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Reading Between the Lines of Afghan Agreements

Elizabeth Threlkeld
Sunday, March 8, 2020, 10:00 AM

The United States just made two different deals with the Taliban and the Afghan government. Can they be reconciled?

President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announce the U.S.-Afghanistan Joint Declaration in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Feb. 29, 2020. Photo Credit: DoD Photo by U.S. Army SSG Brandy Nicole Mejia via DVIDS

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Editor’s Note: One of President Trump’s most significant foreign policy achievements may be the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Whether the U.S.-Taliban deal will hold is an open question, however. Elizabeth Threlkeld of the Stimson Center addresses the deal and the associated U.S.-Afghan joint statement. She finds several areas of ambiguity where the United States, the Afghan government and the Taliban positions disagree or are unclear. All could pose significant problems down the road.

Daniel Byman


The U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in Doha on Feb. 29 is historic, significant and long overdue. After nearly 20 years of war and many failed attempts at striking a deal, it represents the best chance Afghans, the United States and the wider region have of building a more stable and secure future. The deal is also—perhaps inevitably—ambiguous, contingent and preliminary. After trying for years to strike an agreement including both the Taliban and representatives of Afghanistan’s government, U.S. officials determined the only way forward would be to first negotiate with the Taliban.

While the U.S.-Taliban agreement captured headlines, a second document decided by U.S. and Afghan representatives that was released simultaneously is also significant—and raises troubling questions. This U.S.-Afghan joint declaration, announced on Feb. 29 in Kabul, identifies commitments made by both sides related to the peace process and future reductions in U.S. forces in Afghanistan. It covers similar ground to the U.S.-Taliban agreement and is a politically important demonstration of the Afghan government’s inclusion in and support for the peace process.

The challenge presented by these two documents is that they contain critical differences in approach and specifics, some of which have already surfaced in disputes about prisoner releases. Other inconsistencies include the extent to which the Taliban agreed to break with al-Qaeda and what conditions are attached to U.S. troop withdrawals. Because of these subtle differences, both the Afghan government and the Taliban can rightly say that they did not directly agree to terms that the other now expects them to keep. The United States, as the common party to both agreements, is left trying to manage expectations and compel compliance by both sides.

These differences could damage prospects for building trust and complicate efforts to bring both parties to the table for vital intra-Afghan talks. The United States might have calculated that such divergences were necessary to move forward and would be resolved in direct Afghan-Taliban talks. U.S. negotiators might even attempt to use the agreement and joint statement in a coordinated, three-way strategy to force each side to make concessions on points it refused to address directly. The real risk remains, though, that incompatible expectations based on inconsistent terms could both damage U.S. credibility as an interlocutor and jeopardize future negotiations. U.S. and international negotiators should prioritize working to address these concerns directly and privately with both sides, which may require the use of leverage on sanctions removal, troop withdrawal timelines and financial support.

How Many Prisoners Will Be Released, and When?

Unsurprisingly given public disagreements that have already surfaced, the first clear divergence between the U.S.-Taliban and U.S.-Afghan agreements is in the commitments they set for prisoner releases. If not resolved, this inconsistency could lead to delays in intra-Afghan talks and loss of momentum in the broader peace process. The U.S.-Taliban deal commits the United States to “work[ing] with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners,” including up to 5,000 Taliban and 1,000 Afghan prisoners by March 10 and all remaining prisoners by June 10. The U.S.-Afghan joint declaration, in contrast, sets a more limited set of objectives under which the Afghan government agrees to “participate in a U.S.-facilitated discussion with Taliban representatives on confidence building measures, to include determining the feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides.” No specific numbers are mentioned, and timelines are left vague.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s subsequent denial of prisoner release plans highlights the risk that inconsistencies between the two agreements could sow further confusion—especially where they refer to steps to be taken by the side that was not party to the agreement. An unnamed senior U.S. official was clear to term the prisoner release targets in the U.S.-Taliban agreement as “aspirational” in a background call before the signing ceremony, suggesting that the U.S. diplomats anticipated pushback and potential delays in meeting the outlined targets. The tactic of adding specific numbers and ambitious deadlines to the U.S.-Taliban agreement could pressure the Afghan government to make incremental concessions on prisoner exchanges, but it runs the risk of stalling progress and reigniting conflict before intra-Afghan talks begin.

Did the Taliban Agree to Break With al-Qaeda?

The second inconsistency is the extent to which the Taliban agreed to break ties with al-Qaeda, which could complicate efforts to ensure compliance while theoretically permitting al-Qaeda to retain organizational capacity and even conduct operations against nonproscribed targets. While U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that the Taliban clearly disavowed al-Qaeda, the U.S.-Taliban agreement tells a more nuanced story. Rather than explicitly identifying al-Qaeda as a terrorist group or mandating its expulsion from Afghanistan, the agreement instead requires the Taliban to “prevent any group or individual, including al-Qaeda, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” The focus in this and subsequent commitments is on potential actions by such groups, rather than the groups themselves. The prohibited target list for potential attacks is also surprisingly limited, proscribing threats only against the United States and its allies. If, in theory, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups were to refrain from threatening international attacks on the United States and its allies but continue plotting attacks on non-ally states, like India or even Afghanistan itself, there is no explicit requirement that the Taliban break ties.

However, the U.S.-Afghan joint declaration sets a much higher bar for counterterrorism action. The text directly labels both al-Qaeda and Islamic State-Khorasan Province as “international terrorist groups” that “continue to use Afghan soil to … plan and attempt to conduct attacks that threaten the security of the United States, its allies, and Afghanistan.” It calls for the explicit defeat of al-Qaeda and other groups, requiring the Afghan government to refrain from hosting or providing support to international terrorist groups, including via the drug trade, and affirming U.S. support for military operations to “disrupt and degrade” international attacks. The U.S.-Afghan declaration thus focuses on the groups themselves rather than their actions, eliminating any room for al-Qaeda to remain dormant in Afghanistan as hinted at under the U.S.-Taliban agreement.

These different standards for counterterrorism cooperation complicate questions of Taliban compliance, which is the basis for U.S. troop withdrawals. Secretary Pompeo confirmed in a subsequent interview that the U.S.-Taliban agreement includes two secret “implementing elements” that might clarify how the United States will monitor and assess potential violations of these terms. Without these annexes being made public, however, it is unclear how the United States and its international partners will judge Taliban adherence to its commitments under the Doha agreement. Even if the Taliban complies with its public agreement, the fact that the U.S.-Afghan joint declaration sets higher counterterrorism expectations could make it appear as though the Taliban is falling short. It also suggests that Taliban links to al-Qaeda will prove an especially divisive issue in intra-Afghan talks and in the context of a potential power-sharing arrangement.

What Conditions Are Attached to U.S. Troop Withdrawal?

The third divergence between the two documents is the conditions they set for U.S. troop reductions, which could set the stage for a reputationally damaging and potentially dangerous showdown over withdrawal plans. The U.S.-Taliban agreement includes an initial reduction to 8,600 U.S. forces (and a proportional coalition drawdown) by mid-July with no conditions attached. The further withdrawal of all U.S. and coalition troops by the end of April 2021 is contingent on the “commitment and action” of the Taliban toward their counterterrorism obligations under the agreement. The U.S.-Afghan joint declaration, in contrast, conditions both the initial U.S. withdrawal down to 8,600 forces and further U.S. and coalition withdrawals on “the Taliban’s fulfillment of its commitments under the U.S.-Taliban agreement”—not simply the counterterrorism provisions. Raising the bar yet further, the joint declaration notes that the Afghan government will support full troop withdrawals if the Taliban fulfill both their previous pledges and future commitments made under “any agreement resulting from intra-Afghan negotiations.”

It is reasonable to assume that the continued presence of U.S. troops during the 14-month phased withdrawal would provide leverage to encourage progress in intra-Afghan talks, but the U.S.-Taliban agreement is clear that counterterrorism cooperation is the sole criteria for U.S. withdrawals. The fact that the Afghan government tied its support for withdrawal to the Taliban’s adherence to future intra-Afghan agreements foreshadows the possibility that the Kabul government would oppose a full U.S. withdrawal in the absence of Taliban cooperation on intra-Afghan talks. Although not strictly necessarily for the United States to proceed with withdrawal, Afghan government support is politically important to guard against claims of U.S. abandonment that could damage America’s reputation among its allies and partners. It also raises the troubling prospect that the Afghan government could seek outside assistance, potentially from states inimical to the United States, to protect their security interests without a reliable American partner.

Managing These Challenges Going Forward

As the ongoing debate over prisoner release plans makes clear, these three key issues remain divisive and will require ongoing engagement. U.S. negotiators should seek to head off future challenges by privately clearing up confusion with both sides over what both agreements mandate and how each will operate in conjunction with the other, in addition to any other secret or verbal pledges. This process, while potentially difficult, could help to manage expectations and minimize chances of harmful public disagreements over the terms.

In conjunction, U.S. officials should avoid making public and private statements that directly contradict the terms of the agreements. This includes claims by Secretary Pompeo that the Taliban agreed to break with al-Qaeda, as noted above, as well as repeated statements by President Trump and U.S. commander Gen. Scott Miller that “[w]e’ve agreed there’s no violence.” While both the U.S.-Taliban agreement and the U.S.-Afghan joint declaration set “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” as a goal of intra-Afghan negotiations, they are silent on violence levels in the near term. If such an understanding exists in the secret annexes or via a verbal agreement, this should be disclosed to the Afghan government as well as to relevant regional governments, including Pakistan. While all sides are concerned with messaging to multiple audiences, including domestic constituencies, agreeing to a limited set of terms and then shifting goalposts through public claims will only reduce incentives for future good-faith negotiations.

Despite these remaining challenges, the fact that negotiators successfully concluded both the U.S.-Taliban agreement and the U.S.-Afghan joint declaration is a major step forward in the Afghan peace process. They each provide useful road maps to future progress in what is certain to be a long and difficult path forward, and building on this momentum will be critical. For this reason, it is vital that negotiators, policymakers and analysts continue to grapple with the divisive issues identified here in order to bring greater clarity and consistency to negotiating positions. Ambiguity can serve a useful purpose in diplomacy, but such expediency should not risk setting incompatible expectations over fundamental disagreements that could imperil the broader peace process going forward.

Elizabeth Threlkeld is a fellow and deputy director of the Stimson Center’s South Asia Program, where she researches regional politics and security issues. She formerly served as a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State in Islamabad and Peshawar, Pakistan.

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