Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”: First steps in Afghan peace negotiations

Thomas Ruttig 29 min

With the US-Taleban negotiations in Doha actually addressing how to end the Afghan war, and with first progress being made in the form of an agreed draft framework, Afghanistan seems to be slowly inching beyond the impasse of only ‘talks about talks.’ With this, a peace process has possibly left the starting blocks, but only barely. The main problem is that, so far, the negotiations have only involved two of the three main parties to the conflict. The Taleban are formally still blocking the inclusion of the Afghan government in the talks, but they might have room for manoeuvre. The Afghan government, meanwhile, has been incensed by talks about an interim government by which it feels being undermined. AAN co-director and senior analyst Thomas Ruttig looks at the issues that were discussed at the talks, as well as those that were not yet, at least not officially (with input from Martine van Bijlert and Obaid Ali).

This research was supported by the Embassy of Canada in Kabul through its Canada Fund for Local Initiative (CFLI) Program.

The ‘framework’

The contours of the latest round of US-Taleban negotiations in Qatar have begun to emerge. After six days of meetings with representatives of the insurgents, US special ‘reconciliation’ envoy Zalmay Khalilzad came to Kabul on 27 January 2019 to brief the Afghan leadership. He told the New York Times that a “framework” had “in principle” been agreed upon. The framework seems to mainly consist of two key topics that need to be further negotiated: the withdrawal of all foreign forces and Taleban guarantees against a post-agreement return of al-Qaeda-type terrorist groups to Afghanistan. Or in Khalilzad’s words: “We have a draft of the framework that has to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement.” For that purpose, two “working groups” have been established.

This means that both sides have accepted to work out the practicalities of how to implement each other’s main immediate political goals into a workable sequencing: making sure all foreign troops leave Afghanistan – which has always been the Taleban’s main demand (although the wish to withdraw is now also shared in large parts of the US administration, but not fully by Republicans in Senate) – while ensuring that renewed 9/11-style attacks cannot emanate from Afghan territory again – which has always been a main US demand. 

It is not clear how much has already been put in writing, or whether the discussions were based on written documents (both in Doha, and during the round of talks in Abu Dhabi in December 2018). (1) What is clear is that, for the first time, the threshold from preliminary ‘talks about talks’ to substantive negotiations has been crossed (after earlier rounds of negotiations, from 2011 to 2014, that focused mainly on a prisoner swap that actually happened, see AAN analysis here; the fact that those talks took three years, indicate how difficult negotiations, on even a single issue, can be). The duration of the latest round of negotiations in Doha – six days, the longest since talks commenced in 2018 – indicated that both sides worked seriously on an agreement. 

According to Taleban sources, the US have also “promised” to help in reconstruction efforts after its troop withdrawal, and the Taleban would welcome this. “We have told them that after ending your military intervention, we will welcome U.S. engineers, doctors and others if they want to come back for reconstruction of Afghanistan,” Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai, the outgoing head of the Taleban office in Doha, said. (2)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US envoy Khalilzad called the agreement on the framework “significant progress.” Several media outlets, possibly encouraged by their briefers, even opted for the term “breakthrough.” The Taleban simply spoke of “progress” after the latest Doha round.

According to outgoing Taleban chief negotiator Stanakzai (quoted here), for the next meeting in Doha, set for 25 February, “the two technical teams will prepare proposals and take decisions and bring them to the table.” He added that after that a larger meeting would be arranged, with major powers, the United Nations and representatives of Islamic countries in attendance as “guarantors” where assurances will be given that all foreign troops will leave Afghanistan. But he still made no mention of the possible inclusion of the Afghan government.

The conditionalities of a ‘package deal’

Spreading optimism is part of a diplomat’s basic toolbox. It is also currently a necessity in the US, where President Donald Trump’s lack of patience with the US mission in Afghanistan is well known. Trump made it clear long before he came into office that he would have preferred a quick pull out (see AAN’s annotated collection of his pre-election, Afghanistan-related tweets here). Khalilzad is well aware of this need to placate this impatience and, for now, seems to have done so satisfactorily. One of the President Trump’s fearsome tweets on 30 January lauded the Afghan negotiations as “proceeding well” (quoted here).

Still, Khalilzad works and Afghans live under a Trump “tweet of Damocles” (a term the Wall Street Journal seems to have coined). When Khalilzad took on his new assignment in September 2018, he told diplomatic colleagues that he probably had six to twelve months to produce a breakthrough for the president, according to “people briefed on the discussions” quoted by the Wall Street Journal in November 2018. Other outlets suggested that he had until the 2019 Afghan presidential election, which has been postponed from April to July 2019. According to the WSJ article, it was Khalilzad who had raised the issue of a possible delay – something he himself denies – as an election could stand in the way of ‘peace’.

The NYT article that broke the news of the agreement on a ‘framework’ and that inspired a media frenzy across the world also had more details on the possible complexities of what lies ahead. It quoted an unnamed “senior American official involved in the talks”, who said the Taleban had asked for time to confer with their leadership on the additional US requirements of a cease-fire and direct talks with the Afghan government. The official described these issues as “interconnected” and part of a “package deal.” 

This suggests that the talks will not simply revolve around a framework with a topic list, but that all will depend on the ability to agree on the sequencing and interconnectedness of the various points of conditionality. 

Thus, the United States said it would agree to withdraw its “combat troops” from Afghanistan “only in return for the Taliban’s entering talks with the Afghan government and agreeing to a lasting cease-fire.” Khalilzad stressed elsewhere that all talks would take place in accordance with the principle that “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” (A principle that was also used in Colombia’s peace negotiations with FARC; see AAN’s dispatch on what Afghanistan can learn from this process here).

The Taleban, in turn, insisted on a conditionality of their own. Reuters quoted their spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed as saying that “until the issue of withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is agreed upon, progress on other issues is impossible.” They also continue to refuse to talk with the Afghan government. (3)

The two conditionalities, for the moment, seem to block each other. However, the fact that the Taleban delegation is said to have asked for a break of the Doha negotiations to confer with their leadership, shows that there may be room for manoeuvre. Also, on their ambivalent wording on their seemingly unmovable position not to talk to the government in Kabul before all foreign soldiers have left. At the Afghanistan conference in Moscow in mid-November 2018, (4) Stanakzai told Russian media in an interview:

Those matters which are related to the Afghan side… the future government, the constitution etc, that can be discussed with the Afghan side… But before that, the American side should guarantee and they should fix a timetable for the withdrawal of their forces. When they give an international guarantee for the withdrawal of their forces, than it is possible [to talk] with the Afghan side also. … Also with other forces that have influence in Afghanistan. 

Here, the existence of a timetable is set as the precondition for direct talks, not the finalised withdrawal. 

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has his own conditionality: he has vehemently rebuked talks about an “interim government”, particularly as feels this is been discussed over his head (more about this below). 

Issues agreed upon ‘in principle’

1.Troop withdrawal 

Even though the withdrawal of foreign forces is part of the agreed framework, and of the future talks’ agenda, not much is clear yet. Some media have reported, quoting Taleban sources, that the US has agreed to withdraw forces within 18 months (which seems unlikely under the principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”), while noting that the US had denied that a timeline was even discussed (see, for example, here). Taleban spokesman Mujahed also denied that an 18 months’ timeline had been established in Doha. Outgoing Doha office chief Stanakzai was quoted in Pakistani media as saying that “I think the US government is very serious to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.“ However, AAN has been told by Afghan journalists that Khalilzad told them – off the records – that a US military withdrawal within 18 months would be definite. (This still doesn’t mean it has been formally agreed with the Taleban, but their public statement clearly indicate they got this message, too.)

So far, the Taleban have made their involvement in an agreement conditional on US readiness to, at least, commit to a timetable. This was also one of the take-aways of the Moscow conference, the Taleban’s Stanakzai told Russian media: “Before [intra-Afghan talks], the American side should guarantee and fix a timetable for the withdrawal of their forces.” The US had already signalled its readiness to discuss a timetable in future negotiations in February 2018 during the Kabul Process 2 meeting (AAN analysis here). 

Regardless of whether an 18-months withdrawal period has been substantively discussed, or not, it does seem logistically possible. For example, the reduction of ISAF troops (90,000 of which were Americans) from 129,000 in March 2012 when the drawdown was decided, to around 28,000 in November 2014 (which was the last available figure; full withdrawal was never completed and the remaining troops were re-labelled Resolute Support) had been possible within less than three years. The Soviet Union even managed to withdraw their circa 100,000 troops within ten months between May 1988 and February 1989 (although this was made somewhat easier by the fact that it was a neighbouring country and they could use land routes). 

The discussions around troop withdrawal, so far, seem to focus on all “foreign forces”, which seems to imply that it will also cover all non-US, NATO and non-NATO, troops. The New York Times article quoted above, speaks about the withdrawal of “combat troops” which, as it is not a direct quote, might be the interpretation of the paper. But it could also leave open the possibility of non-combat missions, such as the current (but further reduced) US/NATO-led Resolute Support “train, advise and assist” mission, or – as the Brooking’s Vanda Velbab-Brown suggested – a “residual U.S. military force, of say 1,000 soldiers to protect the U.S. embassy, which – wink, wink, with the Taliban’s permission – will have the capacity to conduct limited counterterrorism strikes.” Or just an intelligence presence, as Trump suggested in his 3 February 2019 interview with CBS. There are further questions as to whether the discussed withdrawal would also cover private security contractors and whether the US may seek continued access to Afghan military bases in the context of counterterrorism. 

There are also indications that the US would like to keep the bilateral US-Afghan security agreement (BSA) of 2014 in force after a possible deal (more on the BSA here at AAN, including the full text) after a peace deal. Resistance to a maintained agreement, that regulates the presence and activities of US troops in Afghanistan might not only come from the Taleban. Stanakzai had stated in Moscow: “We will not tolerate a single American soldier in our country,” but he is not the only one who feels that way. Islamists and nationalists in Afghanistan itself, including in parliament, have spoken out against the US presence. Former president Hamed Karzai has also vehemently opposed the agreement and resisted signing the document that was worked out during his tenure. He had left it to his successor, Ashraf Ghani, who also opted not to sign it in person, but passed it on to his then national security advisor (and now challenger in the 2019 elections) Hanif Atmar. 

The US currently has 14,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, divided between the Resolute Support mission (8,500 by December 2018, according to NATO) and the purely US ‘can-be-combat’ counter-terrorism mission Freedom’s Sentinel (see AAN analysis here). Additionally, there are some 8,000 troops from 38 NATO and non-NATO countries, ranging from Germany to Georgia (currently troop providers number two and four), from Great Britain (second largest) to New Zealand, and from Turkey to Mongolia. 

It is likely that many countries will leave if the US does, even if they are not asked to do so. German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, for example, already told national media on 16 January 2019 that, in the case of a full US withdrawal, her country would also pull out its troops. She quoted the NATO principle of “together in, together out.“ Practically speaking, most non-US troop providers would be unable to stay behind anyway, as many of them depend on US logistics and air cover. There is also an ‘Afghanistan fatigue’ in many governments and parliaments, who would welcome a withdrawal. A number of other countries, such as Canada and France, have already fully withdrawn. With Turkey, Azerbaijan and Bosnia, there are some Muslim-majority countries with forces in Afghanistan. But the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the only Arab country ever participating in ISAF with doctors and Special Forces, has pulled out.


The Taleban have reportedly agreed not to allow Afghanistan to be used as an operational basis for terrorist groups again. This mainly refers to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (called Daesh in Afghanistan and the Middle East), with its Afghan-Pakistani franchise, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), but also to an array of other groups active in the region, ranging from Pakistani Lashkar-e Taiba, to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The root of this demand is the fact that Osama Ben Laden’s al-Qaeda had planned, or at least inspired, the terrorist attacks on US territory on 11 September 2001, while living in Afghanistan. The Taleban hosted al-Qaida at that time and had refused to hand over Ben Laden (initially for his role in the October 2000 al-Qaida attack on USS Cole at the Yemeni coast). The Taleban had, however, neither been involved nor, apparently, been told about either of the planned attacks.

Since 2001, the US administration has often framed the war in Afghanistan as a war of ‘national security’, to ensure that the country would never again be used to plan or direct attacks against the US. Therefore, it would be very difficult, both practically and in terms of narrative, to enter into an agreement to withdraw troops without such a commitment.

The Taleban, it seems, will have no problem in agreeing to deny ISKP a safe haven. Despite some common elements in their modus operandiand ideology, as well as, reportedly, some local collusion or non-interference agreements, the Taleban consider the group an unwanted rival that is encroaching upon the arena of their own jihad. Since its appearance in 2015-16, the Taleban have systematically fought ISKP, and vice versa.

The nature of the relationship between Taleban and al-Qaeda is more controversial, and they have so far only distanced themselves from the group indirectly, not mentioning it by name. That the Afghan government, many Western analysts and large parts of the Afghan public, view the links between them as symbiotic and even inextricable seems to be debatable, at least. 

Indeed, before 2001, al-Qaeda contributed financially and with fighters to the Taleban’s struggle. Mullah Omar’s protection of Ben Laden also had to do with a certain personal gratitude for his role in supporting the anti-Soviet mujahedin in the 1980s. (Omar had been a mujahed, too). But already then, al-Qaeda was more dependent on the Taleban than vice versa. In their doctrine, they needed what they called a ‘liberated’ Islamic territory from where to declare a ‘legitimate’ jihad and, in this view, Afghanistan was the only one available. As a result, Ben Laden and later Ayman al-Zawahiri repeatedly swore allegiance to Taleban leaders. The Taleban also were always much stronger militarily than al-Qaeda, and are even more so today. The US never attributed more than a few hundred fighters to al-Qaeda after 2001, which is surely much less than one per cent of the Taleban’s strength. 

Today, the Taleban are also not (that) dependent on al-Qaeda’s financial and military support any more – if they ever were. Their widespread collection of taxes among Afghans (even beyond the immediate area of their control – see, for example, in Ghazni city here) has likely become their main income by now. There are also indications that, after 9/11, the Taleban revaluated al-Qaeda and realised that the attacks cost them their rule of Afghanistan. (5) With that and their control of large parts of Afghanistan, as well as their re-evaluation of al-Qaeda’s role, they will be able to curb their activity. That they have not distanced themselves from the group by name is likely caused by their fear to anger private Taleban sponsors in Gulf countries and elsewhere. Losing them might be outweighed by far by regaining power through a peace deal.

Finally, the Taleban and al-Qaeda are strategically far apart. In contrast to al-Qaeda’s internationalist-jihadist aims (shared by IS/ISKP), ie establishing a worldwide caliphate, the Taleban’s agenda remains focussed on Afghanistan. This does not exclude sympathies for internationalist jihadism among some Taleban, but this has, to this day, not found expression in their practical policy. A resurgence of al-Qaeda or a strengthened IS foothold in Afghanistan would interfere in the Taleban’s domestic goals, namely remodelling Afghanistan according to its own ideas of a ‘truly Islamic order’ (AAN analysis here). Activities of globally active, but – in Afghanistan – marginalised terrorist groups from Afghan soil, or reverting to their own highly radical policies would draw unwanted international attention to the country again, instead of letting it diminish after a full troop withdrawal. It rather seems in the Taleban’s interest to cut links with international terrorist groups and to moderate their stance on issues, such as education and women’s rights.

Thus, it is not a huge concession, and actually desirable for the Taleban to distance themselves from al-Qaeda and IS, at least as long as they continue to be one of most powerful factions in the country. In fact, and the Taleban continue to point this out, they have repeatedly stated that they would not allow any activity against any other countries from Afghan territory. In Moscow they said:

… we don’t have an agenda of destructive actions in other countries. In the past 17 years we have proven, in practice, that we have not interfered in any way in other countries. Similarly, we do not allow anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan against other countries, including neighbouring countries.

That they have not yet explicitly mentioned al-Qaeda so far might have to do with some nostalgic connotations to the 1980s and pre-2001 alliance. But it is more likely that the Taleban realise the importance to the US of the assurance, making it a bargaining chip they want to keep.

Issues still open

1. Ceasefire

The US official’s remarks about the ‘package deal’ indicate that there are more issues than just the two on which agreement has been reached ‘in principle’. First, there are the two big issues mentioned earlier: the US demand that the Taleban enter into a “comprehensive” – ie countrywide and longer-term – ceasefire and that they agree to an intra-Afghan dialogue. The US and Afghan governments may need to make substantial concessions to persuade the Taleban to lift this blockade. On the other hand, now that an agreement on troop withdrawal seems to come within reach, it may not be in the Taleban’s interest to be too intransigent on these issues. 

A comprehensive ceasefire would involve a promise by the Taleban (as well as the government and international forces) to stop fighting, while talking to the Afghan government and allowing US troops to leave. Earlier, in the December 2018 negotiations in Abu Dhabi, as Khalilzad told the Afghan news agency Ariana in an interview on 21 December, hediscussed a three-month ceasefirewith the Taleban, which, he might hope, could be extended when negotiations make further progress.

That the Taleban are able to agree to and implement a nation-wide ceasefire was shown over the Id festival in June 2018 (see this AAN report) The three-day truce, during which there was not a single violation, rekindledAfghans’ hopes their country could be at peace again. The Taleban’s behaviour during the Id ceasefire, moreover, seemed to have changed the minds of some observers in the west who, thus far, had still seen the Taleban as an unruly composition of factions without clear command-and-control (as the author recently witnessed during an international workshop in the Canadian capital of Ottawa). 

Of course, the stakes will be much higher, as will be the incentives for spoilers, when faced with a longer ceasefire and a possible end to the entire war. The Taleban are also aware that it will be difficult to motivate their fighters to return to the war if negotiations collapse after a longer lull, as The Economist quoted one of them. But the main issue here is whether and how a ceasefire – if agreed to – should be monitored, by whom, and what kind of sanctions could be realistically applied in case of violations? A monitored ceasefire without consequences if broken will not work. Experience from other conflicts shows that negotiations break down over unkept promises of ceasefires and arguments over who broke it first and most. An unmonitored ceasefire is also difficult to imagine. 

2. Taleban demands of confidence-building measures

While the Americans have now publicly laid their main demands on the table, the Taleban had also presented a list of issues in a kind of position paper that Stanakzai presented at the Moscow conference. This paper included four “Preliminary steps for Peace”, which were further explained as “parts of confidence-building measures” to be taken “before the beginning of the peace talks”. The four preliminary steps, according to the Taleban, were: removal from the sanctions list, release of detainees, formal opening of the Doha office, and an end to the “poisonous propaganda against the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

The lifting of the UN sanctions’ regime against Taleban leaders would ease negotiations, as it would officially give them the freedom of travel (even though this is already de facto the case for those actively participating in the Doha talks and other track II events; see AAN analysis here and here). The release of detainees, according to the Taleban, involves “tens of thousands” of prisoners held in “secret and open prisons”. The Doha office, the third point,had officially opened in June 2012 and was almost immediately closed again after the Afghan government protested its use of the term “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, thus claiming a quasi-government-in-exile status. The office, however, continued to function semi-officially (AAN analysis here). The call to end propaganda against the Emirate specifically mentioned“unfounded accusations” against the Taleban for attacks on civilians and infrastructure, but, interestingly, did not refer to the label “terrorists” regularly used for them by their adversaries.

Neither side has referred to these issues after the six days of Doha talks. However, the subject of detainees (from both sides) did apparently figure in the December 2018 Abu Dhabi talks that were initiated by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, but then broke down. According to media reports (see, for example, here), the Taleban had rejected the US demand to release two lecturers of the American University in Kabul who had been abducted in 2016 and were held by the Taleban-affiliated Haqqani network. (AAN understands the US suggested they be exchanged for Haqqani family member and main fund raiser Anas Haqqani, similarly to the 2014 prisoners swap of US soldier Bowe Bergdahl against five Taleban-related Guantanamo detainees. Anas Haqqani, who had been captured in Afghanistan in 2014, is held in Kabul and has been condemned to death.

3. A new political system?

Stanakzai’s Moscow speech – that had been similar to earlier Taleban statements at several conferences and Track II events (AAN analysis here) – also referred to five so-called “obstacles to peace”. They also could be called the major outcomes of peace talks, in the view of the Taleban.

The six obstacles to peace he mentioned were: 

  • the “occupation” (which would be covered by an agreement to withdraw foreign troops); 
  • the lack of an “independent Islamic system” in Afghanistan; 
  • the “current constitution”, which he said was “copied from the West and has been imposed on Afghanistan’s Muslim society under the shadow of occupation” (a new constitution, he said, would need to be drafted by “Afghan [religious?] scholars and intellectuals”); 
  • the lack of guarantees for the implementation of future peace agreements (plural); he mentioned the United Nations, “major powers”, member-countries of the Islamic Conference and “facilitating countries” as possible guarantors; 
  • the “continuation” of the US’s “war policy” with reference to the additional soldiers deployed, the increased number of airstrikes, military operations and civilian casualties caused by them.

The need for the release of detainees doubled as an “obstacle” in the paper, too (but it is not included in the above list).

While the first point on the list has been addressed in the Doha talks and agreed on ‘in principle’, the second and third points pertain to a crucial – and large – issue, which, obviously, cannot be addressed in negotiations with the US alone. This is, what a future political set-up – including possibly a new constitution – into which both Afghan sides would merge, would look like and how they would get there. 

The Taleban have made it clear that they would not simply ‘join’ or be ‘integrated’ into the current system and lay down their arms, as this would be surrender for them, and that they instead demand “reform”, including a new constitution drafted by “Afghan [religious] scholars and intellectuals.” This demand has been repeatedly raised, the last time in Moscow. At the same time, the Afghan government and large parts of the population are unwilling to surrender the democratic and human rights, including women’s and minorities’ rights, that are enshrined in the current constitution. If such discussions are indeed opened, the challenge will be to negotiate a political and legal system that both satisfies the shared desire for reform, while safeguarding rights and protections and guaranteeing room for genuine pluralism and inclusivity, not least of the genders. 

Several media have speculated (for example, here) that the Doha agreement would also include an interim government of which the Taleban would be part – as a possible transition mechanism to a post-agreement Afghanistan – and that this had already been discussed in Doha. However, Khalilzad categorically denied in Kabul that this was the case (quoted here). On the issue of rights enshrined in the current constitution, he was recently quoted as saying that although the US “is in favor of a democratic system where every Afghan’s rights are respected, where everyone has equal rights and responsibilities under the law … we did not talk about these issues with the Taliban because they are Afghanistan’s internal issues.” This does not sound like a strong commitment and is particularly worrying, as long as the Taleban and the US are the two only parties at the table.

Other related issues that may or may not be discussed in the near future, include the status of the Afghan security forces and current Taleban fighters under a possible joint political set-up, issues of (partial) disarmament and demobilisation and the question of possibly merging both sides into a joint security force. 

4. One agreement or more?

There is also the paramount formal question on how many agreements there will be and between whom. There may be one trilateral agreement – between the US, the Afghan government and the Taleban – or, possibly, a withdrawal and a peace agreement, flanked by what could be called a regional framework, including how the implementation of an agreement’s provisions could be practically monitored – and by whom. There is also the, rather undesirable, option of an agreement negotiated only between the US and the Taleban, with possibly other relevant parties – for instance, the Afghan government, or an array of intra-Afghan dialogue participants – being persuaded or pressured to sign up, with or without substantive input. 

The RAND paper: a blueprint or simply some drafted input? 

For the last few weeks, a draft document by the Rand Corporation has been making the rounds in Kabul. It contains some of the topics that were addressed in Doha, and many more. The document, titled “Agreement on a Comprehensive Settlement of the Conflict in Afghanistan,“ is labelled a “work-in-progress,” and, on most topics, several options are given. Its exact status is unclear, but it appears to be aimed at providing substantive input and possible wording for the negotiations and looks like much more than just a thought experiment. Since Khalilzad worked for this think tank, between 1993 and 2000, it can be assumed it was designed to inform his work, whether on his initiative or not.

Parts of the text have already been discussed by several media, such as Reuters, the New York Times and the Afghan news agencies Pajhwok and ToloNews. The existence of the document, and its level of detail, has served to exacerbate fears among many Afghans that an agreement is now under work over their heads. The New York Times alleged that Laurel Miller, who had acted as the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan until June 2017, had written it. Reuters quoted a tweet from the US embassy in Kabul said Rand’s work was independent of the US government and did not represent US policy.

The text contains far-reaching, detailed, politically controversial suggestions about what a future Afghan system could look like and how the country would get there. Such suggestions include a new political system, either to be determined by the Agreement or in debates by a transitional government or some form of intra-Afghan dialogue; a new constitution; the possibility of an Ulema High Council to review all laws for congruence with Islamic principles; a Joint Military Commission that would merge and/or demobilise former combatants; and reduced powers for the president coupled with a far-reaching devolution of power from the centre, possibly based on supra-provincial regions. 

It further mentions that all “important” parties and factions could be invited to sign “a side agreement … stating that the government representative’s signature on the Agreement is on behalf of all of them.” Although not made explicit, several of the suggestions would probably further formalise the influence of jihadi leaders and provide outsized importance to current opposition figures. They also appear slated to further legalise local militias and put a lid on the non-factional and non-violent political forces that could help overcome Afghanistan’s ethnically based political fissions. Thus, it resembles Khalilzad’s 2001 ‘big tent’ approach at the Emergency Loya Jirga (which turned out to be mainly for ‘jihadi leaders’), an approach that hampered democratisation and significantly contributed to Afghanistan’s current factionalised state of political institutions (more detail here).

The Rand document is weak on human rights, mentioning them as one of the principles on which the constitution is based, listed after Islam and before Afghan traditions and stressing “the rights of all citizens of Afghanistan to equal access to education, employment, and health care.” The latter is now, more or less, the position of the Taleban, as has been reflected in several of their documents. There is further a suggestion to apply the current ‘amnesty law’ “equally to members of the Taliban movement.“ This involves “judicial immunity … in regard to past political and military acts, except for claims of individuals against individuals based upon haq-ul-abd (rights of people) and individual criminal offenses.” An explaining footnote adds “the referenced law … has been controversial because of the breadth of the amnesty it provides.” (6) Most of the human rights-related language is in footnotes, seemingly reflecting the little weight they have been given. “Reconciliation” measures are given a separate chapter, though, “intended to provide some balance with the preceding Article on amnesty.” 

The draft also contains a timeframe of 18 months for a, possibly phased, troop withdrawal, the establishment of the transitional government and the drafting and passing of a new constitution. NATO is suggested to become a fourth signatory to the peace agreement; a “request by the Afghan parties” for future counter-terrorism support is suggested – a possible backdoor for a continued, although reduced US troop presence – and a Joint Implementation Commission of the four signatories is to be established. The Good Offices of the UN Secretary-General are given as one option for the monitoring of the agreement’s implementation. The insurgents feature under their old name, Islamic Movement of the Taleban, not as “Emirate”, which would acknowledge a quasi-governmental status.

Afghan reactions

It can be safely assumed that the Afghan government has seen the paper.President Ghani and sectors of the Afghan public reacted harshly, both to the news of the progress of the Doha talks – which took place without the Afghan government’s participation – and to what they, based on rumours and the Rand paper, believed may have been on the table too. 

Before Khalilzad came to visit him after the latest round of the Doha talks, Ghani publicly said: “Afghans do not accept an interim government – not today, not tomorrow, not in a hundred years.” In October 2018, the Afghan government had already conveyed to the media that it felt “blindsided” by the US talks with the Taleban (media report here).

On 28 January, the day after the meeting with Khalilzad –which had been a marathon session deep into the night, according to diplomats indicating that it had been tough and controversial – President Ghani went public with a high-profile, televised speech, staking out his red lines. According to an AAN transcript, Ghani called listed a number of values that were “indisputable”, including national unity, national sovereignty, territorial integrity, a strong and efficient central government and the fundamental rights of Afghan citizens. He once more urged the Taleban to start talking directly to his government. 

Three days later, on 31 January, he sent another strong signal to both Khalilzad and the Taleban. In a speech before youth representatives in the Loya Jirga tent in Kabul he announced that, if anyone thought he would sign another “Gandamak treaty” (the 1879 Anglo-Afghan treaty through which Afghanistan lost the control over its foreign affairs), they were making a mistake. Thus, it seems that Khalilzad’s briefings have not alleviated Ghani’s fears.

There are indications of widespread fears in the Afghan public that the US-Taleban talks may be a withdrawal-only “exit strategy” for the US, rather than a peace agreement, as a civil society activist said on Twitter. They are concerned they might lead to a draft agreement that is presented as a fait accompli to the Afghan public and which the government will be expected to accept. So far, this has mainly been publicly raised by individuals, not organisations. Kabul journalist and university lecturer Sami Mehdi, for example, said “peace without recognition of human rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression, inclusion of minorities, a democratic system won’t last long.” An op-ed in leading Kabul Hasht-e Sobh daily, written by civil society activist Samia Ramesh calls to defend the constitution and human and women’s rights, although “we only went half of the way.” One of the few organisations that went public so far is media rights watchdog Nai who raised concerns that the freedom of media and expression have been “forgotten” in the US-Taleban talks. AAN also heard from concerns among women and human rights organisations. [Amended 4 Feb 2019, 5pm Kabul time: Meanwhile, the Afghan Women’s Network came out with an appeal to Afghan negotiators, saying “We, women of Afghanistan, are very concerned about this process.” They are calling “on all Afghan men involved in the peace talks to adhere” to six points : “Do not change the political order; do not compromise law and order; bring Afghan women to the table; do not choose peace without human rights; be direct about women’s rights; do not cut off Afghanistan from the international community.” Others came out in support of a negotiated agreement, such as journalist Habib Khan Totakhel, who supported the idea of an interim government and said that only the “elites” would fear this. 

In order to alleviate the fears of Afghans, a State Department spokesperson when asked about Khalilzad’s instructions told Foreign Policy: “Any final agreement must include an intra-Afghan dialogue that includes the Taliban, the Afghan government and other Afghan stakeholders.” Obviously, the nature, timing and actual substance of such a dialogue will be crucial.

The discussion inside Afghanistan on whether to support the current US-Taleban Doha talks, or not, is somewhat muddied by the local political controversies and the wish of the president’s opponents to see him further weakened – including with an eye to the upcoming presidential elections. This is unfortunate at a time when the country needs politicians to take a longer view. 

In his context belongs the participation of a number of political rivals of President Ghani in the next Afghanistan talks in Moscow scheduled to begin on 5 February where also a Taleban delegation will attend. (The Taleban announced that Stanakzai will lead it again.) This time allegedly not organised by the Russian government (although in the same hotel as the November 2018 meeting, see here), the Russian Embassy in Kabul said (quoted here) it is organised by an “Afghan Society of Russia.” A list of 38 politicians “accompanying former president Hamed Karzai” to Moscow has been published, but there are also some additional names reported in various media to be attending. (7) The non-Taleban Afghan participants have presented the meeting in a joint statement as “the first step towards intra-Afghan peace talks.”(full text here; the statement does not give the names of the participants.) Representatives of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council (HPC) or the government have reportedly not been invited. The HPC nevertheless said in a statement on 4 February that it hoped the upcoming Moscow meeting would pave the ground for talks between the government and Taleban. Haji Din Muhammad who led the delegation to the November 2018 conference in Moscow now is on the Karzai delegations’ list.

AAN has also been told by Afghan journalists briefed by Khalilzad that he told them off the records about his dissatisfaction with what he calls President Ghani’s “egoism.” He is allegedly accusing him of supporting peace only under the condition that he would be able to stay in power, as reflected by his insistence to hold presidential elections. He also reportedly told them that the Taleban were still not ready to talk with the Afghan government but with what he called “ethnic groups.“ This points to those now gathering in Moscow and indicates that the US is content with the pressure on Ghani building up from this side.

Atmar more or less directly echoed this statement by saying on 4 February that he will “insist on making intra-Afghan talks inclusive” but called on the government at the same time “to not look at the peace process from a narrow window and respect the role of the political parties and the nation in efforts for peace and in safeguarding the system and national institutions.”

The Taleban, meanwhile, announced in a statement distributed via email on 4 February that, in Moscow, they want “to clarify its Shariah-based and ethical stance to various parties and explain its policy and mechanism about future Afghanistan vis-à-vis end of occupation, enduring peace in homeland and establishment of an intra-Afghan Islamic system of governance.”

Taleban upgrading their negotiations team

On 24 January 2019, the Taleban appointed Mullah Abdul Ghani, better known as Mullah Baradar (“brother”), as the new head of the Doha office. With this new appointment, the Taleban delegation may have greater authority to enter into substantive negotiations on difficult issues. Mullah Baradar replaced Stanakzai, a non-Kandahari without a strong home base in the Taleban movement, who had led the Taleban delegation until the mid-November Afghanistan conference in Moscow (media report here) but was said to be on the way out for the last several months.

Baradar is of another calibre. He was deputy to Taleban founder Mullah Muhammad Omar from the beginning of the movement in the mid-1990s. In 2010, he was arrested by the Pakistani intelligence, in response to his involvement in possible talks with the then Karzai government, which had not been authorised by the ISI (see my AAN analysis here). He was released in late 2018, under US pressure (AAN analysis here). His closeness to Omar – who has always been, and still is, beyond criticism within the Taleban movement – is a strong asset: it likely gives him full authority to negotiate, as well as the weight to function as a guarantor if a future agreement does not cover all Taleban demands. Mullah Omar’s son, Yaqub, who is currently one of the two Taleban deputy leaders, may also be susceptible to Baradar’s opinion. 

Baradar has not yet participated in the latest Doha round, and has not yet arrived in Doha from Karachi, but is expected to do so when the negotiations recommence on 25 February

Conclusion: Some contours, additional tracks 

The priorities set in the US-Taleban negotiations in Doha are determined by the fact that there is a president in Washington whose policies are based on the slogan “America First” and that the US seem mainly interested in their own security and in cutting their losses in Afghanistan. The fact that the two sides are talking about issues of substance is, undeniably, progress in itself. Limiting the talks to two parties has allowed them to make more progress than had so far been the case. However, progress achieved so far must be seen in the context of US not necessarily Afghan interests. 

With the various recent statements to the press, the first contours of a possible agreement – or agreements – with the Taleban have begun to emerge from the political fog (a fog to which the RAND paper cited above might still belong). The US side, driven by its president’s impatience and volatile decision-making, has dropped a major red line: no talks with the Taleban before Kabul is involved, ie the insistence on an “Afghan-led” peace process that had been almost dogma over a long time. This could still be interpreted as an attempt to break the current government-Taleban impasse and to bring in the Afghan government as well. 

The ball would then be in the court of the Taleban, and it should be their turn to make concessions. As said above, there is room to manoeuvre on their side. Also they have brought more heavyweights on their negotiating team which makes it easier for them to come to binding decisions. 

At the same time, the fact that the US have started spreading the message that they are dissatisfied with President Ghani, putting pressure on him, together with the new Moscow talks, are bolstering their position. They have said for a long time that they would talk to “other Afghans.” This they can do now at the upcoming Moscow talks, with the help of Afghan opposition politicians and factions but also some who until recently were part of the government. As in Doha, the government remains excluded there.

The exclusion of the Afghan government is highly problematic. Although its legitimacy has suffered as a result of its tumultuous elections, its institutional weaknesses and its dependence on external resources, it cannot simply be ignored. A US-Taleban solo ride in the form of a crudely negotiated, narrow cut-and-withdraw deal might give it the moral upper hand domestically, as it has started to mobilise popular discontent over a looming imposed deal.

All this may well result in an agreement that is more about US interests and less about Afghanistan itself. It is also clear from the nature of the ‘agreement’ – a draft framework identifying two topics that still need to be “fleshed out” – that this was only a first step on a very long way still to go even if there is buy-in from certain Afghan factions. In the end, also buy-in of the larger population and organised parts of the Afghan public is necessary. Therefore, a sell-out of or simple lip service to currently (if often only theoretically) guaranteed rights needs to be prevented. It remains to be seen which of the Afghan political forces will pick this up most convincingly – or would be ready to sacrifice them for remaining in power.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert

(1) That negotiation rounds were held in Abu Dhabi and Doha is a reflexion of regional tensions – with Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one side, and Qatar on the other one. The Abu Dhabi talks (where also Pakistani representatives took part, bringing the number up to five participating countries) were a failed effort by the UAE and Pakistan to lure the diplomatically prestigious ‘Taleban talks’ away from Qatar. It is interesting that the Taleban managed to get the talks back to Qatar (where, according to AAN information, only the US and Taleban spoke with each other) and that the US went along with this, against their Saudi and Emirati allies’ wish – another possible sign how much time pressure the envoy Khalilzad is under. The Taleban had also rejected the option of moving the negotiations to Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. 

(2) Stanakzai was apparently not involved in the latest round of talks in Doha; this AP report by Kathy Gannon does not list him among the participants. Instead, two of the five Taleban released in the prisoner swap – their former ministers Muhammad Fazl and Khairullah Khairkhwa – reportedly acted as negotiation team leaders. Stanakzai doesn’t seem to have departed in anger, as a number of post-negotiations interviews show, see, for instance, here and here. In an interview with the Afghan news agency Ariana he even praised Baradar’s negotiation skills.

(3) The government of Afghanistan – both under Karzai and Ghani – has tried to pay back in kind, by repeatedly intervening with other governments and the UN when they wanted to organise “intra-Afghan” dialogues involving the Taleban. The resulting ‘blockade’ was, interestingly, broken by the Moscow conference.

(4) The Moscow Conference on Afghanistan (also known as Moscow format consultations) in mid-November was organised by the Russian foreign ministry. The Washington Post wrote that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “played the roles of mediator and experienced hand in Afghanistan’s conflicts.” A delegation of the Taleban attended which got plenty of media coverage.

Originally scheduled for 4 September 2018 (media report here), the Afghan government had misgivings about this meeting and reportedly  insisted it must be in the lead because, in its view, the meeting would boost the international standing of the Taleban. It decided to not officially participate. The US initially concurred. This indeed led to the postponement of the meeting. Finally, a delegation of the High Peace Council participated from Afghanistan; the council is formally independent, but acts based on guidance from the Afghan government sent a delegation. (It had, with its deputy chair, Habiba Sarobi, the only woman at the conference table.) Also, the US finally sent Moscow-based diplomats, as “observers”, not participants (as did India). There were also diplomats from China, Pakistan and the five Central Asian republics present (see the list here).

However, Kabul’s ambassador to Russia, Abdul Qayum Kochi, an uncle of the president, was also seen in during the conference (see here).

(5) In this 2012 article, Michael Semple – a long-term Afghanistan and Taleban observer, including as political officer with the UN and the EU – quoted a high-ranking Taleb:

At least 70 per cent of the Taliban are angry at al-Qaeda. Our people consider al-Qaeda to be a plague that was sent down to us by the heavens. Some even concluded that al-Qaeda are actually the spies of America. Originally, the Taliban were naive and ignorant of politics and welcomed al-Qaeda into their homes. But al-Qaeda abused our hospitality. It was in Guantanamo that I realised how disloyal the al-Qaeda people were… To tell the truth, I was relieved at the death of Osama. Through his policies, he destroyed Afghanistan. If he really believed in jihad he should have gone to Saudi Arabia and done jihad there, rather than wrecking our country.

It should also not be forgotten that not the Taleban invited Ben Laden to Afghanistan. He came there under the mujahedin regime, before the Taleban took power. He was hosted near Jalalabad by one of their factions after he was expelled from Sudan in 1996 and fell under Taleban rule when they took over eastern Afghanistan soon after.

(6) The amnesty law already has a provision that it can be extended for insurgents.

(7) A published list of 38 politicians accompanying Karzai (who is the main proponent of an interim government) includes Ghani’s presidential elections rival Zalmay Rassul; former ministers like Ismail Khan (also a leader of Jamiat-e Islami), Omar Zakhilwal, Yusuf Pashtun, Rangin Dadfar Spanta and Karim Khorram; several former Taleban (Salam Zaif, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkel, Hakim Mujahed, Mawlawi Qalamuddin and Wahid Muzhda, also an analyst) and Hezb-e Islami members (Hekmatyar’s former deputy Qutbuddin Helal); former head of the Independent Electoral Commission Daud Najafi; and two women parliamentarians, Raihana Azad (current) and Fauzia Kufi (former). Presidential candidate Hanif Atmar and former Balkh governor and Jamiat Chief Executive Atta Muhammad Nur (see here and here). According to the latter media report, Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; Muhammad Mohaqeq who had just been sacked by Ghani as deputy Chief Executive; Ismaili leader Sayed Mansur Naderi; Kabul think tank head Hekmat Karzai; and former communist defence minister Shahnawaz Tanai who had unsuccessfully launched a military coup against then president Najibullah in 1990 in cooperation with Hekmatyar have also been invited. Mohaqeq said he or his deputy would attend; Hezb-e Islami also confirmed they would send a delegation, possibly led by Hekmatyar’ son Habib ur-Rahman, as well did Mahaz led by Pir Hamed Gailani and Jabha-ye Nejat led by Sebghatullah Mojaddedi. The Jombesh party, led by Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, announced on 5 February, that their deputy leader Mawlawi Abdullah Qarluq will attend the Moscow meeting.


al-Qaeda Doha framework interim government intra-Afghan dialogue peace talks Taleban US withdrawal Zalmay Khalilzad