On Afghanistan, give peace a chance — but be wary of the Taliban

Members of Afghanistan's Taliban delegation (R) gather ahead of an agreement signing between them and U.S. officials in Doha, Qatar February 29, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem al Omari

In a separate Brookings piece, my colleague Bruce Riedel is devastating and almost completely convincing in his critique of the Phase One deal of the U.S.-Taliban peace process. Among his most trenchant and incisive arguments are that the process unwisely did not include the Afghan government (or broader Afghan society) at all; that in the deal the Taliban expressed no remorse or critique of al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks, or any other jihadi or Salafist violence perpetrated in recent decades; and that the text of the agreement suggests that the U.S. (and thus NATO) troop withdrawal will happen with or without a broader deal on power-sharing between the Taliban and other Afghan actors, including the government of President Ashraf Ghani. I am grateful for Bruce’s blunt warnings around how badly this process could play out. His admonition about the importance of avoiding an agreement like the shameful Paris Peace Accords that ended the U.S. role in the Vietnam War is welcome.

For all the reasons Bruce delineates, it would be a major mistake to get too excited about what has been agreed to date. Thankfully, no one is talking about Nobel prizes, even in jest, and I do not believe the deal should be viewed as a major foreign policy accomplishment of the Trump administration. Moreover, the substantive challenges involved in reaching a follow-on, Phase Two accord between the Taliban and a broad range of Afghan actors including the government are enormous. Both sides believe they are in effect the legitimate rulers of the entire country, and both will thus surely want to keep their own security forces while overseeing the dismantlement of the other’s. As a wealth of academic literature also shows, this kind of civil war is especially hard to resolve (see a recent piece by my colleague Vanda Felbab-Brown for useful comparative context).

Still, there are reasons for hope. Perhaps the Phase One deal can be at least a baby step forward — even if the hard work, we can all agree, still remains to be done. As Bruce notes, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (and also Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) have publicly interpreted the deal to mean that the U.S. departure from Afghanistan is, in their view, conditional rather than not automatic.

Admittedly, there is ambiguity on this point in the actual agreement. But perhaps the ambiguity can be used constructively to push the Ghani government to offer real concessions on power-sharing. (By the way, I might suggest making Chief Executive of Afghanistan’s Unity Government Abdullah Abdullah the lead negotiator for the government and broader Afghan political and civil society in future talks with the Taliban).

Make no mistake: There is no moral equivalence between the Taliban and the other side of the bargaining table. The former have a horrible history of violence, misogyny, barbarity, and self-righteousness. The latter include some corrupt actors, but also many good and brave people. All the more reason, however, why Ghani and others on his side may resist real compromise. In that event, stalemate or breakdown of the talks is the predictable result.

So, we may as well try to make a virtue out of the Phase One deal’s weaknesses, and use the uncertainty about our own long-term commitment to Afghanistan to prod both sides to compromise. Let me be clear that I do not prefer this approach. (Nor do I prefer the terms for the preemptive release of thousands of Taliban prisoners.) However, given the unwillingness of President Trump (like President Obama before him) to commit to the mission over a longer term, this kind of ambiguity may be the best we can hope for right now.

Let me finish by reiterating the kinds of elements that Brookings President John R. Allen, Saad Mohseni, and I wrote about last week as essential to any successful overall peace plan for Afghanistan. To me, since the February 29 agreement does not directly contradict any of these core principles, it is still possible that it could prove a useful if small step forward on the way to the hard part: the Phase Two accord that the Afghan government as well as teammates will now begin to attempt with the Taliban.

  • The Taliban must stop trying to control who on the government side they negotiate with, and accept the legitimacy of the other party, even as President Ghani also promised an inclusive negotiating team on the government side that transcended his own finite presidential term;
  • Many foreign forces should not leave until a peace deal is reached and then implemented over a period of at least a couple years, allowing the foreign forces to remain in a strategic overwatch role (it is very doubtful foreign forces would return to enforce a deal once a withdrawal was complete, so timing would be crucial);
  • NATO’s departure might be succeeded by an international U.N. peacekeeping force that, while not mandated to impose peace through force of arms, could help monitor an accord as a way of determining if the future government should continue to receive international aid as promised. Other foreign specialists working in areas of development would also have to be allowed sustained access to the country;
  • Not only human and gender and religious rights, but elections of some sort together with protections for free speech, must be part of any future Afghan political system.  The Taliban should not be allowed simply to rule the country by force or to muzzle core elements of the new Afghan democracy; and
  • Rather than dismantle either the Taliban’s fighting forces or the current Afghan army and police, any peace accord should allow them all to remain intact (and be paid).  Over time, they could gradually be brought under regional coordination commands that deconflicted their respective roles, rather than integrating them quickly or requiring one side or the other to disband.

While it is true that the 14-month time horizon for the complete departure of foreign troops is at odds with the second bullet point above, perhaps a U.N. force can help ensure compliance thereafter, by monitoring the behavior of various parties and only approving ongoing foreign assistance if the Taliban sticks to its deal. Ideally, that time horizon can be stretched out if negotiations hit the roadblocks that they almost inevitably soon will. For one thing is perhaps clear above all others: This process, even if it can somehow be successful (and the odds are admittedly against it), is just beginning, and the hard part is still to come.