War & Peace

Trump Ends Talks with the Taleban: What happens next?


Then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump takes the stage after being introduced by Zalmay Khalilzad, who would go on to become Trump’s special envoy on Afghanistan in September 2018. Photo: Chip Somodevilla /Getty Images North America / AFP 2016.

Then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump takes the stage after being introduced by Zalmay Khalilzad, who would go on to become Trump’s special envoy on Afghanistan in September 2018. Photo: Chip Somodevilla /Getty Images North America / AFP 2016.

United States president Donald Trump has called off talks with the Taleban and cancelled signing of an agreement with them. The trigger, he said, was a suicide bomb which killed one US soldier and “11 other people” carried out “seemingly [to] strengthen their bargaining position.” However, voices against the ‘agreement in principle’ deal had already been mounting in Washington and Kabul, especially since the Afghan leadership was shown the text of the deal last week. Trump’s cancellation of the agreement has allowed the Taleban to promote themselves as peacemakers, and President Ghani to restate his vision of elections followed by ‘wise and precise’ peacemaking. Kate Clark (with input from the rest of the AAN team) has been looking at today’s events and their implications. She observes that, even though the prospective US-Taleban deal did not look very promising as a path to lasting peace in Afghanistan, the collapse of negotiations has left everyone wondering – what now?

After almost one year and nine rounds of negotiations between President Trump’s special envoy on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taleban, with a deal talked about as ‘imminent’ for weeks, President Trump has now tweeted the cancellation of the deal:

Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday. They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to..

….an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great great soldiers, and 11 other people. I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations. What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position? They didn’t, they….

….only made it worse! If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway. How many more decades are they willing to fight?

As we recently reported, talks to finalise the last details of an agreement between the Taleban and the US had been ongoing since January. In the last few weeks, it had seemed the deal was almost in the bag: on 30 August, AAN quoted several news agencies saying the deal was at the stage of  language-checking, as well as Taleban spokesman Suhail Shahin saying, “We hope to have good news soon for our Muslim, independence seeking nation.” Then, on 2 September, Khalilzad told TOLOnews the two sides had reached an “agreement in principle,” although contingent still on Trump signing off on it.

Last minute twists and turns

Then, on Thursday (5 September), the US general in charge of international forces in Afghanistan, Scott Miller, flew to Doha with Khalilzad to talk to the Taleban negotiators and the following day, it was announced that a trip by President Ghani to the US for a meeting with Trump on Monday (9 September) had been cancelled, with no explanation given (see reporting here and here). Matters appeared to be coming to a head, but it was not clear which way they were going. What Trump’s tweet has now revealed is just how far along things were, at least from an American point of view. He divulged that a secret meeting had been planned for today (8 September) at the president’s retreat in Camp David between himself and “major Taleban leaders” and “separately” with Ashraf Ghani.

That the suicide bombing in Abdul Haq Square on Thursday (5 September) claimed by the Taleban (reported on here), the second in the capital in two days, was the proximate cause of the cancellation of the deal is seemingly matched by events: the sudden trip by Miller and Khalilzad to Qatar immediately afterwards, and the cancellation of the Afghan president’s trip to Washington. Taleban violence has indeed sharpened in the last week. In a forthcoming dispatch on the Taleban’s attacks on three provincial capitals last week, (Kunduz, Baghlan and Farah), a publication which has been delayed by today’s events, we wrote that whether or not it was intentional, the attacks were “a strong signal” sent by the Taleban “that they will not stop fighting even after the pending US-Taleban agreement.”

Yet, US and Afghan government forces have not let up or diminished the ferocity of their fight, either, especially air strikes and night raids. Both sides have fought and talked. Moreover, Afghan civilians and soldiers and, albeit in far fewer numbers, members of America’s armed forces, have all continued to be killed throughout the negotiations, including in egregious attacks. So, Thursday’s attack as the trigger for calling off the deal would have to have been either the straw that broke the camel’s back, or a result of President Trump suddenly noticing what was happening on the ground, or a pretext if he had got cold feet about the nature of the deal.

It seems probable that the last possibility is the correct one. Concerns and opposition to the deal in Washington have been mounting. Prominent among those voicing fears were nine former ambassadors (read the text of their letter here). They said they “strongly support[ed] a negotiated peace in Afghanistan,” but expressed doubts that the current deal would actually lead to peace. They pointed out that the Taleban had made “no clear statements about the conditions they would accept for a peaceful settlement with their fellow Afghans, nor do they have a track record of working with other political forces.” Following on from that, the ambassadors warned about the possibility of a situation far worse than the status quo, a return to civil war, as in 1992:

… [C]ould follow a breakdown in negotiations if we remove too much support from the Afghan state. If the State totters, those with nasty memories of life under the Taliban will fight on. That disaffected group would include Afghanistan’s minorities, which together comprise a majority of the Afghan population.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had also, Kim Dozier for Time reported, declined to sign the agreement because of concerns that it would amount to him effectively recognising the Taleban as a legitimate political entity, given that they were reportedly named the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ in the text.

A somewhat different version of why the deal was ditched has been reported in The New York Times by Mujib Mashal. Blaming Thursday’s suicide bombing was a pretext, he reported. “The main sticking point was the Taliban’s resistance to the American terms for how a peace deal should be finalized and announced.” Trumps’ plan, reported Mashal, according to Afghan, Western and Taleban officials “with knowledge of the peace talks,” had been to fly both Taleban and Afghan government teams to Camp David, have separate meetings with each team and then “have a grand announcement” of the deal by Trump. The Taleban had reportedly compared this proposal to “political suicide.”

The movement’s response to Trump’s tweets, more on which below (see AAN translation of their statement in Annex 2 of this dispatch) does say that after receiving the invitation to the US, they “had delayed the mentioned travel to the US till after the signature of the agreement in Doha.”

What was in the agreement?

What exactly Khalilzad and the Taleban had agreed between themselves is still not known because the text of the putative agreement is not public. However, Khalilzad had four topics for the talks, which he had said (earlier AAN analysis here) all had to be agreed for a deal to go ahead. However, as AAN reported in August, they were by then already watered down. They were:

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

While topics one and two have apparently remained in the deal, although it is not entirely clear in what form, topics three and four were downgraded to a second set of negotiations which would be conducted, in Khalilzad’s words, “after we conclude our own agreements” and would involve “an inclusive and effective national negotiating team consisting of senior government officials, key political party representatives, civil society and women,” rather than specifically the Afghan government (tweets from Khalilzad on 28 July here and here).

According to Khalilzad speaking to TOLOnews on 2 September, the US would withdraw 5,000 troops from five bases in Afghanistan within 135 days if conditions in the agreement were addressed by the Taliban. That withdrawal, it seems was to be the start of a full, gradual of all US troops, although the exact details of what was agreed is still unclear. That two-stage timing was potentially very problematic, as the nine ambassadors’ letter concluded:

[A] major troop withdrawal must be contingent on a final peace. The initial US drawdown should not go so far or so fast that the Taliban believe that they can achieve military victory. In that case, they will not make compromises for peace with other Afghan political forces. 

Because Khalilzad has kept his cards close to his chest, it is not known what he said or promised to the various parties, the Taleban in Doha, President Trump and President Ghani, or whether he said the same things to everyone. It may be that when the text of the deal was available to all the principals, this is when it came unstuck. Various potential problems with the deal (from an American and Afghan government point of view) have been made public since it was shown to the Afghan leadership on 2 September (reported here and here).

They include, according to Time, quoting an Afghan official, that the agreement “doesn’t guarantee the continued presence of U.S. counterterrorism forces to battle al Qaeda, the survival of the pro-U.S. government in Kabul, or even an end to the fighting in Afghanistan.” The New York Times, also quoting a government official, reported that the agreement: “would not have assured national elections on Sept. 28, as Mr. Ghani has demanded. Rather than requiring a nationwide cease-fire, it calls for a reduction of violence in Kabul and Parwan.” The Taleban were also apparently reluctant to specifically name al-Qaeda in their guarantee that Afghan soil would not be used by foreign jihadist forces to launch attacks. They were also reportedly insistent that any agreement would name them the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’, which, for some looked to be a step too far in legitimising the movement.

If Khalilzad had conceded any of these points, possibly after failing to force enough concessions from the Taleban (as officials told The New York Times), that could have upset his boss. It certainly upset the presidential palace, as the anti-deal briefings to journalists show. Ashraf Ghani spoke out strongly against the agreement on Thursday after seeing the text and after the Abdul Haq Square bombing: “Seeking peace with this group who is still pursuing the killing of the innocent people,” he said in a statement “is meaningless.”

Responses to the ditching of the agreement

Trump’s cancellation has allowed the Taleban to present themselves as peace-makers. In a statement, they said they had been intent on a peace deal all along, and had been about to sign the agreement and were preparing for intra-Afghan talks on 23 September. Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement had shown the Americans to be untrustworthy and would only bring them more financial damage, more casualties and a ‘jihad’ until the invasion ends.

In the Palace, meanwhile, there must be a strong sense of relief that a deal which the president was so against has been scuppered by another party. (See the text of Ghani’s statement in Annex 1 of this dispatch). After reiterating his stance that Taleban violence is the main obstacle to peace, Ghani must feel he has regained the upper hand: the deal is off, all talk of an interim government will be off and elections can now go ahead untroubled by the peace process:

The government of Afghanistan reiterates its stance on holding the presidential elections on September 28 to make sure the establishment of a legitimate government through the ballot box and to move forward the ongoing peace process with full wisdom and precision.

Structural problems with the talks

Whatever the facts of who was responsible for the scrapping of the agreement and the end to the talks – although it is still not clear from all sides’ statements whether they are indeed completely over – it seems there were always structural problems with them. There are three direct parties to the Afghan conflict and three parties which have to make peace. Only two were involved in the talks. It has also seemed all along that negotiations were driven primarily by the US and its president’s desire to get troops out of Afghanistan ahead of US elections in 2020. Meanwhile, those in the ‘Islamic Republic of Afghanistan camp’ – the government, opposition figures, women’s activists and others – were marginalised from the start because of the US decision to accede to Taleban demands for a two-way-only negotiation.

Yet, it was also never really clear that the Taleban, especially those in the Quetta Shura and field commanders were ready to make the compromises needed for peace. Certainly, there have been none of the preparations with cadre on the ground that one would expect of an organisation negotiating an end to fighting. US interlocutors told AAN that the Taleban speaking in Doha appeared to see the current negotiations through the prism of the 1980s and believed the US, like the USSR before it, was toppling in the face of a concerted Afghan ‘jihad’. The possibility was always that getting a deal for the Taleban was a way of getting rid of their main adversary on the battlefield and that they believed they could then walk into Kabul as military victors. This may have remained their main aim all along, rather than negotiating peace with their fellow Afghans.

In the ‘Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’ (IRA) camp, meanwhile, many fears have been voiced, but there has been no real effort to rally behind a unified stance to try to give their side more clout. Apart from the president’s stage-managed peace jirga (analysis here), designed mainly to stop calls for an interim government, President Ghani’s main actions have been to push for elections. All this means that, although the Palace may be breathing a sigh of relief that the US-Taleban talks are over, there is little unity or consensus on the IRA side of what should happen next.

It was always difficult to see how the agreement, or what we have seen of it, would lead to peace, but what follows now is even less clear. It is not certain, for example, what Trump does next: double down on the war or order unilateral troop withdrawals. The Taleban still have the upper hand militarily but it is difficult to see anything certain arriving via the battlefield with the exception of more violence. Presidential elections should now go ahead. However, Khalilzad’s talk of an interim government has dented confidence that the poll would actually happen. The result is that most candidates have yet to really start campaigning. Whether it can even approach being a representative and fair election is questionable.

Most importantly, what looks to be the failure of these particular talks makes a negotiated end to the war, for now, less likely. Trust has been lost; finding a way for the parties of the conflict to talk to each other again has been made more difficult. No wonder many Afghans are confused about what they should think about the Trump tweets and the apparent end to the ‘peace deal’ – and fear that a further intensification of the violence will be the major result.

Edited by Jelena Bjelica

 

Annex 1: The Government Of Islamic Republic Of Afghanistan’s Statement Over The Peace Negotiations

8 September 2019

The people and the government of Afghanistan pursue a dignified and sustainable peace and are committed to putting any effort into ensuring peace in the country. However, the government considers the Taliban’s obstinacy to increase violence against Afghans as the main obstacle to the ongoing peace negotiations. We have consistently stressed that genuine peace is possible when the Taliban stop the killing of Afghans, embrace an inclusive ceasefire, and enter into direct negotiations with the Afghan government.

The government of Afghanistan as the main initiator, advocate and executor of the peace process, respects the decision emanated from the Consultative Loya Jirga on Peace and is responsible to follow its mandate with the Afghans playing the central role and the government owning and leading the process. 

The government of Afghanistan praises the earnest efforts of its allies and is committed to working together with the United States and other partners to ensure honorable and enduring peace in the country.

The government of Afghanistan reiterates its stance on holding the presidential elections on September 28 to make sure the establishment of a legitimate government through the ballot box and to move forward the ongoing peace process with full wisdom and precision.

Annex 2: The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Declaration about the Tweet of Donald Trump Regarding the Negotiations

8 September 2019

We had fruitful negotiations with the American negotiation team and the agreement was finalised. The American negotiation team was happy with the progresses made and we ended the talks in a good atmosphere. Both teams were busy with preparations for the announcement and signing of the agreement. We had selected 23 September as the first day for the intra-Afghan talks [to begin] after the agreement had been signed and announced.

The region and the countries of the world and international organisations have backed the process. Now, the announcement by the president of the United States, Donald Trump, of an end to negotiations with the Islamic Emirate will harm America more than anyone else; it will harm its credibility, and further expose its anti-peace stance to the world; it would [result in] an increase in financial damage and casualties to its forces; it would demonstrate its political interactions as untrustworthy.

Keeping going with the negotiations, the Islamic Emirate has proved to the world that the war was imposed by others on us, and if the way of understanding is chosen instead of war, we are committed to the end of this [the negotiations].

Reacting to just one attack, just before the signing of the agreement, shows neither patience nor experience. Despite that, a little time before the mentioned attack, the US and its domestic supporters [the Afghan government], martyred hundreds of Afghans and burnt their properties. Doctor Khalilzad, gave us the invitation of Donald Trump in late August. We had delayed the mentioned travel to the US till after the signature of the agreement in Doha.

The Islamic Emirate has had a constant policy and a consistent stance. We have voiced understanding 20 years ago, and we have the same stance today as well. We believe that the American side will turn back to this stance [of negotiations]. Our past eighteen-year long policy would have proved to America that, without a complete end to the invasion and so long as the Afghans are allowed to make their own decision, we will not be satisfied by any other thing. We will keep going with the jihad because of this big aim and believe in our final victory.

 

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Thematic Category: War & Peace