Negotiations with the Taliban Won’t Give Afghanistan What it Needs
Afghanistan’s experiment with communism ended with the country’s destruction between 1978 and 1992. The short-lived mujahedeen government and Afghan civil war phase ended in 1996, with the destruction of Kabul and the Taliban control of most of the country. The experiment with an Islamic emirate under the Taliban wrecked Afghanistan further. The current government, a Western experiment in state-building, is struggling to cope with a growing insurgency. But, instead of looking for ways to strengthen the Afghan state, some policymakers are considering another dangerous new experiment that weakens it and may bring about an even more disastrous ending to this chapter in Afghan history. The latest venture on the horizon is a push for a hasty peace deal with the Taliban. The reconciliation concept — which became a key component of the Obama administration’s unsuccessful exit strategy — centers on a power-sharing agreement between the Afghan government and the insurgent group. Unfortunately, those peddling the art of the deal with the Taliban rely on wishful thinking, overstate the group’s appetite for reconciliation, and fail to lay out a comprehensive strategy that achieve results in Afghanistan.
The Taliban have made it clear they are not interested in any sort of power-sharing deal with what they consider the “puppet” government in Kabul. If anything, the recent Taliban attempt to capture Ghazni city and the launch of other significant offensives throughout the country should have been enough to quash the rumors of a shared desire for a negotiated peace. Still, some in Washington tout that a genuine opportunity to jump-start the Afghan peace process exists. With little positive news coming out of Afghanistan these days, the hype over prospects for reconciliation or unilateral ceasefire offers from the Afghan government is masking the uncomfortable reality. A strategy focused on reconciliation efforts will not work. Moreover, pushing for a reconciliation while the insurgents are making significant gains ignores the historical lessons learned from previous failed enterprises in Afghanistan.
Instead of buying into the false hype of progress, President Donald Trump should demand a better return on American investment. Otherwise, Washington risks a situation in which the hype becomes a substitute for actual substantive progress in Afghanistan.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of Trump’s announcement of a new strategy for Afghanistan, this elation over potential peace talks with the Taliban seems surreal. Last August, the president announced that the Taliban and the Islamic State “need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms.” Immediately after the announcement, the military commander in Afghanistan, Gen.John W. Nicholson, declared, “This new strategy means the Taliban cannot win militarily. … Now is the time to renounce violence and reconcile.”
But a year later, with violence at near-record levels, the Taliban seem interested neither in dividing the country nor in sharing power with the current government. They seem committed to the pursuit of a military win.
Recently, an article in the Daily Beast described secret talks between the United States and the Taliban, positing that these meetings could be the beginning of a negotiated end to the conflict. According to the article, a former U.S. Army colonel and a former senior U.S. diplomat met with the Taliban in a series of meetings that, though unofficial, were instrumental in convincing policymakers in Washington that negotiating with the Taliban was plausible. The former colonel stressed the need to “put personal animosities aside and look at what’s in the national interest.” He added, “It’s not easy to do. It’s not easy to put aside those personal feelings. But you’ve got to do it, in order, essentially, to win a war through a negotiated outcome. It’s an obligation.” According to the Daily Beast, this nine-month, unofficial engagement led to a high-level meeting between the Taliban and Amb. Alice Wells, the State Department’s top diplomat for South and Central Asia, in Doha, on July 23.
Senior U.S. officials have gone so far as to suggest that a recent ceasefire in Afghanistan during Eid al-Fitr reflects a “sign of positive movement” towards a peace settlement. However, the discipline with which the Taliban initiated the three-day pause in fighting and, with even more control, promptly restarted hostilities on cue, suggests otherwise. At the end of the ceasefire, they ordered their fighters “to continue their operations against the foreign invaders and their internal puppets.” In rejecting the Afghan government’s offer of a much longer ceasefire, Taliban leadership demonstrated centralized authority over their local commanders and their movement’s internal cohesion.
A few days after the Taliban abandoned the ceasefire, Wells issued a statement for record to the House Foreign Affairs Committee stating that “after more than 16 years of war, we see a real opportunity this year to start an Afghan peace process that could lead to a durable settlement of the conflict.” Actual indicators on the ground, however, suggest that the Taliban are more interested in the overthrow of the current government than in a durable settlement. They are gaining and contesting more territory than at any time since their own regime was toppled.
In the rural parts of Afghanistan, the group is strengthening its safe havens. The Taliban intimidate, cajole, and manipulate the population to gain support, while leveraging government and aid agencies’ efforts to deliver public goods and services under their banner and control. A recent Overseas Development Institute report, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, suggests that the Taliban have prioritized governance initiatives in the areas they control.
In a recent study sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace, Borhan Osman makes it clear that the Taliban are not interested in “ceasing jihad in return for integration into a system they abhor.” He adds: “Taliban fighters think that ousting foreign troops by force is the most realistic strategy. Only then, they believe, can they negotiate with the government in Kabul and other Afghan groups.” Ultimately, Osman concludes that “the Taliban rank and file are not enthusiastic about peace talks.” The report highlights the Taliban’s confidence in their status on the battlefield and their lack of interest in a negotiated settlement with the Afghan government. Although well-intentioned diplomats want to believe that real momentum for peace talks exists, Taliban actions suggest otherwise.
Today’s emphasis on reconciliation echoes the optimism of an earlier group of international negotiators who saw their hopes dashed in the Hindu Kush a generation ago. In the early 1990s, negotiators tried to broker a peace agreement between the mujahedeen and the Communist government in Kabul. Representatives of the main mujahedeen groups reached a political power-sharing compromise, in what is commonly referred to as the “Peshawar Accords,” in April 1992. The enmity between key personalities and the parties they represented, however, led to a civil war that was catastrophic for an already devastated country.
Although they differ in many ways, the peace initiatives of the 1990s and today both emphasized power-sharing between groups with at least one opponent who was not ready to reconcile. Today, powerful leaders and parties represented within the Afghan government have not reconciled their internal differences. Afghanistan’s national unity government came to power in 2014 as a reconciliation of sorts between presidential contenders willing to share power. But factionalism has weakened its capacity to achieve substantive results. If such a framework cannot work between those who have embraced the Afghan constitution, it is hard to imagine that power-sharing could work within a system of governance that also includes the Taliban.
How can a fractured government, challenged daily from within by senior members of the executive branch who remain in office while simultaneously forming opposition coalitions, negotiate with the Taliban effectively? Sadly, it appears the lessons of the 1990s remain unlearned.
For now, at least, reconciliation with the Taliban is an unrealistic priority, and U.S. South Asia policy should be adjusted accordingly. Instead, Washington should emphasize the need for return on investment from the Afghan government. As international donors continue to provide the resources, advisers, and assistance necessary for Afghanistan to defend against the insurgency, the Kabul government must deliver on promises made to the Afghan people, in the form of governance, economic, and social reforms. Pressuring the Taliban on the battlefield is necessary, but not sufficient, to achieve a negotiated end to the conflict. The next parliament and the next president of Afghanistan must build a much more effective and honest government that could, at a later time, pursue a more meaningful peace process. Rather than trying to influence Taliban behavior now, in the hopes of an elusive reconciliation, the international community needs to focus more on the internal Afghan government improvements and return on investment first.
The international community must also learn from its mistakes. Donors did not maintain sufficient pressure on the factions that constituted the national unity government to deliver on its electoral reform promises. No doubt, the upcoming parliamentary (October 2018) and presidential (spring 2019) elections will likely be flawed. Instead of wasting resources on bilateral engagement with the Taliban, the United States must make it clear that a new Afghan government will need to fix the electoral system and deliver on its campaign promises. If the West focuses on strengthening institutions and applies a heavy dose of conditionality to its support, the Afghan government might actually start delivering positive returns on international investment and on the sacrifices made by the population every day.
While international donors will have to swallow the bitter pill of electoral imperfection, they also cannot afford to support an ineffective Afghan government for long. Their focus must go beyond security sectors. Donors need to set clear parameters for return on investment in governance, economy, and other sectors necessary to strengthen the state. But if, for example, Afghanistan continues to bottom out the corruption scale year after year, with no effective mechanisms to curb graft, the United States and its allies should hold back financial support. This is not meant to suggest that Washington should hold Kabul hostage. Rather, support should be designed to help technocratic reformers convince the recalcitrant others that ineffective governance and rife corruption will not be tolerated. Politically, the Afghan government must reconcile internal differences before it takes on the much harder task of reconciling with the Taliban. Any U.S. South Asia strategy should be about strengthening the Afghan state’s position, rather than trying to influence Taliban behavior.
Ultimately, the United States must put a stop to the continuing string of failed (or failing) experiments and concentrate on an informed strategy that is conscious of past failures and strengthens the Afghan state. Washington should demand reconciliation between the Afghan government and opposition parties who have embraced the constitution long before it pursues deals with the Taliban. Although a dialogue with the Taliban is not a bad thing in principle, the hype over potential negotiations is not helpful. The United States and other donors should channel their energy in support of governance and economic reform, as well as the “advise and assist” military mission, with emphasis on leadership development, rather than talks with the Taliban in Doha. In return, the Afghan government needs to achieve tangible results, rather than engaging in PowerPoint-building exercises from one donor conference to the next. Afghanistan and its international partners need to agree on a pathway that achieves results rather than just buying into the hype of yet another experiment.
Ioannis “Gianni” Koskinas is a senior fellow with the International Security Program at New America, where he focuses on foreign policy issues with an emphasis on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and the Levant. He is the CEO of the Hoplite Group.