Last weekend, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalizad hailed “significant progress” in talks between the U.S. and Taliban, calling the negotiations “more productive than they have been in the past.” After years of stalemate, a framework deal between the U.S. and the Taliban has inspired hope that the Afghan war—the longest in U.S. history—could come to an end. USIP’s Scott Worden analyzes the progress made in recent talks, why the U.S. is now directly negotiating with the Taliban and the implications of further negotiations and a potential peace deal on Afghanistan’s 2019 presidential election.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, at the United States Embassy in Kabul, Jan. 28, 2019. As American policy in Afghanistan seems bent more than ever on making a deal with Taliban insurgents to withdraw American troops from the country after nearly two decades of war, Khalilzad’s diplomacy is taking priority. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Zalmay Khalilzad, the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, at the United States Embassy in Kabul, Jan. 28, 2019. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

What progress has been made? How is this different than previous efforts?

The U.S. made unprecedented headway in talks with the Taliban to outline a potential agreement on the military aspects of the conflict that affect U.S. interests. Namely, a conditional withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops in exchange for severed ties between the Taliban and al-Qaida and a pledge from the Taliban to not allow Afghan soil to be used as a haven for transnational terrorists, including the Islamic State. Before now, the U.S. was unwilling to have direct talks with the Taliban without the Afghan government participating; nor was it willing to discuss its future troop presence. The U.S. reversal on these positions, and the productive talks that took place in Doha, break a diplomatic logjam that has been in place since 2010.

It is important to note, however, that the underlying political causes of the conflict remain to be addressed. This includes the complicated issue of how power is shared among the Taliban and the different ethnic and political factions that have participated in Afghanistan’s constitutional government without joining the insurgency. There is so far no agreement on talks among the Afghan parties about an inclusive political system or a cease-fire that would spare the lives of innocent civilians while such talks are going on. Beyond a political agreement, future peace talks will need to address a range of thorny issues on cease-fires, prisoner releases, and human and women’s rights protections as well as how to enforce the terms of an agreement.

In December 2018, the Trump administration announced that it had ordered the U.S. military to withdrawal roughly half its forces in the country. What impact will that decision have in talks with the Taliban?

The reports of a possible troop withdrawal added urgency to negotiations with the Taliban and demonstrated that U.S. was serious about offers to remove troops in exchange for counterterrorism security guarantees. On the other hand, withdrawal rumors created a perception in the region that the U.S. may be willing to withdraw even without a peace deal, which reduced the value of that bargaining chip. Ambassador Khalilzad made clear in public comments that there is no formal agreement in place yet, and that “nothing is agreed until all issues are agreed,” including a cease-fire and direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. This formula maintains an incentive for the Taliban to deliver on political issues so they can get what they want on troops without further fighting.

For years, the U.S. has insisted that negotiations to end the war be “Afghan-owned” and “Afghan-led.” Why is the U.S. negotiating with the Taliban while the Kabul government remains sidelined in talks?

There had been a negotiation stalemate for years with the U.S. sticking firm to its position that it would not directly negotiate with the Taliban without agreement by the group to talk with the Afghan government, and the Taliban steadfastly refusing. A different approach was needed to break this impasse because the fighting between the U.S. supported Afghan military and the Taliban was also stalemated. 

The apparent approach has been to separate talks about U.S. troops and terrorism, which are U.S. national interests, from talks about the future governance of Afghanistan, which Afghans must decide in negotiations among themselves. The two issues are inter-related, however, because without political stability in Afghanistan, civil war and safe havens for terrorists are likely to continue. This explains why the framework discussion outlined by Ambassador Khalilzad makes the ultimate disposition of U.S. troops contingent on intra-Afghan talks.

What about ordinary Afghans? How do they feel about the negotiations and a potential deal with the Taliban? 

Afghan people are overwhelmingly in favor of an end to the conflict, which last year saw nearly as many  fatalities as Syria and Yemen combined, despite fewer conflict events. All sides say that the levels of violence are unsustainable. The three-day cease-fire that took place in June during the Eid holiday saw Taliban fighters mingling peacefully in cities with Afghan people and security forces. Those scenes demonstrated to both political and Taliban leaders the urgency of ending the war. At the same time, deep political and ideological divides remain, and many Afghans are wary of a return of the Taliban’s draconian rule. 

An entire generation of Afghans has grown up since the Taliban were ousted in 2001 and have experienced great advances in personal freedoms and human rights. The proliferation of cell phones, television, and now the internet has changed society to be even less tolerant of the Taliban’s previous harshly conservative rule. Most of all, women are fearful that the rights and freedoms they have been guaranteed in the 2004 constitution can be rolled back in a deal with the Taliban. This is one reason that any peace negotiations must be inclusive of women, youth, and representatives of different ethnic groups and not just powerful warlords who have perpetuated conflict in the past.

What do the negotiations—and some talk of an interim government as part of a deal—mean for the presidential elections scheduled for July?

There is a delicate balance between elections and peace talks. On one hand, it is difficult to organize an inclusive peace process while the main political leaders are competing against each other in an election campaign. On the other hand, postponing elections to enable peace talks that may not materialize could leave the country even more politically unstable. Each of the main candidates has said they support peace, which is a positive common denominator. 

The Taliban have proposed that an intra-Afghan dialogue take place with an interim government with elections at the conclusion of a comprehensive agreement. President Ghani has strongly rejected this approach. To avoid losing momentum, some forum for Afghan dialogue is needed that includes the main presidential candidates; non-political, traditional, and civil society leaders; and the Taliban. This is unlikely to occur without some kind of third-party mediator to bring the sides together in advance of the elections.

Regardless of the course of peace negotiations, the parliamentary elections that took place in October (whose results are still being litigated) demonstrate the need for major reforms to ensure future election results are credible—including changes in the leadership of the Independent Election Commission. The worst of all scenarios is that there is no peace and a failed election, which will reduce the legitimacy of the government as a negotiator afterward.

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