American officials announced on Friday that the United States and the Taliban agreed to a seven-day “reduction of violence” that, if adhered to, would be followed by a signed agreement. The deal would pave the way for intra-Afghan talks and a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops. American and Taliban negotiators were close to inking a deal in September that would have seen a Taliban commitment to not harbor terrorist groups and a U.S. troop withdrawal plan. But, President Trump scrapped that deal and froze talks after a Taliban attack killed a U.S. serviceman. In the intervening months, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad brought the parties back to the table to get to this interim step. USIP’s Scott Smith examines the U.S.-Taliban deal and what comes next.

American military personnel at Camp Shorabak in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Sept. 26, 2019. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
American military personnel at Camp Shorabak in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Sept. 26, 2019. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

President Trump has conditionally agreed to a deal with the Taliban. What does that deal entail and what are the conditions that must be fulfilled?

The agreement in principle would commit the Taliban, the Afghan government, and international forces to a significant reduction of violence for a period of seven days. President Trump has insisted that this reduction be meaningful, lasting, and measurable. Our understanding is that it had to be vetted by the U.S. military to ensure these conditions were met. It is not clear yet when the seven-day clock begins, but Taliban officials have said that they expect to sign the agreement before the end of February, meaning the reduction in violence could begin as soon as this weekend.

After seven days, assuming there are no major violations, the U.S. will sign the formal agreement with the Taliban. This agreement would prolong the reduction of violence for a period of nine days, during which the Afghan government and the Taliban would begin peace discussions. If the reduction in violence holds, and intra-Afghan talks begin, then the United States will initiate a significant force reduction that will take place over several months. If the United States is satisfied with the progress that has been made during those four months—both in terms of keeping violence down and proceeding in good faith with the talks—then the U.S. will continue to reduce its forces according to an agreed roadmap.

The agreement is conditions based, which means that the U.S. will not accede to the Taliban’s bottom-line demand of a complete withdrawal of its forces until it is satisfied with progress on the political talks and the Taliban’s anti-terrorist commitments.

What brought the parties back to the table?

These negotiations began in July 2018, and since September 2018 they have been led by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who held nine rounds of negotiations with the Taliban political office in Doha to get close to a deal in September 2019. Behind the scenes plans were being made for a signing ceremony between the United States, the Afghan government, and the Taliban at Camp David. Then the Taliban carried out an attack in Kabul that killed a U.S. serviceman. President Trump concluded that the Taliban were not sincere about a peace process and canceled the talks on September 7.

After several weeks it appeared that Khalilzad was authorized to resume discussions with the Taliban on the release of two professors from the American University in Afghanistan who had been kidnapped in Kabul in 2016. In mid-November, the Taliban agreed to exchange these hostages for three high-level Taliban commanders held by the Afghan government. This was apparently a sufficient indication of a willingness to return to the negotiating table and Khalilzad held another round of talks in Doha. After a December 11 attack against Bagram air base, Khalilzad told the Taliban that they needed to agree to a reduction of violence for the talks to continue. The Taliban consulted with their leadership and came back to Doha with a proposal. Eventually, some form of that proposal was accepted by Washington.

We will have to wait for Ambassador Khalilzad’s memoirs to understand exactly how the two parties moved from President Trump declaring the peace process “dead” in September 2019 to a breakthrough agreement five months later. What we can surmise for now is that there was a sufficient desire on both sides not to scuttle the progress that had been made in the previous year of negotiations, and sufficient flexibility to move beyond the breakdown in confidence.

What comes next? How would intra-Afghan negotiations begin?

Everyone will be watching the seven-day reduction in violence very closely once it is declared. Do the Taliban have sufficient command and control to maintain the commitment to reduced violence? There are spoilers on both sides who have their own reasons to prevent intra-Afghan negotiations from beginning. Hardliners on the Taliban side might not want to give up the possibility of fighting to victory. Other groups might not want to allow even a possibility of sharing power with the Taliban. Given the fragmented nature of Afghanistan’s geography and battlefield, and the deep distrust between all parties, monitoring of the agreement will be difficult and deceit will be assumed. On the other hand, these seven days will be a huge respite for the people of Afghanistan; it will be a great relief to face spoilers rather than a concerted insurgency.

Within nine days intra-Afghan negotiations are supposed to begin in Oslo. The main difficulty here is that the Afghan government side is underprepared. The Afghan political establishment is also fragmented by nature, and even more so by the disputed September 2019 presidential election, which had not seen a winner declared until this week when the Independent Election Commission announced that incumbent President Ghani came out on top. His opponent, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, has rejected the results and vowed to form a parallel government. Both are defenders of the current Afghan constitution, which is democratic and provides for expansive civil rights, including for women, but the distrust between them, and among other political factions, makes it questionable as to whether the current “constitutionalists” can unite around a negotiating team and strategy that defends as many of these rights as possible.

The emerging dispute around the February 18 election announcement sharpens these divisions at a very unhelpful time. It is too early to say what exactly will happen next, but an electoral crisis will severely complicate a peace process, and right now the focus is on a successful peace process. President Ghani, as the incumbent, with a slim majority of votes in an election with a very low turnout, will need to manage these tensions.

On the other side, we assume that the Taliban will push for an “emirate” that would include supreme religious bodies with vetoes over fundamental issues, including women’s rights and democratic participation. The Taliban negotiators are more united and more experienced after a year and a half of talks with the United States, compared to the constitutionalists apparent lack of preparation.

The questions of how to structure these negotiations, and who should mediate them, has been a speculative one until now, when it has become very real and there is little time to answer them. But if the Taliban can maintain their side of the reduction of violence agreement, then focus will turn to the Afghan government to demonstrate their commitment to a peace process. Fundamentally, however, there is an understanding that the international community is tired of this 40-year Afghan conflict. This is the clearest opportunity to end it since 2001. There will not be a lot of patience for frivolous delays or lack of organization on the government side. For Afghans, the coming weeks will be fraught with hope.

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