Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Still Ifs and Whens: The US and the Taleban inch toward a bilateral agreement

Thomas Ruttig 12 min

There have been increasing indications over the past few days that the United States and the Taleban are edging toward an agreement – or possibly two. While a declaration of a mutual ‘reduction of violence’ seems imminent, a bilateral US-Taleban agreement opening the way to peace negotiations between the Afghan parties to the conflict appears possibly still weeks away. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig looks at the contours of the deal that appears to be emerging, puts it into context and points out questions still open.

Afghans have long been tired by the four decades-long war. This is reflected by the peace marchers' movement, here in Ghazni city in 2018. Photo: AAN archive.

Progress reported on US-Taleban agreements

Leading US media outlets almost simultaneously reported on 11 February 2020 (US time)/12 February (Afghan time) that “the Trump administration was seeking to announce a deal to deescalate violence with the Afghan Taliban” (CNN) and that President Donald Trump had “conditionally approved a peace deal” (The New York Times). These two outlets said their sources were “two US defense officials familiar with the discussions,” a “State Department spokesperson” (CNN) and “senior” “Afghan and American” and “Taliban officials” (NYT). CNN also quoted Gen John Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who, in CNN’s words had “stressed that US moves in the country would be conditions based.” Most significantly, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was reported by the New York Times as having called Afghanistan’s leaders of the National Unity Government in separate phone calls on 11 February to inform them that “Mr. Trump had given tentative approval to this approach.”

The New York Times report seemed to refer to two possible agreements, one, a temporary reduction of violence, and a second on the withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan in exchange for Taleban anti-terrorism guarantees. (1) The latter had been close to being signed in September 2019, but was vetoed by Trump at the last moment, referring to a Taleban attack in Kabul that killed a member of the US military. US Envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, started to negotiate with the Taleban again last November (see AAN analysis here).

According to the New York Times, the deal would “only be signed if the Taliban prove their commitment to a durable reduction of violence over a test period of about seven days later this month.” (Other media speak about a ten day period: see, for example, here). It can be assumed that the US would also reduce, or stop its attack operations against the Taleban over the same period of time.

The reports also show that the US – which went into the last rounds of the Doha negotiations with the demand of a one month-long ceasefire – has given in again to the Taleban. There will be criticism of this, as before, in the US Congress, or from other elements in the US administration. The New York Times quoted Trump ally, Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky, as saying “We’re dominated by people who want […] never-ending intervention.” It was unclear to whom he referred, but there have been consistent voices warning that a too hasty withdrawal might jeopardise what had been achieved since 2001 (see for example here or here).

This first agreement, it seems, would probably not be in the form of a written, signed document. CNN quoted its sources speaking rather of a “reduction in violence announcement” (emphasis added). This would be made “as soon as this week” (in CNN’s words). It also quoted a State Department spokesperson as saying that “US talks with the Taliban in Doha continue around the specifics of a reduction in violence.” The New York Times quoted a “senior diplomat in Washington” describing the US-Taleban agreement “as 95 percent agreed to in principle, but that the possibility of a final agreement will become clearer in a matter of couple weeks.” President Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, was also reported as saying on 11 February that he was cautiously optimistic there could be a US-Taleban agreement “over the next days or weeks,” but that a withdrawal of US forces was not “imminent.”

One of the points still open might be the Taleban’s demand, as reported by a Pakistani newspaper, that the US gives a “definite [end] date of withdrawal from Afghanistan.” This, however, would go against US assurances to the Afghan public that a withdrawal would be “conditions based”, ie dependent on whether the intra-Afghan negotiations make progress. This was reiterated several times by Khalilzad, for example in an interview aired by Afghan Tolonews in April 2019. There he stated that “it is not true that the withdrawal of the foreign forces from Afghanistan will happen ahead of a peace deal” and said “Washington wants to end this mission responsibly.”

However, he had also insisted that all elements of a deal with the Taleban – US troop withdrawal, Taleban guarantees on terrorism and intra-Afghan talks and a ceasefire ­– had to be agreed at the same time; he later agreed to allow the last two elements to be held back for a phase 2 of talks.

Also, there have been no official comments by US officials on what a ‘reduction of violence’ actually would entail. Another Pakistani newspaper, quoting an un-named Taleban official, reported that the movement had agreed not to carry out attacks in major cities including Kabul and would not use car bombs and that the Taleban had also offered not to attack US bases and US soldiers, and that they wanted the US to cease air strikes in return. The newspaper said it had learnt “that Khalilzad had urged” the Taleban to agree to more measures, including a halt to IED attacks, but that they did not agree “as they have planted IEDs in many areas and it is difficult for them to remove all [of them].” Furthermore, the paper reported, the US also wanted a pause in Taleban attacks on Afghan government forces’ check posts, “which was also a concern of the Afghan government.”

According to the New York Times, after the ‘test’ period of violence reduction, the wider agreement would be signed and “the United States would begin a gradual withdrawal of American troops, and direct negotiations would start between the Taliban and Afghan leaders over the future of their country.” This refers to intra-Afghan negotiations, although the make-up of the ‘Kabul side’ is still unclear. Up till now the Taleban have managed to insist that they not talk to the government or even government officials except in their ‘private capacity’. It seems that the Ghani government might still only feature as one party among many under the label of an “inclusive and effective national team.” (In Kabul, it is often referred to as the  ‘Islamic Republic of Afghanistan team’, referring to the consensus among virtually all political groups inside the country to stick to the republican system, and to reject the return of an emirate.) That team would also include representatives of the camp of the government’s Chief Executive (and now Ghani’s main challenger in the still inconclusive September 2019 presidential election) Abdullah and other political heavyweights and, hopefully, members who would speak on behalf of civil society. Such a team would reflect the diversity of influential political forces in the country. However, given the fractious nature of Kabul politics, for the different players to come together as a strong negotiating team would be ambitious.

In summary, the contours of the sequence of the possible agreement(s) appear to be:

  • Possibly a joint statement, or a separate document, that both sides have agreed on a seven days or so ‘reduction of violence’
  • The seven days or so ‘reduction of violence’ itself, with both sides watching each other to see if it holds, and whether there is sufficient proof to all observers, including the Afghan government and public that it did indeed happen
  • The signing of the bilateral agreement, including a US (and NATO) withdrawal plan (notably Khalilzad travelled to Brussels in late January to brief partners there), possibly with concrete provisions as to when and over what time period the first batch of US troops would leave the country – setting a date by which, at the latest, the intra-Afghan peace negotiations could begin, likely within ten days (according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, both Norway and Germany have offered to “facilitate intra-Afghan dialogue (2)
  • A statement by the Afghan government and probably NATO, also, supporting the agreement and expressing readiness to start intra-Afghan negotiations, possibly also by some regional and/or other governments as guarantors

Also not clear is whether there will be conditions for a full withdrawal of US troops. Will they still all leave if the violence gets much worse or if the Taleban takes territory, while the peace talks are ongoing? Will the US continue to support Afghan forces as talks continue, which would include air strikes and intelligence for and direct participation in night raids?

Heightened Taleban pressure and a terrorist attack

Over the past few weeks, the Taleban had increased pressure on the US to sign the bilateral agreement. Starting in late January, they accused the US side in the Doha talks as putting up additional demands and thereby creating “hurdles in the process” (quoted here). On 4 February, the Taleban warned the US not to “shift the blame” to them for the stalling talks in Doha, and said the “peace process” had been “bedevilled” by Trump’s tweets (quoted here) that had stopped the signing of an agreement in September 2019. On the same day, 4 February, Pompeo, on a visit to Uzbekistan, had stated that the US was “demanding now… demonstrable evidence of [the Taleban’s] will and capacity to reduce violence, to take down the threat, so the inter-Afghan talks… will have a less violent context.” He asserted that the Taleban had been to blame for the agreement not being signed in September 2019: “We got close once before to having an agreement… and the Taliban were unable to demonstrate either their will or capacity or both to deliver on a reduction in violence.”

A week later, on 10 February, the Daily Telegraph quoted Taleban sources that there was “growing frustration” in their ranks at the “slow progress” in the Doha talks and that “hardline” Taleban military leaders who had “always been sceptical of talks” had started putting pressure on Taleban chief negotiator Mullah Baradar to not “waste time on talks without an objective and results” and “to pull out of the discussions.” According to this report, the Taleban had even set a deadline of 48 hours for US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad to return with a response. The Pakistani Daily Times also reported a Taleban ultimatum. On 12 February, it quoted Taleban officials as saying their delegation in Doha had told Khalilzad they could pause the talks if the US side did not sign the bilateral agreement. According to this report, Baradar had asked for a “formal response” to the Taleban offer of a seven-day reduction of violence; “otherwise they could halt the negotiations.” Those statements could also have been signals from those in the Taleban who want a deal to show that time was running out for them.

Qatari foreign minister Muhammed bin Abdul Rahman Al-Thani was reportedly brought in to break the impasse (media report here; confirmed by the Taleban, see this tweet, in Pashto, by their spokesman in Doha). Before, Khalilzad had apparently attempted to muster Pakistani support “to facilitate a political settlement to end the war in Afghanistan” (see press statement here), ie hoping Islamabad would put pressure on the Taleban to be more flexible.

The suicide attack on 11 February against the National Defence University in Kabul that claimed the lives of at least six people in Kabul – four cadets, a lecturer and at least one bystander – could have been part of Taleban attempts to put pressure on the US. The Ministry of Interior has accused the Taleban – based on “Initial information” – of having been behind the attack. (There has been no official claim or denial by any group, including the Taleban, of the attack.) It is clear that not everyone in the Taleban movement is happy about talking to the enemy, but it is difficult to believe that a ‘war camp’ would authorise such an attack in a bid to sabotage talks, as it would jeopardise the movement’s unity at a crucial bend on its way to a return to power, which seems to be its major aim.

There might be other spoilers, however. It is conceivable, for example, that the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) wants to smear its opponent, the Taleban. The group has recently suffered severe losses as a result of simultaneous ANSF and Taleban offensives in Nangrahar province (AAN report forthcoming), but it had not claimed any attack since November; (3) it is not clear whether its strike capabilities have been diminished or that just its communication channels been cut so that it was unable to claim attacks. There also might be spoiler elements in Pakistan itself who have access to and influence on elements among the Taleban and other terrorist groups. Security experts in Kabul told AAN it would be possible to organise such an attack within a week or ten days – approximately the time since signals of progress have been coming out of Doha (see this media report about Khalilzad briefing the Afghan leadership in early February in Kabul).

Afghan reactions to news of a possible US-Taleban deal

Both Ghani and Abdullah confirmed the phone call from Pompeo. Ghani said the Secretary of State had updated him on “notable progress” and had assured him that the reduction of violence would be significant and enduring.” This is in contradiction to newspaper reporting suggesting it would be for a week only. Ghani said he was “pleased that our principal position on peace thus far has begun to yield fruitful results” and that his government’s “primary objective” was to “end the senseless bloodshed.” As Ghani did not refer to his – and the US’s – initial demand for a comprehensive, one month-long ceasefire, this seems to indicate that he has given up his resistance to what he and large parts of the Afghan public have seen as a too vaguely defined ‘reduction of violence’.

Abdullah had already made it clear that he supports the ‘reduction of violence’ formula. He has even criticised Ghani for putting the stakes too high by insisting on a ceasefire and has also spoken against any preconditions for talks with the Taleban (see media report here).

Another question is how the probable deal would relate to and influence the Afghan presidential election saga, dragging on now since 28 September 2019 and recently culminating in a stand-off between the Independent Election Commission and the Election Complaints Commission about controversial votes yet to be ruled on which (see AAN analysis and media reporting here) could tip the result toward or away from a second round. President Ghani could be tempted to pressure the commissions to quickly announce a final result that would give him more than 50 per cent of the vote, making him the outright winner without a run-off and feel he could more or less unilaterally appoint the team for the intra-Afghan negotiations. If the margin of the result – as can be expected – is narrow, other political heavyweights might use the need for putting such a team together for renewing their demands for a national unity government.

Open questions

Up till now, signals that an agreement was imminent had been coming only from the Taleban side. Now, they are also coming from the US, reflecting the fact that both sides – for different reasons – are highly interested in concluding their bilateral deal. Trump might be wanting to use the signing, and the start of the withdrawal for his re-election campaign, signalling that he is making good on a central promise to end what he calls “the endless wars.” (4) For the Taleban, meanwhile, an agreement would pave the way to getting their strongest enemy off the Afghan battlefield while leaving decisions about Afghanistan’s future to them and other Afghans. Significantly, it would still leave the Taleban with different options, to pursue a political settlement through talks and a genuine peace agreement, or to continue to pursue power by military means – particularly as their agreement with the US would leave them in a strong position with significant territorial and population control (see a map here).

The details of the envisaged deal remain “tightly guarded” as the New York Times put it. This does not only include the timeline of any troop withdrawal and how much of the agreement had changed since September, but what exactly ‘reduction of violence’ would look like. Would it be limited to certain areas, for example, only where US forces are present and/or to the cessation of using certain forms of violence? Would the ANSF also be covered (possibly tacitly)? Would there be more Taleban prisoners released by the Afghan government? (The issue is a long-standing Taleban priority (see here); there were frequent complaints  of Taleban prisoners in Afghan jails  about the conditions they are held under, and the subject featured in a recent meeting of the Afghan State Minister for Peace, Abdul Rahim Salimi, and US Deputy Chief of Mission in Kabul, Karen Decker.) And would the reduction of violence continue as US troops start to withdraw, and under the same or new conditions? How would the US (and the Afghan government) react, if the Taleban were still attacking government forces and government-held areas after intra-Afghan negotiations had started?

Moreover, is a seven days lull in violence in winter sufficient to show the Taleban’s commitment to a peace process? And what is the baseline to consider whether there has been a reduction in attacks – a similar period in January 2020 or last year, or an average of such periods over the post-ISAF years, since 2014? There is data available that would make it possible to measure this even over such a short span of time – but the sides also need to be willing to use them.

Will there be Afghan government assurances on Pakistani concerns, as a possible guarantor of the US-Taleban agreement, that it will be more proactive against the Pakistani Taleban using areas on the Afghan side of the border as “save havens” (see this EU report) – a fact the Pakistani government used to interpret as the Afghan government ‘sheltering’ them (see for example here)? This point was raised in a recent op-ed in a Pakistani newspaper, saying “the emergence of the Taliban as the dominant player in Afghanistan … could reinvigorate the TTP” as a security threat for the country.

Finally, even if the US-Taleban deal is signed, it would not be a ‘peace deal’ yet (despite the New York Times’ use of this term). An end of the war in Afghanistan can only be concluded between the Afghan parties to it, and this will be a long, winding and stony road. As the recent Kabul attack appeared to indicate, there are spoilers around who want to derail the deal. Also, the reduction of violence deal does not yet appear to have been finalised. As often the most difficult details are left to the last minute, still hurdles might come up that could delay or even break this ‘imminent’ agreement.

Next diplomatic steps

While US-Taleban talks in Doha are continuing, reportedly over a date when the ‘reduction of violence’ should commence, according to observers reporting on Twitter (see here and here), key actors on the Afghan and international side are travelling to Europe and will meet in the margins of the annual Munich Security Conference. This includes Ghani, Pompeo and Khalilzad. On 24-25 February, Trump will be in the region, for an official visit to India. This could be early enough for any possible signing ceremony of the US-Taleban deal which, at least in September, had been scheduled – before Trump wanted to move it to Camp David – to take place in Doha.

Edited by Kate Clark

(1) There were indications earlier that the reduction of violence might need to be covered by a separate agreement (see media report here).

(2) Afghan ‘dialogue’ here seems to refer to both the intra-Afghan peace negotiations (which, in September, had been scheduled to be hosted by Norway) and the continuation of the intra-Afghan dialogue jointly organised by Qatar and Germany (see AAN reporting here).

(3) According to one report, it was back on for the first time again with a message on 12 February.

(4) See for example Secretary of State Pompeo in a 20 August 2019 TV interview where he said:

Our desire is to create conditions on the ground where we can achieve what President Trump laid out, which is to reduce what is 30, 35 billion dollars a year in taxpayer money and the loss of American lives…


Doha intra-Afghan negotiations peace talks reduction of violence Taleban Zalmay Khalilzad