It took the Trump administration 17 months to clinch a preliminary agreement with the Taliban – a first step toward ending more than 18 years of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan. The deal is not so much a peace agreement as it is a way for Washington to manage conflict in the southwest Asian nation in the aftermath of the American withdrawal, which is supposed to be finalized by May 2020 (assuming the Taliban uphold their end of the bargain). The United States will be relying heavily on the Afghan jihadist movement to ensure that the country does not become a springboard for transnational jihadist activity. For this to work, Washington will need to ensure that Afghanistan’s civil war does not reach levels that groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State could exploit to their advantage, and that the Taliban themselves will not shelter transnational militant groups.
The Purpose of the Pact
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar signed the Agreement to Bring Peace to Afghanistan on Feb. 29 in Doha. A little over three pages in length, the four-part document is a major step toward the Taliban’s gaining international recognition as a legitimate Afghan national movement. The first three parts deal with Washington’s committing to the removal of all remaining 13,000 troops within 14 months in exchange for a Taliban pledge to deny individuals and groups that threaten the security of the United States and its allies the space to organize. The fourth part, which deals with a permanent cease-fire between the current Afghan state and the Islamist militia and negotiations toward a power-sharing settlement, is seriously lacking in details.
This preliminary agreement underscores the U.S. recognition that an end to the civil war, which has been raging for more than 40 years, is not attainable in the foreseeable future. In fact, it illustrates Washington’s efforts to try and ensure that the intra-Afghan conflict remains within tolerable parameters so that transnational jihadist actors like the Islamic State (an opponent of the Taliban) and al Qaeda (a Taliban ally) are not able to benefit. After the United States toppled the Taliban regime in the fall of 2001, Washington hoped to create an Afghan state strong enough to absorb the Taliban insurgents and serve as a bulwark against transnational jihadist entities. However, the democratic political dispensation the United States created remains fragile even after nearly a generation since its inception.
The Afghan state has proven incapable of imposing order in the country; on the contrary, its writ has receded significantly over the past eight years. Between a weak, factionalized republic and an increasingly potent Taliban insurgency, the risks of the re-proliferation of transnational jihadist entities had increased sharply. The American moves to negotiate with the Taliban since 2009 have been geared toward getting the jihadist movement to help realize the strategic objective behind the U.S. military intervention in the country following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The U.S. strategic interest in Afghanistan is about denying sanctuary to international terrorist entities. That goal has remained constant, but Washington’s method of pursuing it has evolved. The current expectation is that the Taliban would prove more capable than the Afghan state in containing transnational jihadist activity in the country. Put differently, the strategy has been to align with the nationalist jihadists against transnational ones. Thus, the Taliban have been given the task that the Afghan state has not been able to deliver on.
For many years, Kabul has been deeply concerned that this approach was akin to facilitating the rise of a parallel governing body in the country. Indeed, the Taliban refuse to recognize the U.S.-supported Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as a legitimate authority and continue to refer to themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The title of the Feb. 29 deal clearly states that it is an agreement “between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America.” This phraseology is repeated multiple times throughout the document.
Stability Remains Elusive
Of course, Washington cannot afford to withdraw from the country and leave the Islamic emirate versus the Islamic republic struggle to sort itself out, though the text of the agreement clearly states that the United States and its allies will “refrain from the threat or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Afghanistan or intervening in its domestic affairs.” This would explain the lack of details pertaining to the intra-Afghan negotiating process that ideally would lead to a new constitutional framework. But the problem is that the current Afghan state is extremely weak and incapable of absorbing the Taliban movement.
Even as the intra-Afghan talks are supposed to start on March 10, Kabul remains divided between the Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah factions, with both claiming victory in the presidential elections held in September 2019. The Ghani-Abdullah rivalry actually goes back to the previous election in 2014. After Abdullah disputed the results, which favored Ghani, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry came up with a temporary solution by getting Abdullah to recognize Ghani as president in exchange for Ghani’s accepting Abdullah as chief executive. It was meant to be an arrangement for only two years, during which the Afghan Constitution was to be amended to create the post of prime minister. This amendment never happened, and both men de facto continued in their positions.
The opponents of the Taliban who are for a democratic Afghanistan cannot even agree to disagree. This bodes ill for the likelihood that they could arrive at a power-sharing settlement with the Taliban, who seek a more austere Islamic polity. In fact, the Taliban hope to be able to leverage the weakness of their opponents to dominate a post-American Afghan regime. Through this agreement, they are trying to minimize external efforts to thwart their ambitions.
The Taliban know that the United States is more concerned about foreign fighters reorganizing in their country under the banner of al Qaeda or the Islamic State or other similar entities that may emerge in the future than it is about the nature of the Afghan government in a post-American era. Washington also takes comfort from the intelligence assessments that it has sufficiently decimated al Qaeda prime, headquartered in Afghanistan-Pakistan. Moreover, the Taliban are deeply at odds with the Islamic State and thus are very motivated to not let the latter gain sanctuary on their soil. However, not paying sufficient attention to the intra-Afghan process risks creating circumstances where al Qaeda can resurge and the Islamic State and its ilk could find greater space to operate.
Therefore, the Trump administration must resist the temptation to declare “mission accomplished” in its efforts to bring an end to a seemingly endless war. Not only should Washington calibrate the withdrawal of its military and intelligence assets, it also must increase its diplomatic efforts and leverage its economic clout to ensure that the intra-Afghan process does not break down even if it does not produce the desired results. Accepting a prolonged condition of civil war (as Washington has done with Syria) so long as it remains at a tolerable level will likely lead the conflict to spill over into Pakistan and the broader South Asian region. Thus, the United States should be prepared for a long-term diplomatic engagement with Afghanistan, which will involve simultaneously strengthening the country’s political mainstream and integrating the Taliban within it.
Dr. Kamran Bokhari is the Director of Analytical Development at the Newlines Institute. Dr. Bokhari is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. Bokhari has served as the coordinator for Central Asia Studies at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in 2019. Follow him on Twitter at @KamranBokhari.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of Newlines Institute, FSI, the U.S. Department of State, or the University of Ottawa.