The intra-Afghan peace talks have resumed in Doha against a background of increased violence. The US-Taliban deal that paved the way for the intra-Afghan talks is under review by the Biden administration. They are unlikely to conclude that the conditions for a withdrawal of foreign forces have been met.
President Biden will soon face a decision reading United States involvement in Afghanistan that will also impact on the international force currently in the country. In February 2020 negotiations between the US and the Taliban led to the signing of a peace deal, which resulted in a reduction of US forces and a commitment to a conditional complete withdrawal on the 1st of May 2021. One of the conditions for this was that intra-Afghan talks would be underway. Not withdrawing means the US and the coalition remain mired in a cycle of violence and the continuation of the ‘forever war’, withdrawal leaves the country without a political settlement and the US open to accusation of abandonment. The most likely scenario is that withdrawal is pushed back as no credible assessment of the Taliban’s commitment to the peace deal would conclude that the criteria are being met. An influential report by the Afghanistan Study Group advises that the withdrawal be delayed.
The advice being given to the President is thorough, although options other than postponement of withdrawal are given short shrift- arguments for the recommittal of forces, withdrawal, and a complete washing of hands are briefly covered. The rationale for extending the withdrawal date is that the counterterrorism mission should remain, the Afghan government needs to deal with elite-level corruption, and as the intra-Afghan negotiations started late the US can extend, buying time through an agreement with the Taliban, and continuing to provide civil and military financial support. This will result in criticism at home for not following through on the Trump administration’s commitment to exit from foreign wars and from the Taliban who clearly want the US to leave. The government of Afghanistan will be wary of losing US support.
If we set aside the US counterterrorism mission and domestic concerns in US politics and concentrate on what the people of Afghanistan want, it tends to be what the US and other countries in the region also want: the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan but with the caveat that a peace deal be concluded. Few want to see the Taliban take control or for a civil war to begin between opposing interests outside of the Taliban. When asked what they want, the people of the country lean towards a US withdrawal, but only after a peace deal is reached. In a 2020 survey 80% stated that they thought the conflict would only be resolved by a political solution. Generally, they see the intervention by the US and its allies as having been harmful and there are those in the US who agree with them.
The big question that looms over the decision is what the Taliban will do in the absence of foreign support for the government and its forces. The group is far from transparent, and while we can speculate as to their intentions, we can never be certain. As one experienced analyst noted, the Taliban’s founding leader had been dead for two years and no one outside of the leadership knew. If we are to judge the Taliban by what they do as opposed to what they say, then the evidence for the Taliban seeking a political solution in which power is shared is lacking. The Biden administration’s review of the peace deal is unlikely to conclude that there has been Taliban compliance with its pledges in relation to the deal. Nor are they likely to have much faith in the Taliban’s claim to have more progressive attitude towards the rights of women. The group’s opacity makes their intentions hard to assess and internal divisions might make commitments to women’s rights transitory at best. Thus far, what talking there has been, has been with other countries in the region, and there has been a shocking increase in the level of violence, which includes assassinations of people who are rivals or critical of the Taliban, or simply doing their jobs (including journalists, judges, and politicians). In the areas that they control women are facing tighter restrictions.
While it is conceivable that the Taliban are trying to put themselves in the best possible position should a deal with the government be reached, the fact that they are not living up to a deal with the US that was in their favour is unmistakable. Despite being in a position where they control an estimated 52% of Afghanistan, foreign forces want to leave, and the government wants to talk, there has been no reduction in violence due to attacks on Afghan forces and civilians. That there is no clear mechanism for monitoring compliance is a problem that is resolved in part by one side to the deal being demonstrably in violation of it. A pragmatic course of action would have been to cut the deal with the US (of which the government had little say) and then sit tight in the territory under Taliban control while the intra-Afghan talks take place and foreign forces withdraw. The Taliban clearly did not bother to read the script, if they even cared about it in the first place.
As to the intra-Afghan talks, the people of Afghanistan have a lot to be unhappy about. Their government had little input into the US-Taliban deal, agreements were made about prisoners, deadlines were set for the complete withdrawal of foreign forces, and the whole thing looked very much in the Taliban’s favour. By arranging for the talks in Qatar the Taliban has already been granted a de facto recognition. While there are criticisms to be made of their leaders, the progress made in rebuilding the country’s civil society has come alongside a great cost in life and limb and Afghans have serious questions about the intentions of an insurgent group whose time in governance saw women marginalised and sports stadiums turned into scenes for executions. The US-Taliban deal looked much like an exit strategy. Very much so.
The progress of the talks has been turgid, it took six months longer than expected for the intra-Afghan talks to get going, another three months to deal with procedures and protocol and then a break before the talks began again. All the while, the violence was escalating. While the timescale set by the US in which a peace agreement can be reached was unrealistic, one can be forgiven for being underwhelmed. To add insult to injury, the talking that the Taliban has done has been with other countries in the region, not the Afghan government. Now a Biden administration review hangs over the process. To call it a disappointment is an understatement. The 1st of May deadline for complete withdrawal was a problem from the off as it was far too short a time to allow for effective negotiations between the government and the Taliban and it also gave little time to withdraw the troops, most of whom would have to be withdrawn beforehand to allow for a complete withdrawal by the date set. We should note that peace talks are not like conducting business and as such are usually imperfect: a bad peace deal is better than no deal.
From a US perspective, two factors push the decision in the direction of withdrawal. The first is that despite trillions of dollars in investment and military aid, the political elite in Afghanistan is fractured and riven with corruption and the Taliban is in control of swathes of southern Afghanistan. The second, is that the mission in Afghanistan shifted to an advisory role years ago and the US presence is a training and support mission with a counterterrorism element and airpower. If we drop US interests and focus solely on Afghan needs, there is little further difference that a training and support mission can make to fighting the insurgency without increasing the number of troops and changing back to a frontline mission. As to concerns about human rights, the government does not exercise control outside of the urban centres, where more traditional means of authority hold sway, particularly in the mountainous areas that are self-sufficient and resist central control. The longstanding issue of elite-level corruption that permeates through Afghan politics undermines the government and its allies both. As to the counterterrorism mission that dominates US thinking, there is no consensus as to whether it is working or actually makes things worse. It is more a strategic interest for the US than a need for the people of Afghanistan.
The US approach to Afghanistan is about far more than military operations and it is here that the Afghanistan Study Group has much of value to say. The US has significant leverage outside of the military. One of these is diplomacy, and it is notable that of all the countries in the region, only Pakistan has an interest in a strong Taliban, while the likes of India, Iran, Russia, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan do not. These are far from insignificant actors, whose interests in a stable and prosperous Afghanistan are arguably greater than those of the US. Another is supporting facilitation, mediation, and negotiation efforts towards reaching a political solution. There has been a considerable amount of diplomatic activity in this regard, one example being a five-nation facilitation group (comprised of Germany, Indonesia, Norway, Qatar, and Uzbekistan) that supports the Doha talks. These do not have a mediator and there have been calls for an international mediator to be assigned to the intra-Afghan talks, preferably one appointed by the UN. The position of the US special envoy for Afghanistan, currently Zalmay Khalilzad, should be maintained and empowered. Finally, non-military support, including financial incentives for compliance can be tied to building towards a post-agreement Afghan state. The Afghanistan Study Group report recommends these measures in conjunction with a continued military presence in Afghanistan while the conditions for a political settlement improve. They can also be applied in the event of a withdrawal and would be more effective without a military footprint. There is a strong argument that the presence of foreign forces makes the insurgency more violent and benefits the insurgents. Their removal undermines the insurgent argument that they are fighting against foreign invaders.
The deal between the US and the Taliban failed to please everyone and any future deal between the government and the Taliban will also divide opinion. It is not possible to make everyone happy and there is no such thing as a peace deal that will be accepted by all. The best that can be aimed for is one that is accepted by the key parties, avoids spoilers, and protects life. As things stand, this is a long way off and the Presidential decision regarding the withdrawal of US forces, which will effectively determine what happens with other foreign forces, will also divide opinion. It will be determined by US interests and an assessment as to whether it will help the peace process or cripple it.
Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.
This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include the BBC, The Guardian, Al-Jazeera, the Fair Observer and news media in Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan and the intra-Afghan talks are discussed in depth in the following sources: The United States Institute for Peace at https://www.usip.org/programs/afghanistan-peace-process, the Council for Foreign Relations at https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/war-afghanistan, and the International Crisis Group at https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/afghanistan/. For some viewpoints of Afghan’s on the peace process see: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/southasiasource/what-do-afghans-think-of-the-ongoing-doha-peace-process-as-well-as-the-us-taliban-peace-deal-and-what-do-they-expect-from-the-biden-administrations-review/. The Afghanistan Study Group Final Report can be accessed at the USIP website cited above.