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Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan
Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan
Interpreting the U.S. Talks with the Taliban
Interpreting the U.S. Talks with the Taliban
Still taken from Crisis Group video On The FrontLines, showing former Afghanistan Senior Analyst Graeme Smith [L] CRISIS GROUP
Impact Note / Asia

Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan

In 2013-2014, International Crisis Group’s work in Afghanistan helped shift the consensus on the Taliban insurgency from “the war is cooling down” to “the war is growing”. This was a fundamental revision of the way in which the conflict’s progression was viewed, and resulted in a critical rise in Western powers’ support to the Afghan government. In a conflict that no side could win outright, Crisis Group believed, this aid was vital to stabilise the situation on the battlefield enough for peace talks with the Taliban to progress.

Interweaving field research, report-writing and targeted advocacy, Crisis Group challenged the assumptions behind the NATO proposal at its 2012 Chicago summit to draw down troops by the end of 2014. Donors said they would significantly reduce their annual subsidy to the Afghan security forces to $4.1 billion annually. The NATO plan was based on the belief that the insurgency was diminishing and the Afghan government could safely cut more than 100,000 personnel from its security roster.

Crisis Group began to question this position during a June 2013 visit to Kandahar by our Senior Analyst for Afghanistan, Graeme Smith. The province was being hailed as a success story, an example of how recent surges of international forces had beaten back the insurgency. But friends and contacts Smith had known since he lived in Kandahar from 2006 to 2009 told him that while the Taliban had been pushed away from the urban areas, a desperate battle was underway for control of the outlying villages. A former official from Ghorak district told Smith about his colleagues in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) who were starving in their outposts, running out of fuel and bullets, and dying of minor wounds that festered without medical attention. As he delved deeper, Smith saw the pattern repeating across Afghanistan, with Kabul’s crumbing control of outlying districts coinciding with the withdrawal of international forces.

Obviously, the narrative about the war cooling down was wishful thinking, with dangerous implications for military and political efforts to defeat the insurgency. Indeed, if NATO were to follow through on dramatic funding cuts to the Afghan forces, the Taliban’s pressure on government forces would likely gather momentum. It undermined the whole logic of the UN team working on negotiations with the Taliban, namely that no deal was likely until the Afghan government and the West reached a “hurting stalemate” with the insurgency on the battlefield.

Crisis Group’s Senior Afghanistan Analyst Graeme Smith exchanges ideas in Kandahar in 2015 with Abdul Halim, a leading Afghan regional tribal leader. Download permissions

As he pursued interviews and briefings with contacts for a new Crisis Group report, Smith raised the alarm in an op-ed in The New York Times (“Grabbing The Wolf’s Tail”, 16 January 2014). He pointed out that the Afghan conflict was not winding down, notwithstanding assurances to the contrary from the Pentagon. This prompted an invitation a couple of weeks later to present our research and discuss recommendations at a meeting of UN field office directors in Kabul.

Smith had similar discussions in March and April with Deputy U.S. Ambassador Michael McKinley and his political staff. Informally, he got feedback from senior figures in the Afghan government during a dinner hosted by the deputy minister of interior in April; the next day he briefed (and learned from) an audience of representatives from the Afghan and donor governments and international organisations including the EU, UN and NATO.

Published in May 2014, our report, Afghanistan’s Insurgency after the Transition, attracted significant media coverage, making headlines as the first rigorous explanation of why the violence continued to grow, and calling for a reversal of funding cuts to effectively fight the insurgency. Two days after the report’s publication, Smith briefed the visiting advisor to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also presented the report’s findings to European ambassadors and the EU special representative at a formal luncheon, hosted in a heavily guarded palace formerly belonging to the royal family of Afghanistan. The tide was turning: Western officials now agreed with Crisis Group that pressure on the ANSF was going to increase in the next two years. In confidence, they said the diplomatic community had begun encouraging the Afghan forces to adopt a less diffuse posture and to concentrate defences around major population centres and key roads. In the following weeks, Smith continued to push the message home in dozens of briefings to embassy staffers, military and intelligence officials, and UN staff.

“Informally the [ISAF] commander expressed interest in using our report as a way of challenging the analysis coming from his own headquarters

Informally the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command – which had issued a report in November 2013 stating that the war was winding down – expressed interest in using our report as a way of challenging the analysis coming from his own headquarters (it subsequently emerged that the NATO database of security incidents was flawed).

While some officials remained unwilling to accept Smith’s view that remote district centres risked being overrun, others were surprisingly receptive. Formal and informal briefings also continued with senior figures in the Afghan government, ranging from meetings with police chiefs in the embattled provinces of Kunduz and Kandahar to cocktail receptions in Kabul on the rooftop patio of a deputy minister’s house. While some of our Afghan interlocutors chided us for our negative outlook on the ability of Afghan forces to hold ground in the 2014 and 2015 fighting seasons, they were at the same time appreciative of our calls for greater ANSF support.

Even before our May report appeared, Crisis Group staff in Washington DC led by Senior Vice President Mark Schneider had moved into action. Schneider briefed the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, his deputies, and the National Security Council director for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The report generated a demand, he was specifically told, from the National Security Council to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Department of Defense to explain the divergence between Defense’s initial optimism and the new Crisis Group findings. By the summer, the idea of clear gaps in the Afghan forces’ ability to engage in combat was common discussion, as was the need to increase the funds that had been promised in 2012.

Crisis Group’s President & CEO Jean-Marie Guéhenno drove home the message in a meeting with the [U.S.] Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who assured Guéhenno that the U.S. or NATO would ensure that Afghan combat readiness would be raised.

Subsequently, Schneider and Crisis Group’s South Asia Project Director Samina Ahmed briefed the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations and Defense Committees on the May report and a follow-up report on how the Afghan government could meet the threat (Afghanistan’s Political Transition, October 2014). That same month, Crisis Group’s President & CEO Jean-Marie Guéhenno drove home the message in a meeting with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who assured Guéhenno that the U.S. or NATO would ensure that Afghan combat readiness would be raised.

Our efforts to draw attention to the serious risks of reducing support to the ANSF already paid off at NATO’s September 2014 summit, when the Afghan delegation received assurances of at least $5.1 billion annually, avoiding serious personnel cuts. The planning process within

NATO has continued to reflect this line of argument; while NATO continues to maintain that funding will gradually fall to the levels pledged at the 2012 Chicago summit, the timeline remains unspecified. Total funding for Afghan security forces in 2015 is $5.443 billion, with planned expenditures for 2016 exceeding $5 billion.

Sadly, our prediction of higher violence in 2014 and 2015 proved correct. Casualties among Afghan security forces doubled in 2014 compared with the previous year, and in 2015 they have run 60 to 70 per cent higher than in 2014. We also predicted that “continued escalation would put district administration centres at risk of capture by insurgents”, which unfortunately has been borne out in several locations. In 2015, for the first time since the beginning of the insurgency, the Taliban were capturing and holding multiple district centres as the Afghan security forces struggled to regain lost territory.’

International Crisis Group will always be on the lookout for such ways to nudge conflicts towards a resolution, using the same unique methodology: field-based research that capitalises on our staff’s long experience and deep network of local contacts, which allows us to identify the trends that others are unable or unwilling to see; and then taking our findings to key decision-makers, both formally and behind the scenes.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani (C) talks with US special representative for Afghan Peace and reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (top L) during a cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Kabul. Handout / Afghan Presidential Palace / AFP
Q&A / Asia

Interpreting the U.S. Talks with the Taliban

Talks with the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha have raised hopes that the U.S. could end its involvement in Afghanistan’s war. Our Asia Program Director Laurel Miller and Afghanistan analysts Borhan Osman and Graeme Smith break down what was achieved and what remains unresolved.

How significant were the U.S.-Taliban talks?

Last week’s six-day talks between the U.S. and Taliban were the clearest sign yet that the U.S. is intent on withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan, and that the Taliban and its regional allies perceive that intent as an opportunity. It is early to draw conclusions but the signals from Doha inspire optimism about ending America’s longest war. A U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal has long been the Taliban’s top demand and the driving rationale for the insurgency. The Doha talks also were the first time that the U.S. has publicly acceded to the Taliban’s insistence that bilateral negotiations on terms for a troop withdrawal precede any peace negotiations involving other Afghans. The Taliban have made no evident concessions, but hints are emerging of some consensus on key issues. Ultimately, the significance of the talks depends on what happens next: if the framework of a deal reportedly sketched out in Doha leads to substantive negotiations among a wider array of stakeholders on future political and security arrangements, then these talks will have produced an important breakthrough.

What has been agreed upon?

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told The New York Times that the U.S. and Taliban have agreed in principle on a framework for a deal under which the Taliban would prevent Afghanistan from becoming a “platform for international terrorist groups or individuals” and that the U.S. would pull out troops. Khalilzad also said that, as the framework is further fleshed out, Taliban concessions will need to include a ceasefire and agreement to talk directly with the Afghan government. The Taliban appears now to be considering whether it is prepared to make such concessions.

How do you get all sides sitting around a table, after decades of war?

An exchange of commitments between the Taliban and U.S. on counter-terrorism and troop withdrawal may be enough to end American military involvement in Afghanistan, but without a more complete peace deal it will not end what is now the deadliest conflict in the world. At the moment, the U.S. reportedly is taking the position that a troop withdrawal would only be part of a bigger package including settlement of political and security issues among Afghans. Whether the U.S. sticks with that position will be important to watch.

What are the unresolved issues?

A major unanswered question is how to structure an intra-Afghan dialogue. How do you get all sides sitting around a table, after decades of war? Also unclear is what the Taliban is willing to accept on timing and sequencing of such dialogue – that is, do they see dialogue launching before a foreign troop withdrawal commences, or only later, after a troop withdrawal that diminishes Afghan government and U.S. leverage is underway? The Taliban have long been willing to negotiate openly with the U.S., as has now happened, and they have more vaguely indicated willingness to talk subsequently with other Afghans, but the specifics of an intra-Afghan negotiation format that can attract the support of all sides remains uncertain.

Details have not yet emerged regarding the counter-terrorism assurances the Taliban offered in Doha and how definitively acceptable they are to Washington. The U.S. may be looking for the Taliban to say something that goes beyond what they have declared in the past. Since at least 2010, the Taliban have promised that they will not let Afghanistan be used to threaten other countries, in a veiled reference to preventing transnational jihadist groups from sheltering in their territory. That kind of oblique language may or may not be sufficient in a peace agreement; its acceptability will depend in part on how anxious the U.S. is to exit Afghanistan. One question is whether the Taliban might be willing to go further now, committing for the first time to actively counter jihadist groups. From the Taliban perspective, they need to see a firm U.S. commitment on complete troop withdrawal with no ambiguity in the wording.

Taliban officials say the aim of the previous ceasefire was to show the world that if they want to stop fighting, they can.

Would the Taliban agree to a ceasefire?

A comprehensive ceasefire is, unfortunately, more unlikely than not at this early stage of negotiations. The Taliban worry about losing their battlefield momentum if they agree to a ceasefire, and their battlefield momentum has won them considerable leverage. A first, brief ceasefire in June 2018 was unusually successful, revealing a groundswell of popular support for an end to the conflict. The scenes of Taliban fighters celebrating in the streets with their opponents caught the insurgent leadership by surprise. Taliban officials say the aim of the previous ceasefire was to show the world that if they want to stop fighting, they can. Until now, however, a long-term ceasefire has been conceivable to the Taliban only in the context of an imminent transition to a negotiated peace involving other Afghan parties. The Taliban are undoubtedly aware that a ceasefire would be a significant political win for the government in Kabul and morale booster for government forces, and thus undoubtedly are disinclined to enable those gains.

In the meantime, the Taliban seem poised to continue fighting. The group is configured to draw strength from its performance on the battlefield, not from politics. As a Taliban fighter told Crisis Group recently: “The reason everyone is talking about us is our military power and fighting ability; otherwise, nobody would have been talking about peace and reconciliation.” In some respects, the prospect of a peace agreement threatens the Taliban’s existence in its current form. They do not seem likely to give up the fight prematurely.

What is the U.S. doing differently in these talks?

Previous rounds of U.S. talks with the Taliban raised the prospect of negotiating a troop withdrawal but did not address that issue head on. This time the Americans seem to have acceded to Taliban insistence on front-loading discussions on a U.S. troop withdrawal, before details are established on intra-Afghan political dialogue. This step reflects U.S. interest in winding down its military involvement in Afghanistan that has been building for years but has spiked sharply in the second year of the Trump administration.

The fact that the U.S. has openly been negotiating bilaterally on substantive issues with the Taliban is another change from past discussions. There have been intermittent U.S.-Taliban contacts since 2011, but never with as much publicity and as many expressions of urgency. How deeply the latest talks have delved into the core substantive issues will only be apparent once more details emerge.

Is the Kabul government on board with the U.S. approach?

U.S. envoy Khalilzad travelled to Kabul for a meeting with President Ashraf Ghani after the talks in Doha. Subsequently, on 28 January, Ghani made a formal address on state television about a future Afghanistan without international troops – something his administration has resisted envisioning for years. He mentioned recent air strikes that reportedly killed civilians and expressed his hopes that Afghan security forces would have a different role after a peace agreement. Still, the president was cautious in his comments on the talks. Ghani reminded his audience of the fate of his predecessor Mohammad Najibullah, who survived the withdrawal of Soviet forces only to be killed by the Taliban during the chaos that ensued.

The Taliban announced that their co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar would [...] become responsible for the Taliban “political commission” based in Doha, making him their chief negotiator.

Whereas Ghani may view a deal with the Taliban as a threat to his position, some of his political opponents among the Afghan elite seem more positive toward the developments in Doha, perhaps hoping for roles in an interim administration that might be installed as part of a peace agreement. Still, the entrenched view among anti-Taliban political factions is that major compromises with their opponents – such as an entirely new constitution – are unacceptable. They also are concerned that the U.S. risks making a “separate peace” and leaving them behind. The U.S. will likely need to use its considerable leverage with these Afghan political factions to bring them to the table and encourage a deal with the Taliban.

What is the significance of the new appointment to the Taliban negotiating team?

As talks progressed last week, the Taliban announced that their co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar would assume the title of deputy leader and become responsible for the Taliban “political commission” based in Doha, making him their chief negotiator. This development suggests the Taliban are serious about negotiations and may reflect a constructive role by Pakistan – which had imprisoned Baradar in 2010, releasing him only last October as U.S. negotiating efforts began to gain traction. The appointment also cemented the role of Qatar as the main venue for negotiations, despite efforts by other regional countries to serve as facilitators. The Taliban had been waiting for the right moment to make this announcement, once they believed that peace efforts had moved to a sufficiently advanced stage. Baradar is a senior and widely respected member of the movement who is probably empowered to test whether the group can achieve its goals through politics rather than fighting.

What would a settlement look like?

Details do not appear to have been hammered out yet, and, until results are shown in writing, it is also possible that U.S. and Taliban negotiators have somewhat different understandings about what has been agreed to so far. As details emerge from the talks, Crisis Group will be watching for answers to these and other questions: to what degree are the elements of the framework understanding part of a package deal that includes a ceasefire and intra-Afghan dialogue? How will implementation of a troop withdrawal be tied to these issues? Would the understandings so far – especially on troop withdrawal – be implemented regardless of how much progress is achieved in the subsequent stages of the process? To the extent that the Taliban agree to negotiate with their Afghan opponents, would they talk to the government or only to some yet-to-be-formed broader collection of Afghan power holders? What will be the agenda of intra-Afghan talks, and, specifically, will the current constitutional system be the starting point for hashing out future political arrangements, or will everything be up for grabs?

Contributors

Program Director, Asia
LaurelMillerICG
Senior Analyst, Afghanistan
Consultant, Afghanistan