After more than a year and a half of negotiations, the U.S. and Taliban struck a deal on Saturday that paves a way to end America’s longest war. The agreement was signed following a seven-day reduction of violence (RIV) period. While the RIV was largely upheld, the Taliban on Monday ordered its fighters to resume attacks against the Afghan army and police forces. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that the insurgent group would not attack foreign forces, as stipulated in the U.S.-Taliban agreement. With the complicated intra-Afghan phase set to begin on March 10, the resumption of violence shows how fragile the peace process remains.

American soldiers on a transport plane that is about to land in Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, April 5, 2010. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)
American soldiers on a transport plane that is about to land in Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, April 5, 2010. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

The Content of the U.S.-Taliban Deal

The U.S.-Taliban agreement establishes a 14-month withdrawal timeline of all U.S. troops conditioned on the Taliban preventing all terrorist groups from using Afghan territory to threaten the U.S. The U.S. commits to withdrawing down to 8,600 troops in the next 135 days, and the remainder over the following nine months. It is notable that the agreement is inclusive of more than just al-Qaida and ISIS, preventing the Taliban from allowing “other individuals or groups … to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies” and the Taliban “will prevent them from recruiting, training, and fundraising.”

The U.S. also signed a joint declaration with the Afghan government that achieves a parallel Afghan commitment to fighting terrorist groups that threaten the U.S. and pledges continued U.S. support for the Afghan government and to provide military and civilian assistance to achieve mutual security goals. The Afghan government sought this reassurance because it is not a party to the U.S.-Taliban agreement (at Taliban insistence) and the joint declaration shows that the U.S. remains a strong partner of the constitutional government of Afghanistan.

Beyond troops and terrorism, the U.S.-Taliban agreement commits the Taliban to begin intra-Afghan negotiations by March 10 with Afghan political and civil society leaders and government representatives. This is the first time official direct talks between the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government will occur.

Intra-Afghan negotiations are the key to the entire U.S.-Taliban agreement because security guarantees will be worthless if the political disagreements underlying the conflict are not peacefully addressed.  Without a cease-fire and a larger peace agreement that brings the Taliban into Afghanistan’s political system, there is a significant risk of Afghanistan descending into chaos or civil war—which would likely render the Taliban and Afghan government’s counterterrorism guarantees meaningless.

The U.S.-Taliban agreement and the joint declaration also cover the release by March 10 of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the government and 1,000 government prisoners held by the Taliban. This is an early stumbling block for intra-Afghan negotiations. The Taliban want all 5,000 of their prisoners released as a precondition to talks; the Afghan government want an incremental release to incentivize good faith negotiations. Resolving this difference could delay intra-Afghan talks beyond March 10.

The Missing Elements of the Deal

Considering that it took nine rounds of negotiations over more than a year, the U.S.-Taliban agreement is notably short and vague. There are no public definitions of several key concepts or terms. 

  • The Taliban will “start intra-Afghan negotiations with Afghan sides”; but without recognizing the legitimacy of the Afghan government.
  • A “permanent and comprehensive cease-fire will be an item on the agenda” for negotiation; but there is no commitment to maintaining a reduction in violence—as the Taliban announcement that it would resume attacking government positions confirms.
  • Taliban counterterrorism commitments “apply in areas under their control”; but there is no map or description of where such territory lies.

Most notably, the U.S.- Taliban agreement does not include any commitments about the agenda or outcomes of intra-Afghan negotiations beyond addressing a prisoner release and discussing a comprehensive cease-fire. The agreement states that a U.S. troop withdrawal, Taliban counterterrorism guarantees, a cease-fire, and intra-Afghan negotiations “are interrelated and each will be implemented in accordance with its own agreed timeline and agreed terms”; but no timelines and terms are mentioned.

While the U.S.-Taliban deal states that “agreement on the first two parts paves the way for the last two parts,” there is no link between the clearly delineated U.S. troop withdrawal timeline to levels of violence against the Afghan government or to progress in intra-Afghan talks. If the Taliban honor their counterterrorism commitments it appears they would not be violating the letter of the agreement if they resume the insurgency against the government and gain an advantage over their current position over the next 14 months as U.S forces draw down. It is unclear whether U.S. forces will attack Taliban forces that commit violence against the government or civilians while the Taliban is adhering to their counterterrorism commitments.

Questions surrounding Afghanistan’s political future are not touched on in the U.S.-Taliban agreement, including the preservation of a democratic system of government and observance of basic rights and freedoms. The deal states that Taliban commitments apply “until the formation of the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue.” The form of that government is properly the subject of intra-Afghan negotiations rather than a deal between a foreign government and an unrecognized insurgent group. But U.S. silence on an end state is likely to be a source of pessimism for Afghans who fear a return to Taliban rule. 

The joint U.S.-Afghan government declaration does state that “the two countries are committed to … their investments in building the Afghan institutions necessary to establish democratic norms, protect and preserve the unity of the country, and promote social and economic advancements and the rights of citizens.” Protecting the rights of Afghan women is not specifically mentioned.

Getting to a Political Settlement

The U.S.-Taliban agreement is rightly viewed as a much-needed opening to the possibility of a durable political settlement by setting the parameters for intra-Afghan negotiations. That will be a long process, however, with many opportunities for spoilers. Against the backdrop of a deteriorating security stalemate, increasing Afghan casualties, a war weary U.S. public, a fragmented Afghan political landscape and an increasingly unstable region, opening the door to a new peace paradigm is a welcome achievement.

The most immediate variable in the success of Afghan talks is the degree of inclusiveness and unity on the Afghan government side. After a divisive presidential election with Abdullah Abdullah refusing to accept the announcement of Ashraf Ghani’s victory, the Afghan side is fragmented while the Taliban side presents a united front and is buoyed by inking a deal with the U.S. President Ghani appears to be fighting a two-front war: against the Taliban on the battlefield and against opposition politicians, including Abdullah Abdullah and former President Karzai, in the formation of negotiating team and a new government.

The Taliban may be able to capitalize on divisions within the Afghan government’s negotiating team if it is not unified; and a deal is less likely to stick if the group responsible for negotiating it is not inclusive.  The vast majority of Afghans oppose a Taliban “emirate” form of government and favor the freedoms and rights in the current constitution. The government could improve its negotiating strength by aligning its strategy around a defense of majority views on rights and governance while at the same time allowing other Afghans a voice in the negotiating process—including losers of the recent election. This will reduce the tension between politicians’ personal ambitions for power and their policy preferences, which largely overlap in opposition to the Taliban.

Regional neighbors have significant spoiling power and must be kept supportive of a peace deal.  Ambassador Khalilzad’s success relied in part on finding a sweet spot among diverse regional actors including China, Pakistan, Iran and Russia who do not want a permanent U.S. military presence but also fear the chaos that would come with an abrupt withdrawal. Regional actors also fear a complete Taliban takeover of the country, but do not believe the Taliban can be militarily defeated. This sets the stage for regional support of intra-Afghan negotiations. As long as talks make progress toward a power-sharing deal among Afghans that has U.S. troops leaving with stability in its wake, regional powers may urge their proxies to stay at the table rather than spoiling a deal.

In practice, the U.S. will have significant flexibility to implement the deal. Although the full details of the Taliban’s counterterrorism commitments are not publicly available, it is unlikely that the Taliban will comply fully with the comprehensive language prohibiting any group from threatening the United States from areas of Taliban control. If the Taliban do breach the letter of the full U.S. agreement the U.S. gains some latitude over the pace of its withdrawal. 

The U.S. also has leverage over both the government and the Taliban through its money. Whoever governs Afghanistan needs foreign donor assistance, and nothing in the agreements signed this week commits to any specific levels beyond a U.S. promise to the Afghan government that it will “seek funds on a yearly basis that support … Afghan security forces, so that Afghanistan can independently secure and defend itself.” The fact that U.S. civilian assistance almost always goes down when U.S. troops leave a theater should give the Taliban pause to be careful what they wish for.

While the U.S.-Taliban deal is written strictly in security terms, there is no avoiding the messy fact that Afghan politics and governance is a U.S. national security concern. The roots of the civil war that gave rise to al-Qaida and the 9/11 attacks, as well as the Taliban insurgency, are political. A durable political settlement is therefore necessary to avoid the terrorist threats, refugee exodus, regional instability and humanitarian crisis that would inevitably arise from the chaos that an Afghan civil war without U.S. or NATO troops to control it would entail. Moreover, history shows that inclusive peace processes are much more sustainable, particularly when they include the voices and interests of women.

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