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).
A set of brutal attacks in Afghanistan on May 12 has thrown the very idea of a peace process into question. Many are asking whether that process is dead before it ever got under way. Yet it was always unlikely that intra-Afghan negotiations among the Afghan government, powerbrokers, the Taliban, and perhaps — under the luckiest of circumstances — Afghan society would be a linear continuation of the U.S.-Taliban deal or significantly reduce violence.
This week’s violence may well be a much more accurate, if terrible, preview of what is to come: on-and-off negotiations, suspended for lengthy periods amidst protracted violence and devastating bloodshed well past the departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan (scheduled to be completed by July 2021).
Nonetheless, the Afghan government and elites — as well as the international community, in spite of the U.S. military withdrawal — can still shape the country’s future. Even though they have not had success so far, they should continue to press for violence reduction on the battlefield, with a focus on minimizing the most brutal targeting of civilians.
Bloodshed across the country
On the morning of May 12, three militants stormed a maternity ward in a Shia neighborhood of Kabul frequently targeted by the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-KH). For four hours, they massacred women in labor, mothers with newborn infants in their arms, and medical personnel, killing at least 15, as male relatives outside wailed in anguish.
That same day, attackers targeted a funeral in Nangarhar, also a stronghold of IS-KH, where a suicide bomber slaughtered 25 and wounded 68.
Elsewhere in the country, the Taliban attacked military and police targets. The group had gone back to pounding Afghan security forces as soon as the ink of the U.S.-Taliban deal dried in early March. It has refused calls for a national ceasefire, in spite of the COVID-19 outbreak. It wants to negotiate from maximum battlefield strength and appease some of its middle-level commanders. It also fears its fighters would go soft during any lengthy ceasefire and be hard to remobilize.
With more than 100 dead on May 12, the Afghan government announced an end to “active defense” and promised an offensive against the Taliban. The government attributed the attacks to the Taliban, suggesting its units, such as the Haqqani group, joined forces with IS-KH. (The Taliban rejected responsibility for the Kabul and Nangarhar attacks, the latter claimed by an IS-KH affiliate.)
The peace process as it was not going to be
Ghani’s announcement is a poignant coda to the optimistic version of intra-Afghan negotiations. That version envisioned that soon after the U.S.-Taliban deal, the Taliban would sit down with the Afghan government to negotiate while keeping violence low. The U.S.-Taliban deal stipulated that the Taliban would not conduct terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland or assets, nor allow the territory it controls to be used for external terrorism — at least against the U.S. and allies.
In turn, the United States would withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by July 2021, with a 5,600-troop reduction by July 2020. The U.S. military apparently hoped that there was an unwritten understanding that the Taliban would maintain a large (perhaps 80%) reduction in violence during the U.S. withdrawal period and negotiations with the Afghan government. The Taliban claims there was no such an oral deal; and in any case, during the entire year and half of negotiations beforehand, the Taliban was absolutely clear that it had no intention of reducing violence while it negotiates. The group understands well that the stronger it is on the battlefield, the more powerful it will be at the negotiating table — even at the cost of diminished credibility with the international community and segments of the Afghan public.
Moreover, the Taliban assumed there was an unwritten prisoner exchange deal: The United States would force the Afghan government to rapidly release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, after which the Taliban would release over 1,000 prisoners. The Ghani government refused to do so, realizing that it would give up one of few chips it has with the U.S. (in recognizing his close and contested electoral victory) and with the Taliban. Prisoner releases have proceeded in dribs and drabs.
But it is not clear that any new anti-Taliban offensive will significantly alter the battlefield. For the past several years, Afghan security forces have mostly hunkered down in a static defensive mode — no way to win a counterinsurgency. Plagued by high soldier attrition, problematic logistics and support, and ethnic and political rifts, they regularly reach accommodation with local Taliban units, sometimes discharging ammunition in fake operations about which they warn the Taliban beforehand.
The only units that have mounted serious offensive operations against the Taliban have been the capable but overused Afghan special operations forces. By and large, it has been the Taliban that has dictated the battlefield’s intense operational tempo.
The potential, but unlikely, game-changers
The larger questions are to what extent U.S. forces will come to the defense of Afghan forces and whether U.S. actions will motivate the Taliban to start attacking U.S. forces again. The U.S. military has already stated that it would continue to conduct airstrikes in defense of Afghan forces despite the resumption of offensive operations by the Afghan military. Will the Taliban simply accept U.S. air strikes — which have been the predominant reason it has not been able to hold onto provincial capitals it captured? Or, will it, despite the U.S.-Taliban deal, attack U.S. forces, perhaps using methods similar to those of pro-Iran militias in Iraq, such as lobbing missiles on U.S. bases from trucks parked nearby?
The Ghani government may well hope, as many Afghans still do, that such attacks on U.S. forces would reverse the U.S. decision to militarily withdraw. Many Afghan politicians cling to the misguided belief the United States defines Afghanistan as a geostrategic fulcrum of vital importance and thus the U.S. military will not depart. Many urban Afghans wish America will stay, fearing a withdrawal means more brutality a la May 12 and a return to the viciousness of the Taliban’s 1990s rule.
But any forthcoming Taliban attacks on the U.S. military may, in fact, motivate the Trump administration to withdraw from Afghanistan even faster.
Negotiations of a different shape
Ultimately, neither the Taliban nor the Afghan government has the option not to negotiate, because neither has the capacity to decisively prevail on the battlefield. A de facto division of Afghanistan into a portion controlled by the Taliban and portions controlled by the Afghan government (plus affiliated or more independent powerbrokers) is certainly a possibility. However, such fragmentation is not a preferred outcome for anyone: It comes with many sources of instability. Even getting to such an arrangement would involve numerous, overlapping, and complex layers of negotiations.
The real question is: How much will the battlefield have changed by the time of the negotiations, possibly when the U.S. military presence in low or zero? The battlefield conditions will be affected by a) the Taliban’s choices (such as overusing its fighters as cannon fodder) and b) how much weaker Afghan security forces will have become. Certainly, the Afghan forces will be critically undermined if the United States starts implementing cuts of $1 billion of U.S. aid this year and another next year (as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced) out of frustration with the continued lack of a political deal between President Ghani and his chief electoral opponent Abdullah Abdullah. Afghan forces are fully financially dependent on the United States. Despite his pronouncements, Ghani has no way to offset such losses of U.S. aid, either through austerity or new aid from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, China, or India.
Without payments, Afghan forces will fracture outright, possibly buckling altogether as they did when the Soviet Union stopped paying for them at the end of the Cold War. The Taliban may be banking on such an outcome. The longer the Ghani government waits to or is unable to negotiate, the weaker it will get — not just vis-à-vis the Taliban, but also vis-à-vis Afghan powerbrokers.
Meanwhile, the Taliban will try to strike a deal with a set of Afghan powerbrokers, many of whom are susceptible to its entreaties. The May 10 defection to the Taliban of General Abdul Jalil Bakhtawar — for years a dogged enemy of the Taliban, and whose son is the deputy governor of Farah province — is just one example of these dynamics.
Afghan politicians and powerbrokers are in constant negotiations with the Taliban, much as they are in negotiation with the Afghan government to milk out concessions and patronage. Incentives for making a deal with the Taliban include fear for their lives or the lives of their families (the apparent reason Bakhtawar switched sides) and being slighted by the Afghan government without prospect of getting back on the patronage gravy train. So before they would overtly and definitely switch to the Taliban, or attempt to declare a separate government with the Taliban, they would have to determine that the Ghani government was either close to falling, or that neither Ghani nor Abdullah could satisfy their demands for patronage resources. Most Afghan politicians with national-level power are not ready to make such a judgement. But choices of that sort are on the horizon.
Tragically, the negotiations are and likely will continue to be back-room deals, on-and-off amid the bloodshed. Starting formal Afghan government negotiations with the Taliban as soon as possible, even though they will drag on for months and years, is important to maximize the bargaining power of the Afghan government. It is vital that the Afghan elite, starting with Ghani and Abdullah but much beyond, for once comes together. They must, at least, face the Taliban in negotiations with a more unified front. Afghanistan is on the cusp of profound political and power redistribution change, and not all Afghan powerbrokers can assume that they will be able to strike a satisfactory bargain with the Taliban in a deal behind closed doors.
It is also crucial that the United States and the international community insist that the voices of Afghan society be heard. All Afghan actors must work to reduce violence against innocent civilians like that seen on May 12.