Published daily by the Lowy Institute

US, Taliban, Afghanistan peace talks: timing is critical

Should the US agree to a full pull-out of its troops, Afghanistan may fall into the chaos of the past.

US Army Soldiers in Afghanistan (Photo: DVIDSHUB/ Flickr)
US Army Soldiers in Afghanistan (Photo: DVIDSHUB/ Flickr)

The Taliban and the US have agreed, in principle, on a peace framework that will ensure the Taliban part ways with international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda leading to a possible withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. The negotiations also focused on a comprehensive ceasefire and peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Initially planned for three days, the talks in Doha last week took six days to draw the draft framework and to agree on important issues – in principle. The draft is now being discussed between Zalmay Khalilzad, United States representative for reconciliation, and the Afghan government. The Taliban are also conveying the details of the negotiations and peace framework to their leadership for consultation.

Afghanistan is now confronting another historical transition perhaps as important as 1979, 1989, 1992 or 2001 when the country witnessed the arrival of communism and Soviet forces, their defeat and withdrawal, civil war, and then the war on terror. Today, Afghanistan remains extremely fragile and once again prone to become a safe haven for global terrorism.

This is the first time in the 17 years long war that a peace negotiation has made so much progress. The next round of peace talks is planned for late February. The US and Afghanistan have made positive statements about the process but potential pitfalls remain.

In an interview to the New York Times, Khalilzad said:

The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.

The American negotiating team also reported with confidence that the Taliban had agreed to provide guarantees on delivering on their promises and that enforcement mechanisms will be in place to ensure the details of the agreement are met.

Despite the Taliban’s insistence on excluding Afghan government from the negotiation so far, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani’s administration has played a positive and constructive role in facilitating the peace talks. Following the meeting with the US negotiating team, Ghani addressed the nation on the ongoing peace talks. He emphasised the urgency for peace but cautioned against rushing an agreement that could once again leave the country in chaos and repeat the mistakes of the Soviet withdrawal. This is one of the main concerns for the Afghan government: the suggestion of an interim government.

In addressing some of these concerns regarding the progress made in peace talks, Khalilzad made clear in a series of tweets: 

Khalizad also emphasised concerns regarding stability and security in Afghanistan and suggested that this is an area of priority for the United States. The current negotiation focuses on a phased-out drawdown of foreign troops, the majority of which are from the US, from Afghanistan. There are also suggestions that the US might be after a small counterterrorism footprint in Afghanistan.

The current peace talks started after US President Donald Trump expressed his irritation with the unending stalemate in Afghanistan. Trump has grown increasingly impatient with the Afghan war and has criticised the US military leadership for failing to achieve progress on the battlefield. He also unexpectedly announced the reduction of troops levels by half late last year that is said to have been part of the reason behind secretary James Mattis’s resignation.

While experts and officials from within the administration disagreed with Trump’s maverick style approach to the Afghan conflict, it did have the effect of kick-starting the current dialogue. It may be that Trump’s insistence on ending the Afghan war has led to a greater willingness in Washington to engage with the Taliban. Reports have, however, suggested that Afghanistan might not have long before Trump pulls the plug and announce a complete withdrawal and declare victory.

Today, Afghanistan remains extremely fragile and once again prone to become a safe haven for global terrorism.

Critics of the ongoing peace negotiation have expressed their concern on the pace of the negotiations and suggest that the US is a rush to end the war in Afghanistan which could possibly return the hard-line Islamic regime back to power. There are also concerns that the Afghan Taliban are dominant in the battlefield and will refuse to adhere to any deal once the international troops leave the country.

Although the Taliban’s appointment of Mullah Beradar Akhund (one of the senior leaders and founder of the movement) to lead the dialogue process was regarded as a sign of seriousness on the part of the group, a statement issued by the group emphasised that the withdrawal of troops will need to be addressed before progress on any other issue could be possible.

Should the US agree to a full pull-out of its troops, it will be imperative on the international community to ensure Afghanistan does not fall into the chaos of the past.

The US negotiating team has undertaken extensive effort to create a consensus among all the influential parties in the Afghan conflict. Khalilzad concluded several travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, India, China, Russia, and Qatar. He has also undertaken consultation with NATO allies and important political figures within Afghanistan. Reaching a peace agreement might still be a long way away and will require extensive effort, international commitment, and consensus among Afghans and regional countries.

The Taliban has recorded some significant gains on the battlefield by expanding the war to some of the most peaceful parts of the country and controlling nearly half of the country’s territory.

Ghani, in an interview at the World Economic Forum leaders meeting, said that in the last four years 45,000 Afghan soldiers have been killed in the war. This number does not include civilian casualties which have reached tens of thousands in the same time period. Despite the unprecedented level of violence, the Taliban know that until the government in Kabul has international support the stalemate and with it, the bloodshed, will continue.

You may also be interested in