Amid a series of positive developments in the Afghan peace process over the last year, a framework for negotiations reached between the U.S. and Taliban has renewed hope that the 17 year-old Afghan conflict could come to a close. Led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. has agreed in principle to a conditional withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops in exchange for the Taliban pledging to not allow Afghanistan to be a safe haven for transnational terrorists, like al-Qaida, as well as agreeing to talks that include the Afghan government and a cease-fire. Despite this progress, “We are in the early stages of a protracted process,” Ambassador Khalilzad said at the U.S. Institute of Peace on February 8. “We have a long way to go.”

Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad speaks with Stephen J. Hadley, chair of USIP's Board of Directors.
Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad speaks with Stephen J. Hadley, chair of USIP's Board of Directors.

A Propitious Moment for Peace

With the Taliban indicating that they no longer see a military solution to the Afghan conflict, the Afghan government unconditionally offering to negotiate with the group and Afghan civil society increasingly clamoring for peace, Khalilzad said the U.S. aimed to leverage this momentum and secure a lasting peace. Adding to this momentum, since Khalilzad’s February 8 remarks, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has offered the Taliban the possibility of opening an office in Afghanistan.

“To explore the potential opportunity … I started engaging various forces in Afghanistan, and to deal with the complex conflict that has lasted 40 years, to see what role we can play in the service of our national interest and in the service of ending the war,” said Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations.

Although some have argued that the U.S. is simply looking to disentangle itself from the longest war in its history—regardless of the consequences—Khalilzad said his effort “was being done with the aim of protecting our national security objectives in Afghanistan, particularly the threat of terrorism, but also to preserve the gains Afghanistan has made.”

Managing Expectations

The framework deal with the Taliban is but one important step among a series of issues that will have to be addressed. “But even if we achieve success on these two issues,” Khalilzad said in reference to terrorism and a troop withdrawal, “a peace agreement would not be immediately or shortly achieved in the foreseeable future without a comprehensive agreement on other issues.”

Reinforcing President Trump’s remarks at last week’s State of the Union address, the U.S. envoy said that a troop withdrawal is conditional on progress on peace—the U.S. is not prepared to simply leave the country based on this framework with the Taliban. In the end, “nothing is agreed to until everything has been agreed to,” Khalilzad said at his first public event since becoming the special representative.

Despite the president’s desire to end the Afghan war, Khalilzad said that Trump is chiefly concerned with preventing the country from becoming a platform for terrorism and protecting U.S. national security interests. Khalilzad said he was directed by President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo “not to seek a withdrawal agreement but a peace agreement. Because a peace agreement can allow withdrawal.”

What About Afghan Women?

While the prospects of peace become increasingly real, Afghan women—who have historically been sidelined in peace talks—are fearful that the rights and freedom they gained since the fall of the Taliban, which are enshrined in the 2004 constitution, will be a casualty of a negotiated settlement.

“They [Taliban] said they made a mistake in how they dealt with women” when they ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, said Khalilzad. The U.S., he added, would be forceful in standing up for and promoting its values. “We will speak loudly and clearly for the values that we have—the values of human rights, [the] values of freedom of the press [and] women’s right.”

For their part, Afghan women are demanding a role in peace talks. “The bottom line is Afghan women want peace and they want to have a say in how it is negotiated,” USIP’s Belquis Ahmadi and Marjan Nahavandi wrote in a recent article for the Institute.

Intra-Afghan Dialogue is Key

Ultimately, issues like women’s rights will have to be negotiated among Afghans themselves, Khalilzad said. “The Afghans must sit across the table with each other and come to an agreement about the future of their country.” Although the Taliban are still refusing to negotiate with the Afghan government, intra-party talks, like those recently held in Moscow, could serve as a starting point for further intra-Afghan dialogue.

Along with emphasizing the importance of a cease-fire, the special representative also stressed the urgency of beginning dialogue among Afghans. “We would like the intra-Afghan dialogue to start right away because many issues of concern to the Afghans … can only be dealt with in an intra-Afghan dialogue” Khalilzad said, adding, “The issues such as women’s rights. The issues such as human rights. The issues that have been in the press. The gains that have been made. Are all issues that a road map for the political future … of Afghanistan, would have to deal with.”

Discussing the Moscow meeting between the Taliban and prominent Afghan politicians—which did not have Afghan government representation—Khalilzad said the meeting could have a positive impact if it led to Afghans coming together. For the U.S., the peace process must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. “But on the other hand, if it polarizes Afghans further, then the judgement would have to be different.”

Presidential Elections and Peace

With presidential elections currently scheduled for July 20, Khalilzad said he hoped to secure a peace deal before the vote. "The timing of a peace settlement from our point of view is the sooner is better," Khalilzad said. "There is an election, I know, that makes reaching a peace agreement particularly complicated. But it will be better for Afghanistan if we could get a peace agreement before the election."

With five months to go before the elections, Khalilzad said that he believes there is still sufficient time to reach an agreement. Even if a deal isn’t secured, significant progress could have a positive impact for the elections.

Pakistan: Problem or Partner?

Pakistan’s support for the Taliban has long been regarded as one of the chief impediments to peace in the region, but that could all be changing. “I believe Pakistan historically has not played a positive role with regard to the peace process, but I believe that it’s a positive change in recent times,” Khalilzad said.

He pointed to efforts by Islamabad to facilitate talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, and its support for intra-Afghan dialogue. Ultimately, the U.S. seeks better relations with Pakistan, and partnering on peace in Afghanistan is the most important avenue for better ties.

A host of thorny issues remain: The Taliban want the U.S. to withdrawal its forces before agreeing to a cease-fire and, most importantly, the Taliban are refusing to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. Nonetheless, the prospects for peace look stronger than they have in years. “We are entering a pivotal time in Afghanistan’s history, one that could end many long difficult decades of violent conflict,” said USIP President Nancy Lindborg.

“Let’s seize this opportunity,” Khalilzad said in his concluding remarks. “It’s an opportunity for the United States as a leading power, which has had extensive engagement now with Afghanistan, to leave a good legacy behind and to have a good productive relationship with the region for the future.”

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