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Editor’s Note: The U.S.-Afghan peace deal is a possible diplomatic triumph but also a possible disaster. Much depends on the weak Afghan government, the Taliban's willingness to abide by the agreement once U.S. forces depart and the willingness of the United States to reengage if things go south. Kabul-based photojournalist Andrew Quilty argues these factors are not promising. Although the situation in the near term is still fluid, in the long term Afghanistan's future looks grim.
The Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, signed by the Taliban and the United States in Doha on Feb. 29, laid the foundations for an end to the war in Afghanistan. The agreement mandates the prevention of Afghan soil being used by any group that threatens the security of the United States or its allies and the announcement of a timeline for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. If both these conditions are implemented, intra-Afghan talks should then begin to negotiate a lasting cease-fire. Barring complications, including a U.S. policy shift should Democrats win the election in November, the United States and NATO are now scheduled to withdraw their forces from the country in early 2021, after nearly 20 years at war.
President Trump sees the signing of the Doha agreement as the fulfillment of a key 2016 election promise and a boon to his reelection hopes. In a rush to work within such a timeline, however, the U.S. negotiating team, led by former Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad, made concessions that have weakened the Afghan government and strengthened the Taliban.
The deal was also, if not a U.S. concession of defeat, an admission that it could not win. The Taliban have claimed it as a victory. In Doha, upon the signing of the agreement, the Taliban delegation erupted into cries of “God is great.” With U.S. airstrikes halted after the ceremony, the Taliban held victory parades in broad daylight in their strongholds. According to fighters interviewed on both sides, that fearlessness has continued since February in rural Afghanistan.
Trump’s impatience forced Khalilzad into negotiating without the Afghan government, a concession former Amb. Ryan Crocker said amounts to “surrender,” and led to an agreement that requires little of the Taliban in return. The Taliban left the Doha negotiations in a commanding position and have continued to press their advantage with a new offensive targeting Afghan security forces that has taken advantage of the Kabul government’s disarray.
The Making of the Doha Agreement
Trump entered office promising to end the war in Afghanistan, but former military generals serving on his national security team convinced him to change course. In his August 2017 South Asia Strategy, he vowed to throw the full weight of U.S. military, economic and diplomatic power into bringing an end to the war. The rate of U.S. airstrikes spiked immediately, and in both 2018 and 2019, the U.S. Air Force conducted more airstrikes than in any other year since 2001. The Taliban suffered severe personnel losses countrywide.
The pressure may have prompted a February 2018 open letter from the Taliban calling on the United States to reassess its policies toward Afghanistan. Although by no means a surrender, the letter offered renewed hope for diplomacy.
In October 2018, under pressure from U.S. diplomats, Pakistan released Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a senior Taliban official known for his pro-peace stance, after eight years in prison. It was hoped he would propel the Taliban toward peace talks. In November, three weeks after the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Gen. Austin Miller conceded publicly that the war could not be won militarily, the first round of formal talks between the U.S. and Taliban officials took place in Doha. The Taliban agreed to the talks on the condition that the Ghani government, which it views as an American “puppet,” would not be involved.
Trump had previously asserted that “America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.” But when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked in July 2019 whether Trump wished to withdraw from Afghanistan before the 2020 election, he replied, “That’s my directive from the president of the United States.” He walked back the comments the next day, but the point had been made: The president’s motives for a withdrawal were driven more by his 2020 reelection hopes than by national interest, let alone the well-being of Afghanistan.
Talks continued in Doha, and on Sept. 2, 2019, after nine rounds, Khalilzad told reporters that a deal between the United States and the Taliban had been reached “in principle.” But then, three days later, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing in Kabul that claimed the life of a U.S. service member and 11 others. Trump responded by canceling the peace negotiations indefinitely. “What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?” he wrote on Twitter. “They didn’t, they only made it worse! ... How many more decades are they willing to fight?”
Trump may not have wanted to know the answer to his question. As for his reprimand for the Taliban’s failure to commit to a reduction in violence, Pompeo backed him up, seemingly oblivious to his own hypocrisy as he noted that 1,000 Taliban had been killed in the past 10 days. Some analysts saw the move as a stalling tactic but one that could provide extra leverage when talks resumed—which they eventually did.
Any leverage Trump may have gained by breaking off talks last September were hard to discern in the agreement signed in February after a weeklong, countrywide reduction in violence by both sides. The previous deal “in principle” called for a gradual withdrawal of all U.S. troops over 16 months. In return, the Taliban would forbid Afghanistan from being used by terror groups that threaten the security of the U.S. or its allies. The final agreement added mutually beneficial obligations, including the commencement of “intra-Afghan negotiation” and talk of a cease-fire. But it also included arrangements that favored the Taliban: a Taliban/Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) prisoner release weighted five-to-one in the Taliban’s favor, the lifting of sanctions against Taliban leaders and, as is believed to be detailed in the agreement’s classified annexes, the cessation of offensive operations between U.S. and Taliban forces.
Zalmai, a member of the Afghan National Police stationed on the frontline in Wardak province, told me recently that the Taliban had become emboldened since Doha. “They’re fighting for longer during their attacks because they don’t have to worry about U.S. aircraft,” he said inside a checkpoint overlooking a Taliban-controlled valley south of the provincial capital.
A low-level Taliban commander from Wardak’s Day Mirdad district who goes by the name Keramatullah confirmed this. Before the Doha agreement “we were suffering very severely from airstrikes,” he said by phone. “So we have less stress than before.” With no U.S. air support coming to disrupt attacks in progress, he said, “we can spend a lot of time fighting.”
The Taliban’s recent attacks have taken a heavy toll. On June 22, Afghanistan’s National Security Council spokesperson Javid Faisal tweeted, “The past week was the deadliest of the past 19 years. Taliban carried out 422 attacks in 32 provinces, [killing] 291 ANSF members and wounding 550 others.” Faisal went on to decry the Taliban’s commitment to reduce violence as “meaningless and their actions inconsistent with their rhetoric on peace.” (A Taliban spokesperson denied there had been an increase in attacks.)
The surge in attacks is not necessarily a violation of the Doha agreement. In fact, while it may be against the spirit of the deal, there was no written commitment to reduce violence. But U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly suggested that it was implied in the negotiations. In a May 2 statement addressed to the Taliban, Col. Sonny Leggett, the spokesperson for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said, “During those long negotiations there were written and spoken commitments” and “we spoke of ALL sides reducing violence.” It’s hard to imagine Khalilzad would be naive enough to believe the Taliban would honor any conditions that weren’t in writing. Instead, it points to the concessions made to satisfy Trump’s election-focused timeline. Violence is the Taliban’s primary means of increasing leverage, and government forces are suffering.
A Weakened Afghan Government
The Afghan government had every reason to be irritated about the outcome in Doha. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had not been consulted about the prisoner swap but was forced to consent—further diminishing his leverage—to allow progress toward talks. A plan for the gradual release of Taliban prisoners was outlined in a March 10 presidential decree on the condition that fighters didn’t return to the battlefield and that violence was significantly reduced. Now, with 2,000 of 5,000 prisoners still to be released, Ghani appears to have slowed the process in response to the spike in violence. But while standing firm against the Taliban’s disregard for the conditions of his decree projects strength, as Jonathan Schroden, who directs the Center for Stability and Development, and the Special Operations Program at the CNA Corporation told me, the Taliban’s “leverage continues to increase the longer this all drags on.”
National politics, too, have threatened Ghani’s authority. His main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, initially rejected the election results announced in February. A months-long standoff ensued, prompting Pompeo to threaten to withdraw a billion dollars in aid—a threat that further undermined the government. Finally, in May, a power-sharing deal was signed. Ghani would continue as president and Abdullah would lead peace talks.
Kabul also had serious cause for concern with the agreement over the loss of unconstrained U.S. military support, on which the ANSF had relied desperately since taking responsibility for security in December 2014. Without it—particularly air support—the Taliban would undoubtedly have seized more territory in that time, and its brief occupations of provincial capitals in Kunduz (2015 and 2016), Ghazni (2018) and Farah (2018) would have been far harder to counter. The government would have likely struggled to survive at all without U.S. air support.
The Taliban’s Demands
The Taliban’s plan for the day foreign troops leave Afghanistan has always been vague. It is broadly believed that even the group’s faintly modernized political leaders will never accept democracy and will be unwilling to negotiate for much less than a return to a system like the one they practiced before their 2001 ouster. Michael Semple, a scholar and adviser on conflict resolution from Queens University, Belfast, told me recently that “[f]rom my probing of the Taliban leadership, I have not seen evidence that they expect a negotiated outcome.” Their motives for agreeing to negotiations with Kabul, he believes, were merely the price of admission for the Doha agreement and the legitimacy that came with it. “Their long term aim and expectation,” he says, is “that they will re-establish the emirate, with a full political monopoly.” Unlike the Americans, the Taliban haven’t wavered in their resolve or demands for what will come after negotiations, and there is no reason to suspect they will lose their nerve now. A low-level Taliban commander in Wardak province told me by phone in June, “We will accept some reforms but, more or less, we want a return to the days of the Emirate.”
For his part, Ghani hasn’t spoken about how negotiations with the Taliban will affect the future of Afghanistan. At a recent Atlantic Council forum, however, he stated his broad goal of an “endstate of a constitutional democratic Afghanistan.” When asked whether he would step aside for an interim government if the parties to the talks called for it, Ghani said that such a discussion was “premature.” He added that Mohammad Najibullah, who led the communist government through the departure of the Soviets in 1989, “made the mistake of his life” by resigning. As Ghani well knows, Najibullah was ultimately captured by the Taliban, tortured, castrated and hung in a public square. Ghani concluded with a plea: “Please don’t ask us to replay a film that we already know well.”
A Decent Interval?
Regardless of what has been and will be agreed to in the coming months, the reality that follows may look quite different. Few Afghans have faith in the Taliban to honor their commitments. The Taliban’s leadership has still not yet disavowed al-Qaeda as promised, and a U.N. report issued in May found that the Taliban have retained their links with the terrorist organization. The Taliban could very well abide by the Doha agreement until the April 2021 withdrawal date and then pick up weapons again and try to take power by force without U.S. air support and special operators to stop them.
There are many similarities between the process of negotiating the Doha agreement and its Vietnam War equivalent, the 1973 Paris Peace Accords negotiated on behalf of the United States by Henry Kissinger. If this trend continues, it portends a worrisome future for Afghanistan. Then, it was Kissinger’s concession to withdraw U.S. forces before the accords had been fully implemented that ultimately sealed Vietnam’s fate. It took hardline communists less than two years to overrun Saigon and seize control of the entire country.
Several former U.S. ambassadors, determined not to allow a repeat of history in Afghanistan, wrote a joint letter before the Doha agreement was signed, arguing that “[a] major withdrawal of US forces should follow, not come in advance of [a] real peace agreement.” Khalilzad went part of the way to honoring the advice; the Doha agreement was equipped with a fail-safe mechanism that would kick in if either side fails to live up to its obligations. In Vietnam, by the time the communists began reneging on their commitments, U.S. forces were long since gone and unable to respond. In Afghanistan, if the Taliban continue to fail to disavow al-Qaeda, for example, the U.S. can halt its troop withdrawal, and vice versa.
The Future of Afghanistan
But no fail-safe can guard against an impetuous and impatient American president. As John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, wrote in his recently published book, “I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my White House tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations.” If Trump abandons the agreement in favor of bringing troops home before the November election, as has been reported to be his preferred option, a Vietnam-like catastrophe in Afghanistan will become increasingly likely. Trump may see the ongoing financial support of the Afghan government and the ANSF as sufficient fulfillment of the United States’s moral responsibility toward Afghanistan. “If the U.S. pulled its [financing]” the way the Soviets cut off Najibullah’s government in 1989, Schroden says, “the government wouldn’t last very long, unless some other external donor stepped in, which seems unlikely.” Even with continued financial support, without U.S. air power, the ANSF’s capacity for holding off an emboldened Taliban long enough to negotiate a cease-fire agreement is questionable—especially if the Taliban leadership drags out the talks.
If intra-Afghan talks begin in the coming months, the Taliban, having forced the United States to the negotiating table and initiated the withdrawal of U.S. forces, will be arriving at the table as self-declared victors. As Semple from Queens University puts it, “[T]he Taliban have strongly pushed the narrative that they did not compromise at all with the U.S. and eventually [Khalilzad] capitulated to all their demands.” Although the Taliban haven’t been forthcoming about what they will demand in negotiations with the Afghan government, it is safe to assume it will involve rolling back the majority of the country’s post-2001 reforms. The Taliban are not known for their ability to compromise, and Trump’s impatience for a deal is no incentive for them to learn. If their demands are not met, there is little question that, like the communists in Vietnam, the Taliban’s will to return to the battlefield is greater than the government’s and that of President Trump. The Taliban’s negotiating strategy, says Semple, has been, and always will be, “to state their maximalist demands and wait for the other side to concede them.”