For over 17 years, the United States has expended considerable blood and treasure to deny safe haven to extremist groups in Afghanistan. Despite this, the Afghan government struggles to assert its authority over the entirety of the country’s territory, while the Taliban—which governed Afghanistan at the time of the 9/11 attacks—remains a potent force that will be part of any negotiated political settlement in the future. Meanwhile, the United States stands on the precipice of significant changes to its longest war. President Trump has ordered the Department of Defense to present him with options to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan, which could dramatically alter the country’s future and risk undermining the United States’ hard-fought gains there.
On February 27, Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research for the Foreign Policy program at Brookings, spoke with former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley in an event at Brookings, followed by a discussion with Senior Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown and Visiting Fellow Madiha Afzal.
O’Hanlon began by asking Hadley about the state of U.S. policy in Afghanistan today. Hadley pointed out that by many objective measures—education, longevity, the inclusion of women into the economy, health care—there has been progress on the ground. But Afghanistan still has significant governance issues, he said, which translates into challenges with providing services that meet the needs and expectations of the Afghan people.
Hadley described the military situation as stalemated. While the rapid drawdown of U.S. forces hit the Afghan economy pretty hard, the Afghan national forces have held together and are sustaining enormous losses while holding their own against the Taliban. Hadley noted that the Kabul government still controls a majority of the population. But the United States will not be able to defeat the Taliban militarily, and the challenge now is that President Trump has made clear U.S. forces will not be there forever.
O’Hanlon then asked Hadley to describe the ongoing peace process, led by U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, and if the odds are steeply aligned against peace. Hadley replied that Khalilzad has a constituency of one—President Trump—and “his challenge was to show a president who is impatient to bring the troops home that there was an opportunity for peace, and that therefore the president should leave the forces.” The opportunity to show the president that it was possible to redeem the sacrifices made by America’s men and women in uniform is why he has been engaging the Taliban to achieve a framework agreement. But now there are numerous negotiations occurring—between the United States and the Taliban, as well as an inter-Afghan debate inside a regional architecture where neighboring countries need to be lined up in support of peace in Afghanistan.
Finally, O’Hanlon asked if there is a possible path forward where the Taliban could share power. Hadley explained this is the hardest issue, and that he’s generally skeptical of negotiated power sharing. There are potential models for sharing security responsibility, but there also have to be local political deals between communities and the Taliban. Finally, he concluded that figuring out who is going to be responsible for security is a central challenge.
O’Hanlon was then joined onstage by Felbab-Brown and Afzal. O’Hanlon asked Felbab-Brown about the prospects for peace in Afghanistan. She observed that “the peace negotiations today are at the most advanced stage” we have seen since 2001, but while there is significant movement on the U.S. and Taliban side, there are “tremendous amounts of trip wires” on the Afghan side. While there is enormous craving for peace in Afghanistan, she argued that the central question is what kind of peace, if any, will emerge in the wake of a negotiated deal:
It could very much be a peace that is stable in which the Taliban is the preponderant political force and a peace that brings in a political dispensation that looks akin to Iran or akin to Saudi Arabia. That will be a peace that will disappoint very many Afghans, including the young generation.
Felbab-Brown also raised the intersection of the peace process with Afghan presidential elections, wondering whether the elections scheduled for July 20, 2019 will in fact take place and noted substantial risks that their legitimacy and results will be questioned, potentially leading to a protracted political crisis that would intersect and potential impede the Taliban negotiations.
Turning to Afzal, O’Hanlon asked how she sees the role of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the peace process. Afzal observed that Khan has always argued for a political settlement with the Afghan Taliban, and is pushing for it now. But in her analysis, it’s unclear how much Pakistan stands to gain from a resolution in Afghanistan, especially one in which the Afghan Taliban emerges powerful, because the status quo allows Pakistan to maintain relevance and power regionally as long as Pakistan maintains some leverage over the Afghan Taliban. Vis-à-vis India, Afzal said that Pakistan believes it is important to maintain this lever. If the United States were seen taking a side in India in the recent standoff, Pakistan could pull out of the peace talks. So Pakistan, in Afzal’s estimation, prefers the current “temperature” where violence levels in Pakistan are low because the Pakistan Taliban has been driven out, and it doesn’t want the Pakistan Taliban to be emboldened with a powerful Afghan Taliban post-peace settlement.
Afzal also noted that Pakistan doesn’t want a theocratic Islamic state to reemerge on its western frontier. She also pointed out that while Pakistan decries the United States’ post-9/11 war on terror, it does not want the U.S. to leave Afghanistan in a hurry. Felbab-Brown agreed and argued that while Pakistan may prefer a simmering conflict and find certain configurations of peace not optimal for its interests, it still finds a stable peace preferable to civil war and chaos in Afghanistan.