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Afghanistan's Peace Process Will Be Long, Incremental and in Need of a Mediator
Afghanistan's Peace Process Will Be Long, Incremental and in Need of a Mediator
Undated handout picture of U.S., Taliban and Qatar officials during a meeting for peace talks in Doha, Qatar. Handout via REUTERS/Qatari Foreign Ministry
Q&A / Asia

Behind Trump’s Taliban Debacle

On 7 September, U.S. President Donald Trump made the startling announcement that he had invited Taliban leaders to Camp David for talks – and then cancelled the gathering. Crisis Group Asia Program Director Laurel Miller and consultant Graeme Smith explain what happened and what it means for prospects of ending Afghanistan’s war.

What was the U.S. goal in inviting the Taliban to Camp David?

The U.S. has not said what was planned for Camp David, the wooded Maryland retreat that has hosted several peace summits, but the outlines of its intentions seem clear. A week earlier, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said negotiators had reached an agreement with the Taliban, adding that he would announce details imminently, pending President Donald Trump’s final approval. The likely explanation for the Camp David meeting is that, in light of significant criticism from various quarters, Trump was not prepared to sign off on the deal, which the parties had painstakingly negotiated over the last nine months, and wanted to better its terms for the U.S. side.

What is not yet clear is whether, by also inviting President Ashraf Ghani to Camp David, the U.S. intended to try to broker a grander bargain, including resolution of issues between the Taliban and Afghan government. If so, Trump would have been aiming for a moonshot in a peace process where victories are measured in inches. No diplomatic groundwork has yet been laid for a peace agreement among the Afghan parties, and there is no reason to think that either side would have been willing to deal on the fly.

U.S. diplomacy’s main achievement in the last year has been to persuade the Taliban to open negotiations with the Afghan government after concluding an initial agreement with Washington. Officials have indicated that the draft U.S.-Taliban agreement included a commitment by the Taliban to commence what are being termed “intra-Afghan negotiations”.  

The Taliban’s concession may sound modest, but from their perspective it is not. For years, the insurgents had vowed never to speak to a government they dismissed as a “puppet” – and never to negotiate over their country’s political future while American boots remained on Afghan soil. Months of careful diplomacy, conducted with disciplined secrecy on both sides, coaxed the process to the brink of historic intra-Afghan talks. If and when those talks start, they will undoubtedly be lengthy and complicated. 

The credibility of the U.S commitment to negotiating is harmed but not destroyed, as all sides understand that Washington will seek a political solution at some point.

Why did the planned meeting fall apart?

Trump said the primary reason why the deal fell apart was the Taliban’s recent attack in Kabul that killed one U.S. soldier, but that explanation is not credible. Both sides have been hammering each other on the battlefield, seeking leverage at the negotiating table – indeed, in the wake of the Camp David cancellation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed out how many Taliban fighters the U.S.-led coalition had recently killed. Taliban-inflicted violence had been ramping up throughout the negotiating process, and fifteen U.S. troops had already been killed during that time, in addition to many more Afghans. For Washington’s part, its declared policy is to use military pressure to obtain Taliban concessions. The U.S. is dropping munitions on Afghanistan more frequently now than in any year since 2001. The intensified bombing has pushed up the number of Afghan civilians killed in the war. In the first half of 2019, the UN recorded more civilians deaths at U.S. or Afghan government hands than at the Taliban’s – including a marked increase in deaths from airstrikes.

More likely, plans for the meeting never truly came together in the first place because the Taliban leaders were prepared to visit the U.S. only after the deal they had already negotiated was signed and announced.

What are the consequences for the peace process?

The U.S. president has said that the talks are “dead”, but it may not be the last word from him, given reversals in similar rhetoric he has employed in other circumstances. The 10 September departure of National Security Advisor John Bolton, who is known to oppose making a deal with the Taliban, adds another wrinkle. At a minimum, however, the debacle will mean some delay in finalising a deal that had seemed on the verge of completion. And the U.S. will need to find a face-saving way to bring itself back to the table, if the process is to resume. The Afghan government, which had openly celebrated the breach in the U.S.-Taliban process, may also need to save face.

Negotiators among the Taliban and Afghan government told Crisis Group that they continue to prepare for intra-Afghan negotiations in case the U.S. returns to the table. The credibility of the U.S commitment to negotiating is harmed but not destroyed, as all sides understand that Washington will seek a political solution at some point.

The question is therefore not whether the U.S. will return to negotiations, but when. A quick resumption of talks could jolt the process back on track. Without that, the most plausible scenario is that the U.S. and Taliban heighten their military confrontation. The Taliban may feel compelled to make good on their threat to disrupt Afghanistan’s 28 September presidential election. The year 2019 may be remembered as the most violent ever, judging by recent trends.

What do the Taliban, U.S. and Afghan government want out of a U.S.-Taliban deal?

Both the Taliban and U.S. seek the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the end of America’s longest war. They disagree, however, over the terms and pace of a U.S. exit.

The Taliban want to regain control of centralised government, allowing them to install what they call an “Islamic system” in Afghanistan, though they seem to understand that their desires will collide with opposing views at the negotiating table. The degree of Taliban willingness to compromise on this matter is unknown, raising questions about whether they will be able to make peace with the Afghan government. It will also help determine whether Afghanistan’s donors, who pay most of the security sector and civilian government’s bills, will bless a peace deal.

The U.S. wants a peace agreement offering guarantees that the Taliban will combat the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate. This pledge should be easy to obtain considering that the Taliban battle daily with the Islamic State, which they consider a sworn enemy. Getting the Taliban to renounce al-Qaeda, as Washington would also like, could be more difficult because some of the Taliban’s hardline supporters idolise Osama bin Laden. The Taliban seem ready, however, to deliver at least on the U.S. demand for a public declaration not to allow terrorists to abuse their territory as a staging ground for international attacks.

For Kabul, the U.S.-Taliban agreement could have been a first step toward kick-starting talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government. To their credit, some Kabul officials continue working toward the eventual moment when they sit down with the Taliban and both sides compare visions of Afghan state structure and ways of drafting a new constitution.

What can be done to revive talks?

Trump scuppered the talks, and the onus is on Washington to press ahead with diplomacy. Taliban interlocutors say they are puzzled by U.S. behaviour and, though they have indicated their continued openness to concluding talks, they are unlikely to take the initiative in pressing for a restart. Washington will also need to manage criticism of the deal out of Kabul, which has spiked in the wake of the Camp David debacle.

Contributors

Program Director, Asia
LaurelMillerICG
Former Senior Consultant, Afghanistan
smithkabul
Speech / Asia

Afghanistan's Peace Process Will Be Long, Incremental and in Need of a Mediator

Speech by Laurel Miller, Program Director for Asia, at the United Nations Security Council Arria Formula Meeting on the Peace Process in Afghanistan.

Distinguished speakers and participants, thank you for the opportunity to join you for this discussion today. 

As all the preceding speakers have emphasised, a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan would be the best way to advance peace and prosperity in that country and contribute to security beyond its borders. But it goes without explaining that peacemaking is hard, and more often than not it fails. As an independent observer, I can perhaps best contribute to this discussion by highlighting a few key risks and realities that are important for those supporting an Afghan peace process to reflect in their policies and diplomacy, if the process is to have the greatest possible chance of success.

First, if the peace process succeeds – in other words, in the most optimistic scenario – the process will result in a government of which the Taliban are a substantial part, and which is structurally different than what we see today. What exactly the Taliban share and the structural changes will be can only be determined through negotiations, but trade-offs have to be expected. To anticipate otherwise would be to hope for Taliban surrender and there is no sign of that.

If and when the Afghan parties begin substantive negotiations, their starting positions are likely to be very far apart on the most fundamental questions of the political system and what kinds of democratic features it will and won’t have as compared to the existing system. Either there will be compromises on these questions or there will not be a negotiated settlement – in which case, the bloodshed will continue, with or without a foreign troop presence, and Afghanistan’s economic prospects will remain stunted.

One policy implication of this reality is that it is more important to focus support on the peace process than on specific outcomes. This isn’t to suggest that supporting countries abandon their own values. But it is to say that without placing an end to the bloodshed, to the human toll, at the apex of desired outcomes in the nearer term, other desired outcomes – rights, justice for victims, democratic features – are unlikely to be realised over the longer term. If the mantra “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led” means anything, it should mean that members of the international community will support the outcomes of Afghan peace negotiations without imposing their own redlines.

Another policy implication is that, if a negotiated settlement materialises, promoting its implementation will require providing financial support to a government that includes the Taliban. This is a reality that may be difficult to absorb for some parliaments and publics of countries that have been at war with the Taliban for two decades.

A second reality I’ll highlight concerns timing constraints on the peace process. As I’m sure is well-known to this group, peace processes generally are lengthy, often years-long affairs. In Afghanistan’s case, the relatively straightforward U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February took nearly a year and a half to negotiate, after years of quiet preparatory steps. The more complex topics to be negotiated among Afghans will not easily be amenable to quick resolution. An incremental approach to negotiations, in which compromises are gradually accumulated, building toward the most difficult issues would offer the best chance for the parties to evolve their positions and acclimate their constituencies to compromises. This kind of approach takes time.

The U.S.-Taliban agreement, however, has shortened the time horizon for talks. It’s not hard to imagine some flexibility on the agreement’s May 2021 deadline for a full withdrawal of all foreign forces and other non-diplomatic personnel, particularly considering that none of the other deadlines in the text have held so far. And, it is theoretically possible that the Biden administration will revisit elements of the deal or interpret some of its requirements more stringently; such modifications could extend the withdrawal timeline. Regardless of any Taliban flexibility or stiffened American conditionality – or even U.S. abandonment of the deal, though I don’t expect that – the withdrawal provisions have undoubtedly shaped Taliban expectations. The withdrawal timeline was a big win for them, and they had insisted on that win up front, before commencing talks with other Afghans. It is unlikely Afghan talks can be sustained if that win is not sustained. And, unfortunately, it is also unlikely that talks would continue after a full withdrawal. The timeline may be somewhat elastic, but probably can’t be stretched very far.

I mention the timing issue in part because some have been understandably frustrated with the dramatic urgency of U.S. diplomacy over the last couple of years and may be hoping for that to change. I cannot predict what the Biden administration’s approach will be. But I can say that objective analysis of the options available will have to treat the U.S.-Taliban agreement as a ‘fact on the ground,’ and will have to resolve the tension between the timing expectations that it created and the benefits of an incremental process. 

Finally, I’ll conclude with a practical suggestion for Security Council members’ consideration. A missing feature in the peace process so far is an empowered, impartial mediator. It is difficult to see how the parties will be able to bridge the substantial distance between their starting positions without such help. Several governments have informally played a mediation role in the process so far, but this ad hoc approach is less likely to be effective as the talks get more difficult.

A Security Council imprimatur for a mediator would be helpful. Such an imprimatur would reflect the common interests of council members in a stable Afghanistan that contributes to regional stability and provides no safe harbour for transnational terrorists. It would also signal the clear backing of key countries for the peace process – countries whose support will be needed not only to keep the process on track but also to create conditions for effective implementation of any results.

Over the next two months, while the future direction of U.S. policy cannot be certain, the crucial task will be to keep the Afghan talks, currently stalled, on life support. After that point, a push to put in place a mediator could help re-energise the process.

Thank you.