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Afghanistan Diplomacy Gathers Steam Even as Attacks Increase
Afghanistan Diplomacy Gathers Steam Even as Attacks Increase
U.S. and Taliban Announce Agreement on Afghanistan
U.S. and Taliban Announce Agreement on Afghanistan
Taliban officials led by the movement's chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (C, front) attend peace talks between senior Afghan politicians and Taliban negotiators in Moscow, Russia May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
Q&A / Asia

Afghanistan Diplomacy Gathers Steam Even as Attacks Increase

This week the Afghan government and Taliban met publicly for the first time – albeit informally – for a peace dialogue. Crisis Group’s Senior Afghanistan Analyst Borhan Osman explains what the talks mean and what may lie ahead.

What happened in Afghan peace talks in Doha?

Negotiations to end the Afghanistan war took a step forward on 7 and 8 July as more than 60 delegates, including Taliban and Afghan government officials as well as pro-government civil society representatives, gathered in the Qatari capital, Doha, for a peace dialogue. All participants joined the discussion in their personal capacities, which allowed the Taliban to continue refusing direct talks with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as the Afghan government is formally known. The format also circumvented longstanding concerns in Kabul about giving recognition to the Taliban’s preferred name for themselves: the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Setting aside the dispute over names and the underlying contestation of legitimacy, the two sides entered their first major – albeit informal – meeting.

Participants told Crisis Group that the atmosphere was respectful and constructive. A joint statement issued late on the second day struck a positive tone and outlined some shared principles but did not delve into specifics or point toward a follow-up meeting. Unlike previous events, which excluded Afghan government officials, and in which Taliban delegates generally restricted themselves to prepared statements, the Doha gathering turned into a conversation among Afghans about their shared future. Whether and how this ice-breaker event evolves into substantive negotiations on difficult issues, including the state’s structure and power-sharing in politics and security, remains to be seen.

Will the Taliban formally negotiate with the Afghan government?

The governments of Germany and Qatar facilitated the two-day dialogue in hopes that it would lead to direct negotiations. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah both responded to the Doha event with optimism that the Taliban would formally engage with their government. The Taliban, however, will be reluctant to sit down with Kabul’s representatives since they view that step as implying recognition of the government’s legitimacy. Taliban negotiators told Crisis Group that reaching even the current stage of informal talks represented a significant compromise on their part. Still, further shifts in the Taliban position remain possible, as the insurgents seem hopeful about progress on a related set of talks with the United States on withdrawal of troops.

"An agreement that is ambiguous about the Afghan peacemaking might hasten the U.S. withdrawal without a high probability of stability in its wake."

How are talks proceeding between the U.S. and the Taliban?

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad met again with the Taliban on 9 July, amid growing anticipation that the parties could soon announce a preliminary deal. Khalilzad then departed for travel to China and Washington. Participants say the talks have been tough but appear to be building toward an agreement that would include Washington’s declaration of a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in return for Taliban guarantees not to harbour foreign militants. The emerging deal would link these two issues with two other conditions: a Taliban commitment to negotiate with the Afghan government and other political factions, and mutual commitment to military de-escalation or perhaps even a full ceasefire. The strength of the linkages between the first two items and the two more difficult parts – intra-Afghan talks and a ceasefire – would be the litmus test of any agreement. An agreement that is clear on the U.S.-Taliban deal but ambiguous about the Afghan peacemaking to follow might hasten the U.S. withdrawal without a high probability of stability in its wake.

How quickly could the U.S. and Taliban strike such a deal?

During his June visit to Kabul, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. wants a peace deal by September, before the Afghan presidential election planned for late that month. Some U.S. officials appear hopeful that, once a peace process starts moving ahead, Afghans from all political factions would prioritise Taliban negotiations over the planned election. Otherwise, the campaigning and voting risk distracting the parties from peace efforts, particularly as electoral disputes could drag on for months. Senior Afghan officials in Kabul told Crisis Group that the September goal for a peace agreement seems unrealistic. The government has been focusing on the election schedule, while expressing less urgency about peace talks. Breakthroughs in peace talks that push the election off centre stage in Afghan politics thus seem unlikely this summer. But diplomacy is proceeding at breakneck speed – putting great pressure on the Afghan conflict parties – and the outcome is hard to predict.

"Many people find it puzzling that progress in peace talks is coinciding with intensified violence on the battlefield."

Why is there a surge in violence?

Escalating violence on both sides has punctuated the peace negotiations. On 1 July, for example, a Taliban attack in downtown Kabul killed at least 35 people, drawing the UN Security Council’s condemnation. Following the incident, the Taliban published two online commentaries describing the attack as a response to the Afghan government’s growing campaign of airstrikes and night raids. Two days before the Kabul attack, an airstrike killed religious students as young as ten years old in Wardak province.

Many people living through the surge of attacks find it puzzling that progress in peace talks is coinciding with intensified violence on the battlefield. The combatant parties, however, seem to see logic where civilians see a contradiction. U.S. and Afghan officials told Crisis Group that increased military pressure on the Taliban would improve the U.S. and Afghan negotiating positions at the peace talks. As for the Taliban, members of both the military and political wings claim that they are not coordinating their actions in response to events in Doha. Still, at a minimum, the rising Taliban attacks do seem to be an effort to demonstrate that mounting military pressure will not set the movement back on its heels.

Escalating violence risks hardening positions at the negotiating table. Following the Taliban’s Kabul attack, for example, social media users in the capital called upon government officials to pull out of the peace dialogue event in Doha. Similarly, Crisis Group has observed a small, more radical segment of the Taliban trying to use the increased airstrikes, particularly the bombing of mosques and religious schools, to discredit the entire political process. The more violence intensifies, the more such naysaying will resonate.

What will be the main sticking points as talks proceed?

In the talks between the U.S. and Taliban, the most difficult issue is the troop drawdown timetable – both how stretched out the drawdown will be, and whether it will commence and proceed unconditionally or be tied to progress in the peace process or other requirements. Both sides have been tight-lipped on progress in negotiating over this issue, but reportedly the Taliban have insisted on a nine-month timeline, whereas the U.S. has offered one two and half years long.

Among Afghan negotiating parties, reaching consensus on changes to the form of government is likely to be difficult. The Taliban insist on establishing an Islamic government, without as yet clarifying how, in their view, that would differ from the current Islamic republic. The parties will also sharply contest the timing for a comprehensive ceasefire. The Taliban prefer to continue fighting during negotiations in order to maintain their leverage, while the pro-government side seeks an early suspension of hostilities. For Afghan political groups and ordinary people who are sceptical of the Taliban’s sincerity in negotiations, progress would require the insurgents at least to commit firmly to an eventual ceasefire. Many Afghans consider a ceasefire the most visible proof that the Taliban are ready to make the transition to mainstream politics.

Representatives led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (Front C) leave after a meeting chaired by Former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai, marking a century of diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and Russia on May 30, 2019 in Moscow, Russia on the th Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency
Q&A / Asia

U.S. and Taliban Announce Agreement on Afghanistan

On 21 February, U.S. and Taliban representatives announced a deal paving the way for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and talks among Afghan parties to the conflict. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Andrew Watkins explains what the agreement entails and what comes next.

What just happened in talks between the U.S. and the Taliban?

A critical milestone in efforts to end the Afghan conflict was reached on 21 February, when Taliban and U.S. representatives issued statements confirming that they had reached an agreement providing for gradual U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, in exchange for Taliban promises to sever ties with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups and to enter intra-Afghan negotiations to resolve the world’s deadliest conflict. The statements explained that the U.S. and Taliban would sign the agreement on 29 February in Doha, Qatar – where negotiations have been conducted for over a year – contingent on the successful completion of a seven-day period of “reduction in violence”, which is meant to begin on 22 February.

During this reduction of violence, U.S., Taliban and Afghan security forces will substantially limit combat operations. This period is expected to kick off a sequence of events: after the seven days, the U.S. and Taliban will sign the agreement in Doha, and as soon as ten days later intra-Afghan negotiations will start.

The most notable addition, as a precursor to the signing ceremony, is that both sides have committed to the short-term “reduction in violence”...

Is anything in this agreement different from the one almost signed last September?

The substance of the agreement appears to be similar to, if not entirely the same as, the draft agreement “agreed to in principle” in August 2019 – although that draft’s full text was never made public.

The most notable addition, as a precursor to the signing ceremony, is that both sides have committed to the short-term “reduction in violence”, first publicly mentioned on 12 February by U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The U.S. began pushing for some form of violence reduction when talks were revived last fall, after President Donald Trump had called them off in early September.

Another component of the agreement will be a mass prisoner exchange between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Reportedly, this exchange could involve as many as 5,000 imprisoned Taliban and 1,000 Afghan security personnel now held captive. It would take place after the signing ceremony for the U.S.-Taliban deal, and possibly before the commencement of intra-Afghan talks. This timing could prove contentious with the Afghan government, which has rejected any prisoner release before negotiations are under way.

What does “reduction in violence” mean?

“Reduction in violence” is a term that U.S. officials began using to describe what is essentially a limited ceasefire; use of the term appears to be the result of a compromise. Since the three-day ceasefire between Taliban fighters and Afghan government forces over Eid al-Fitr in June 2018 – the first since the insurgency emerged – the Taliban have consistently rejected calls for a second. The Taliban have been averse to making any compromise that might threaten their movement’s cohesiveness. The Afghan government, on the other hand, called for a comprehensive national ceasefire as a precondition of renewed talks after they stalled last September.

When the U.S. raised the demand for a measurable reduction of violence in October, the Taliban’s only initial sign of compromise was to offer a ceasefire solely between their fighters and U.S. troops, to exclude Afghan security forces. The U.S. remained insistent on “demonstrable evidence” of the Taliban’s will and capacity to reduce violence more broadly. Just before the new year, the Taliban leadership paused negotiations, deliberated for several weeks, and publicly announced their willingness to observe a seven-day “reduction” in violence that would include Afghan security forces.

Media outlets have reported that the seven-day period will entail a nationwide halt of major offensive operations among U.S. and NATO, Taliban, and Afghan government armed forces. The precise terms reportedly include a Taliban pledge not to attack urban areas, highways or established Afghan checkpoints – with the understanding that Afghan security forces, for their part, will not attempt to travel through areas under Taliban control. The U.S. has pledged not to carry out offensive airstrikes or special operations, but some officials claim that it will support Afghan security forces from the air if they come under Taliban attack.

The seven-day reduction of violence will require careful coordination within the Afghan government’s military and security forces – as it will among the Taliban.

What happens next?

Senior U.S. officials met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the annual Munich Security Conference on 14-16 February to discuss the deal’s implementation. In spite of the Afghan government not being party to the negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban, it will be a critical player in most of the next steps.

The seven-day reduction of violence will require careful coordination within the Afghan government’s military and security forces – as it will among the Taliban’s rank and file. The agreement will most likely include additional confidence-building measures, such as prisoner releases or exchanges, though the scale and timing of these remains unknown. 

The signing ceremony is scheduled to take place on 29 February, at the end of the reduction in violence period. Critically, as soon as ten days after the ceremony, intra-Afghan negotiations are supposed to begin. Those talks will need to tackle difficult issues related to a political settlement to the conflict. Some U.S. officials have suggested that the terms for the reduction in violence could extend beyond the initial seven days, and continue while intra-Afghan talks proceed, but it is unclear if the agreement specifies the possibility of such an extension and it remains to be seen if the Taliban would agree to one.

What are the likely challenges for the next steps?

A number of challenges lie ahead, starting with the precarious nature of the reduction in violence agreement. First, while the undisclosed terms reportedly are quite detailed – the result of weeks of negotiation between the U.S. and Taliban – the risk is still high that misunderstanding, miscommunication or purposeful spoiling could trigger incidences of violence.

Secondly, even if the violence reduction is successful and conclusion of the U.S.-Taliban agreement ensues, that is when the most difficult part – intra-Afghan negotiations, the real beginning of an Afghan peace process – will commence. Many details surrounding the mechanics of those talks, including where they will be hosted, have yet to be cemented. The negotiating team for the Afghan government’s side still has not been officially announced, despite wrangling for more than a year over formation of an inclusive, broadly representative team. Crisis Group has learned of at least five different “peace process plans” being circulated by Afghan political opposition figures, all of which are relatively similar in substance but envision different roles and representation during the talks.

It will not be easy for the Afghan government and opposition politicians to coordinate a unified message and bargaining position. The difficulty was compounded after President Ghani was declared the winner of last year’s presidential election on 18 February, an outcome bitterly contested by his chief rival Abdullah Abdullah, who announced plans to establish a parallel government. Much is at stake; many of Ghani’s political opponents, who have lodged claims of corruption during every presidential election since 2009, have lobbied for a peace process to include an interim government in which Ghani would step down, and they could gain political power.

Intra-Afghan negotiations will involve crucial and highly divisive questions on power-sharing in the political and security spheres as well as the fundamental question of whether or not Afghanistan will remain the type of electoral democracy it is today. None of these issues is likely to be resolved quickly. The longer talks carry on, the more chances there will be for local, national, regional or international actors to play the spoiler – by inciting confusion, sowing mistrust or perpetrating violence.

The international community can play a helpful role by rallying behind a neutral mediator for talks, by supporting a sound framework for the talks to progress, and by pledging to continue providing funds for Afghanistan’s economic development.