Foreign Policy Essay

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: The Unintended Consequences of U.S.-Taliban Talks

By Jessie Durrett
Sunday, April 21, 2019, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Americans are weary of the war in Afghanistan, and peace talks between the United States and the Taliban are raising hopes that this forever war might finally end. Jessie Durrett, a graduate student at Princeton University, argues that the current structure of negotiations is a mistake. She contends the Taliban are not likely to make good on many promises, and excluding the Afghan government further weakens a key U.S. partner.

Daniel Byman

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The U.S.-Taliban talks are aimed at resurrecting the path to peace and security for Afghanistan. As U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted in late January, “The U.S. is serious about pursuing peace, preventing Afghanistan from continuing to be a space for international terrorism & bringing forces home.” However, as currently structured, the negotiations will create new challenges regardless of their stated success. Zalmay Khalilzad, President Trump’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, may achieve some of the goals outlined by Pompeo, at least on paper, but direct talks with the Taliban are unlikely to bring about an enforceable deal that maintains the authority of the Afghan state and significantly reduces the threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. What’s more, if Khalilzad does not achieve meaningful gains, the negotiations will leave the U.S. and Afghan governments worse off than before. Afghanistan will face not only continued violence but also less favorable conditions for negotiating and governing, which will hamper Kabul’s and Washington’s abilities to realize their key interests.

If the format of direct talks persists, the Taliban stand to gain the most, while the Afghan and U.S. governments are on track to make disproportionate concessions that will diminish their leverage. The exclusion of the democratically elected, internationally recognized Afghan government is particularly troubling and may unintentionally undermine the legitimacy of the very state that the United States and its partners have worked so hard to build up. Policymakers should be concerned that the current format of the talks paints the United States as a fatigued neocolonialist power; the Taliban as a unified, legitimate negotiating partner and quasi-government; and the Afghan government as irrelevant and dependent.

Instead of elevating the Taliban and sidelining the Afghan government, the Trump administration should insist on Afghan government involvement in the peace process.

The Bloody Stalemate in Afghanistan

After almost two decades of U.S. military involvement, including over 2,400 American military fatalities and $1.07 trillion spent by Washington directly and indirectly on the war in Afghanistan, the country stands in stalemate and the U.S. public is war weary.

The Afghan government largely controls the country’s urban areas, and the Taliban generally exert influence or control in rural areas, although district-level data show a more complex picture. According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s October 2018 report, 63.5 percent of the population resides in districts under Afghan government control or influence, a slight decrease from the previous quarter. Quality of life has improved for some Afghans since the 2001. Women in particular have experienced gradual gains, although the country still has one of the world’s worst track records on women’s rights. Nonetheless, in 2018, a record number of civilians—more than 3,800—died in the conflict, and experts have noted that the Taliban are stronger militarily now than at any point since 2001.

While the United States, NATO, and other countries continue to back Afghan government forces, foreign support for the Taliban is still fueling the group’s resilience. It has long been known that Islamabad provides support to the Afghan Taliban, including critical sanctuaries within Pakistan. More recently, the New York Times and others have reported that Iran has provided military support to the Taliban, and Russia has supplied arms.

Persisting with a military approach is unlikely to provide the “win” that Washington and Kabul are seeking. However, the diplomatic approach underway is also on track to deliver little and create unintended consequences for the Afghan people and government.

Recent Talks and a Tentative Proposal

In September 2018, Pompeo appointed Ambassador Khalilzad as the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation to pursue talks with the Taliban. Khalilzad has asserted that the main U.S. objective is realizing an intra-Afghan peace agreement that would ensure that terrorist organizations can never again use Afghan territory to prepare attacks against the United States or the international community. So far, the Afghan government has not been directly involved, but it continues to insist on a seat at the table.

After U.S.-Taliban talks in Qatar, Khalilzad announced at the end of January 2019 that he had agreed in principle to a framework for peace with the Taliban: The Taliban would guarantee that Afghan territory would not be used by terrorists, and the United States would withdraw its troops. However, this overarching proposal is subject to further negotiations, and Khalilzad has emphasized that “[n]othing is agreed until everything is agreed, and ‘everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire.”

In mid-March, after a new round of talks, the United States and the Taliban had not reached a breakthrough. U.S. officials insisted that they were close to a final agreement with the Taliban on barring terrorist attacks coming out of Afghanistan and that they had made progress on detailing a plan for withdrawing U.S. troops, but negotiators remain far from agreement on the second point. Both sides are expected to deliberate with their leadership before reconvening.

Many observers have cautioned that the U.S.-Taliban talks will not get much further. The Taliban are willing to negotiate about foreign troops departing, but they continue to reject a comprehensive ceasefire and direct talks with the Afghan government, which they see as an illegitimate regime imposed by foreign actors. This week, Taliban negotiators even objected to the number of Afghan government officials who were planning to serve in a personal capacity on an Afghan delegation that was expected to meet with Taliban representatives informally this weekend, forcing the indefinite postponement of the intra-Afghan talks. The Taliban has also continued to dismiss calls for a ceasefire and on April 12 launched its annual spring offensive, which they named “Victory.” These actions raise concerns about the Taliban’s commitment to reaching an agreement, especially one that includes the Afghan government. Serious doubts also remain about their willingness and ability to reduce terrorist activity, even if they commit to do so.

There is also reason to be concerned that the United States might prioritize military withdrawal before a comprehensive agreement is reached, even though Khalilzad has expressed commitment to a full deal. President Trump has telegraphed his deep frustration with America’s longest war and his intent to pull American troops out of Afghanistan, which would weaken the U.S. negotiating position. U.S. military plans in Afghanistan have been unclear in recent months, with conflicting signals from the administration, the military and the media. News outlets published contradictory reports about President Trump’s plans to withdraw 5,000 to 7,000 of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, causing anxiety in the Afghan government. Military leaders maintain that they have not received orders to begin a drawdown. Despite the confusion, one fact is clear: A full-scale withdrawal would likely lead to the Afghan government’s collapse.

Unintended Consequences of U.S.-Taliban Talks

While many applaud what looks like steps toward peace, direct talks warp the relative standing and legitimacy of the parties directly and indirectly involved, most notably by hurting the Afghan government and elevating the Taliban. U.S. negotiators are discussing the wrong transactions with the wrong people around the table. The Taliban are directly involved, while the Afghan government stands on the sidelines. The current approach also shrinks attention on hard-fought human rights gains and local peacebuilding efforts.

The U.S.-Taliban talks have frustrated Afghan officials and pose a threat to the government’s legitimacy. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has warned that a deal made without the Afghan government could bring about the kind of devastating civil strife that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. For a government that is already hard-pressed to demonstrate its relevance and capacity, exclusion from the talks has been seen as a step backward, reinforcing the idea that the Afghan government stands in the shadow of the United States. Undercutting the reputation and sovereignty of the Afghan government counteracts the immense resources that have been put toward rebuilding state institutions and participatory governance. Furthermore, the U.S.-Taliban talks have created additional complications for Kabul. The presidential elections have been postponed from April to July. Technical capacity has been the public justification for the delay, but others assert the timeline was pushed back due to worries that a change in leadership would hurt the U.S.-Taliban talks. Delaying the elections also leaves open the possibility of establishing an interim government to facilitate reconciliation, although this would pose an even greater threat to the legitimacy of government institutions.

The optics of the direct talks further weaken the government’s standing, which in turn will hurt U.S. interests in the region. Photos of U.S. officials meeting with Taliban leaders in Qatar, with the Afghan government conspicuously missing, send the message that the Afghan government is not central to the country’s future. Adding insult to injury, Khalilzad has praised the Taliban’s deputy leader as a patriot while U.S. officials refuse to attend meetings with the Afghan president’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib.

The current format for negotiations is detrimental to the Afghan government’s legitimacy, reducing its ability to be an effective partner to the United States in countering terrorism and building stability in the region. It is not too late to change course. If the widespread domestic and international calls for Afghan government participation and an Afghan-led process are heeded, the government could again reassert its role as an irreplaceable and necessary voice in determining Afghanistan’s future. The Taliban may reject this path, but the United States should not be enabling the Taliban’s goal of sidelining the government.

Direct U.S.-Taliban talks have provided the Taliban with a state-like platform. Throughout the talks, the Taliban have gained influence over the country’s path forward, affecting both concrete issues (such as elections) as well as the broader discourse about the character and governance of the country. Analysts at RAND previously worried that the Afghan government would not accept the Taliban as a legitimate negotiating partner. Today, the Taliban do not accept the Afghan government as a legitimate counterpart, and the current format of the talks adds credibility to that perspective. While the Taliban decide for themselves who they send to represent their interests in the negotiations, Afghan government participation is dictated by others.

The negotiations also inaccurately convey that the Afghan Taliban are a unified group, and that all Taliban will follow through on the commitments made by their representatives. The death of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar fueled doubts about the group’s chain of command (he died in 2013, but the Taliban did not confirm this information until 2015). The Taliban’s new chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was released from Pakistani detention at Khalilzad’s request. The New York Times reports that he has brought “clarity” to the talks, but his current authority in the organization is untested and it remains unclear if there is a structure that can enforce commitments made by Taliban delegates.

The concessions up for discussion also play to the Taliban’s favor. The Taliban are expected to promise to ensure that Afghanistan will not be used to plan terrorist attacks. Yet, it is not clear that the Taliban would actually try to rein in terrorist activity or have the capacity to do so. They have made, and failed to keep, similar pledges before. Following through on the commitment this time around would require the Taliban to police over a dozen organizations that have aims to strike at least five other countries. Especially relevant to U.S. security, the Taliban have not demonstrated an ability or willingness to curtail al-Qaeda’s activities. While the Taliban have contributed to the fight against Islamic State forces in Afghanistan (also known as Islamic State Khorasan or ISK), the Taliban do not hold sway over this group and are not expected to eradicate this resilient rival. Even if the Taliban intend to stifle terrorism, they are likely making a promise they cannot keep in return for one of their key objectives—the departure of foreign troops. The United States would lack the capacity to enforce an agreement once it draws down troops, further benefiting the Taliban and leaving Kabul unprepared to take on mounting challenges from ISK or others. Even in the most optimistic scenario, undercutting the government by discussing these concessions without it hurts the future prospect of security and rule of law, leaving an environment ripe for future threats.

From the U.S. perspective, U.S.-Taliban talks may provide the appearance of progress, but they are unlikely to significantly reduce the threat of terrorism. Instead, they are sure to elevate the Taliban and undercut Kabul while constraining the United States in its own counterterrorism efforts. The United States is on track to relinquish leverage and its commitment to the Afghan government in the hope of potential counterterrorism gains, despite significant doubts that the Taliban will follow through on their end of the bargain. Making commitments to the Taliban without the Afghan government in the room makes the United States look more like a puppeteering neocolonial power and less like a dependable ally. In fact, the United States could be bargaining away its commitments to the Afghan government as part of the legally binding U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement. Some commentators have argued that it is better for the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan with a deal than to leave without one. However, this stance is based on the assumption that the United States would still completely withdraw from Afghanistan without a deal, which is unlikely. As it stands now, the United States is betting on unlikely gains while giving up definite concessions.

The talks will also have enduring implications for human rights and the rule of law in Afghanistan. Following their current trajectory, the negotiations could result in the unintended consequences of reversing gains in women’s rights, demeaning local peacebuilding efforts and reempowering predatory leadership structures (warlords). The negotiations’ exclusion of women and silence on human rights are particularly concerning if the hope is to ensure real and inclusive peace. Emphasizing high-level power brokering among armed groups while overlooking locally organized, trust-building reconciliation efforts (or at least indicating that they have little significance in the process of designing the future of Afghanistan) sends a dangerous message that will be hard to retract. Any negotiated deal with the Taliban may threaten progress in these areas, but the current approach is on track to be particularly damaging given that the Afghan government and other voices for these interests are missing from the table, while their detractors are disproportionately represented.

Changing Course

To better advance Afghan and American interests, the United States should reassert Kabul’s central role in the peace process and reaffirm its commitment to the Afghan government.

Most critically, the United States must insist on direct Afghan government involvement in any peace process focused on the nation’s political and security future. Excluding the Afghan government undermines national and international efforts to build institutions, legitimacy and the conditions for lasting security. The Taliban may reject Afghan government participation, but unless U.S. negotiators are planning to sidestep the government throughout the process, the talks would eventually hit this roadblock anyway. If this disagreement is likely to derail the talks sooner or later, it would be better to broach it before further undermining the Afghan government’s authority. Some observers may say that the U.S. government has already gone too far down the path of direct talks to change course now, but Afghan government involvement aligns with an array of U.S. policy statements and the tone of Khalilzad’s April trip to Afghanistan. To bolster the Afghan government in the negotiations and assuage its concerns of abandonment, Washington should consistently reiterate its comprehensive commitment to Kabul, including diplomatic, governance and economic support, as well as security resources.

The manner in which the Afghan government participates in the talks also matters. One idea being discussed is that the Afghan negotiating team could include both government officials and other political leaders. However, this could inadvertently undermine elected government officials, elevate warlords and exacerbate fractures. As a sovereign state, the Afghan government should be the primary representative of the country and should have the final say on who is part of the Afghan negotiating team. Inclusivity matters, but it should not be used as justification for undermining the government.

Implementing these recommendations may lead to a longer U.S. presence in Afghanistan than administration officials would like to consider. It is important to acknowledge the human and financial costs of deploying U.S. forces and civilians abroad, as well as the political costs for policymakers. But officials must also recognize that pulling out without careful planning and communication with Afghan counterparts may end the war for U.S. forces but will not create peace. Departing after signing a deal that elevates insurgents and is nearly impossible to enforce would leave Afghanistan plagued by violence and the international community vulnerable to insecurity and terrorism emanating from the region.

It is encouraging to see the Trump administration prioritizing diplomatic strategies, but diplomacy can be a weapon of war, too. In this case, the Taliban’s amplified power and the Afghan government’s damaged standing are likely to outlast the U.S.-Taliban talks or any deal they could deliver. The United States should adjust its strategy to ensure that the reconciliation process strengthens the role of the Afghan government and the foundation for lasting peace, instead of weakening both.