A U.S. withdrawal has opened the door to a possible political settlement, but success will depend on regional powers and the country’s neighbors.
president Donald Trump’s intention to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan has given new life to the quest for a political settlement after 41 years of war, including over 17 directly involving the U.S. military. According to both U.S. government and Taliban sources, negotiations between the two sides have led to agreement on the outline of a framework for a deal in which the United States would withdraw troops and the Taliban would guarantee that any future government in which they participate would cooperate with international efforts against terrorism. The Taliban will have to disavow al Qaeda explicitly for the first time.
The U.S. government is negotiating directly with the Taliban because Washington has finally accepted that there is no better military option. Meanwhile, the Islamist group refuses to engage the Afghan government until it has reached agreement with the United States on ending what it calls the “occupation” of Afghanistan.
Under the framework being negotiated by the U.S. government and the Taliban, however, the agreement between these two would be implemented only as one component of a broader pact, including a ceasefire and a domestic political settlement derived from negotiations including the Afghan government and the Taliban, with the representation of a broad range of Afghan society, including women and youth. The main parties to the conflict will also have to agree on the sequencing of the troop pullout, the ceasefire, the political settlement, and long-term assistance to Afghanistan to ensure that the foreign troop withdrawal does not lead to collapse of the government, as was the case in Afghanistan after the 1988 Geneva Accords.
In addition to those core parties to the conflict, for any deal to endure, other regional actors need to agree as well—especially Pakistan. Pakistan supported the Taliban while they were in power and has hosted their leadership and logistics bases since U.S. forces expelled them from Afghanistan.
Pakistan has used support for the Taliban’s military and terrorist activities to pressure Washington and Kabul over five issues: The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which could threaten Pakistan, especially its nuclear arsenal, and, Islamabad believes, provide cover for Indian activities against Pakistan; Afghanistan’s refusal to recognize the international boundary with Pakistan, known as the Durand Line, and its claims on the loyalties of Pashtun and Baloch ethnic groups in the two countries; commercial and transit access to Central Asia via Afghanistan, which Pakistan could obtain at any time by allowing Afghanistan reciprocal access to India, which it has so far refused; some understanding on limiting the Indian presence in Afghanistan, at least in provinces directly bordering Pakistan—while there are no Indian troops in Afghanistan, Pakistan claims that Indian aid and diplomatic missions provide cover for intelligence operations; and limits on building dams on waterways such as the Kabul River that flow into Pakistan, which is experiencing a severe water crisis.Afghanistan and Pakistan have made some progress on these issues, especially in talks brokered by China, which is involved because it views instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a threat to its massive transcontinental infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative.Pakistan’s financial crisis has made it more vulnerable to pressure. The balance of payments deficit has so drained the country’s central bank that by the end of 2018 it had only two months of sovereign debt payments in reserves. Pakistan refused the IMF’s tough conditions for a bailout, and China likewise declined to reward its client’s profligacy, leaving it with no alternative but to look to Persian Gulf oil states for help. In December 2018, Saudi Arabia reportedly promised $6 billion in a series of disbursements that U.S. officials claim are conditional on cooperation with the Afghan peace process. The United Arab Emirates simultaneously allocated $3 billion for Pakistan under similar conditions.
The Pakistani military appears to have applied selective pressure on Taliban leaders to join the process. At the request of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations whom Trump has named special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Pakistan released former Taliban deputy leader Mullah Baradar Akhund after nearly nine years of detention.
Baradar was captured in a 2010 CIA counterterrorism raid in Karachi, coordinated with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which wanted to halt an unauthorized dialogue reportedly sponsored by Baradar with the government of then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai. One of the Taliban’s founders, with extensive influence over fighters in southern Afghanistan, Baradar has long been considered one of the Taliban leaders most inclined toward a peaceful settlement. Upon his release, the Taliban reinstated him to his deputy leader position and placed him in charge of the negotiations. He then traveled to Doha, where he is acting as Khalilzad’s counterpart in the talks.
In addition to providing conditional bailouts of Pakistan, the Saudis and Emiratis are seeking to expand their coalition against Iran and Qatar to include Pakistan and to court the favor of the U.S. government. They have offered to use their supposed influence with the Taliban to bring them together with the Afghan government in Abu Dhabi and Jeddah.
The U.S. government agreed to an official opening of a Taliban political office in Doha in June 2013, but Washington blocked the effort when Qatar and the Taliban violated an agreement not to claim the office represented the “Islamic Emirate” of Afghanistan. The members of the office nonetheless stayed on in Qatar, where they have operated without official recognition. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are trying, but have so far failed, to demonstrate that they could replace Qatar as Washington’s broker with the Taliban. The negotiations have continued in Qatar, but Saudi Arabia has used its new leverage with Pakistan to buy a stake in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, to China’s apparent annoyance, and to continue its effort to recruit Pakistan to its anti-Iran coalition.