Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

US-Taleban talks: An imminent agreement without peace?

Thomas Ruttig Martine van Bijlert 21 min

News coming out of the latest round of US-Taleban negotiations suggest that an agreement is imminent, but that in the desire to meet the White House’s 1 September 2019 deadline, the US have made concessions that may well complicate an actual peace agreement in Afghanistan. It appears that the US have dropped the “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” principle and have relegated two of the four original topics of the negotiations to future “intra-Afghan negotiations” including the all-important ceasefire. The on-going dilemma of what should come first – peace negotiations or presidential election – continues to complicate matters. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig and Martine van Bijlert lay out what can be gleaned so far from the fog of leaks, rumours and conflicting statements.

There are indications that US-Taleban negotiations in Qatar’s capital Doha have been finalised and a bilateral agreement will be announced soon. In this ninth round of the Doha US-Taleban, which started last week and went into its fifth day on Wednesday (28 August 2019), involved heavy wrangling to solve what Washington’s special peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, had called “remaining issues” to be “closed.” In January 2019, both sides had reached a “framework” agreement about the withdrawal and the anti-terrorism guarantees, and stated that only details needed to be hammered out. This took seven more months.

According to several media reports (here a summary of AFP, AP and Reuters reporting), the agreement has been finalised and is now going through a last round of language checking. (When Afghan politicians, Taleban and civil society activists met in July 2019 for an intra-Afghan dialogue, there had been inconsistencies in the different versions of the final declaration, see here). The document is expected to come out in English and the two official Afghan languages, Pashto and Farsi/Dari. Taleban spokesman Suhail Shahin said on 28 August that “We hope to have good news soon for our Muslim, independence seeking nation.”

Khalilzad is expected to travel to Kabul, and then to Islamabad, to familiarise the Afghan and Pakistani governments with the latest version of the agreement. The Afghan government has not been party to the Doha talks, as the Taleban refuse to hold direct negotiations with the government of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr Abdullah and rejected the US plan to bring it into the on-going talks. According to a Taleban source quoted by AFP (see media summary linked above), all members of their Leadership Council (Rahbari Shura, also known as ‘Quetta Shura’) “have received the draft and they are reading it carefully [while] no go-ahead signal has been given to the Taliban negotiating team” in Doha yet. He said their response may “take a day or two.”

There are indications that, if all goes as planned, there will be two ceremonies to mark the conclusion of the agreement and to present it: one in Doha or Oslo and one in Kabul, possibly as early as the coming weekend of 31 August/1 September (see here).

This would mean that the 1 September 2019 date set by the White House could still be met. The date – set as former US negotiation team member Barnett Rubin put it, in a “rush to make Afghanistan’s peace process conform to the U.S. electoral calendar”– was most recently communicated by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Contours of an agreement

So far, only contours of the agreement have emerged. The talks have been accompanied by a whirling rumour mill, particularly since US diplomats started to indicate during the eighth round of talks in the first half of August that the agreement was nearing finalisation. Expectations of an imminent deal have recently been raised twice before: once in the run-up to Eid al-Azha (11-13 August) and once before Afghanistan’s independence centenary a week later. TV teams, which had already travelled to Doha before Eid al-Azha, found that they had travelled for nothing. The expectations may have been raised in an attempt to put additional pressure on the Taleban, although they seem to be unfased by such considerations.

The nature of the talks, which were held behind closed doors, meant that there is still very little solid information. Both sides have agreed on confidentiality, and have largely stuck to this agreement. Much of what has been officially stated came as scattered snippets on social media, in particular Twitter (the favoured means of communication for both the US president and his Afghan envoy). Details that are leaked often muddy the water rather than provide clarity and sometimes seem geared to either mislead or paint an overly positive picture of the talks and their progress. More confusion is created by media chasing and quoting sources “close to the negotiators” or anonymous Taleban sources, who may or may not be informed about the talks.

The picture is further complicated by the likelihood that – despite denials – talks have included subjects that both sides do not want to publicly admit to (for instance the issue of an interim government which would include the Taleban, reports which both sides have denied, see here and here).

A further key feature in these negotiations was that the Afghan-born US envoy has not kept allies, the Afghan government or the Afghan public fully abreast of the proceedings (despite assurances over the last decade that peace talks would be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led”). This is partly due to the sensitive nature of such negotiations and partly due to the immense time pressure Khalilzad had been put under by his president. President Trump’s desire to end an involvement he considers too expensive and his impatience to withdraw US troops was echoed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a 20 August 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…

It now appears that this pressure, to swiftly come up with something to show for, has pushed Khalilzad to shepherd in a deal that does not meet the criteria he set out in the beginning.

A “four topic package” becomes ‘everything – minus two’

Khalilzad’s stated position at the beginning of the negotiations was that there were four topics to discuss and that these topics were tied into a package. The principle was reflected in the phrase “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” (earlier AAN analysis here).

The four topics were:

  • withdrawal of the US (and other foreign) troops;
  • anti-terrorism guarantees by the Taleban;
  • inclusion of the Afghan government in the negotiations; and
  • permanent, Afghanistan-wide ceasefire.

The first two topics would be a quid pro quo: US withdrawal in exchange for Taleban guarantees that it would not allow groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) – including its Afghan franchise, the ISKP – to operate from Afghan soil against other countries (and implicitly in Afghanistan). While Khalilzad has indicated that he is satisfied with the Taleban’s guarantees (on which no details are available yet) and is discussing ways for the US to verify them, there are serious doubts that the Taleban would be in a position to deliver on them, as well as to the viability of close monitoring (see here and also this New York Times op-ed).

With regard to the withdrawal, it has always been clear that this was as much a wish on the side of the US, as on the Taleban’s. (In late 2018, it even appeared that the US President had to be persuaded not to announce a unilateral troop cut in Afghanistan, see here.) It is however on the details that they differ. The Taleban insist that the withdrawal must be complete and that the agreement must include a timeline – which indicates that it will probably be phased. They have apparently also asked for some form of international third party guarantees and/or monitoring. AAN heard from sources in contact with the Taleban team that this may involve a combination of technical and on-the-ground monitoring from Afghan, Pakistani and Central Asian territory. Within the US however discussions are on-going as to whether, and in what shape, to leave behind a ‘residual force.’

The Taleban have never publicly subscribed to Khalilzad’s principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” Over the months following the January ‘framework agreement’ – a term that sounded more and more euphemistic – they consistently refused to make any concession on the remaining two issues that the US wanted as part of the agreement: direct talks with the Afghan government (before signing an agreement with the US), and ceasefire. Khalilzad intended to discuss a “comprehensive”, ie countrywide, and “permanent” ceasefire, including the armed parties to the conflict – ie both US and Afghan government troops and the Taleban (but not ISKP which is not involved in the negotiations). The Taleban however has insisted that after this agreement there will be a ceasefire only with the US troops. (1) Reuters quoted a “diplomat who has monitored the Qatar talks” as saying, “The U.S.-Taliban agreement will stop U.S. from conducting air strikes on the Taliban, and the Taliban will stop insider attacks on the U.S. and other foreign soldiers. … A ceasefire between the Afghan forces and the Taliban requires a separate agreement and deliberations are yet to begin.”

It thus seems that practically, Khalilzad has bowed to the Taleban blockade and has relegated two of the original four topics – Afghan government participation and ceasefire – to a second set of negotiations: the “intra-Afghan negotiations.” It also seems he has agreed on US, not Afghan priorities.

The idea of intra-Afghan negotiations builds on the intra-Afghan dialogue, which was jointly organised by Germany (2) and Qatar in Doha in July 2019 and – without Afghan government representatives – in two rounds in Moscow in February and May 2019. Khalilzad has also suggested, in response to the Taleban’s refusal to talk to Kabul, that these negotiations should not be carried out by a team of the Afghan government alone, but by an “inclusive and effective national team” (quoted here). This team would comprise of government, opposition and civil society, including women’s representatives, as in the Moscow and Doha ‘dialogues.’

Such a construction, on one hand, realistically reflects the fragmentation and notorious disunity among Afghanistan’s political forces (even within the government), and the fact that the post-2014 National Unity Government never managed to create a genuine national consensus about the contents and direction of peace negotiations with the Taleban (see AAN analysis here and here). A negotiating team only made up of government representatives would not be able to credibly speak for all of Afghanistan’s political and social forces.

Relegating a final peace deal back to the Afghan ‘factions’ also formally restores the West’s previous mantra that peace talks with the Taleban must be “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.” But if such intra-Afghan talks happen while the troop withdrawal (or a substantial part of it) is already taking place, this obviously deprives the Afghan government of guarantees that it is protected during these complicated negotiations and leaves them with little to bargain with.

Such a two-negotiation or two-deal construction also puts a large question mark behind the credibility of Khalilzad’s reassurances about the US intentions with the upcoming agreement, despite his tweet on 19 August that “We [the US] are not cutting and running. We are not looking for a withdrawal agreement. We’re looking for a peace agreement.” (see here)

A government in the margins agrees to a 15-member team

The shift in Khalilzad’s approach further undermines the position of the Afghan government, which in the original idea of the four-topic package deal would have come into the Doha talks as a full third party.

The position of the government had already become precarious due to internal political wrangling and mounting controversy with the US over the place of the presidential elections, scheduled for 28 September, in the current process of talks. Starting in late 2018, Khalilzad repeatedly said the election could stand in the way of peace, since a peace deal would require changes in the political system (this based on the idea that the Taleban would view joining the existing political system as an unacceptable form of ‘surrender.’) Ghani, in response, offered the Taleban ‘reform’ of the system, in his speech at the February 2018 Kabul Process meeting (AAN analysis here). When Ghani insisted on still holding the elections, Khalilzad called the government the ‘biggest obstacle‘ to peace.

The idea of intra-Afghan negotiations through an ‘inclusive team’ has watered down the government’s status to that of just one among the Afghan ‘factions’. The Afghan government has, however, agreed – albeit reluctantly – as it realised it might otherwise be confronted with a done deal. The government has now agreed to – in coordination with other domestic players – nominate a 15-member team to participate in the planned intra-Afghan negotiations. The government insists it has finalised the list of the team members, but has not released the names. In the meantime, the government has tried to keep its leverage by insisting that negotiations could begin soon after the US and the Taleban sign their agreement.

According to various sources, Khalilzad has submitted the 15-member list (or earlier versions of it) to the Taleban, which seems to suggest they have been given a veto over its composition (see also Taleban spokesman, and member of the Doha negotiations team, Sohail Shahin quoted on 21 August as raising “questions regarding the inclusiveness of the team” and its authorities to take a final decision, and more directly in pro-Taleban media here).

The government has also tried to make sure it has a say on the contents of the US-Taleban agreement. In mid-August, a “top Afghan security official, who … did not wish to be named,” indicated that Kabul was seeking guarantees from Washington and that the agreement, once announced, would “redirect all talks to [the] Afghan government.” Ghani further upped the ante in his 22 August interview with Tolonews (video here), by stating that a US-Taleban agreement would have no “legal character” as it was an agreement with a non-state actor. On the next day, Ghani stated that his government will give the final draft of the agreement a “comprehensive discussion” before it is signed.

Without Kabul’s consent and buy-in, a bilateral agreement will lack legitimacy among large parts of the public, particularly in Afghanistan, but also abroad. This provides the Afghan government with some leverage, if not something amounting to a de facto veto. This is also reflected in Khalilzad’s announcement that he will travel to Kabul after this round of the Doha talks to “consult with the leadership of the Afghan government on the peace process and encourage full preparation for intra-Afghan negotiations”. He did not confirm, however, that the Afghan government would be allowed to review the agreement and possibly suggest changes.

No effective ceasefire

The insistence of the Taleban that after the agreement there will be a ceasefire only with the US troops means that the initial fourth topic of the agreement and key demand of the Afghan population – an agreement leading to an immediate cessation of the fighting – has been shifted to the rather precarious “intra-Afghan negotiations.” A key question then is how these will relate to and be synchronised with the troop withdrawals. US government members have repeatedly stated that a withdrawal would be ‘conditions based’, ie dependent on whether the intra-Afghan negotiations make progress. But Afghanistan has experienced various ‘condition-based’ processes in the past, only to see conditions watered down beyond recognition (for example, see this AAN paper on the security transition).

If indeed, an announced agreement will have little or no consequences on the battlefield in terms of reduced violence, this will be a huge disappointment for many Afghans. It will also represent a squandered opportunity, as the issue the Taleban cared about most will already have been conceded.

Interior Minister Wais Barmak stops on the road into Kabul to meet Taleban who have come into the capital during the Eid truce (Photo: taken by someone in the crowd and posted on social media)

Interior Minister Wais Barmak stops on the road into Kabul to meet Taleban who have come into the capital during the 2018 Eid truce (Photo: taken by someone in the crowd and posted on social media)

What might withdrawal look like

The biggest overlap between the US and the Taleban interests has always been on the issue of US troop withdrawal: both parties want the US (and other troops – some 14,000 US and 8,500 allied troops) out as soon as possible, albeit for very different reasons. The Taleban moreover have hoped, and probably still do, that Trump would lose patience and order a premature pull-out (ie before intra-Afghan negotiations result in a second settlement). They can be assumed to calculate that, once the foreign troops are out, they will have a relatively free hand on the battlefield as well as great leverage in the negotiations.

Internally, in their Qatar office and to their fighters, the Taleban have presented the upcoming US agreement to withdraw as a “victory” over an opponent “on their knees” (see this recent video released on pro-Taleban media outlets here and here). Theyare framing this as the Afghans’ third victory over a superpower, after the 19thcentury British retreat and that of the Soviets in the late 1980s. The Taleban also seem to bank on the habit of Afghan factions to change sides and join the apparent winner when the balance of power is shifting. (Afghans familiar with the July intra-Afghan dialogue, and its follow-up, have told AAN about the on-going outreach by Afghan leaders and subsequent Taleban assurances that they would not have to fear their return to power.)

It is not yet clear what timeframe for the US troop withdrawal will be. Several options have been discussed in the media, with reports that the Taleban initially insisted on a maximum of nine to twelve months period, but meanwhile have possibly agreed to 14 months (see here and here), while the US initially suggested 18-24 months (even though this clashes with the assumption that Trump wants this to be wrapped up before the November 2020 US election). The Taleban have reportedly asked “major powers, the United Nations and representatives of Islamic countries” to act as “guarantors” of the assurances that all foreign troops will leave Afghanistan. According to this statement, ‘major powers’ would include “Russia, China, Pakistan and other neighbors of Afghanistan.”

If the agreement is announced, some form of withdrawal is indeed likely to happen in the range of these intervals, given that there are only 15 months left before the next US presidential election. The extent and speed, however, remained a question for a long time. But now Trump said in a media interview that US troop strength will be “going down to 8,600 and then we make a determination from there as to what happens” – the latter apparently a reference to the caveat of progress in the intra-Afghan negotiations. This means a reduction by some 5,400 soldiers. This is at the lower end of the options US media had reported earlier (here and here) that a first phase of withdrawal could reduce the current number of US troops by a range of 5,000 to 7,000 soldiers. General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quoted as saying a day earlier “I am not using the withdrawal word right now.”

The complex attack on the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul started around 7 pm on 24 August 2016 with an explosion followed by armed assailants storming the campus. (Photo Source: Tolonews)

The complex attack on the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul started around 7 pm on 24 August 2016 with an explosion followed by armed assailants storming the campus. Photo: Tolonews

Anti-terrorism guarantees and the possibility of a ‘residual force’?

The main demand of the US towards the Taleban was a guarantee that groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) – inclusing its franchise in Afghanistan, the ISKP – would not be allowed to act against any other country using Afghan territory (or, more specifically, the territory under Taleban control). With regard to IS, there seems to be, for now, no problem. The Taleban consider the group an unwanted competitor in the Afghan jihad and are actively fighting it.

This is less clear when it comes to al-Qaeda. The US, for that reason, may wish to include a clause in the agreement by which the Taleban explicitly distance themselves from their former ally. With their control over parts of Afghan territory and population, which allows them to tax income, businesses and other economic activity across the country, the Taleban are less dependent on the group than they used to be, economically as well as militarily. According to US estimates, there are currently a few hundred al-Qaeda fighters in country at best (the estimate was increased in 2015). Nevertheless, publicly denouncing al-Qaeda may still prove controversial, as it could put off Taleban sponsors in Islamic countries and at least some of its own fighters.

In the US, there have been discussions whether the Taleban might agree to a sustained military US counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan, and/or an intelligence presence in Afghanistan, that would focus on counter-terrorism (CT), ensure that the Taleban complied with their promises, and possibly give “advisory support to an Afghan-led counter-terrorism force”. President Donald Trump also referred to this, saying “We have to have a presence, yes. The Taliban does not respect the Afghan government. … It is a dangerous place and we have to keep an eye on it. … We’ll always have someone there” (here). The Pentagon recently reiterated that “the United States, the international community, and the [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] ANDSF“ need to maintain a “robust CT force” in the country. Secretary Pompeo, on the other hand, recently tried to smoothen the waves, saying at a veterans’ meeting that “America has never sought a permanent military presence in Afghanistan, and all sides recognize that time moves on.”

The Taleban have so far repeated their position that it would be out of the question for even a single foreign soldier to be left on Afghan soil (see Taleban spokesman Shahin in Pashto here). It is quite likely that the language in the agreement will be somewhat vague or will defer the final decisions to allow an agreed position to be reached. (It is also unclear whether secret annexes may be a possibility, to provide the US what it insists upon, while providing a face-saving solution to the Taleban.) The presence of General Austin Miller, the US and NATO troop commander in Afghanistan, at the Doha talks seem linked to this topic, among other technicalities.

A remaining CT force may involve US soldiers on Afghan soil, but may not be necessary. One form how this could be done, from a US point of view at least, how it was done in Iraq where a ‘residual force’ that was left behind after the withdrawal was relabelled US embassy staff. Altogether, it was reported that the US Embassy had 17,000 staff members at that time, including “military and security contractors [with] diplomatic immunity” (which can be assumed to have represented a large proportion of the 17,000).

The CIA has also established a number of anti-Taleban militias in Afghanistan (see here and here) that will most likely continue to exist after an agreement. A commander of the Khost Protection Force was quoted as saying“If America leaves, we will remain.” The US may seek to still remotely, or directly, use such forces. It is, in that respect, not clear whether the US-Taleban agreement will also cover the presence of armed US intelligence members and private security and military contractors. (3)

An important indication of the strength of a Taleban-US agreement will be whether the US-Afghan BSA (Bilateral Security Agreement) is formally annulled, revised or kept after the signing of an agreement. It is difficult to imagine that sceptics in the US will be satisfied without at least a public replacement of the BSA. The Afghan government certainly expects it to be maintained. President Ghani told personnel of the Afghan defence ministry on 13 August that “all security agreements” will be retained after the US and the Taleban sign an agreement (in Pashto here).

On the non-US troops, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has confirmed that the alliance would withdraw all its forces together the US soldiers. He said in mid-July, “We went together to Afghanistan and we leave together.” The US had earlier assured its allies that there would be no unilateral withdrawal.The allies have, so far, however not been part of any of the negotiations that will shape the conditions and timelines for the apparently joint withdrawal. Currently, there are still around 8,500 non-US soldiers in Afghanistan.

It not clear whether the agreement will contain specific provisions on what to do with the foreign fighters associated with the Taleban (see a discussion of their role in this AAN analysis). For the same reasons as with al-Qaeda, the Taleban will likely refuse to hand them over to US or Afghan authorities or to send them back to their home countries where they would likely be imprisoned or worse. The World Bank has recently started consultations with “stakeholders” on post-agreement programmes to “sustain peace after a political settlement.”

ISKP, the second largest, but by far smaller insurgent group in Afghanistan is not part of the negotiations, but the agreement might contain provisions about future counter-terrorism operations that affect them. There are widespread concerns in the US and Afghanistan that the group might become the address for Taleban defectors who do not support the agreement or are not ready to go back to civilian life. (4)

Ballot boxed delivered to Gardez (Paktia) in Afghanistan’s 2009 presidential election. Photo: Thomas Ruttig

The elections vs. negotiations dilemma

A stumbling block that may prevent intra-Afghan negotiations from commencing after the US-Taleban deal is signed, is the presidential election scheduled for 28 September 2019. Preparations have already advanced. Sensitive election material has started to be shipped to the provinces, although there are delays due to defect biometric voter verification devices. Campaigning has largely been slow, except for the incumbent. The process seems to be too advanced to be stopped and the elections to be postponed for a third time, at least not without further loss of face for president Ghani who has strongly insisted on holding the poll. In his view, his political legitimacy and future depend on the win he is envisaging.

Chief Executive Abdullah who has emerged as Ghani’s main competitor again, as in 2014, (5) has supported the holding of the election. On 28, August, however, he modified his position – and increased his options – saying that he was “fully ready to render sacrifices before and after election to reach a durable peace in the country.” According to this report that included “quit[ting] elections for the sake of peace.”

The US still has a number of means at hand to achieve another delay, including leveraging their influence among allies in the Ghani and opposition camps and delaying or withholding of funding (including for the elections). At the same time, the US is also trying to use the elections as leverage against the Taleban. Their Kabul Ambassador John Bass said on 25 August, during a visit to Balkh province, that the election should be held on its scheduled time, if there were any hurdles in the way of the peace process and the Taleban refused to sign the bilateral agreement soon.

The Taleban have made clear that they oppose these elections, which they consider held under “occupation” and therefore without legitimacy. In a statement in early August, they declared a boycott, called on voters not to participate in what they called “a ruse by the invaders and their hirelings to gain validity” and warned them to stay away from campaign rallies in order “to prevent losses”. If the elections do go ahead, the Taleban may opt for a full-blown attempt to violently interrupt them. UNAMA had already called the 2018 parliamentary election the most violent since 2001, but most Taleban-attributed incidents seemed comparatively minor to what could be unleashed this time, given recent bloody attacks. Obviously, such an escalation would amount to a complete discrediting of the Taleban’s intentions, as well as a war crime.  

If the election does take place under the current conditions, it is will again lead to controversy and consternation. The electoral framework is still practically unreformed framework, the electoral institutions widely considered non-credible and partial, and the reports surrounding the preparations for biometric verification suggest the likelihood of renewed chaos. Under these circumstances, any result could easily be challenged. Delaying the election would deprive Afghan voters of the chance to make their preference known, but going ahead among controversy is also problematic. And many voters, particularly in rural Taleban-controlled areas, are already deprived by the further increasing number of polling stations that will remain closed on election day due to lack of security. 

Conclusion: An agreement without peace?

Starting the bilateral negotiations was arguably the only realistic way to get around the Taleban blockade on direct talks with the Afghan government. But as a means to persuade the Taleban to engage in actual peace negotiations it appears, for now, to have failed. Instead of taking more time and pushing for engagement on the full four-point package deal, Khalilzad has given in to Taleban pressure and has relegated the vital negotiations on Afghanistan’s future political system to intra-Afghan negotiations, which may or may not take place. The Afghan government has, moreover, been forced to swallow the bitter pill of being downgraded, as an internationally-recognised and -funded government, to being considered just one of the Afghan ‘factions’ in those negotiations.

Two Afghan analysts, quoted here, seem to echo the view of many Afghans when they say that

… reaching a US-Taliban deal before establishing a solid intra-Afghan [negotiations] framework where the voices and demands of the Afghan people are translated into a workable agenda, negotiated by legitimate and competent representatives of the people, cannot, and should not be supported.

Such a deal, they say, risks freezing out “the only comparatively democratically [legitimised] entity in Afghanistan” which could have represented the majority of Afghans and their desire for peace. Already there is widespread concern among Afghans that their future is being decided behind their back in a rushed and hasty manner as dictated by the political calendar in the US.

Unfortunately, the ‘Kabul side’ also does not offer much hope. Both the government and the opposition have so far been unable to overcome their notorious disunity and to grasp the chance to represent Afghans’ hope for peace.

It is clear that the US-Taleban agreement, whether it will be signed in the coming few days or whether last-moment problems delay it further, will be insufficient to bring down the violence and usher in peace – which is what counts most for most Afghans. The agreement may even lead towards greater escalation, further empowering the Taleban and increasing their options while they have still not proven that their priority is peace, not power. The Taleban’s insistence that a ceasefire will for now only involve the leaving western troops indicates that their focus is still firmly on a military ‘solution’ with possibly a power-sharing deal. The later could allow them to push out their adversaries by force, after US troops are withdrawn and a decent interval of cooperation has elapsed.

How keen the Taleban are on a withdrawal agreement has been shown by the fact that even the 16 August bomb attack in a mosque in Kuchlak, near Quetta, where a brother of Taleban leader Mawlawi Hebatullah Akhundzada was killed, did not derail the talks. This despite the fact that the bomb may have been meant for Hebatullah himself and was generally seen as an attempt to sabotage the dialogue with the US.

Long-standing Afghanistan observer Michael Semple said he has found no evidence that the Taleban leadership is preparing for anything other than a march into Kabul:

They are telling their people: ‘We have defeated the Americans, the Americans are fleeing, and as they are fleeing they are handing us the keys to Kabul. We’re taking over.’ There is no reconciliation message…

At the same time, there have been signals over the years, not least during the 2018 Eid ceasefire, that many fighters – most of whom fight in the areas they have been born and where their families live – might be ready for peace, although probably not at a cost of a perceived ‘surrender’.

The shifts in the US’s negotiation strategy have made it plain that the agreement – once signed – will be, at best, only one step toward the long-awaited peace in Afghanistan and, at worst, a step towards further escalation of the conflict.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert, Sayed Reza Kazemi and Kate Clark

(1) So far there has been one recent successful ceasefire – or actually, two as both the government (tacitly joined by the US forces) and the Taleban both observed unilaterally proclaimed ceasefires in June 2018 that overlapped on the three Eid days. (The government’s truce was a few days longer.) For the first time, this allowed Afghans “to imagine their country in peace” after a long time, as AAN wrote. It fostered contacts and allowed fraternisation between Taleban and pro-government fighters. Many Taleban visiting government-held cities made it clear that the ceasefire did not mean they were willing to surrender (there was some slogan-shouting and many of them carried the movement’s white flag). At the same time, the government claimed that many Taleban fighters quit the movement on that occasion, which seems to have made its leadership wary about their fighters’ commitment. A recent article in the British media illustrated, in a number of interviews, the ambiguous positions vis-à-vis a possible peace deal of many fighters: “tired of war, and at times suspicious of their leaders [b]ut … also often uncompromising in their demands for an American defeat and Islamic government, with little sign they wanted to sign up to share power with the Kabul government or sign up to the country’s democratic constitution.”

(2) German foreign minister Heiko Maas said on 27 August in Berlin that his country would continue supporting “US efforts to broker a peace agreement between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban… even though we know that success is by no means certain – considering everything that has happened in the country in the last decades.”

(3) The number of – declared – armed private security contractors in Afghanistan has increased more than 65 per cent since President Donald Trump took office, according to a review of Pentagon statistics (see here). The Pentagon’s most recent report on contractor personnel numbers, for the third quarter of Fiscal Year 2019, cites 2,639 (slightly down from 2,847 in the first quarter) armed private security contractors supporting the Operation Freedom’s Sentinel mission in Afghanistan, up from the 1,722 armed contractors it reported in Jan. 2017.

(4) Large-scale defections to ISKP have not happened so far, and the group is cornered in some parts of some eastern districts. Deeper ideological and religious rifts between the (Sunni Hanafi) Taleban and the IS Salafi stand in the way. But there is no guarantee that economic problems and grievances over the US-Taleban agreement might not bridge this gap. On the other hand, the Taleban dropping out of the armed conflict with the US might narrow ISKPs’ room to manoeuvre, as it might become the main target of an internationally-backed onslaught, possibly coordinated with the Taleban.

(5) This happened after the disintegration of former national security advisor Muhammad Hanif Atmar’s ticket, after his candidate for second vice-president, Muhammad Mohaqqeq, and his campaign manager Jailani Popal defected to Abdullah’s team.


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Martine van Bijlert

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