The weekend signing of a peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban could mark a major turning point in Afghan history. If nothing else, it is a remarkable moment in American diplomacy. This latter observation is insufficiently acknowledged even by those who follow Afghanistan closely. This is perhaps out of an unwillingness to give credit to the Trump administration for a diplomatic breakthrough, or out of pessimism that the peace process can get much farther than it has.
Much of the discussion about the agreement has focused on whether Taliban leaders can be trusted to meet their commitments. An equal if not greater concern is whether the United States’ Afghan partners in Kabul will seize this historic opportunity. The agreement with the Taliban sets up a needed negotiation between Kabul and the Taliban. The story of how this deal came about provides a series of clues showing Kabul’s deep ambivalence about this process, which has become a priority for the Trump administration.
The Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban commits the Taliban to enter into political negotiations with the government the United States supports in Kabul. This is a breakthrough because the Taliban has always refused to recognize the Kabul government. But it came at the cost of the United States committing to Taliban demands of a troop withdrawal and of damaging the U.S. relationship with Kabul. Whether these costs were worth it depends on how Kabul reacts to the opportunity before it as well as on the real Taliban intent.
U.S. policy has recognized since 2011 that the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable. The mantra at the time was to promote an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace process that would protect some U.S. interests in Afghanistan, namely that Afghanistan would not become a safe haven for terrorists and that key values in the current Afghan constitution would be protected. Until that process took place, the United States continued to support the Afghan state in fighting the Taliban insurgency and refused to talk to the Taliban on issues regarding the Afghan state without including the Afghan government.
Changes in U.S. policy were variations on a theme: troop levels went up and down, the priorities that the United States pushed on the Afghan government shifted, fighting doctrines were amended. But the need to back the leadership in Kabul while waiting for it to seek an accommodation with the Taliban was never questioned. This description applied as well to the Trump administration’s August 2017 “South Asia Strategy”: a little more pressure on Pakistan, a push for some reforms in the Afghan security sector, more permissive rules of engagement. All had the objective of supporting the Afghan government and softening the Taliban for a potential future negotiation.
I began to question this doctrine in early 2017, when I returned to Kabul as the political director for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) after four years at the U.S. Institute of Peace. I remember a conversation with a Western diplomat who said, “There will never be peace as long as we stick to the ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned’ formula.” The point was that none of the Afghan leaders were being counted on to lead a peace process had any incentive to do so. Peace would surely lead to some sort of power-sharing agreement, and they would have less power. It would lead to a drop in the number of U.S. troops, if not removal entirely, and Afghan leaders would have less access to the resources that came with these troops.
Not Important (Read Costly) Enough
Towards the end of that year, during a discussion with some U.S. officials and Afghan experts in Washington, I raised this point. The response from a well-placed Pentagon official was that the Afghan war was simply not important enough to be debated in the National Security Council. The cost of the war had greatly decreased and, at around $45 billion per year, was manageable, and the number of American soldiers killed had been reduced to an insignificant number. Despite Trump’s campaign promise to get out of Afghanistan, there was little domestic political pressure to act.
Several months later, in July 2018, the United States announced that it was beginning direct negotiations with the Taliban on the modalities of its eventual full withdrawal. There were few clues beforehand that this decision was going to be made.
In retrospect, a number of events took place in early July that might have been decisive.
A three-day ceasefire early in the month demonstrated that the Taliban had greater command and control over its fighters than many believed. Then there were reports that the Trump administration’s August 2017 South Asia Strategy was being reviewed. The new strategy, which Trump had reluctantly accepted, had not prevented the Taliban from making gains. Trump might have used this conclusion to push harder for a unilateral withdrawal. Finally, at a NATO summit in Brussels, Trump expressed his frustration over lack of progress in Afghanistan. And during a meeting that was supposed to focus on Afghanistan and Ukraine, with President Ashraf Ghani and his Ukrainian counterpart in the room, Trump unilaterally changed the agenda to reiterate a frequent U.S. demand that NATO members increase the share of their GDP that they commit to military spending. Days later, the New York Times reported that Trump had instructed his diplomats to begin direct talks with the Taliban.
That the administration was determined to pursue this policy was soon underscored by the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as special representative for Afghan reconciliation in early September. Initial contacts with the Taliban had been made by Alice Wells, assistant secretary of state for the region. Khalilzad, an Afghan-born American diplomat and former ambassador to Kabul, knew all the players very well, spoke their language — in both the literal and metaphorical sense — and had a high profile.
Khalilzad’s appointment had a galvanizing effect. Russia, which had up to then been organizing pesky meetings in Moscow between Taliban and Kabul political figures, aimed at frustrating Kabul’s halfhearted peace efforts, fell in line. Pakistan, which had deep reservations about Khalilzad from the past, released at his request a top Taliban leader, Mullah Baradar, whom the Pakistanis had imprisoned in 2010, many believing it was because he had been too supportive of a peace process.
Other countries in the region, even Iran (though not publicly), supported the effort. They had two great fears: that the United States would leave Afghanistan suddenly and irresponsibly (what was then referred to as the “tweet of Damocles”), or that it would stay indefinitely. Khalilzad’s appointment, and the beginning of his talks with the Taliban political office in Doha, suggested that the United States was attempting a responsible withdrawal.
A Nervous Afghan Government
The most nervous actors in the region about Khalilzad’s activities was the Afghan government. The “Afghan-led Afghan-owned” policy ensured that the United States would never engage with the Taliban on peace issues without the presence or permission of Kabul.
Once they began, Khalilzad stressed that his negotiations with the Taliban involved four elements: U.S. troop withdrawal, Taliban counterterrorism guarantees, a ceasefire, and a Taliban commitment to negotiate with the Afghan government, which the Taliban did not recognize, at least after any U.S.-Taliban agreement was struck.
Ghani was furious that the country’s fate was being negotiated behind the back of his administration. They complained that they were not being adequately briefed on the substance of the negotiation and that the United States was legitimizing the Taliban. This anger was manifested in March 2019, when during a visit to Washington, Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib accused Khalilzad of using the talks to create an interim government over which he would become the “viceroy.”
Mohib’s comments went over the line, but Kabul’s objections were justifiable. They were also beside the point — Washington stuck to its course. Khalilzad continued to brief Ghani and his chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, on progress in the negotiations but continued to conduct them with the Taliban alone.
The Dilemma of Afghan Elections
As 2019 began, while Khalilzad was in the middle of what would be nine rounds of negotiation, Kabul elites were focused on the presidential election to be held that year. The election, originally scheduled for July and then delayed until September, presented a dilemma in Washington that was never fully resolved. One camp felt that the center of U.S. policy needed to be Khalilzad’s peace effort, and the election could only become a distraction, emphasizing divisions among the Afghan political elite precisely when they needed to unite. Another camp thought that Khalilzad’s effort was worthwhile but a long shot. If it failed, a U.S.-supported constitutional government in Kabul was still required and the elections were necessary to ensure constitutional continuity.
For a time, these parallel tracks could be pursued. Khalilzad was operating under a deadline that presumably was linked to U.S. politics, as well as the Sept. 28 Afghan presidential election. An agreement with the Taliban in September would allow intra-Afghan negotiations to begin in time to possibly reach an agreement that would allow the withdrawal of troops by the U.S. election in November 2020. An accord might also allow the postponing of what was expected to be a divisive and contested Afghan presidential election.
That timeline was perhaps highly optimistic, but it provided a target. The unofficial deadline initially helped to advance the negotiations. The Taliban understood that they were operating within a window that could close if insufficient progress was made. Many in Kabul began to think that an agreement would be made prior to the Afghan election, which could obviate the need for that vote. Some candidates reportedly did not even campaign, expecting the election to be suspended. As the implied September deadline neared, preparations began for the negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government to be held in Oslo.
Then came the remarkable moment on Sept. 7, when the White House suddenly announced it had pulled out of the talks because of a Taliban attack in Kabul that had killed a U.S. serviceman. Somewhat incredibly, the White House also said that it had planned a signing ceremony at Camp David — days before the 9/11 anniversary — at which the Taliban would have attended, along with Ghani.
Several days later, Trump declared the process “dead.” This was a huge relief to many Afghan leaders in Kabul. One of my politically connected Afghan friends in Kabul told me that when plans were being made for the trip to Camp David, the few in the presidential palace who knew about it “began packing their bags: not to go to Camp David, but to get out of the country.” There is a legitimate but paralyzing fear that if the Taliban come back into the Afghan government, even as part of a power-sharing arrangement, there will be significant reprisals against anyone who supported the U.S. presence.
The presidential election took place on Sep. 28. Turnout was less than 20 percent of registered voters. Enthusiasm was probably dampened by Taliban threats, the fact that the two leading candidates were the same figures who had underwhelmed by their leadership of a “national unity government” over the previous five years, and perhaps also because of a sense that a peace process could eventually make the result irrelevant.
Why Trump Backed Out
My own interpretation was that Trump felt he did not have the political support for the deal. Nine former U.S. diplomatic officials signed a joint statement put out by the Atlantic Council questioning the Taliban commitment to peace and stating that there should be no major troop withdrawal until there was peace in Afghanistan. From the left, figures such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright questioned the fate of Afghan women under the deal. On the right, Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, whose support was important to Trump, reportedly opposed the deal, writing in an op-ed that the United States “cannot outsource its security to the Taliban.”
Khalilzad was put on ice for a little while. Then he re-emerged in Kabul to negotiate the exchange of two Western professors who had been kidnapped from the American University of Afghanistan in 2016 in exchange for three high-ranking Taliban in an Afghan prison. Among the latter was Anas Haqqani, brother of the deputy leader of the Taliban, and one of the prized assets of the government in Kabul. The exchange was reportedly done over the significant objections of Ghani.
As Khalilzad returned to Doha to resume negotiations, he faced a conundrum: the Taliban did not want to alter the deal that they thought they had secured in September, but Trump needed something more to overcome the criticisms of that deal. Khalilzad introduced a new element: the demand for a reduction in violence to demonstrate the Taliban’s command and control. The Afghan government insisted on a full ceasefire, and thought they had secured Trump’s agreement during his Thanksgiving visit to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
A New Deal and an Election Crisis
The Taliban would not commit, however, to anything more than a reduction of violence, though they reportedly offered a plan that, as one interlocutor in Kabul told me, was “as close to a ceasefire as you could get without being a ceasefire.” A large Taliban attack against Bagram in December brought matters to a head. Khalilzad essentially gave the Taliban an ultimatum: deliver on the reduction in violence or the deal is off the table. The Taliban, who still saw the September deal as a path to the removal of international troops from Afghanistan, agreed to a seven-day reduction in violence.
Shortly after the announcement of the trial period, the Independent Election Commission took most observers by surprise on Feb. 18 by declaring Ghani the winner of the Sept. 28, 2019, presidential election. It had taken months to determine that Ghani had narrowly won the election in the first round, getting around 10,000 votes over the 50 percent threshold required. Decisions regarding only a few polling centers could overturn the result. Only a week before, the Electoral Complaints Commission issued a series of complicated instructions to the IEC to carry out partial audits and other measures. This, it was assumed by most election experts, would take several weeks at least to adjudicate, particularly given the slow progress of the electoral institutions so far. Instead, the IEC declared Ghani the winner, hardly altering his original vote total. The main opposition candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, declared he would create a parallel government and began appointing “shadow” ministers.
Kabul’s political elites had managed to create even deeper divisions among themselves when they needed to unite around a negotiating position to confront the Taliban politically.
No Appetite for Political Games
In a further complication, Ghani provocatively scheduled his inauguration for Feb. 27, two days before the expected signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. The United States, which had delayed commenting on the IEC declaration of Ghani’s victory, ultimately “noted” the result, and Ghani postponed his inauguration.
Clearly the Trump administration simply had no appetite to indulge Afghanistan’s political games. The progress of the talks with the Taliban meant the focus was firmly on the peace process. The election was important insofar as it preserved the state, but for the United States, the preservation of the state was important mainly insofar as it allowed a political negotiation with the Taliban.
The Feb. 25 statement by the State Department was blunt for a diplomatic communication: “It is time to focus not on electoral politics, but on taking steps toward a lasting peace, ending the war with the Taliban, and finding a formula for a political settlement that can serve the interests of all of this country’s citizens through intra-Afghan negotiations.”
Now the clock has begun ticking towards intra-Afghan negotiations. Paradoxically, the Taliban leadership is well-prepared, having just gone nine rounds with the United States, while America’s allies in Kabul seem to be in disarray.
The decision 18 months ago to talk directly to the Taliban was a strong signal that the United States was disengaging from Afghanistan. Part of this disengagement involved no longer brokering intra-Afghan disputes. Afghan political elites did not read this correctly. This has left them unprepared, divided, and de-legitimized at a moment when they are about to be severely tested by an enemy they have underestimated and with whom they will need to compromise.
The agreement signed in Doha calls for intra-Afghan negotiations to begin on March 10. The Afghan government has very few days to put together a representative and competent negotiation team, even though it has had months to prepare for this eventuality. Perhaps the date can slip for a week or two. But one cannot imagine that the Taliban will keep their fighters in a semi-demobilized position indefinitely.
The Taliban, against expectations, passed this early test of their commitment to a peace process and their ability to command their forces. Now it is Kabul’s turn. If they cannot overcome their divisions and rise to the occasion, they must bear a large part of the responsibility if there is a return to bloodshed.
IMAGE: (L to R) US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar shake hands after signing a peace agreement during a ceremony in the Qatari capital Doha on Feb. 29, 2020. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images)