Editor’s Note: For more on the issues that will need to be addressed to achieve a sustainable peace in Afghanistan, check out USIP’s Afghan peace process issues paper series

Many peace processes experience at least short-term reversions to violence. Even a successful Afghan peace process will be at risk of the same, especially in the likely event that the United States and its allies continue to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Ideally, such troop reductions would move in parallel with de-escalatory measures by the Taliban and other armed actors on the ground. A healthy dose of realism is in order, however. Though the Taliban and others in Afghanistan are unlikely to ever fully disarm or demobilize, persistent resources and attention from the United States and its allies can help prevent any regression to full-scale violence during the years of any peace agreement’s implementation.

Policemen stationed at a guard post on Mazar-i-Sharif’s defensive walls in Balkh Province, Afghanistan, on Jan. 17, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Policemen stationed at a guard post on Mazar-i-Sharif’s defensive walls in Balkh Province, Afghanistan, on Jan. 17, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

As the Afghanistan peace negotiations (APN) progress, there is considerable focus on the details of the U.S. troop drawdown, but less attention is given to parallel moves the Taliban may make as the U.S. military capacity to challenge it diminishes. To ensure a lasting peace, the United States and its partners should strive to minimize the possibility that, once international forces withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban remobilize and seek a battlefield victory.

A Note on Terms

It is too early to map out how Afghanistan’s peace process will unfold in the coming years, but it is helpful here to anticipate a few “phases” that a successful process would likely include in some form. We see at least four:

  1. The “current period” of the APN;
  2. An “initial agreement” (i.e., some understanding among Afghan parties on how a political transition will proceed);
  3. A “temporary period” during which the initial agreement is implemented and the Taliban in some way join the Afghan polity; and
  4. A more “enduring arrangement” marking the end of the temporary period and the launch of a more permanent governing structure.

Milestones for the Taliban

There are at least five key steps one would want to see the Taliban take if they do not intend to revert to large-scale military conflict, and we posit when in the peace process it would be reasonable to expect the Taliban to take these steps.

  1. Announce a cease-fire. The Taliban are unlikely to agree to a nationwide cessation of hostilities before APN make significant progress, or perhaps until an initial agreement is reached. A cease-fire at this time would presumably be mutual, with the Taliban, Afghan government and foreign forces all ceasing hostilities against the others while retaining a capability for counterterrorism and self-defense.
  2. Declare end of war. Around the time of the initial agreement or during a temporary period, Taliban leaders and/or religious scholars might join with other Afghans and international partners to declare a more permanent end to the war, at least pending implementation of other key elements of the peace process.
  3. Relinquish weapons. Disarmament would likely be a key line of effort during a temporary period. Few expect the large-scale collection of personal weapons from Taliban fighters or other Afghans, but a program aimed at decommissioning heavy weapons and dismantling improvised explosive device (IED) factories might be viable. Some Taliban express openness to such a program because of the group’s support for a strong, singular government and disdain for irregular or parallel military structures.
  4. Units demobilize. Demobilization would also likely be a priority during a temporary period.  Distinct from the demobilization of individual fighters, this could take the form of the leadership ordering units to disband (akin to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC) or to retool for peacetime objectives (akin to Iraq’s Jaysh al-Mahdi). Some researchers note that allowing insurgent groups to remain intact can actually strengthen peace processes because the group structure gives insurgent leaders and fighters a sense of physical and/or economic security while potentially tumultuous political events play out.
  5. Fighters join the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Few disagree that individual Taliban should eventually have the right to join the army or police, if qualified. The Taliban may insist on more (i.e., allowing intact units to join). If so, key questions would include how to ensure the professionalism of these units and what role within ANDSF they would fill. Such integration could begin during a temporary period, and ideally would conclude with an apolitical standing force under an enduring governance arrangement.

Ideal Scenario

In an ideal scenario, any removal of remaining U.S. forces—and related changes in the posture of international and Afghan forces—would happen in tandem with the Taliban verifiably reducing their military capacities and dismantling their military structure. Key milestones in the U.S. process, loosely akin to the Taliban list above, could include the United States joining a cease-fire declaration, pulling back more completely to bases, incrementally withdrawing remaining troops, closing remaining bases and/or completing a full troop withdrawal. One “ideal” example of such a sequence might include:

  1. A cease-fire announcement, concurrent with announcements by the Taliban and other Afghans, including the government, at the time of the initial agreement.
  2. An indefinite pullback of U.S. and international forces to bases when the Taliban declare an end to the war, provided the cease-fire is enforced and violence remains contained.
  3. A partial troop withdrawal (with accompanying base closures) concurrent with the Taliban’s large-scale entry into an agreed process to integrate with Afghan forces and/or enter into an agreed disarmament and demobilization process. Partial troop withdrawal could correspond with entry into the process, or with subsequent progress.
  4. A full withdrawal only at the end of the peace process, when an “enduring arrangement” begins—and even then, only if both the United States and the legitimate Afghan government at that time want U.S. troops to leave. 

Reality Check

While a sequence like the above might offer maximum comfort that the Taliban will not return to violence, reality will likely be messier. A realistic list of steps the Taliban could take in the overall context of the peace process, therefore, should be:

  1. Rest on modest expectations of disarmament, given the prevalence of personal weapons within the Afghan population, the battlefield strength of the Taliban and the difficulty and expense of implementing nationwide post-conflict programs;
  2. Be selective in linking Taliban actions to U.S. withdrawal. Given the strong likelihood that the disarmament and demobilization of the Taliban will be incomplete, for example, the United States should be wary of making its actions overly dependent on the full disarmament of Afghan society or dismantlement of the Taliban as a group;
  3. Recognize that past efforts at disarmament have produced the best results when implemented with the active involvement of battlefield commanders (i.e., from the top down);
  4. Consider that the Taliban may become more invested in the process, not less, if they retain some degree of command structure and capabilities during the potentially uncertain early phases of the peace process; and
  5. Anticipate Taliban hedging. The Taliban will likely sustain capacity inside Pakistan to resume hostilities, likely with Pakistani support.

Deterring Any Taliban Return to Insurgency

The above considerations can help policymakers plan for a Taliban movement that does not demobilize quickly. However, keeping the Taliban from reconstituting and resuming hostilities will depend on several additional factors:

  1. Deterrence/enforcement/punitive action. There must be some clear and compelling consequence for any Afghan armed groups that rearm or remobilize in violation of the political agreement. Such consequences could involve military and/or political action—including expulsion from the government or loss of key sources of patronage obtained under the agreement. These consequences would likely have greatest impact if the United States remains committed and active in the implementation of an agreement, potentially by exerting military and financial leverage if circumstances warrant it.
  2. A visible U.S. willingness to alter plans for its troop withdrawal if one side egregiously violates a deal.
  3. Some form of neutral post-conflict force in Afghanistan. A peacekeeping operation or its functional equivalent could provide at least a partial battlefield deterrent. If backed by the United Nations Security Council, it would carry the implicit blessing of Russia and China, which might be useful if the Taliban are considering a return to war.
  4. Steps to prevent or erode safe havens in Pakistan. Though a Pakistani military crackdown on the Taliban is implausible, it is possible that, in the context of a peace process in which Taliban leaders return to Afghanistan, Islamabad would deem it advantageous to limit any spoiler activity that could jeopardize an agreement.
  5. Providing international support to post-agreement Afghan institutions, including those controlled by Taliban leaders as part of the settlement, and preserving the ability to halt such assistance to deter any renewed militancy.

Ultimately, the best bulwark against a Taliban return to the battlefield will be a negotiated process that successfully incorporates the group into a mutually acceptable political arrangement for Afghanistan so that its leadership and those who look to it believe that they are reaping adequate benefits from the political process that a return to arms would risk. Even in an optimistic scenario, this will likely be a difficult and yearslong process.

Meghan O’Sullivan is the Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. Previously, she was deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan for U.S. President George W. Bush and spent extensive time in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Related Publications

Afghan Peace Talks: Could a Third-Party Mediator Help?

Afghan Peace Talks: Could a Third-Party Mediator Help?

Thursday, February 18, 2021

By: Scott Smith

At present, the Afghan peace negotiations (APN) between the Afghan government and the Taliban do not involve any third-party presence beyond hosting and supporting roles. The parties to the conflict and members of the international community might consider the benefits of a neutral, third-party mediator to help resolve the impasses that have dogged and delayed the negotiations so far. While the presence of a mediator does not guarantee success, there are very few examples of a significant peace agreement that has been reached without some sort of third-party facilitation or mediation.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes; Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

Afghanistan Study Group Final Report: A Pathway for Peace in Afghanistan

Afghanistan Study Group Final Report: A Pathway for Peace in Afghanistan

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

By: Afghanistan Study Group

In December 2019, Congress established the Afghanistan Study Group and tasked it with identifying policy recommendations that “consider the implications of a peace settlement, or the failure to reach a settlement, on U.S. policy, resources, and commitments in Afghanistan.” The Study Group’s report, released on February 3, 2021, concluded that there is a real opportunity to align U.S. policies, actions, and messaging behind achieving a durable peace settlement to end four decades of violent conflict in Afghanistan. This new approach would...

Type: Report

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue; Peace Processes

Gridlocked Afghan Peace Talks Overcome Another Hurdle

Gridlocked Afghan Peace Talks Overcome Another Hurdle

Thursday, December 10, 2020

By: Scott Worden

Afghan peace negotiations began in mid-September, bringing together the Afghan government and Taliban for the first time to negotiate an end to four decades of war. But, since then, the talks have been mired in squabbles over basic procedures. Last week the sides made a breakthrough and agreed on the rules that will govern future talks, opening the door to the more substantive issue of the agenda for talks—including how and when to talk about a reduction in violence and future political arrangements. Senior U.S. officials praised the agreement and urged the parties to move quickly to a discussion about ways to reduce record-high violence levels.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

View All Publications


Related Projects

Afghanistan Peace Process

Afghanistan Peace Process

Almost 20 years after the United States ousted the Taliban regime, the first direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government began in Doha, Qatar in September 2020. The Taliban, Afghan government, and international forces have fought to a deadly stalemate, with both battle deaths and civilian casualties near record highs in recent years.

Peace Processes

View All