Over the past few weeks, the Taleban first stoked expectations that an agreement with the United States was imminent, and then expressed frustration that it was not yet signed. They had appeared to be trying to edge forward to an agreement by offering to “scale down military operations” against both US and Afghan troops – and portraying this as a major breakthrough. The US has not reacted to Taleban statements at all. Even so, it seems US Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been focussing on this question in his talks with the Taleban. Meanwhile, the Afghan government continues to call for a full-scale ceasefire ahead of intra-Afghan negotiations, which the US-Taleban deal is supposed to open the way for. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig investigates what a ‘ceasefire’ versus a ‘reduction of violence’ might mean, lays out what we know about the recent US-Taleban talks and the possible pending agreement, and what it all might mean for levels of violence in the country.A boy looks out of a window in a Kabul building damaged in a terrorist attack on 29 July 2019. Photo: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP.
The resumption of US-Taleban talks
US President Donald Trump’s declaration on 8 September 2019 that the US-Taleban negotiations were “dead” did not hold for long. Negotiations had almost led to the signing of a bilateral agreement, but he vetoed it after the Taleban declined to go to the United States for a signing ceremony and one of their attacks killed a member of the US military (read AAN reporting here). Two and a half months later, on 28 November, while on his first visit to Afghanistan in office, he appeared to give the green light to further talks by claiming, “The Taliban wants to make a deal and we’re meeting with them and we’re saying it has to be a cease-fire and they didn’t want to do a cease-fire and now they do want to do a cease-fire.” The Taleban responded by saying they wanted “to resume the talks from where it was suspended.”
However, even earlier, in the first days of October 2019, US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had visited Pakistan in attempt to find out how to revive the talks with the Taleban. Then, in mid-November, a prisoner/hostage swap took place. The Afghan government released three prisoners, including Anas Haqqani, a leading member of the Taleban’s Haqqani network, after which the Taleban let go two professors of the American University in Kabul, an American and an Australian, who had been kidnapped in the Afghan capital in August 2016 (a media report here). It was a confidence-building measure and one to which the Afghan government contributed, even though Kabul had never been part of the negotiations. (The government apparently also issued Afghan passports to some Taleban negotiators, see here.) The prisoner releases took place in the face of widespread protests among the Afghan public; Haqqani had been sentenced to death, and given that the network is usually blamed for Taleban suicide attacks causing mass casualties in the capital, there were demands to execute him. The release of the two professors seems to have fulfilled the expectation of many analysts (see for example here) that such a visible Taleban concession would be needed to get Trump to agree to allow a restart of the negotiations over the agreement.
In early December, the State Department let it be known that Khalilzad would “rejoin talks with the Taliban” in Doha. The term used, ‘talks’, indicated that the US did not yet consider the current contacts with the Taleban in the Qatari capital of Doha to be formal negotiations again. Indeed, in early January 2020, the Taleban confirmed that formal negotiations had not started again, as Khalilzad had told them he had not yet received their response to his calls for a “reduction in violence, a brief ceasefire before signing of the peace agreement.” (Until then, it had been unclear whether he would even keep his position as the president’s Special Envoy on Afghanistan. Some diplomatic sources believed he had submitted his resignation after the breakdown of the earlier talks.)
Meanwhile, there was a brief hiccup on 13 December when Khalilzad announced another pause in the talks after a Taleban attack on Bagram, the US’s main base in the country, two days earlier. During the attack, at least two Afghan civilians were killed and 70 more wounded, as were five NATO soldiers from Georgia; the US said it had no casualties (media reports here).
On 30 December, the Associated Press quoted “Taleban officials” as saying that the organisation’s Leadership Council had agreed “to a temporary cease-fire in Afghanistan, providing a window in which a peace agreement with the United States can be signed” and that it would cover both the US and Afghan government forces.
The Taleban immediately issued a “clarification”, describing the news reports as “false and baseless” and “propaganda” that was trying to suggest a “schism” in the movement. They laid out their position with regard to a ceasefire:
The reality of the situation is that the Islamic Emirate has no intention of declaring a ceasefire. The United States has asked for a reduction in the scale and intensity of violence and discussions being held by the Islamic Emirate are revolving solely around this specific issue.
Then on 16 January, chief spokesman for the Taleban negotiating delegation in the Qatari capital Doha, Sohail Shahin, surprised everyone with a series of tweets in Pashto in which he said that US-Taleban negotiations had been resumed and that “the signing of the agreement and related ceremonies” had been discussed, seeming to indicate that the Taleban considered the text of the agreement was ready, while his comments that “this round of talks” would continue for “a few days” suggested they thought it could be signed soon (see here and here).
Shahin spoke in more detail to the Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn on 18 January 2020. Again, he said the draft agreement was ready and the only issue that still needed to be sorted out was the date of the signing. He said it was “now a matter of days” and they were optimistic they might be able to sign the agreement at the “latest by this month’s [January 2020] end.” The remaining talks, according to Shahin, would be led by the head of the Doha office, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai, rather than the movement’s Deputy Leader for Political Affairs, Abdul Ghani (better known as Mullah Baradar). This seemed to indicate that the talks were moving into procedural matters and the content had indeed been finalised.
On 22 January 2020, the Taleban tone shifted from optimism to frustration. In an unattributed article on their website, “Peace talks and more excuses…!?“ and a photo of US chief negotiator Khalilzad, they wrote that “the American side wants to waste even more time on the definition of the term ‘reduction of the violence’” and was doing so on behalf of what they derisively called a “small number of people in the shaky administration of Kabul.” This article followed President Ashraf Ghani, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos (Switzerland), accusing the Taleban leaders of being involved in “drug running operations,” “getting their fifth or fourth wife” and “enjoying themselves.”
The US, meanwhile, has made no official response to any of the Taleban statements, interviews and comments. Indeed, it has not even publicly announced that negotiations, rather than just ‘talks’ are on again.
Back to square one, or to 8 September 2019?
The text of the draft agreement from September 2019, that both sides had reportedly already initialled paragraph by paragraph – a sign that only the official final signature was missing – has never been published. Even so, leaks and hints from both sides have led to a rather consistent image of it. It was to have dealt mainly with two issues: the withdrawal of all US and, in consequence, all allied foreign troops from the country in exchange for Taleban guarantees not to allow globally active jihadist groups – such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (Daesh) – to operate from Taleban-controlled Afghan territory (the details in this AAN backgrounder) and this December 2019 Pentagon report (p14). Under this agreement, the US withdrawal was to have been gradual, probably over 16 months, with the US pulling 5,400 troops out of Afghanistan and closing five bases within the first 135 days after the agreement was signed, while reserving the right to assist Afghan forces if they were attacked by the Taleban during the withdrawal period (see media report here).
Furthermore, the agreement would have stipulated that intra-Afghan peace negotiations should start soon after the signing. In September, it was understood that this would have happened within ten days, in the Norwegian capital Oslo.
This agreement was far less than originally envisaged by Khalilzad. As AAN has reported, he had originally insisted that four points should be covered – US troop withdrawal, Taleban guarantees on al-Qaeda and other international jihadists, “a comprehensive & permanent ceasefire” and the inclusion of the Afghan government in the talks – and insisting that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” The Taleban, however, never subscribed to this formula (see AAN analysis here) and during the negotiations, Khalilzad apparently bowed to their insistence that intra-Afghan negotiations and discussion of the ceasefire would be relegated to a second phase of the ‘peace process’.
Thus, the negotiations were in practice split into two phases: the first one between the US and the Taleban only (discussing withdrawal and guarantees) and the second phase, the intra-Afghan negotiations, then including the Afghan government among other Afghan actors, but without US participation (discussing the ceasefire and likely the country’s future political system). This sequence of negotiations, as intended by Khalilzad, was confirmed by a 4 December statement by the US State Department that negotiations with the Taleban “could lead to intra-Afghan negotiations and a peaceful settlement of the war, specifically a reduction in violence that leads to a ceasefire.”
During the most recent round of US-Taleban talks, there was no indication that the features of the agreement had dramatically changed. (1) The Taleban had declared early on after Trump’s stopping of the deal that they wanted “to resume the talks from where it was suspended.” US officials also told The New York Times in September 2019, after Trump had stopped the agreement, “that the peace drive was not over and the deal had been neither rejected nor accepted.” This also implied that there was at least an option to stick to the agreed text. (2)
The ‘ceasefire’ versus ‘reduction of violence’ controversy
Khalilzad had come under criticism not only by the Afghan government and sections of the Afghan public, but also by members of the US Congress in September 2019, that he had given away too much to the Taleban, agreeing to remove their main enemy from the battlefield without even insisting on any form of ceasefire (see for example here, here and here). Khalilzad reintroduced the ceasefire/reduction of violence issue in the latest Doha talks, apparently without insisting on using this term, though. This was indirectly confirmed in a posting on the Taleban website saying, “In parallel with the resumption of negotiations, the American side came up with a new demand to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – namely the reduction of violence across Afghanistan. This demand was also accepted by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” It has not become clear, however, whether Khalilzad envisaged that this issue be laid out as part of the US-Taleban agreement itself, or appear in an annex or separate supplementary agreement (most likely the latter, according to diplomatic sources).
During early US-Taleban contacts, which began in Doha more than a year ago, in October 2018, Khalilzad had pressed for a six-months’ ceasefire in order to get negotiations re-started. Taleban sources confirmed this, in December 2018, although apparently they rejected his demand. Saudi and Emirati mediators, who were trying to take over Qatar’s role and had invited Khalilzad and Taleban representatives to Abu Dhabi, then suggested a three-months’ ceasefire. Khalilzad confirmed the latter in an interview with Afghan Ariana TV on 20 December 2018. “We talked about a ceasefire,” which, he said was aimed at providing “an opportunity so that all issues could be addressed through joint intra-Afghans dialogue.” However, the Saudi and Emirati efforts led to nothing, and the talks moved back to Doha.
By May 2019, with the talks in full swing, Khalilzad had apparently already dropped the idea of a formal, extensive ceasefire. Instead, he began speaking about a US “proposal for all sides to reduce violence.“ However, at that time, this issue did not receive much attention as it was overshadowed by Khalilzad’s attempts to get the Afghan presidential election postponed – originally scheduled for 20 April, but postponed to 20 July 2019 and then to 28 September – in favour of a peace deal and interim government which would have included the Taleban. This was all against President Ghani’s heavy resistance. This plan became obsolete when Ghani did not budge and pushed ahead with the election.
Khalilzad then continued to pursue his two-stage approach, the two-issues bilateral US-Taleban agreement first, to be followed by intra-Afghan negotiations afterwards. In an interview with Radio Azadi, the Afghan branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on 3 September 2019, he stated that the US-Taleban agreement would not be one about the “final end of the war, but about a reduction of violence.” It never became clear, though, whether this reduction was supposed to happen during US-Taleban negotiations, around or after the signing of the agreement and/or during US troop withdrawal, nor what it would entail exactly.
The already quoted 4 December statement by the State Department confirmed this approach (and also that it was not only Khalilzad’s personal plan, as some observers had suspected) which said that the bilateral negotiations with the Taleban “could lead to intra-Afghan negotiations and a peaceful settlement of the war, specifically a reduction in violence that leads to a ceasefire.” US Ambassador John Bass, who ended his Afghan posting in early January, speaking to the Afghan audience on 1 January via a Tolonews interview, also said that the US were “not insisting at this point that there has to be a nationwide ceasefire before anything can happen.”
Issues of terminology
The problem with Khalilzad’s shift of nuance was that not everybody understood it. Media reports and, what was more important, President Trump used both terms – ‘ceasefire’ and ‘reduction of violence’ – as if they were interchangeable. This was the case when Trump cancelled the US-Taleban deal in September 2019, citing the Taleban’s inability to “agree to a cease-fire during these very important peace talks,” something that he said the US was insisting on, and then during his Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan when he claimed that the Taleban were ready for a “ceasefire” now. In Kabul and elsewhere, Trump’s choice of words during his Thanksgiving trip was noticed and welcomed as an important policy shift (see for example here and here). These hopes, however, were dashed again when, following a Trump-Ghani meeting in Davos on 22 January, the White House issued a readout, saying (quoted here):
“Trump reiterated the need for a significant and lasting reduction in violence [emphasis added] by the Taliban that would facilitate meaningful negotiations on Afghanistan’s future.”
Other parties, however, have been very scrupulous with their language. (3) The Taleban, in their rejection of the 30 December 2019 AP report that the organisation’s Leadership Council had agreed “to a temporary cease-fire in Afghanistan, providing a window in which a peace agreement with the United States can be signed,” said they had “no intention of declaring a ceasefire” and that the US had (only) asked “for a reduction in the scale and intensity of violence.” Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi also did not use the term ‘ceasefire’ when, speaking on 16 January 2020, ahead of a meeting with his US counterpart in Washington (and before the Taleban had said something). He stated that progress had been made and the Taleban were ready to “reduce the violence.”
Taleban spokesman Shahin made their stance absolutely clear in his 18 January Dawn interview. He said the Taleban had agreed, after a month of consultations among their leaders, field commanders and religious scholars (also mentioned in this media report), “to scale down military operations in days leading up to the signing of the peace agreement with the United States. The purpose is to provide safe environment to foreign forces to withdraw from Afghanistan.” He added, however, that “there is no agreement on ceasefire.” He said there would rather be “a reduction in our military operations” and that “the scaling down will be blanket and shall include all forces, including state [ie Afghan government] forces.”
In his Dawn interview, Shahin apparently tried to sweeten the ‘deal’ for the Afghan government audience by saying that its signing would lead to the commencement of an intra-Afghan dialogue, that would include the Ghani-led Kabul administration (the Taleban have thus far refused to speak to the government at all and to officials only in their private capacity) and negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire. (4) In the already-quoted 22 January article on the Taleban website, the author called the Taleban’s offer “unprecedented… in the history of Islamic Emirate,” while warning at the same time that they might drop it again if their “flexibility” was rejected. Another article on that website, however, published on 20 January, called the government in Kabul “an insignificant party.” This will not help to bolster trust that the Taleban’s offers will be kept in the end. The Taleban also already seem to be trying to encourage the US to agree to the deal, by – it seems – having reduced the number of their large-scale attacks in Afghanistan’s big cities since September 2019 (data from a list of large civilian casualty incidents compiled in this December 2019 UNHRC report. (5)
Again, there has been silence on all of this on the usual US communication channels, the Kabul Embassy, chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad and the State Department. This could simply mean that the US has not made up its mind whether it wants this agreement – troop withdrawal in exchange for Taleban guarantees on terrorist jihadist groups, accompanied by a short, temporary truce.
What might a ‘reduction of violence’ look like in Taleban’s eyes?
There have been no official Taleban statements on what the Taleban mean by ‘reduction in violence’, and un-named Taleban leaders quoted in media reports have diverged on some of the detail provided in the few public statements by their officials, such as Shahin’s Dawn interview. For example, some of them have not even stuck to the official line that there is no agreement to a ceasefire. Two Pakistani newspapers, The Daily Times and The News International quoted, respectively, an un-named “Taliban leader” and un-named “senior members of the Afghan Taliban” both reportedly saying a ‘ceasefire’ was on offer. The News International also quoted a “top Taliban leader” and member of the Leadership Council as saying that “our leadership has decided to reduce attacks or whatever you call it.” This could indicate that senior Taleban are either uninformed about the terminology reflecting the current official political line, do not understand it or are ignoring it. Or the confusion is deliberately created from the Taleban’s top, as the “top Taleban leader” was also quoted as saying, “We may not announce the ceasefire publicly but would make sure our military commanders [would] implement it wholeheartedly in the areas under their control.” In any case, such statements have further muddied the waters.
These sources largely appear to agree that a short ‘ceasefire’ or ‘reduction of violence’ would be announced, would last for a week or “between seven and 10 days” and would kick in either after an agreement was reached or as a prerequisite for it. The “Taliban leader” quoted by The Daily Times said the agreement would be signed “during this period [of what he called reduced attacks].” The News International’s Taleban sources were quoted as saying that “all sides would start acting on the ceasefire from the day when Taliban and US sign a peace accord in Doha.”
The “Taliban leader” quoted by The News International also said that the movement would “not carry out any type of attack during the proposed ceasefire period. There would be no suicide attacks, IEDs, target killing anywhere in Afghanistan from our side when the ceasefire is implemented.” Afghan media outlet Tolonews quoted “sources familiar with the process on condition of anonymity” that Taleban leader Hebatullah Akhunzada had agreed that a reduction of violence in Afghanistan’s major cities would be implemented once the US signs the peace deal. A reduction of violence, according to these sources, would consist of the Taleban not attacking cities, not launching suicide attacks and not blocking major highways. The US would likely have to reciprocate, they said, with a stop to their drone attacks and their participation in Afghan forces’ night raids (see an example reported by AAN here).
The News International’s source was also quoted as saying that “our leadership has decided to reduce attacks… for the Afghan government and its armed forces.” He said that Taleban fighters would not go to areas with US and Afghan military bases and other installations, explaining, “We would not even use the road where the Afghan forces had set up checkpoints to avoid any confrontation. And would expect a similar response to the ceasefire plan.” He even claimed that it had been agreed “that neither US nor Afghan force[s] will enter [areas under the control of the other party to the conflict] or conduct any type of operation in those areas after the ceasefire is announced.” The latter stipulation – if true – would be quite far-reaching and would require the consent and cooperation of the Afghan government.
Another part of Shahin’s Dawn interview made clear that, for the Taleban, it seems to be more important to be able to remain flexible in their operations against the Afghan government forces then what terminology will be used: “It is our prerogative to see how, when and where to scale down our military operations.” If this was accepted, it would allow the Taleban to pick the area and time where they would hold fire, and where not. It is also very practical from the Taleban’s point of view: Afghan forces would probably be mainly covered by this reduction only where they use the same bases and roads as US forces. Seen from this angle, the Taleban would thus be trying to avoid harming US soldiers, so as not to risk another breakdown of the bilateral negotiations, while keeping the option open of attacking Afghan forces.
It is difficult to gauge how reliable these quoted statements are. Many come from Pakistani media outlets where reports about Afghanistan tend to be closely monitored and sometimes shaped by the country’s main intelligence service. It cannot be ruled out that these reports are designed to suggest significant concessions have been made to the US, to make a deal more palatable.
It can be said with some certainty, though, that a short ceasefire or reduction of violence is unlikely to satisfy the US. At the very least, it can be assumed that it wants assurances for the safety of its troops for the whole, lengthy withdrawal period. This is referred to in a Tolonews report quoting “sources familiar with the matter” as saying that the US had asked the Taleban for a “long-term reduction of violence.” A cryptic paragraph (6) in the Shahin seems to refer to this issue. The Dawn reported:
Asked whether the reduction in attack would continue after the signing of the peace [sic] agreement, the Afghan Taliban spokesman said the day the agreement was signed other clauses contained in the document would come into force. He did not elaborate on what those clauses would be.
This seems to indicate that, as the Taleban are trying to portray it, the new agreement might include additional stipulations on the issue of a ceasefire or ‘reduction of violence’ that were not part of the September 2019 draft.
With no comments yet from the US, we do not know whether the US is likely to swallow all of this. It is difficult to imagine Washington either leaving the matter of the terms and duration of a reduction of violence or scaling down of operations or any form of ceasefire unclear.
The Afghan government’s position
As Mujib Mashal wrote in The New York Times after Trump’s stop to the talks in 2019, the Afghan government had then hoped for a “complete reset,” with a ceasefire as a clear precondition for any resumption of talks. It had also hoped that the US would revise its position and press again for Kabul’s involvement as a third party in this phase of the negotiations, rather than it having to wait to be handed the baton after the Taleban had received what it wanted most, the assurance of US troop withdrawal and the partial start of that. This did not happen and that has obviously angered the government.
Trump’s surprise halt to the almost-deal between the US and the Taleban in September 2019, and his use of the ‘ceasefire’ word, had already convinced the Afghan government that it also could harden its public position. In October 2019, it withdrew an 2018 offer, made in the context of its Kabul Process plan (AAN reporting here and here), of unconditional negotiations with the Taleban. It stated that it now wanted a one-month ceasefire before the intra-Afghan peace talks with the Taleban could even start. This has been the official line ever since.
Consequently, the Afghan government has rejected the current Taleban offer as a mere reduction of violence instead of a full-scale, publicly-announced ceasefire. On 19 January, presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqi reiterated this position: “[A]ll allies” of the Afghan government as well as the “people of Afghanistan” were “insisting on a ceasefire.“ Earlier he wrote on Twitter that there was no exact military and legal definition for ‘reducing violence’; it was “not practical” and the government wanted a ceasefire similar to the one during the Islamic Eid festival in June 2018. That had been officially, albeit separately, announced by both sides; the Taleban observed a three-day ceasefire, while the government’s lasted seven days (find AAN reporting here). Sediqi’s position was echoed, among others, by Amrullah Saleh, former head of the Afghan intelligence service and running mate of President Ashraf Ghani in the still-inconclusive 2019 presidential election.
Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor, Hamdullah Moheb had also insisted at a multilateral conference in India two days earlier that a ceasefire was “necessary to create a conducive environment for [intra-Afghan] talks.” It would prove, he said, that “our enemies are not only serious about peace, but that it is within their control to maintain their part of a future deal.” With this comment, he referenced existing questions within the US and Afghanistan as to whether the Taleban leadership would have actual control over all their field commanders in the case of a prolonged ceasefire.
To project the government’s readiness for negotiations, Ghani decreed the formation of a “senior coordination committee on peace” led by the relatively new Ministry of Peace Affairs, headed by his former chief-of staff, Abdul Salam Rahimi. (7)
The US, meanwhile, has tried to dilute Afghans’ worries that if the US agreed to the Taleban’s offer, this might not substantially change the level of violence seen by civilians. Alice Wells, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South And Central Asian Affairs, said in a press briefing in Washington on 24 January after a return from a visit to three South Asian countries that there would be a “focus on the reduction in violence that the Afghan people can see and feel and appreciate.” Reports that General Scott Miller, US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, was attending the Doha meetings were also a sign that military details were being discussed.
Barnett Rubin, who was involved in attempts to find a negotiated end to the Afghan war under previous US administrations, told media he was convinced that “[t]he inter-relationships among the parts of the [negotiations] process are structured in such a way as to provide safeguards.” He argued that if Washington believed the Taleban were not fulfilling their obligations under the agreement, it could pause its troop withdrawal and demand further negotiations.
While it was US chief negotiator Khalilzad in 2019 who pushed for a quick US-Taleban deal, aiming at getting it signed before the US entered presidential election year, possibly in fear that President Trump might just order a troop withdrawal without an agreement and risk a breakdown of Afghanistan’s post-Taleban system, it is now the Taleban who seem to be in a hurry. They can be sure that the almost-signed September 2019 agreement was the best they could achieve, and that any continuation of negotiations would increase the pressure on them to make further concessions.
They are particularly hesitant to heed demands to agree to any ceasefire longer than the seven to ten days mentioned above under that name. This is because this would mean, as many analysts agree, them giving away their major bargaining chip before intra-Afghan peace negotiations started, namely recourse to violence. It has been widely argued that the Taleban might have difficulties remobilising their fighters after any long, full-scale ceasefire if negotiations – which could be expected to be difficult and long-winding – broke down. This is not the only reason, though. They also do not want to give in to a demand that is mainly held up now by the Afghan government, an entity they do not recognise and have so far rejected as a negotiating partner. This is particularly the case given that the US demands have been much more modest.
Much remains uncertain when it comes to the allegedly once-again finalised US-Taleban agreement and whether it is ready or not for signing. What seems clear is that the Khalilzad and the Taleban are continuing to bilaterally work toward a shared priority (although for different reasons): the removal of US troops from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the third – although not militarily self-reliant – party to the conflict, the Afghan government, is still being kept out of the negotiations.
The deal as it currently appears would not be a peace agreement, even though it is often called that (Shahin used the term twice in his 18 January interview, and many in the media have been talking about ‘peace talks’ for a very long time). In an optimistic interpretation, the deal would open the door for a second phase: intra-Afghan peace negotiations. Such a two-part process could be the only way to get such peace negotiations underway in the foreseeable future. However, there is no guarantee that intra-Afghan talks would indeed lead to a peace agreement and sustainable peace, for example if the US decided to complete their military withdrawal before an all-Afghan peace agreement was signed.
Indeed, whether the ‘intra-Afghan’ phase would happen at all would depend to a large extent on whether the Taleban stuck to their promise to talk to Kabul – and to do so seriously, not just as a cover for an attempted military takeover against a weakened Afghan government. It would also depend on whether the US and its allies kept up a credible deterrence against such a Taleban takeover, despite the troop reductions. The Afghan government side would also have to nominate a negotiating team that was credible, politically inclusive and widely accepted by other political forces and civil society in the country. (8)
A great deal stands in the way of any successful phase two, not least the multitude of problems that have combined to form the 40 years-old Afghan crisis and which need to be addressed when the diverse Afghan parties come to meet – undoubtedly in an atmosphere of deep mutual mistrust – to hammer out what the country’s future political system should look like and who would hold power and how that would be determined.
Meanwhile, the wrangling over the semantics of ‘ceasefire’ and ‘reduction of violence’ signifies a struggle over who shapes the discourse. The paradigm of ‘Afghan-led, Afghan owned’ talks is long dead, and has weakened the position of the third party to the conflict, the Afghan government. (The phrase never actually stipulated that the government alone should lead and own the talks, but that is how the government wanted to read it.) The weakness of the government’s position was exacerbated by the fact that various international actors (Russia, China, Qatar, Germany) brought other Afghan players, largely instead of the administration, into the game through the various intra-Afghan dialogue meetings (‘dialogue’ in contrast to ‘negotiations’; see AAN analysis here and here) and that the US accepted this, leading to Khalilzad’s invention of an “inclusive and effective national team” for the future intra-Afghan negotiations (quoted here) that would not only include representatives of the government but also of various political forces and civil society. (This could be considered either a clever means found by Khalilzad to outflank the Taleban’s refusal to speak directly with the government or a bowing to their demands.)
That the teams chosen to speak to the Taleban have been so heavily weighted against the government, in turn, heated up Afghanistan’s domestic political competition before the 28 September 2019 presidential election. This has strengthened the hands of Ghani’s domestic political opponents, such as his former partners in the now virtually defunct National Unity Government, the so-called ‘Abdullah camp’, and the ‘camp’ of former President Hamed Karzai. They used the debate between Khalilzad and Ghani about whether elections should be held before or after the conclusion of a peace agreement, and currently about whether the Taleban offer of a reduction of violence should be accepted or not (they are in favour, see a media report here) as presenting themselves as the real ‘pro-peace’ party. This is not fully unselfish as their priority seems to be to get rid of Ghani and take over again themselves. Such infighting plays into the Taleban’s hands who can afford to wait and harvest the political fallout, particularly so as there is no end yet in sight of the 28 September 2019 election. (A second round cannot be excluded, and after that, the potentially months-long process of complaints and adjudication would start anew.)
There is one large gap in the current debate about the US-Taleban deal. It seems that both sides, the Taleban and the US, are only thinking about how to reduce violence between their forces. There is no indication so far that they are discussing how this could also be achieved for the civilian population that continues to suffers record casualty levels. A halt to fighting between the US and Taleban forces in certain areas would likely reduce the immediate number of deaths and injuries to civilians as they are often hurt in airstrikes and suicide attacks on US facilities and transport. However, as we read what has apparently been discussed so far, a ‘reduction in violence’ could leave Taleban and Afghan government forces to continue to fight more or less unabatedly in areas without any US or other foreign troops’ presence (ie most of the country) until a full-scale ceasefire was reached. As a result, the population in the countryside and many small towns would likely not experience, against all assurances, the sort of reduction of violence they could “see and feel” which Alice Wells has described.
For the Afghan government, the dilemma is, again, how to respond to a possible US-Taleban agreement. If an agreement is reached over its head and it withholds its support, or protests too strongly, it may again be labelled a stumbling block to peace (as in early 2019; see AAN background here) and find its position in possible future negotiations weakened. Also, practically-speaking, it has no leverage over a US-Taleban agreement or US troop withdrawal, if the White House decides to have them. As bitter as it is, in the current diplomatic constellation, a full end of the war cannot realistically be achieved before an intra-Afghan solution, but a full end of the US involvement in the war could be. This, in turn, could result in a new and even escalated round of internal war.
The US-Taleban agreement appears to be the only visible option to get the Taleban to agree that Afghans can start to negotiate peace among themselves. However, it is a risky prospect; whether the US, particularly in a possible second Trump term, have the patience to keep sufficient troops in the country to prevent a Taleban takeover while negotiations (and possibly fighting) were still ongoing – which is what many Afghans believe is their plan once US troops are out of the way – is a wide open question.
Here, again, the question of some sort of a ceasefire would become crucial. It is difficult to imagine intra-Afghan peace negotiations without all parties finding a way to hold fire when they commence. It is also difficult to believe that the Afghan government would go into such peace talks, and the overwhelming majority of Afghans would support them, while the fighting and dying continues.
Edited by Martine van Bijlert and Kate Clark
(1) There were some speculations that the venue might move to Germany, but this seems to be a mix-up with the intra-Afghan dialogue meetings that would move there from Qatar, as this tweet by the German Embassy in Kabul indicated. This offer was now officially made to President Ghani by German chancellor Angela Merkel during a meeting on 23 January 2020 in Davos (see here). (Read AAN analysis about the dialogue here.)
(2) In September 2019, it was also understood that the agreement would be announced in the presence of international ‘guarantors’. A Taleban spokesman was quoted at the time as saying they wanted to include the United Nations, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Russia, China and possibly other neighbouring countries (media report here). Russia, China and the European Union have expressed their readiness to do so. NATO (which has troops from a number of countries in Afghanistan, and its own bilateral security agreement with Kabul) and the Afghan government were also expected to welcome and support the agreement when it was announced – with the caveat that the Afghan government would require assurances from the Taleban and the US that intra-Afghan negotiations would commence swiftly.
(3) Not so the AP or Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov. On 15 January, he was quoted by Afghan Tolonews as saying that the Taleban had “in principle agreed for (sic) preliminary ceasefire even with the government… after signing [the agreement with the US]” and that this would “create [the] environment for intra-Afghan talks.” Tolonews did not give a source for Kabulov’s alleged statement and AAN was unable find a Russian source for this. On 16 January, AP again quoted “Taliban officials familiar with the negotiations” as saying that the insurgents had given Khalilzad an “offer for a temporary cease-fire in Afghanistan that would last between seven and 10 days” the day before during a meeting in Doha (it was not clear whether this was the agency’s language or that of the Taleban – given the Taleban’s earlier statements, it was likely the agency’s.)
(4) This part of his remarks was not directly quoted. It is thus not clear whether the use of the terms ‘dialogue’ and ‘negotiations’ was deliberate or not. They may have become muddled in the translation or summary of his remarks, or he may have used them interchangeably. If done deliberately, it would suggest that he is sidestepping a commitment to enter into negotiations with the Afghan government, by relegating the government to the intra-Afghan dialogue (which is generally understood to refer to the ongoing Qatari-German process).
(5) This also included the 28 September election day. As AAN reported here, although it was “the second-most violent election day the country has ever experienced, (…) the day remained calmer than many feared, without the massive terror attacks threatened by the Taleban.” This does not mean, however, that there has been no violence. The increased use of assassinations, often using magnetic mines, against government officials or members of the armed forces and smaller scale attacks, many of which can be attributed to the Taleban, also continued after September 2019. (A few examples here, here and here).
(6) This part of his remarks was also not directly quoted.
(7) The Ministry of Peace was formed in July 2019 and took over the functions of the practically-defunct High Peace Council (HPC). The HPC had formally been the Afghan government’s channel for all ‘reconciliation’ issues, but had never played much of a role in actual negotiations. While not formally dissolved, the council had stopped receiving funding in most of the second half of 2019, although it continued issuing statements).
(8) In order to achieve this, Khalilzad invented the term of an “inclusive and effective national team” in early 2019 by Khalilzad (quoted here) that would include, alongside Ghani’s own team, also members from the Abdullah camp in the current government, the political opposition and civil society representatives. The suggestion was made partly in response to accusations by chief executive Abdullah that President Ghani was trying to ‘monopolise’ the negotiations (here a recent media report). It is not clear whether Ghani responded to Khalilzad’s demands. The government has announced in July 2019 already that a 15-member negotiating team had been formed (media report here), but said it will announce its composition only after the conclusion of the US-Taleban agreement (media report here).
This article was last updated on 18 May 2022