ignificant progress on a number of issues has been made at the latest round of talks between the United States and the Taliban—but will these negotiations foster a lasting peace after decades of conflict? Experienced professionals disagree on the premise of negotiating with the Taliban; Dr. Barnett Rubin favors negotiations, while Ambassador Ryan Crocker opposes them. However, the ongoing Doha talks between U.S. representatives embody a new approach to ending the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan by reversing the order of priority issues from President Obama’s strategy. Though the United States has been negotiating with the Taliban in Doha since 2011, Ambassador Khalilzad’s strategy to negotiate an American withdrawal and extract counterterrorism assurances prior to moving on to intra-Afghan dialogue and a ceasefire agreement is new. Does this rearrangement really matter? The priority issues are proceeding in an order that appears to defy successful civil war termination sequences and may jeopardize the opportunity to achieve reconciliation between the Afghan government and rebel groups.
Joshi, Melander, and Quinn recently studied the sequencing of accommodation policies with post-civil war elections. Accommodations are any “measure that reduces the incompatibility of the former warring parties’ preferred policies.” In their 2017 paper Joshi et al found that specific forms of significant and early reconciliation measures lead to the highest likelihood of peace consolidation. A related finding is that low accommodation for rebel groups in the reconciliation process, or none prior to elections, had the lowest likelihood to secure a peaceful transition. The transition from conflict to peace requires negotiated solutions to simultaneous information problems and commitment problems.
The two agenda items pursued first by Ambassador Khalilzad pair a high-cost, easily-verifiable U.S. commitment with a low-cost commitment by the Taliban that is difficult to verify. The Taliban does not control the entire country, nor is it likely to do so while still competing with other rebel groups and Afghan security forces. As a non-state actor, the Taliban is incapable of comprehensively preventing terrorists from using Afghan territory. However, the U.S. withdrawal will be widely publicized and easily verifiable while costing billions of dollars and substantial political capital to achieve. Simultaneously, the central government’s status as the sovereign authority is diminished by excluding it from the ongoing Doha negotiations.
The two delayed agenda items—comprehensive ceasefire and intra-Afghan dialogue—have easily verifiable components and cost enough to demonstrate commitment. The ceasefire would visibly demonstrate the Taliban’s commitment to a rebel-to-party transition. By demonstrating the ability to end the violence, they would bolster confidence in their counterterrorism assurances to third parties. However, the political cost of a ceasefire is likely unacceptable to the Taliban, as they control or influence 12 percent of Afghan districts (while contesting an additional 34 percent) and conduct additional attacks on Afghan security forces in the north, east and southwest. A ceasefire, at this point, would be disempowering to the party that holds the advantage.
On the other hand, an intra-Afghan dialogue could build confidence to accommodate the Taliban as they make their rebel-to-party transition. The 1988 Geneva Accords showed that international non-interference agreements cannot be successful without a parallel domestic agreement. Joshi at al identify three high-cost, confidence-building measures that could be swiftly, publicly, and verifiably implemented:
1. creating a transitional government,
2. granting amnesty, and
3. releasing prisoners of war.
The United States has used the latter two measures in the past but it has not rehabilitated relations between Kabul and the Taliban. Therefore the prospect of a transitional government is the principal object in this analysis because the sequence of the Doha talks all but ensures the intra-Afghan dialogue will not occur before the next Afghan presidential election.
The United States has used the latter two measures in the past but it has not rehabilitated relations between Kabul and the Taliban. Therefore the prospect of a transitional government is the principal object in this analysis because the sequence of the Doha talks all but ensures the intra-Afghan dialogue will not occur before the next Afghan presidential election. Institutional resistance from a new Kabul administration should be expected after a hotly-contested electoral campaign if reconciliation results in giving some power to the Taliban. It will also be difficult to justify additional elections, considering the effort it takes for Afghan citizens to vote.
The effects of a missing intra-Afghan dialogue are amplified by facts on the ground. First, the opposition is not monolithic—the Taliban are not the only forces opposing a Western-backed government in Kabul, nor are the Taliban themselves strictly cohesive. As in Afghan civil wars past, the potential for northern, eastern, and western insurgencies linger if the Taliban are handed legitimacy and political power at the exclusion of a broader dialogue. Simply permitting the Taliban a say within the government will not solve the underlying within-state and between-state inequalities of power and prosperity that undergird ongoing political violence.
Second, acceptance of the Taliban as a legitimate counterparty in the Doha talks signals broader acceptance by the United States. Washington’s acceptance of a Taliban regime that includes corrupt, criminal, and political Islamist elements in Kabul, preempting an intra-Afghan dialogue, privileges the rebels before domestic negotiations approach the most serious issues. Taliban power-sharing creates an uncertain future for some U.S. policy preferences like gender, peace, and security programs.
Finally, the acceptance of a politically Islamist regime before the domestic politics are negotiated raises the issue “Can we trust our allies to support this strategy?” Pakistan has its own set of security interests in Afghanistan that do not perfectly match U.S. strategy. In addition, some of our Gulf allies have pursued aggressive counter-Islamist campaigns in the Middle East and as far afield as Sub-Saharan Africa to prevent disagreeable Islamist ideology from spreading. Implicit permission to reinstate political Islam as the governing principle in Afghanistan would be a juicy target for allies that are increasingly unconstrained by U.S. policy preferences in their backyard.
Negotiations with Afghan opposition is a critical part of the process to end America’s longest war. Sequencing both internal and external dialogues, upcoming Afghan elections, and U.S. forces’ withdrawal is integral to long-term peace. By sequencing the Doha talks in their current format, the opportunity to achieve reconciliation may be at risk. If negotiations are to address the long-term issues, the evidence shows that talks should quickly pivot to reduce bargaining space between domestic political competitors. Without confidence-building measures between the government and opposition already in place, expect the Afghan reconciliation process to take longer than the trajectory in Doha suggests—if it succeeds at all.