On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, Afghanistan remains unfortunately far away from peace. The historic agreement paved the way for a full U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the start of intra-Afghan talks on a political settlement of the conflict. As the May 1 withdrawal deadline nears, the Biden administration is undertaking a rapid Afghanistan policy review to determine its overall strategy toward the slow-moving intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha, Qatar. A key reason for the lack of movement in talks is that both sides are anxiously waiting to see what Biden decides.
It is important to recognize that the U.S.-Taliban agreement was designed to be a stepping stone to a comprehensive settlement of the conflict and not a replacement for an Afghan agreement. By agreeing to a conditional timeline to withdraw combat forces, the United States was able to overcome the Taliban’s resistance to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. The Afghan peace process and the U.S. agreement are mutually dependent. Without U.S. forces as leverage, the two sides may not continue to negotiate. Without a negotiated agreement, terrorist safe havens will likely persist and the U.S. will remain threatened by al-Qaida and, increasingly, ISIS.
Conditions or Timelines?
The biggest question now is whether the United States assesses that enough of the conditions laid out in the February 29, 2020 agreement have been met to withdraw all U.S. combat forces by May 1. By most measures, the answer is no. There are four “interrelated” elements of the agreement: (1) counterterrorism actions by the Taliban; (2) a conditional timeline for U.S. troop withdrawal, (3) commencing intra-Afghan talks, and (4) discussion of conditions that would lead to a permanent cease-fire.
So far, the United States has executed its troop withdrawal calendar assiduously and the Taliban have pledged that al-Qaida and other terrorist groups will not plan attacks or train or fundraise on Afghan soil. But the Taliban’s commitments are harder to verify. While talks have technically started, there has been very little discussion on what compromises are actually required among the Afghan parties to address the domestic causes of the conflict, like power-sharing, whether the Afghan state remains a democracy or becomes a theocracy, women’s rights, and integration of fighting factions into the national security services. The least progress has been made on a cease-fire, which is the most important element for Afghan citizens. Over the past year violence inside Afghanistan has increased, and the Taliban have said little about what they would require to reduce violence apart from getting all that they want in a political settlement.
Peace processes to resolve decades-long conflicts inexorably take a long time. However, in the case of intra-Afghan talks, the U.S. military, backed by NATO partners, is the biggest variable affecting the strategic calculus of both sides in the talks. Therefore, all the parties have an incentive to understand better what the U.S. position is before committing to a strategy. From the final months of the 2020 presidential campaign up until today, it is unclear to both the Taliban and the Afghan government whether the United States will abruptly pull troops out regardless of progress at the negotiating table. The question remains: Is the U.S. strategy based on conditions or timelines?
The Taliban hope the answer is timelines—so they can give minimal concessions on counterterrorism, get U.S. troops to leave, and then either break off talks and attack Afghan cities with greater force or otherwise negotiate a favorable settlement with the Afghan government from a position of military strength. The Afghan government views preservation of the status quo as its best alternative to a settlement with the Taliban, and therefore hopes that the United States will see the Taliban as violating the conditions of the February 29 deal, keep a small number of troops indefinitely, and continue to fund the Afghan state in a way that can preserve the Republic and the human rights it defends.
Hanging in the background is the sobering reality that if U.S. troops were to withdraw tomorrow, it would likely be a catastrophe for Afghanistan because the parties will first try to win by force in the absence of a clear framework for a political settlement. Filling the vacuum with a framework agreement for talks was an implicit goal of the U.S.-Taliban agreement and is now urgently needed if U.S. troops are to be withdrawn.
Breaking the Deadlock
With Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the lead U.S. negotiator, heading back to Doha soon, three things are needed to move beyond the current deadlock.
1. Clarify the conditions of the U.S.-Taliban agreement that need to be met for the U.S. to fully withdraw troops
The two most significant ambiguities in the agreement involve violence levels and what constitutes meaningful, good-faith negotiations. The Afghan government’s top demand is a reduction in violence, which is seen as an indicator of the Taliban’s good faith. While the U.S.-Taliban agreement only states that a cease-fire will be an agenda item in talks, the United States maintains there was a clear understanding that violence would go down after the agreement was signed. The link between violence levels and U.S. actions on troops and international sanctions needs to be quantified and accepted by the Taliban for much progress to be made. The United States can also withhold support for lifting Taliban sanctions or releasing more Taliban prisoners to further pressure on violence reduction.
The other big problem is that intra-Afghan talks have not moved at all to the issues that are actually causing conflict among the negotiating parties. There must be progress on a substantive agenda for intra-Afghan talks that creates a framework for a political settlement, or else U.S. forces could leave with all the root causes of the war unaddressed, leaving a vacuum that could be exploited by transnational terrorist groups. It is up to the Afghan parties to decide on an agenda and sequence for talks. But it is an urgent U.S. and international security goal that the Afghan parties reach such a decision. At a minimum, there needs to be some indication now from both sides about their visions for compromise. The Taliban in particular need to move beyond their stated goal of a “more Islamic system” if the talks are to be considered a real negotiation.
2. Engage regional countries to push for progress in talks
The U.S. and international coalition troop presence has been the main leverage that has brought the Afghan parties to the table, but its power is greatly reduced by the small size of the remaining force and uncertainty over U.S. messaging. Regional countries who support both the Afghan government and the Taliban are an important source of leverage that should be used more. Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran all have an incentive for the war to end in Afghanistan through a political settlement and to have U.S. troops leave “responsibly”—meaning soon, but with a political framework in place that safeguards against a greater civil war. None of them want the Taliban to actually control Afghanistan and none want a terrorism- and refugee-producing disaster like what happened after U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq. For these reasons, each has supported the U.S.-led peace process, pressed the Taliban to sign the February 29 agreement and start negotiating with their fellow Afghans.
The next step is for regional powers to form a united front with the United States and NATO allies to push the Taliban to negotiate conditions for violence reduction and a cease-fire. Pakistan has the most potential leverage because it hosts the Taliban leadership and their families. But Iran and Russia have also provided support and political legitimacy to the Taliban that can be conditioned more on Taliban commitments in the negotiations. Regional countries will be more willing to exercise political leverage over the Taliban, however, if they have more confidence that the political end state after a cease-fire will serve their national interests. Therefore, progress on a framework agreement that allows for more power-sharing but prevents the Taliban from taking control would help align regional and U.S. interests. Without a clearer process and end state, regional powers are more likely to hedge and continue to enable both sides’ intransigence.
3. Authorize a third-party mediator
Talks will move more quickly and will likely be more productive if all parties, including the United States, accept an independent third-party mediator to facilitate negotiations. The United States will continue to have outsize leverage over the peace process due to the size of its military and economic assistance to the Afghan state. But U.S. proposals on a way forward in the peace talks are not seen as neutral by many of the key actors—obviously not by the Taliban, but also not by Iran or Russia and not by some in the Afghan government who view talk about interim government arrangements as akin to coercive regime change.
Having a neutral mediator, either formally appointed by the United Nations or otherwise chosen through mutual agreement of the parties, would enable broader consultations with key actors inside and outside of Afghanistan. It would also increase receptivity to good ideas that might otherwise be seen as politically biased. Of course, choosing a mediator that is acceptable to the main parties will be difficult and the Taliban have so far rejected one. But if the United States, NATO allies, regional actors and the Afghan government back one, the Taliban will face strong pressure to go along.
The next chapter in the Afghan peace process is beginning now that Biden has chosen his foreign policy team, retained Khalilzad as the lead U.S. negotiator, and kept in force the February 29 agreement with the Taliban. The Afghan negotiators and the region are anxiously awaiting word on how the administration wants to proceed. By clarifying conditions in the Taliban agreement, putting leverage on the Afghan parties to agree on an agenda, and bringing regional countries to endorse that framework, it is possible to have U.S. troops come home soon without chaos in their wake.