By clinching an agreement with the Taliban, the United States has taken a major step toward ending the war in Afghanistan, the 18-year-long conflict that has cost nearly a trillion dollars and outlasted two American presidencies without achieving a clear victory. Now, the insurgents and the Afghan government must negotiate a ceasefire and forge a political settlement, without which violence will persist. It is a daunting task in the face of mutual hostility, mistrust and the looming specter of the Taliban’s annual spring offensive.
Under the February 29 pact signed by US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban chief negotiator Abdul Ghani Baradar, the US has agreed to cut its troop levels to 8,600 from 12,000 over 135 days as part of a full withdrawal over 14 months. This fulfills the Taliban’s central demand. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has insisted that any drawdown beyond the 8,600 troops – which was already underway – is conditional upon the Taliban honoring their commitments. These include preventing terrorists from using the country to launch attacks against the US and its allies, the core US objective from the time of the American invasion to oust the Taliban for sheltering Al Qaeda. President Donald Trump, who has long opposed US involvement in Afghanistan, ordered talks with the insurgents in 2018 with a view to reaching a political settlement after the US and NATO-backed Afghan security forces failed to break the stalemate.
The Afghan peace process now moves on to its most challenging phase: the intra-Afghan talks. The Taliban and Kabul must negotiate a comprehensive ceasefire and, at the same time, debate fundamental questions over democracy, women’s rights and the role of Islam in a post-conflict government. Both sides see fighting as a tool to enhance their leverage during the talks, which suggests violence will persist. This is of particular concern since April is when the Taliban launch their spring offensive.
Pakistan, a long-time supporter of the Taliban, will play an important role in the peace process. The aim of that support was to shape an allied government in Kabul that acknowledges the Durand Line as the legitimate border between the countries, a position Kabul contests. Islamabad also wants to thwart the Delhi-Kabul partnership, especially because of longstanding suspicions that Indian meddling is abetting secessionist rebellion in Balochistan, Pakistan’s vast southwestern province bordering Afghanistan and currently the site for key projects under the multi-billion-dollar China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor.
Pakistan is thus on both sides of the war in Afghanistan; it has supported the Taliban insurgency and also granted overland access to landlocked Afghanistan for NATO supply convoys from the port of Karachi. The US has leaned on Pakistan to facilitate the movement of Taliban officials, including chief negotiator Abdul Ghani Baradar, for the peace talks, which has helped to ease a relationship which has vacillated over Pakistan’s continued support for the Taliban.
India fears a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul could strengthen its arch-rival’s regional geopolitical standing, enabling Islamabad to further stoke the Kashmir dispute. This explains why India — already the largest regional foreign aid donor to Afghanistan — wants to ensure that any post-conflict government in Kabul remains favorable to New Delhi. Since Afghanistan is a weak state, Ghani will have every reason to court Pakistan’s more powerful neighbor while minimizing concessions to the Taliban during the intra-Afghan talks.
All of this points to the intensifying geopolitical dynamics involving the country going forward. And that’s before we consider any approaches to the Taliban coming from China, Russia and Iran.
External machinations aside, there is the long-running debate within Afghanistan over which model of governance to adopt. President Ashraf Ghani, recently declared winner of the country’s September presidential election, is a Pashtun — the country’s dominant ethnic group — and favors a strong presidency vested with sweeping powers to forge national unity and implement reforms.
Abdullah Abdullah, who is half Tajik and served as chief executive under the National Unity Government, prefers a strong parliamentary system with a prime minister to serve as a check on a Pashtun-dominated presidency. Abdullah has already complicated matters even before talks begin by contesting Ghani’s victory and vowing to form a parallel administration.
Finally, the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan will do nothing to end the country’s historical inability to raise tax revenue or its deep dependency on foreign funding, which in 2019 was three times more than domestic revenue.
The US, which has spent more than $800 billion since 2002 on security and reconstruction in Afghanistan, wants to foster Afghanistan’s self-sufficiency. But this requires ending the war to create a more favorable investment climate and boost growth in the country’s $20 billion economy. Two potential sources of income involve Afghanistan’s rich untapped mineral deposit, estimated at a trillion dollars, as well as finishing construction on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. Both have been hamstrung by security concerns.
A US-Taliban deal is certainly a major achievement. As long as the Taliban keep their side of the bargain, it opens the door for Washington to leave the conflict and the country. But forging a lasting peace will depend on the intra-Afghan talks, whose numerous challenges include Ghani refusing to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners ahead of the talks, a key demand by the insurgents. For the United States, it means facing the hard truth that, with the Taliban and Kabul both bent on winning battlefield advantage, any peace will be hard-won and easily lost.
Faisel Pervaiz is an analyst on South Asia. He has written extensively on the region’s political, economic, and security dynamics for the geopolitical advisory firm Stratfor, and also taught at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.