The tentative peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban appears to put the Trump administration’s goal of bringing troops home from Afghanistan in reach, but hopes for a permanent deal could dissolve amid political disarray gripping the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
A lasting agreement will require negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government, but many worry that talks will be undermined by escalating clashes between President Ashraf Ghani and his chief political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, as well as declining popular legitimacy for the government.
Long-delayed results of September elections — released only this week — gave Mr. Ghani a second term in office. He avoided a runoff by the narrowest of margins.
Mr. Abdullah, who serves as chief executive in a shaky unity government with Mr. Ghani, rejected the results and announced he was forming a parallel administration.
Beyond the political squabbling, the Kabul government still does not control much of the country and international efforts to build up Afghanistan’s economy and military have consistently fallen short.
With the U.S. and the Taliban reportedly ready to sign an agreement within days, the Ghani government’s weakness worries officials who have spent the past two years trying to coax the militant group into a peace process.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered a cautious response when asked by reporters on a Middle East tour Thursday about the postelection uncertainty in Kabul.
“I don’t have anything to say about Afghanistan other than we’ve been following the election results very, very closely,” Mr. Pompeo said. “We want to make sure that we’ve got it exactly right.” He promised an official response “before too terribly long.”
The stakes are high. A successful Taliban deal could allow President Trump to immediately bring home about a third of the estimated 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and begin to fulfill a key campaign promise.
“It is likely that these developments could add to the many challenges Afghanistan faces, including the challenges associated with the peace process,” said U.S. Ambassador Molly Phee, the deputy special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation.
Ms. Phee nevertheless expressed optimism this week at a U.S. Institute of Peace event. She suggested that the Afghans at some point will have to work out their differences without American hand-holding.
“The U.S.-Taliban agreement will open the door to negotiations among the Afghan government, the Taliban and other key Afghan leaders, and in those talks, Afghans will tackle the future political arrangements for their country,” she said. “We will not prejudge the outcome of intra-Afghan negotiations, but we are prepared to support whatever consensus the Afghans are able to reach about their future political and governing arrangements.”
The long-term success of the diplomatic push led by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad hinges on the impending intra-Afghan negotiations. Taliban leaders have long refused to even recognize the legitimacy of the Kabul government and now have an opening to exploit the infighting in Kabul if and when negotiations do take place.
A testing truce
Taliban leaders confirmed for the first time Monday that they could sign a deal with the Trump administration by the end of the month, after a “reduction in violence” truce now playing out in Afghanistan.
Assuming the reduction holds, a formal truce may be signed while President Trump is in the region. He is scheduled to visit India next week, although administration officials are mum about specifics of a potential deal-signing ceremony.
The crux of a deal centers on the Taliban’s willingness to work with the Kabul government to purge Islamic State, al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups that have found sanctuary in Afghanistan, in exchange for a phased withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign combat troops. The Pentagon is pushing to keep at least a small contingent of U.S. special operations forces in the country to deal with the terrorist threat.
The deal also reportedly would set into motion a 135-day timetable for the initial U.S. troop drawdown and the start of Taliban-Afghan government talks, which would first center on major prisoner exchanges. What the intra-Afghan talks will ultimately look like is up for debate.
“The whole purpose of this U.S.-Taliban agreement is to induce the Taliban to come to the negotiating table with the Afghan government and other representatives of Afghan society,” said Michele Flournoy, who was a high-level Pentagon official in the Obama administration.
“It’s very, very important that the delegation that sits across from the Taliban be inclusive, not only members of the Ghani administration, but also the political opposition, civil society and especially women and younger Afghans,” Ms. Flournoy said this week on a conference call hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.
“There’s lots of academic case studies for why more inclusive delegations, particularly the inclusion of women, lead to more sustainable and better outcomes,” said Ms. Flournoy, now with the strategic advisory firm WestExec Advisors. “So that’s very important, and that’s going to be no small challenge in the wake of the very polarizing election results that have just been announced.”
But the notion of Afghan government unity may be a stretch given the open differences between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah over the best strategy for talks with the Taliban.
The Ghani government seeks a negotiation modeled on the deal reached between Colombia’s government and armed rebels in 2016, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.
“In exchange for disarming, the insurgents would mostly avoid imprisonment and will receive some reintegration help,” Ms. Felbab-Brown wrote in an analysis published by the think tank this week. “The government and the Taliban would commit to rural development and perhaps some power devolution, while the Taliban would constitute a political party and compete in elections.”
But “such highly optimistic scenarios are unlikely,” she wrote, adding that “many Afghan opposition politicians, including Abdullah Abdullah and former President Hamid Karzai, envision a different model.”
“They hope to negotiate a behind-closed-doors deal with the Taliban, perhaps rapidly bypassing President Ghani. This might include creating a joint interim government with the Taliban,” Ms. Felbab-Brown wrote. “In this scenario, power would be divided in Kabul and in the provinces.”
Mr. Ghani has rejected the idea that the Taliban, who already occupy large swaths of the country, could be granted greater influence in certain regions without participating in national elections. In remarks at the Munich Security Conference last week, he said the “critical test is going to be: Will the Taliban accept an election?”
Anything less than a national-level solution “will be a recipe for another round of conflict,” the Afghan president warned.
“If this electoral difficulty means that Ghani is not going to allow Abdullah to have representatives [involved in the talks] or Abdullah is not interested in having representatives, then that does cause problems,” said Carter Malkasian, a former U.S. official with years of experience working in Afghanistan.
“The problem that arises here is that if only Ghani is sending representatives to talk to the Taliban, the Taliban may refuse that, so that becomes a problem getting the settlement done,” Mr. Malkasian said on the Council on Foreign Relations call.
“The problem is actually a little bit bigger and more fundamental than that,” he added. “If there’s going to be a political settlement in Afghanistan in which a constitution can be rewritten, it naturally needs to involve all elements of Afghan society and not just the opposition, women, civil society, youth, and I could name a few more on top of that.
“That is how Afghans traditionally do political developments like this.”
Ms. Flournoy, meanwhile, said the “key is to get to the point where we’re actually in intra-Afghan negotiations and they’re starting to work through the details of an actual political settlement, because the U.S.-Taliban agreement really doesn’t address that. It’s really meant to get all the Afghans to that table.
“This is going to be a long road, and it’s likely to be a rocky road,” she said. “But it is the best chance that I’ve seen for actually getting to serious negotiations — the best chance that we’ve had in many years.”
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