Editor's Note: The U.S.-Taliban negotiations offer the possibility of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, but many of the agreement's specifics remain elusive. Carter Malkasian, a former senior adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, identifies several risks related to conditionality and intra-Afghan negotiations, and lays out the resulting complications for U.S. policy.
On Feb. 29, representatives of the United States and the Taliban signed a conditional peace agreement. The event followed an unprecedented week of dramatically reduced violence throughout Afghanistan. This is just the beginning. A peace process is likely to span years with renewed outbreaks of violence before all U.S. military forces can go home. Even now, a month has passed since the agreement with little progress toward its goals. Success depends on the United States sticking to its guns and enforcing the conditions it has placed on the Taliban—both those in writing and those that have been passed verbally.
The signed U.S.-Taliban agreement commits the United States to draw down military forces to 8,600 within 135 days and then to zero within 14 months if the Taliban meets three commitments. The first commitment is not to host or allow al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups to recruit, train, fundraise or use Afghan soil to attack other countries. The second required the Taliban to initiate intra-Afghan negotiations for a political settlement with other Afghan parties by March 10—the deadline has passed but the requirement for negotiations remains. The third is to announce the timing of a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire resulting from those intra-Afghan negotiations.
Many critics have pointed out that the conditionality does not go far enough. The written agreement does not demand that the Taliban actually agree to a political settlement with the Afghan government or implement a cease-fire with the Afghan military before U.S. forces withdraw. The missing conditionality seems to reside in verbal statements to the Taliban by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other U.S. leaders. It appears it was too time consuming to get this conditionality written into the text itself. What are those conditions that have been passed verbally and do not appear in writing? For one, the United States expects the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government, not simply “other Afghan parties,” at the intra-Afghan negotiations. Additionally, the United States wants to see progress toward a political settlement past the beginning of intra-Afghan negotiations. In his verbal statement at the signing, Pompeo said the Taliban must “stay the course and remain committed to negotiations with the Afghan Government and other Afghan partners.” Above all, Pompeo and Khalilzad have stressed that violence should stay low over the course of the negotiations. They and others have laid down that if these expectations are not met, the deal and the drawdown will be in jeopardy. In Pompeo’s words at the signing, “The agreement will mean nothing … if we don’t take concrete action on commitments stated and promises made.”
The problem is that verbal conditionality is ripe for mixed signals. In fact, the American public itself cannot be sure what these statements really mean. Are they carefully stated red lines or diplomatic nudges that will not be enforced? Because the administration was unwilling to devote the time to get all its demands into the text, the Taliban may see anything passed verbally as a bluff. Or they may plain misunderstand the U.S. position and not realize that the drawdown is tied to more than what is in the text. That is apparently what happened in September 2019 when an earlier version of the agreement was about to be signed until the Taliban escalated violence and antagonized President Trump. Recent statements by the president that the Taliban could “possibly” overrun the government and that “you can only hold someone’s hand for so long” will further muddy the Taliban’s perception of U.S. resolve. For these reasons, U.S. leaders should expect the Taliban to either test or disregard U.S. conditions.
The immediate path ahead is to get to intra-Afghan negotiations. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s resistance to freeing “up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners” as stipulated in the text and selecting a representative negotiating team have already pushed intra-Afghan negotiations to the right of March 10. The election dispute between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, both of whom have declared themselves president, have hindered a fast response, as well as a unified front against the Taliban. The obstacles should be temporary. The United States can eventually apply sufficient pressure to break through even if it takes weeks. We have already seen how this works. Secretary Pompeo has threatened to cut off $1 billion in assistance to the Afghan government this year and another $1 billion next year if they do not resolve their differences with the opposition and get moving on peace. The fact that Ghani has named a negotiating team and is working out prisoner releases with the Taliban offers hope that the peace process soon may be back on track.
Next comes the far more daunting challenge of intra-Afghan negotiations. The negotiations bear the complex task of laying out the process for a full political settlement to end the war. Thorny issues include the composition of an interim government, rewriting of the constitution, protection of women’s rights, and the timing of a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire. The two sides are far apart on these issues. In particular, the government wants a democracy while the Taliban want something closer to the emirate of the 1990s. A compromise is certainly possible but not assured—let alone quickly. Deft diplomacy is going to be required of Khalilzad, Pompeo and international mediators. Meanwhile, the drawdown clock will be ticking. If U.S. military forces near zero before a political settlement is attained, the Taliban will have little reason to concede to an inclusive political settlement. The United States will have given them what they want without compelling them to come to peace.
What this means is that negotiations are likely to go long and the United States is going to have to suspend the drawdown to get the Taliban to concede. In fact, certain reports already indicate the Taliban intend to break their word and attack the government once the U.S. military has left. I personally have not experienced Taliban leaders to be quite so wicked, but they definitely need to see that the only way to a total U.S. military withdrawal is through a political settlement and full cease-fire. Just as Trump’s September 2019 walkout was necessary to compel the Taliban to concede to a reduction in violence, so will a suspension be necessary to compel them to bend on a political settlement and a cease-fire.
Violence could also intensify during talks. Indeed, the Taliban have conducted 169 attacks in the week following the signing alone, ending the reduction in violence. Those attacks cannot go unanswered. Fighting and talking is common in negotiations. Violence is a tool for both sides to clarify intent and resolve. Large-scale Taliban attacks and U.S. airstrikes should come as no surprise. Nor should violence be taken to portend the end of the peace process. The process may halt and then resume, moving forward in fits and starts.
The United States should take three actions to carry the process forward. First, the drawdown should automatically halt at 8,600 until a political settlement is reached and a cease-fire agreed upon. Second, the U.S. military should continue to support the Afghan security forces and assist in their defense with airstrikes when under attack. There is nothing stated in the agreement or elsewhere that such support shall end before completion of the conditions-based U.S. withdrawal, and that is a good thing. The Taliban should not be allowed to use the battlefield to improve their negotiating position. Third, Congress should ask for updates on negotiations, support suspensions of the drawdown and continue to fund the Afghan security forces. The vigilance of Congress buttresses conditionality.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement is a major foreign policy achievement. U.S. leaders must be patient and delve into hard-nosed bargaining if the agreement is going to yield peace. If they do otherwise, the peace agreement will just be cover for a withdrawal that will probably end in a Taliban seizure of power. That would not be the best way to ensure basic U.S. interests, especially when a peace process could yield so much more.