The research reported here was funded in part by the Minerva Research Initiative (OUSD(R&E)) and the Army Research Office/Army Research Laboratory via grant #W911-NF-17-1-0569 to George Mason University. Any errors and opinions are not those of the Department of Defense and are attributable solely to the author(s).
Will the deal that the United States and the Taliban have apparently struck finally allow the United States to extricate itself from its longest war? Likely, if a seven-day violence reduction test can be passed, a requirement that allows the deal to be formally signed and to start being implemented. Will Afghanistan eventually find peace? Maybe, if the Taliban, the Afghan government, and Afghan people manage to find a compromise that works for all sides.
But that road to actual peace could turn out to be as long, steep, and winding as the Salang Pass road. Peace may only come to fruition long after U.S. troops have withdrawn and after much intra-Afghan fighting.
Although the exact deal has yet to be disclosed, its basic parameters are known: If incidents and spoiler sabotage are averted during the violence-reduction test, the U.S. will withdraw some 5,000 of its 12,500 soldiers within half a year. The rest will be pulled out gradually, perhaps over three years or less, though a limited U.S. counterterrorism force may remain.
The Taliban has agreed not to conduct terrorist attacks against the United States and its Western allies, and will not allow other militants to use its territory for such attacks. Soon the Taliban will start negotiating with Afghans, including presumably the Afghan government, with which it has thus far refused to engage. That’s when the truly difficult “unknowns” start.
Based on my latest fieldwork in Afghanistan in October 2019, here are some models of how the negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan side could develop.
The Afghan government fervently wishes for negotiations similar to the one it conducted with the notorious warlord Gulbudin Hekmatyar. For years, his political party enjoyed power in the executive branch of Hamid Karzai’s presidency and in the Afghan parliament, but Hekmatyar himself was in exile in Iran. In 2017, the Ashraf Ghani administration offered him amnesty and he moved to Kabul, for a while gaining political momentum. But he burned out during Afghanistan’s 2019 presidential elections, becoming a spent force.
Alternatively, the Afghan government hopes to emulate Colombia’s peace deal with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC: In exchange for disarming, the insurgents would mostly avoid imprisonment and will receive some reintegration help. The government and the Taliban would commit to rural development and perhaps some power devolution, while the Taliban would constitute a political party and compete in elections.
These highly optimistic scenarios are unlikely: Although the Afghanistan battlefield has been stalled since 2013, the Taliban has momentum compared to the still weak and troubled Afghan forces. In Colombia, for instance, the battlefield was stalled at a much lower level of conflict, with the FARC confined to non-strategic periphery areas. Even so, Colombia’s negotiations took four years and the implementation of the peace accords has struggled, with violence intensifying in various parts of the country.
Many Afghan opposition politicians, including Abdullah Abdullah and former President Hamid Karzai, envision a different model. They hope to negotiate a behind-closed-doors deal with the Taliban, perhaps rapidly bypassing President Ghani. This might include creating a joint interim government with the Taliban. In this scenario, power would be divided in Kabul and in the provinces. Many Afghan politicians believe they can outsmart the Taliban, or that at a minimum the Taliban will need their technocratic skills to govern, even if the Taliban’s rule become religious and restrictive.
The Taliban may well be quite comfortable with this model, strongly preferring to make decisions about the constitutional changes it seeks only after it is in power. Only then will substantive questions be decided, such as whether a religious body or an emir runs Afghanistan, whether and what kind of elections take place, and what the social rules are, such as regarding women in public life (e.g. whether they could conceivably be ministers, or how veiled they must to be). But my Taliban-linked interlocutors did not want a demobilization of all of their fighters, nor a separate military service for them (à la Iraq’s al-hashd-al-shaabi or Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps). Instead, they want their fighters integrated into the Afghan security forces. The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, will experience “sticker shock” when it realizes the actual cost of peace, namely that U.S. taxpayer dollars would go to the Taliban in the military.
Finally, some in the international community hope for a Nepal-like process: years of negotiations during which a ceasefire holds, political power is shared, and minorities are empowered. The ensuing governance has remained troubled and unstable for a decade and a half, with street and ethnic strikes paralyzing the country. It’s been a disappointment for Nepalis, but elections have continued to take place and the Maoist ex-insurgents, when running the government, have embraced crony capitalism practices.
Prepare for a long road
If Afghanistan’s own history is a guide, the intra-Afghan negotiating and fighting could go on for years. It could easily feature unstable deals that easily collapse, powerful spoilers, military and political coup d’états, and the loss of interest by the United States (but active meddling by regional powers). Under much more auspicious conditions, the Philippine government’s negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front took more than a decade and collapsed many times.
At the end of the winding path, the Taliban will likely have substantial power. If the United States and international community cut aid to the country because of Taliban rule, they will severely limit their influence also on issues of pluralistic processes and women’s rights. The Afghan government and polity need to start thinking rapidly about what their redlines are (for which they will fight without the United States around) and what concessions they are willing to make. The United States needs to start thinking about how it will engage with the Taliban in power in some way, even though the specifics are not yet known.