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There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
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
Op-Ed / Asia

There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Washington’s latest idea of a transitional government would be worse than the dysfunctional status quo.

If there is one thing the United States should have learned after two decades in Afghanistan, it’s that there are no quick fixes. That has proved true for the war, and it’s true for any possibility of a negotiated peace. But faced with the decision whether to comply with a May 1 deadline for pulling out all troops under a deal the U.S. government signed with the Taliban in February 2020, Washington is now searching for a shortcut to an Afghan political settlement. There isn’t one.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has delivered to the Afghan government and Taliban a draft Afghanistan Peace Agreement—the central idea of which is replacing the elected Afghan government with a so-called transitional one that would include the Taliban and then negotiate among its members the future permanent system of government. Crucial blank spaces in the draft include the exact share of power for each of the warring sides and which side would control security institutions.

At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a letter that soon leaked, saying it was “urgent” to “accelerate peace talks” and move “quickly toward a settlement.” The letter states that the United States has asked Turkey to host a high-level meeting between the Afghan sides “in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement.” The letter also references a U.S.-proposed 90-day reduction in violence (a concept short of a cease-fire) while diplomacy continues—which suggests that Washington knows an agreement within weeks is unlikely.

Chances that Taliban leaders or Ghani would agree to anything like the U.S. draft peace agreement are vanishingly small. But if they do, the result will be worse than this gambit failing.

Chances that Taliban leaders or Ghani would agree to anything like the U.S. draft peace agreement are vanishingly small. But if they do, the result will be worse than this gambit failing.

For the Taliban, the draft has too many hallmarks of the existing government setup: It includes a commitment to holding elections and keeping in place the constitution devised under U.S. auspices in 2004 until a new one is written. The available evidence of Taliban thinking points to their rejecting any arrangement that would make them appear co-opted into a system they have long opposed in exchange for a partial share of power.

For Ghani, the proposal is premised on him relinquishing power. That brutal fact, plus the rough-edged tone of Blinken’s letter, has whipped up a political tempest in Kabul. Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh reacted most bluntly, saying Afghanistan would “never accept a bossy and imposed peace.” Ghani knows that the main Afghan enthusiasts of the transitional government idea are his political opposition and the country’s former mujahideen, who sense opportunity to gain power as it is parceled out.

In the unlikely event the new U.S. peace plan materializes, the power-sharing arrangement it envisions would be prone to collapse. A body comprising multiple factions plus the Taliban—at a stage of the peace process before they’ve even begun to hash out core issues that divide them—would be less functional and less stable than the fragile government in place now. The hard work of negotiating the structure of a future Afghan state will not be eased by prematurely erasing the current one. And if a fractious transitional government fails, the cease-fire the U.S. plan promises would evaporate with it.

The U.S. proposal reflects a boiling over of Washington’s frustrations with Ghani. The Afghan leader’s critics have accused him of obstructing a peace process that has sapped his government of its already tenuous authority. The past several Afghan elections have been bitterly contested, the country’s politics are deeply corrupt, and service provision is increasingly limited to population centers, with the Taliban insurgency operating freely throughout much of the countryside.

The U.S. proposal reflects a boiling over of Washington’s frustrations with Ghani.

But however much Ghani has contributed to slowing the process, dismantling the elected government is unlikely to hasten peace. The Taliban have not moved any faster. It took over a year of bilateral negotiations and numerous U.S. concessions for the Taliban to sign a four-page agreement spelling out a tight timeline for U.S. and NATO withdrawal and more ambiguous Taliban promises to prevent Afghanistan being used as a launching pad for terrorists. And the Taliban remain coy about details of the political vision they seek to realize. Official Taliban statements that their movement will accept some degree of power sharing are contradicted by internal messaging emphasizing victory and ascendance.

After delays for which the United States was as much to blame as any other party, Afghan talks finally commenced last September in Doha, Qatar. They’ve progressed haltingly, at least in part because the parties are waiting for a new U.S. government to signal whether it will stay committed to a process the previous one catalyzed.

The slow pace now clashes with the deadline for withdrawing foreign troops. That’s a problem the U.S.-Taliban deal caused by decoupling the withdrawal timetable from any requirement of progress in negotiations. But it’s also a problem that can’t be solved by demands to speed up the hard slog of reaching a political settlement.

It will be difficult to get the peace process in Doha to produce results, but it’s too soon to jettison a process that has taken years to set up and has only just begun. Instead of promoting a new plan that has almost no chance of being accepted and that would further weaken the Afghan state, Washington should put its energy into testing whether the Doha process can be made to work.

It will be difficult to get the peace process in Doha to produce results, but it’s too soon to jettison a process that has taken years to set up and has only just begun.

This should include rallying the regional powers, especially Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and India—who all have links to actors in the Afghan conflict—around generating momentum for the existing process. A high-level meeting of this group, which Washington has asked the United Nations to convene, is a good idea, but these stakeholders need a better peace plan to coalesce around than the new U.S. proposal.

If the United States wants to give the talks a real chance, then it will need to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond May 1 to maintain leverage for forging a settlement and to forestall a downward security spiral that would spike the process.

Ongoing talks would provide the best argument Washington could make to regional powers, especially Pakistan, for why they should help pressure the Taliban to let the deadline slip.

But if talks break down—as they probably will, given how divided the parties are and how rarely peace processes succeed—then it will be better to have even a dysfunctional Afghan government still standing than to have replaced it with a stopgap transitional one whose existence would not survive the end of negotiations. And if the Biden administration plans to pull out U.S. forces soon, then it’s better not to risk leaving such wreckage behind.

Contributors

Program Director, Asia
LaurelMillerICG
Senior Analyst, Afghanistan
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