(Economist) But the tricky bit will be to get the Taliban talking to the government
AS HE LEFT the Qatari capital of Doha on August 5th, Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s envoy for Afghan peace talks, did not quite say that a deal with the Taliban was a matter of crossing the “i”s and dotting the “t”s, but he came close. He declared that the two sides had made “excellent progress” towards an agreement that would allow America to bring its troops home. What was left, he said, were “technical details” and “steps and mechanisms” for implementing it. But the devil may be in those details.
The essence of the deal, which Mr Khalilzad has said he wishes to strike by September 1st, before Afghanistan’s election on September 28th, is simple enough. America will pull troops out of Afghanistan, satisfying the Taliban’s principal war aim, and in return the Taliban will sever their ties to transnational terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and promise that Afghan soil will not be used for attacks, dealing with the problem that led America to invade 18 years ago.
Of course, things are more complicated than that. One question is how many troops America will withdraw, and how quickly it will do so. A related one is how it will enforce the Taliban’s side of the bargain. In February President Donald Trump insisted that America could return if things took a turn for the worse. “We have very fast airplanes,” he boasted, and “very good cargo planes”. But collecting intelligence on terrorists, let alone confronting them, will be harder with fewer spies, special forces and drones in the country.
These are not insurmountable issues. On August 6th the Taliban claimed that they had been resolved (Mr Khalilzad was more circumspect). A sequenced approach is most likely. The Washington Post has reported that America will withdraw 5,000 to 6,000 of the 14,000 troops currently in Afghanistan (another 8,500 or so mostly-European troops are deployed too) as part of the deal. That is all but settled. The remainder are likely to leave gradually—over two years, according to the New York Times; 15 months, according to others—and only after separate negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government hashed out details of power-sharing, constitutional changes and the like. The result would be a roadmap or framework agreement, with finer points filled in along the way.
But those “intra-Afghan” negotiations are the most serious sticking point. “The negotiations between the Taliban and the United States were the easy part,” says Laurel Miller of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, and a former State Department official. The Taliban have long denounced the Kabul government as little more than an American puppet. They have refused to talk directly to the government until an American withdrawal is complete—at which point their leverage would be far greater.
Nevertheless, there are signs that the Taliban might come round to talking to their foes in Kabul. On July 7th-8th, representatives from Afghanistan’s government, opposition, civil society and media—all attending in their personal capacities—met 17 Taliban members at an intra-Afghan conference in Doha organised by Germany and Qatar. That was pathbreaking. There had been similar gatherings in February and May, but they had not included Afghan officials, according to Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a research group. Encouragingly, the delegation in July included 11 women, among them the deputy head of Afghanistan’s national security council. All sides agreed to the suitably vague formula of “Afghan all-inclusive negotiations”.
A related problem is who speaks for Kabul. With an election looming, it is unclear whether the Taliban would end up negotiating with representatives of Mr Ghani, who hopes to secure a second term, or one of his 17 rivals for the presidency. If the election is marred by violence or mishandled (as were parliamentary polls in October 2018, in which a third of polling stations did not open and biometric voting machines bamboozled election workers) the victor’s legitimacy, and his authority to agree far-reaching deals with the Taliban, might be in doubt. Mr Khalilzad has mooted delaying the ballot; Mr Ghani disagrees. “There is no compromise over elections. None. Any move to trespass the constitution under any pretext will be a coup,” tweeted Amrullah Saleh, Mr Ghani’s principal running mate, on August 7th.
For Ms Miller, the coincidence of the election and the peace process will cause serious problems. “This is a train crash that many have seen coming for a long time.” Even so, she warns that cancelling elections would remove one of the government’s few advantages over the Taliban: its claim to democratic legitimacy.
Whoever is in charge in Kabul, ordinary Afghans may face more turbulent times. The Taliban have reiterated their demand for a “complete Islamic system”. Even if that did not go as far as the theocratic despotism of their pre-2001 government, it would mark a profound setback to women’s rights and civil liberties, not to mention a shock to the rent-seeking privileges of Afghanistan’s current crop of politicians.
Mr Ghani, or his successor, could dig in his heels, refusing to make concessions. That would run the risk of Mr Trump losing patience and leaving regardless, particularly if no progress had been made by the time of America’s own elections in November 2020. Yet even if an Afghan president were to agree to share power, the Taliban might rip up any pact and press home their advantage once Americans were gone.
A thoughtful deal—one in which American troop reductions would be conditioned on cautious political reform, rather than hasty constitutional upheaval—could reduce the risks of such perfidy. Yet Afghans are not convinced that a thoughtful deal is what they will get. In March, Afghanistan’s national security advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, raged publicly that “what we’re getting is a deal that doesn’t end in peace”. He accused Mr Khalilzad of maneuvering to become a “viceroy” of a future caretaker regime—an allusion to the common belief that Mr Khalilzad himself somehow seeks to rule the country of his birth.
Even if progress is made on the three core issues—American withdrawal, anti-terrorism guarantees and intra-Afghan talks—that leaves a fourth. Mr Khalilzad has demanded a permanent ceasefire, too. A three-day Eid ceasefire in June 2018 had brought hope that a longer lull in the fighting might be feasible. Few think so now. At least 95 people were injured in a bombing in Kabul on August 7th—the latest in a series of large-scale attacks. There were 3,812 civilian casualties (including 1,366 deaths) in the first half of the year. Though over half of those were inflicted by insurgents, both sides have stepped up the fight: civilian casualties caused by America and government forces, mostly through air strikes and raids, leapt up by 31% on last year.
The Taliban are especially resistant to a hiatus. They control more territory than at any time since the war’s beginning and believe that military momentum is with them. Afghanistan’s beleaguered security forces lose at least 50 people a day (America has lost 15 all year). But they also have internal reasons to take a hard line. One Western source briefed on the talks suggests that the Taliban leadership might struggle to sell to its more fervent rank-and-file the notion of only a partial American withdrawal during the early stages of the deal. The most uncompromising Talibs might split with the movement entirely, perhaps joining the Islamic State group.
If all that is not forbidding enough, regional powers might also enter the fray. Pakistan, which backed the Taliban from its earliest days and shelters its leadership, has been vital to nudging them to the negotiating table. Some fear that India’s revocation of autonomy to the disputed state of Jammu & Kashmir on August 6th might disrupt the Afghan peace process by stirring Pakistani fears.
In fact, Pakistan has every incentive to keep things going smoothly. A peace deal in Kabul could be a double coup: it might ease Pakistan’s strained relationship with America; and if the Taliban are propelled to power it could also deliver a blow to India, which has built strong economic and security ties to the post-2001 Afghan state. But India is unlikely to sit tight. It might extend support to hardline anti-Taliban factions in Kabul, as it did during Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s. Iran, which in recent years has hosted some Taliban leaders and armed other factions to irk America, might get involved to boost its own favoured insurgents in the frenzied jockeying.
That said, Graeme Smith, a consultant with International Crisis Group and a former UN official in Afghanistan, expresses cautious optimism about the diplomatic process. “This is tremendously exciting. Still, it’s a delicate moment: if the diplomats stumble, they could ignite another civil war that engulfs the region”.