The halt to U.S. peace talks with the Taliban, announced September 7 by President Trump, should be used as a starting point for new negotiations, according to U.S. and Afghan specialists. The United States and Afghans have a chance to shape a new phase of talks to maximize the possibilities for a peace accord that Afghans can accept, the experts said at USIP. Some urged resuming talks as quickly as possible. Others argued for focusing first on unifying non-Taliban Afghans following the planned September 28 elections, and on exploiting war fatigue among the Taliban.

A boy watches U.S.- trained Afghan commandos patrolling in Nangarhar province. Violence and deaths in the war have spiked this year, heightening pressures in Afghanistan for peace talks. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
A boy watches U.S.- trained Afghan commandos patrolling in Nangarhar province. Violence and deaths in the war have spiked this year, heightening pressures in Afghanistan for peace talks. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

A new phase of negotiations should begin “as quickly as possible,” said Laurel Miller, the director for Asia at the International Crisis Group and a former U.S. diplomat. President Trump would need to reverse his September 7 declaration that the process was “dead,” but he “has shown himself to be exceptionally agile in reframing decisions and declarations and moving on from them” when he deems that necessary, she said. Restarting the process will require the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, to rebuild confidence, notably among countries in Afghanistan’s region, on “the U.S. commitment to negotiating,” she said. Miller, a former acting U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, spoke in a public discussion of the peace process before an audience of U.S. and international officials, government and civil society specialists, journalists and scholars.

Choosing a Path in Washington

All of the experts agreed that a resumption of peace talks is the United States’ only viable policy choice. Any unilateral withdrawal of U.S. forces would lead to a wider civil war and risks of terrorism that might soon require new interventions. Maintaining the current U.S. posture indefinitely, while manageable in many ways, would mean continued bloodshed in Afghanistan, Miller noted. “What is not an option, unfortunately, is … the kind of peace process that for many years the United States sought to launch,” beginning with a cease-fire, “that somehow, up front, guarantees that the outcome will be such that the gains for women, for minorities” are preserved, she said.

As U.S. policymakers prepare their next steps, Miller said, they should “de-escalate conflict in Washington.” She said many critiques of the recent talks led by Khalilzad were based on a “mis-perception that this was supposed to be ‘the peace deal,’ and therefore it didn’t deliver enough.” Those U.S.-Taliban talks were never more than a preliminary, designed to set up peace negotiations among Afghans that will have to shape a political settlement that can end the war.

Trump’s September 7 declaration halted a year-long series of talks between U.S. officials and a Taliban delegation in which U.S. officials reported that the Taliban had agreed to bar violent extremist groups such as al-Qaida or the Islamic State (ISIS) from territory under its control. The movement also had agreed to join “intra-Afghan” peace talks, which all experts said form the vital next step in a peace process.

Two longtime analysts of Afghanistan—Irish scholar Michael Semple and New York University’s Barnett Rubin—said that a mechanism for starting those vital intra-Afghan talks may not be a simple resumption of the U.S.-Taliban dialogue of recent months between Khalilzad and Taliban negotiators. Rubin noted the potential usefulness of a regional forum among Afghanistan’s neighbors, including China, plus Russia and the United States. “There is no reason that a regional process, bilateral U.S.-Afghan talks, inter-Afghan talks could not work together,” he said. “It may be that U.S.-Taliban talks are not the right enabling environment” for a next round of peacemaking.

Semple opposed a revival of the U.S.-Taliban bilateral talks. “The worst thing we could do would be to just go [back] to Qatar and carry on with the conversations and re-empower the people [Taliban negotiators] who did indeed get too arrogant over the past year” in refusing to address ordinary Afghans’ concerns—especially the need to halt the suicide bombings and other attacks that have increased casualties this year. In the next round of discussions, Semple urged, “open up the conversation” to a wider swath of Taliban than the movement’s narrow leadership and small negotiating team.

Why the Taliban Will Negotiate

War fatigue on all sides has grown with the increased violence this year as both sides have maneuvered for advantage in the recent peace talks. A study of war casualties during August by the BBC found that, of 2,307 people killed over 31 days, 974, or more than 40 percent, were Taliban fighters.

Semple and Rubin independently have monitored the Taliban and communicated with its members since the movement’s creation in the 1990s. They underscored that the Taliban, like other Afghans, are deeply tired of the war, and that the movement contains fissures and weaknesses that can be exploited in shaping intra-Afghan talks. “Significant factions … inside the Taliban movement have also reached the conclusion that this war has run its course and must end. Many of them also have reached the conclusion that it must be based on compromise rather than on conquest,” said Semple, a former European Union envoy on Afghanistan. The challenge “will be how to capture that spirit,” he said.

The Taliban proclaim that their goal is to achieve the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the establishment of an “Islamic emirate,” the name they gave to the Afghan Taliban government that ruled from 1996 until 2001. But “the Taliban were not highly successful when they were in control of the capital,” said Rubin. And in an impoverished nation shattered by war, “they want to be part of a legitimized government that receives foreign assistance.”

“There are areas of Afghanistan from which we’ve had consistent reporting, where the security forces, the police administration, is in the hands of the Taliban—but they do not abolish all the institutions of the Afghan state. In fact, schools, health clinics continue running under their direction,” said Rubin. “There is a kind of coexistence already in place. What we need to do is to create the political conditions for that coexistence which will enable people to expand their exercise of their rights.”

Semple said his own findings parallel Rubin’s. He recalled that Taliban leaders lost significant control over their fighters in 2018 when the government declared a unilateral cease-fire for the Eid holiday, and groups of young Taliban men flocked into towns to celebrate and take photos with government supporters. “War fatigue is not a strategy; it’s not sufficient,” said Semple. “But it’s an important ingredient … which can be exploited.” He added: “The more that they [Taliban leaders] are forced to worry that ‘Our ranks, the people who’ve kept the fighting going … are starting to opt out,’ that they’re going cool on the war, … the more is a chance that the conditions are set and they actually embrace a compromise solution at the negotiating table that so far has been elusive.” 

Semple noted other natural fissures in the Taliban movement. One is resentment among many Taliban members “of the control from masters”—Taliban leaders and their backers within the Pakistani military and intelligence communities—“sitting in Quetta and Peshawar. But nobody has come up with a bright strategic way of making use of that.” Another weakness, which could complicate intra-Afghan peace talks, is that the Taliban leadership has not made efforts to inform its fighters in the field about the talks or to prepare them for the idea of compromise.

Newly Powerful: Afghan Youth and Women

Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, Roya Rahmani, underscored the demographic and cultural shifts among Afghans that can be mobilized in support of strengthening democracy and protecting human and women’s rights in a negotiating process with a Taliban movement that brutally violated those rights when it ruled the country. “Our citizens have come to expect democracy” and “are holding us accountable,” Rahmani said.

In particular, Rahmani said, the "68 percent of Afghans [who] are under the age of 25” have “come of age with aspirations that those who came before them never dared to reach for. They want education and jobs. They want the ability to connect with the rest of the world. The vision that they hold of future opportunity and prosperity is the most effective insurance we have against hopelessness, violence and terror.”

Many Afghans followed the recent U.S.-Taliban talks with “ambivalence,” said Shaharzad Akbar, a civil society leader and former Afghan national security council staff member who recently was named chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

“In the process of [the] U.S.-Taliban talks, the Taliban came to a point where they felt they don’t really need to engage” with Afghans, she said. “If the Taliban are interested in long-term peace in Afghanistan, which they say they are, they really need to engage with Afghans, because in the long term, they have to sit down with the Afghan government, they have to sit down with different segments of the Afghan society, including youth and women, and they better start building those relationships now.”

Can Afghans Unify?

Now, “it’s on all of us, especially on our government and the Afghan political elite, to utilize this opportunity” to build a unified Afghan constituency that demands a real democracy and respect for human and women’s rights in a future round of negotiations with the Taliban, said Akbar. Among Afghan elites, President Trump’s halt to the talks “has created some discourse alluding to that need for cohesion and for having one strong voice,” she said.

But Akbar and others emphasized that building that unity remains difficult. Rubin noted that the September 28 election is likely to complicate the task. Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential vote ran aground amid accusations of widespread fraud and required U.S. intervention to broker a deal to let Ghani take office. Continued dispute over last year’s parliamentary election underscores the fragility of the current electoral processes. And as President Ashraf Ghani seeks re-election this month, other political factions have withdrawn, many accusing Ghani of using state institutions to unfairly advance his campaign.

A vital task in building a nationwide coalition for a peace settlement is for Afghanistan’s civil society and human rights communities “to work on broadening the alliance for the rights and values that we believe in,” Akbar said. Public frustrations with the war and issues of governance have sparked several grassroots protest campaigns since 2014, including a People’s Peace Movement that has pressed for a truce and peace negotiations. USIP’s Maria Stephan, an expert on nonviolent movements, has argued that such nonviolent citizens’ campaigns could strengthen a peace process in Afghanistan. These movements are yet another sign that Afghans are tired of four decades of conflict and prepared to make sacrifices for peace.

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