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FILE PHOTO: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, and Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, shake hands after signing an agreement at a ceremony between members of Afghanistan's Taliban and the U.S. in Doha, Qatar, February 29, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem al Omari/File Photo
Order from Chaos

Around the halls: Brookings experts discuss the implications of the US-Taliban agreement

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The agreement signed on February 29 in Doha between American and Taliban negotiators lays out a plan for ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and opens a path for direct intra-Afghan talks on the country’s political future. Brookings experts on Afghanistan, the U.S. mission there, and South Asia more broadly analyze the deal and offer their views on what may come next.


John R. Allen, President of the Brookings Institution: My colleagues here at Brookings have written artfully about the pros and cons of the recent U.S.-Taliban peace deal, and the overall outlook for Afghanistan. I agree with much of their analysis, all of which is rooted in their deep expertise on the issue at hand.

Having led all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2011-13, I have my own perspective on this agreement, which is grounded in practical, lived experience. As I’ve said publicly, the Taliban are untrustworthy; their doctrine is irreconcilable with modernity and the rights of women; and in practice, they’re incapable of summoning the necessary internal controls and organizational discipline needed to implement a far-flung agreement like this. The so-called “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” will not only not be honored by the Taliban, it will also not bring peace.

As I write in more detail elsewhere, I have some specific misgivings: that the U.S. committed to a significant number of measurable commitments, but the Taliban did not; that the U.S. and Taliban committed to intra-Afghan talks, but that ongoing violence prevents these from occurring; that there’s very limited capacity for the Taliban to control violence themselves, even if they wanted to; that the current deal obligates the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters by March 10, but that in almost every instance, a mass release is immediately followed by an uptick in violence; and most importantly, that the U.S. failed to establish an internationally acceptable minimum standard for the rights of women.

The Taliban know what year it is, and they know the U.S. forces will be coming out ahead of the U.S. presidential election. They’re wagering that this administration, which seeks to point to this agreement in the months ahead as evidence of keeping a campaign promise, will be extremely reluctant to walk away from this agreement or come back in over local violations. They have the U.S. exactly where they’ve wanted us, but to where they couldn’t maneuver previous administrations. The Taliban are many things: drug dealers, violent abusers of women, and terrorists. But there’s one thing they are not: stupid.

Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and the Center for Middle East Policy: As I write in more depth elsewhere, it is no wonder that the Taliban is hailing this deal as a victory.

The United States secretary of defense has said that the Pentagon has already begun the first stage of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from 12,000 to 8,600. NATO, which was not even dignified with being named in the agreement, is also pulling out. The agreement categorically rules out any residual counterterrorism force or any training for the Afghan military. In short, it abandons the Afghan government’s military and puts the future of counterterrorism in the region in the hands of the Taliban and their Pakistani patrons.

The fundamental flaw in this agreement is that the internationally recognized Afghan government, led by Ashraf Ghani, was not included in the negotiations. By accepting the Taliban demand to exclude the Afghan government, the Trump administration betrayed our ally and elevated the Taliban to our equal. It is worth remembering that at the height of their power in 2000, only three governments — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — recognized the Taliban as a legitimate government. Excluding the Afghan government is strikingly reminiscent of the Nixon administration’s deal with North Vietnam in 1973, which excluded the South Vietnam government.

The United States has fumbled the war since its inception. Every American and Afghan is eager to see an end to the war. A political process is to be welcomed. Let’s hope the Doha agreement can be adjusted to get to a comprehensive ceasefire. It is not too late to insist on direct negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban as the prerequisite for future withdrawals of the international coalition in Afghanistan.  A flawed deal is not going to deliver the security that a generation of American troops have fought for along with our partners. Let’s fix it.

Michael O’Hanlon (@MichaelEOhanlon), Director of Research and Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy program: Bruce Riedel is brilliant, devastating, and almost completely convincing in his severe critique of the phase one deal of the U.S.-Taliban peace process.

Still, as I write in more detail elsewhere, 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 government of Ashraf Ghani to offer real concessions on power-sharing. (By the way, I might suggest making 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.

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 in the event the Taliban stick to their deal. Ideally, that time horizon can be stretched out if negotiations hit roadblocks, which 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.

Vanda Felbab-Brown (@VFelbabBrown), Senior Fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence: The deal that the United States and the Taliban signed on Saturday allows the United States to extract itself from a stalled war. For years, the fighting showed no signs of battlefield breakthrough, while the United States held the Afghan security forces and Afghan government on life support.

The Taliban, meanwhile, understands at a more strategic level that its battlefield performance will enhance its negotiating hand, as I describe in more detail in another post. Though hardly 10 feet tall, the Taliban has systematically managed to increase the battlefield operational tempo since 2015. U.S. airpower has limited its ability to take over provincial capitals and inflict even greater casualties to Afghan security forces. That counter is now being reduced and will eventually be removed as U.S. forces start withdrawing.

It won’t be a small task for Taliban leadership to control the battlefield ambitions of its mid-level commanders. And at the same time, the political tensions over the reelection of President Ashraf Ghani, contested by rival Abdullah Abdullah, have only compounded the lack of a unified negotiating front among Afghan politicians vis-à-vis the Taliban and the lack of clarified negotiated positions of the Afghan government, particularly what power and freedoms the government is ready to give up for peace.

However long the process takes and however much fighting occurs before that, the Taliban will likely continue to hold significant, if not dominant power, in Afghanistan. As Taliban-linked interlocutors have told me during field research, the Taliban wants to avoid a civil war and was very keen to avoid an “irresponsible” departure of U.S. forces — in other words, a departure without a deal with the Taliban, since the Taliban believes that would have pushed the country closer to a civil war and impeded intra-Afghan negotiations.

The Taliban maintains that once U.S. troops are out and it is in power, the group can have good relations with the United States and very much wants to maintain the flow of U.S. economic aid. Whatever power (and in whatever form) the Taliban has after the U.S. military departure, U.S. economic aid may ironically be one of the most important mechanisms to shape the Taliban’s behavior toward more inclusion, pluralism, and some respect for women’s and human rights.

Note: 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).

Madiha Afzal (@MadihaAfzal), David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and the Center for Middle East Policy: The Afghan people have suffered the consequences of war and violence for 40 years, and they deserve peace. But they are unlikely to achieve that long-elusive peace through the U.S.-Taliban deal signed on Saturday, at least as the document currently stands.

With this deal, the Taliban will get an American withdrawal in exchange for promising an absolute minimum in counterterrorism commitments: They have promised to not allow the Taliban or its affiliates, including al-Qaida, to use Afghan soil to attack America or its allies. What about attacks by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an Afghan Taliban affiliate, on Pakistan from Afghan soil? Some of the TTP’s members have sought refuge across the border from Pakistan in Afghanistan. Conversely, what about attacks from Pakistani soil — from breakaway Haqqani network militants — on America or its allies?

As I argued last week, terrorist groups do not function in isolation, and the Taliban’s support for all terrorist groups — those that attack America as well as those that attack local and regional targets — should have been a red line in the deal, with clear mechanisms for enforcement.

Like my colleagues Mike O’Hanlon and Bruce Riedel, I am critical of this deal, and perhaps even less hopeful than them for what this heralds for Afghanistan and its region. In the text of the deal, I was looking for two things. First, I looked for the conditionality of phase one (the U.S.-Taliban deal) on phase two (the intra-Afghan deal) — that is, of conditioning the U.S. troop withdrawal on the success of an intra-Afghan deal. Second, I had hoped to see language on safeguarding gains made in the last 18 years on human, and especially women’s, rights. There is nothing at all on the latter, nor on the former: While there is a timeline for beginning the intra-Afghan peace process, the conditionality of the withdrawal rests only on counterterrorism commitments.

Separately, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that the withdrawal will rest on how the intra-Afghan peace process is proceeding, but there is nothing guaranteeing this in the actual document that the U.S. signed. Whether any annexes to the deal will open significant room for more ambiguity remains to be seen. The language in the deal on sanctions and prisoners, too, favors the Taliban.

Last week I also argued that America needed commitments in the deal on human rights and against all terrorist groups in the region, and that it needed to win the war of narratives against the Taliban. But with President Trump talking to Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar on the phone for 35 minutes after the Taliban resumed its attacks on Afghan security forces, and the Taliban set to visit the United States, there is no attempt from the U.S. government at owning the narrative. I am afraid that all America is doing with this deal is arranging the terms of its withdrawal — which, I worry, will be perceived in the region more like a surrender.

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