests to be supportive of whatever the Afghans can come up with in terms of a sustainable peace … There are a lot of reasons why Iran ought to decide that being a spoiler of Afghan peace is not in the long-term interest of their people.”
Afghanistan has been at war for four decades and its people are ready for the conflict and violence to end. In 2019 alone, the civilian death rate was almost seven per day, the U.S. dropped more than 7,000 missiles and bombs and the Taliban and other insurgents carried out 25,000 attacks. This initial reduction in violence will provide a period of relief for Afghans. But the road ahead is fraught with a host of obstacles. While there is much work to be done, this interim U.S.-Taliban deal offers “a chance of a chance” at building a sustainable peace, said Hadley. “That’s something we haven’t had before.”