Can ‘low-bar’ US-Taliban deal clear Afghanistan’s high hurdles?
An imminent weeklong reduction in violence agreed to by the United States and the Taliban is renewing cautious hopes for a broader deal to end America’s longest war and bring peace in Afghanistan.
Senior U.S. officials say the limited measure to show a Taliban commitment to peace would quickly be followed by the signing of an agreement for a phased withdrawal of American forces over 18 months, in exchange for Taliban efforts to prevent attacks abroad.
The Taliban and Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani – who this week was officially declared the winner in last September’s presidential vote – would then begin an intra-Afghan dialogue about future power-sharing, perhaps as early as March.
President Donald Trump approved the deal on Feb. 10, contingent on the seven-day easing of hostilities, the same day he witnessed the return of the remains of two U.S. Army officers killed in Afghanistan at Dover Air Force Base.
President Ghani has signaled his readiness, despite past carping that his government has been left out of the U.S.-Taliban talks. The Taliban, too, have indicated their readiness to conclude a deal – fast-tracking their own path to political legitimacy – though their expectation of an immediate release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners will be a tough sell in Kabul.
Indeed, the entire process is fraught with obstacles to ending an 18-year war that has killed tens of thousands of Afghans and taken the lives of some 3,500 U.S. and coalition troops.
Afghans have been on the cusp of “peace” before, most recently last September, when, in response to a Taliban suicide car bomb that killed an American and a NATO soldier in Kabul, Mr. Trump abruptly shut down 10 months of negotiations and called off plans to host Taliban leaders for a signing ceremony.
Analysts say a constellation of factors could again undermine any deal, and even thwart a modest easing of violence, making progress as fragile as ever. The key actors themselves, they say, appear uncertain about the significance of a late-winter lull of seven days, or what follows.
The Afghan government, for example, still excluded from the peace talks, is derided as a U.S. “puppet” by the ultra-conservative Taliban, which refuses to recognize Afghan officials.
There are also few signs that intra-Afghan talks meant as a next step can find common ground or a path to power-sharing, amid widely divergent visions of what a future Afghanistan should look like. The Afghanistan that the Taliban ruled with an iron fist and few women’s rights in the late 1990s has been transformed by two decades of U.S. and global donor cash and attention.
And owing to Taliban objections, the term “cease-fire” is not yet being used, though it should be part of any final deal on a U.S. withdrawal. U.S. officials suggest an initial drawdown from 12,000 to 8,600 troops within weeks or months.
“It’s such a low bar, I’m not sure that even if they have a successful seven days [of reduced violence], how much more confidence it will build,” says a Western official based in Kabul.
“I know the Taliban are very skeptical about Trump changing his mind again, adding conditions,” says the official. “The trust deficit on the Taliban side might be higher now ... because they are like, ‘We don’t want to get played, this has been going on too long.’ And the Taliban knows the longer they are strung along, the less likely they are to keep all their commanders in line.”
In the months since talks collapsed in September, the frequency of attacks by the jihadist Taliban rose, then was constrained by a harsh winter, though U.S. aircraft have kept up unprecedented levels of bombardment.
Also part of the picture are two election timelines: President Trump promised to end America’s long-running wars, and his reelection bid looms. And in Kabul Tuesday, President Ghani was declared the winner of Afghanistan’s Sept. 28 election, reelected with 50.64% of the vote.
That result may make peacemaking easier, but it was immediately challenged. Mr. Ghani’s nearest rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, officially won 39.52% of the vote but declared himself victor over “fraudsters” and announced the creation of a parallel government. The United States brokered a similar dispute between the two men following the 2014 election, leading to a joint government that proved ineffective.
Impatient for peace
The U.S. ousted the Taliban from power in late 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11, but in the past decade, especially, the Taliban have advanced against U.S. and Afghan security forces and now control or have influence over half the country.
United Nations figures show civilian casualties are at a record high, with 2,563 people killed in the first nine months of 2019 alone, and millions more now in need of humanitarian assistance.
The tragic toll fuels suspicions among many Afghans, and an impatience for real peace.
“It’s becoming very worrying because now even our government has surrendered to this very vague term of ‘reduction of violence,’” says Orzala Nemat, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank in Kabul.
“Does it mean killing less people rather than more? How about stopping the killing at once? That’s the desire of the average Afghan who you can talk to on the streets,” says Ms. Nemat.
“As someone from the war generation of this country, it would be very hard to suddenly become very excited or overly optimistic about an agreement over the reduction in violence ... for one week,” she says, relative to the full peace Afghans yearn for. “And what happens in a week’s time is also important. How can we make sure there is inclusive participation of men and women, of victims of violence throughout these years? How can we make sure that nobody is overlooked in this process of making an agreement?”
Despite those questions, the U.N. this week gave its support to the effort led by the U.S. Afghan peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar’s capital, Doha.
“We do not have the right to miss this opportunity,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said Monday in Pakistan. “No Afghan will forgive us if this opportunity is missed.”
Yet doubts about the prevention of violence extend beyond the Taliban who, analysts say, showed their ability to control most of their front-line forces during a three-day cease-fire in 2018.
Afghanistan’s small Islamic State franchise has proven itself adept at high profile attacks and could seek to embarrass the Taliban. And the multitude of Afghan security forces, from the army to the police and local militias, may not fully embrace a cease-fire they are not a party to.
“The Taliban can restrain themselves, and the Americans can restrain themselves for sure,” says the Kabul-based Western official. “But all these [Afghan government] forces, I’m not sure they can resist attacking if they see Talibs moving around.”
Top U.S. officials briefed President Ghani in Munich last week on their plans, though he may have his own reasons to play along.
Afghan officials “know if the government is the one that breaches the reduction in violence, then they are in a worse position for intra-Afghan dialogue,” says the Western official. “They are fully aware that Khalilzad just wants to get [the U.S.] out, so Ghani is afraid that if the [Taliban] deal with the U.S. survives, [and] you have a highly antagonized Taliban to deal with in the intra-Afghan dialogue, that is not a good position.”
Still, the U.S. decision to bow to Taliban demands to leave Kabul officials out of the talks has “undermined the Afghan state from the very early days of the process,” Ms. Nemat says. And all the while, the civilian toll keeps rising.
“Let’s not mistake a reduction in violence for the peace that we desire,” says Ms. Nemat. “Any day that we are losing, we are losing a number of men and women in Afghanistan and destroying a number of families and households.”