Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha, Qatar, February 2020
Ibraheem al Omari / Reuters

On February 29, the United States and the Taliban signed a preliminary peace deal aimed at ending nearly 19 years of war in Afghanistan. The agreement calls for the United States to gradually withdraw its troops from the country over the next 14 months and for the Taliban and the Afghan government (which was not a party to the deal) to open direct talks. The Taliban further promise in the deal to prevent terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda or the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), from operating in territory they control.

Much could go wrong rather quickly. The United States and the Taliban had agreed that a prisoner exchange should precede the negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani initially balked at the prospect. The talks did not begin on March 10, as specified in the U.S.-Taliban accord, but on that day Ghani did agree to release 1,500 Taliban fighters, in groups of 100 per day, beginning on March 14; once negotiations with the Taliban have begun, Ghani’s decree stated, the Afghan government would release an additional 3,500 militants, in batches of 500 every two weeks. On March 11, the Taliban rejected Ghani’s plan to stagger the prisoner release, arguing that talks cannot proceed until all 5,000 prisoners cited in its agreement with the United States have been released. On March 14, the Afghan government decided to delay the prisoner release because it needed extra time to review the list of prisoners and to secure guarantees that they would not return to the fighting.

DEEP DIVISIONS

The Afghan government remains bitterly divided after two candidates, Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, pronounced themselves the winner of September’s presidential election, setting off months of wrangling. Although Ghani was eventually declared the winner, his opponent accused Afghanistan’s election commission of favoring the incumbent; Abdullah vowed to form his own government and even staged a competing inauguration ceremony. The dispute between Ghani and Abdullah complicates the Afghan government’s efforts to field an authoritative and fully representative negotiating team. Even if the disagreement over the timing of the prisoner exchange can be resolved, the Afghan government may prove to be incapable of fielding such a delegation to the talks or unwilling to do so—or the Taliban might find some excuse to refuse to engage with those the government sends.

American officials began talking with the Taliban about peace in 2010.

If the Afghan government and the Taliban do sit down together and begin to seriously negotiate, they are by no means certain to bridge their differences before the American troops are withdrawn. After all, the United States and the Taliban took ten years to reach this preliminary agreement, and they were able to do so only by sidestepping many core issues.

American officials began talking with the Taliban about peace in 2010. For much of the next decade, talks were stymied because American officials refused to negotiate in the absence of the Afghan government, and the Taliban refused to talk in its presence. U.S. President Donald Trump and the lead American negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, artfully avoided this obstacle by constructing the two-step process that produced this first agreement.

RISING VIOLENCE

Now comes the hard part. How can the Taliban and the Afghan government, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, come together to jointly govern Afghanistan? And how can their two armed forces be combined into a new national army and police force? Trust between the two armed forces has ebbed since the U.S.-Taliban agreement was concluded. The Taliban seem to have honored their agreement not to attack American and coalition forces, but they have increased their attacks on Afghan security forces in the days since the deal was signed. The deadliest Taliban assault killed at least 15 Afghan soldiers. It came within hours of a call between Trump and the deputy leader of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the first such direct contact between an American president and a leader of the militant group. On March 13, a day before the release of Taliban prisoners was set to begin, the Afghan defense ministry said that the Taliban had attacked Afghan security forces 95 times over the previous 24 hours.

Afghanistan’s neighbors have historically fed instability in the country by backing rival claimants to power.

Conditions in Afghanistan do not appear particularly conducive to bringing the conflict to a rapid end. There will be no UN peacekeeping force or other impartial third party to guarantee the security of the two sides as they disarm and demobilize. The government side is badly divided, and there are a number of unaffiliated armed groups in the country that may act as spoilers. Afghanistan’s neighbors have historically fed instability in the country by backing rival claimants to power. And the United States is not in a strong position to forestall this, as its relations with the region’s most influential powers—China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia—are in each case at their lowest point since 2001.

MERGING TWO AFGHAN SIDES

Merging the Taliban and the Afghan government into a single unified governing entity will take more ingenuity and flexibility than either side has exhibited to date. Integrating the two armed forces will also demand substantial resources and organizational ability. The Afghan security structure now numbers some 300,000 soldiers and police. The Taliban field perhaps 150,000 full- and part-time fighters. Neither side will agree to substantially disarm. Nor will security conditions in the country justify too large of a demobilization. Some disgruntled Taliban elements may reject the settlement, and some Taliban fighters may defect to ISIS or other extremist groups; early reports suggest that al Qaeda has already begun recruiting disaffected Taliban fighters. These elements will do their best to disrupt any settlement. Regional and local power brokers may establish or expand their militias by recruiting from the local army and police forces. Those who profit from the drug trade and other forms of illegal exploitation will resist any peace that interferes with their predation.

Afghan peace talks are already following a pattern set by the negotiations that ended American involvement in Vietnam. In 1968, North Vietnam and the United States concluded a preliminary, procedural agreement that permitted the government of South Vietnam to join the talks. Five more years were needed to produce a substantive peace accord. That agreement fell apart two years after the last American forces left.

Insurgent wars are endurance tests. So are the negotiations that sometimes succeed in ending them. An agreement is likely to take more than 14 months to reach and even longer to implement. Ending the endless war will require a lengthy peace process and some level of American engagement for its duration.

  • JAMES DOBBINS is a Senior Fellow at the RAND Corporation. He served as Special Envoy for Afghanistan under Presidents Bush and Obama and with the U.S. delegation to the Vietnam peace talks in 1968.
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