Both the United States and the Taliban have tentatively agreed on a peace deal that will take place at the end of the month if a period of reduced violence as confidence building measures between now and then holds. Then, a series of things will have to follow before the Taliban and the Afghan government sit down to formal negotiations to actually end the war. Specifically, U.S. forces would begin a withdrawal from the country and the Afghan government will release 50,000 Taliban prisoners. In return, the Taliban will cease attempts to take over the country by force as negotiations continue.
None of this ensures anything like a real peace agreement. What it does mean is that it will satisfy the basic goals of the American government and the Taliban. The Americans want out and the Taliban wants them out. By agreeing to talk to the government in Kabul, the Taliban have to at least acknowledge that the government exists as anything other than an American puppet. What it does not mean is that the Taliban will cease trying to take control of the entire country. Politics will be war by other means. The Taliban may — at least for a while — try to win at the ballot box, but they will simply not have sufficient votes.
A truce in Afghanistan will not end violence. Some people will still be shooting at each other no matter what the Taliban senior leadership and the Kabul government decree. First of all, both sides are fighting the ISIS forces, which have replaced al Qaeda as the chief international jihadist organization in Afghanistan. Second, what is called Taliban is — in reality — a coalition of anti-government groups; senior leadership may still be dedicated religious purists with the goal of ejecting all foreign influence, but other elements include the Haqqani criminal gang and local drug dealers who use the Taliban brand to give them legitimacy. They will continue to resist government efforts to control smuggling and reduce the poppy trade. Finally, there reportedly are “young Turks” among the Taliban who believe that their leadership has sold out and may continue to fight independently. None of that means that a general peace agreement is impossible, just messy and hard.
Some critics of the peace process will liken it to Vietnam after the 1973 peace agreement and argue that; once the Americans are gone, the Taliban will go on the offensive again. That’s possible, but there are some major differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam. The North Vietnamese possessed a conventional army and air force, and were provided with state-of-the-art weapons by China and the former Soviet Union. They faced a South Vietnamese army that was handicapped by a Democratic-dominated U.S. Congress that refused to fund support to the Saigon regime even when it became obvious that North Vietnam was going to break the peace agreement that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had crafted before Watergate swept them from power. Presumably, any final peace agreement will have a caveat that U.S. forces can return if the Taliban blatantly resume serious military offensives. The Kabul government may have its problems, but it is not the Saigon regime of 1975.
None of this means that the Taliban won’t still try to dominate the country through the ballot box. They are contemptuous of democracy and believe in theocratic rule. In the unlikely event that they ever do win a national election, they will almost certainly try to abolish the present constitution. But that will be an Afghan affair.
Al Qaeda has been marginalized — if not eliminated — as an existential Afghan threat, but ISIS has emerged a real problem. It is not beyond the realm of possibility to imagine a time when the Taliban receives some form of U.S. surveillance and even air support in pursuing anti-ISIS operations in areas that they control as part of a peace deal.
Despite arguments to the contrary, a peace agreement that divides the country into Taliban and central government spheres of influence is a distinct possibility. The urban population centers and their suburbs remain fiercely anti-Taliban while a large portion of the conservative rural population don’t want government interference in their traditional views of religion, the place of women in society and traditional sharia law. Korea has lived with a split system for nearly seven decades, and China is still grappling with a one country-two systems approach. We went into Afghanistan to get al Qaeda out, and they are out. Afghans alone should determine their future.
• Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
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