How to Bargain with the Taliban
President Joe Biden will soon have to decide whether to withdraw the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by May 1, as stipulated by the February 2020 Doha agreement. According to the agreement’s original timeline, the withdrawal was supposed to be completed after the Taliban and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan had negotiated for 14 months over a political road map for the country leading to a ceasefire. But these talks started six months late and are still far from a settlement that could stabilize Afghanistan after U.S. troops leave. Withdrawal without progress toward a political settlement risks further collapse in Afghanistan, while unilaterally extending the troops’ stay would effectively abrogate the Doha agreement, embroiling the United States once again in full-scale war with the Taliban with no plausible plan for victory.
Biden may not be able to escape this dilemma, but he can at least mitigate the risk by recognizing there are more factors in play than just troop withdrawal and a political settlement. When the political negotiations envisioned by the Doha agreement were delayed, measures to remove sanctions on the Taliban and release thousands of Taliban detainees were delayed as well. As a result, an immediate U.S. withdrawal would leave Taliban prisoners in detention and an array of international sanctions against the group. This gives Washington an important source of leverage with the Taliban, who have long made international recognition and legitimacy a priority.
Washington should propose a six-month extension of the Doha timetable, providing more time to negotiate both a political settlement and measures to remove sanctions and release detainees. The extra time would also enable the United States to pursue the “robust and regional diplomatic effort” promised by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in support of negotiations. The United States should complete the withdrawal at the end of this period regardless of the outcome, but the added six months of negotiation would increase the chances for stability in Afghanistan.
The Doha agreement theoretically provides the key elements needed for a stable Afghanistan. It stipulates the withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops, Taliban guarantees to prevent terrorist activity, and a negotiated political settlement among Afghan factions leading to a ceasefire. The agreement states that all of these elements are “interdependent.” The sole mechanism for implementing that interdependence made explicit in the agreement, however, is the timeline for all the components. As envisioned:
- The signing of the accords on Feb. 29, 2020, would lead within 10 days to the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the government and up to 1,000 prisoners held by the Taliban. This would coincide with the start of talks between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
- As these talks continued, the United States would engage the U.N. Security Council with the goal of reviewing and removing U.N. sanctions against the Taliban by May 29, three months after the agreement was signed.
- Five days later, on June 3, the remaining prisoners on both sides would be released.
- A little more than a month later, on July 13, 135 days after the signing of the agreement, the United States would reduce its forces to 8,600 and withdraw from five military bases.
- On Aug. 29, after three more months of negotiation, and six months after the signing of the agreement, the United States would review and remove its bilateral sanctions on the Taliban.
- On May 1, 2021, after nearly 14 months of negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the Taliban, U.S. and allied troops would complete their withdrawal.
While there was no explicit provision for conditionality, the sequencing provided multiple occasions for each side to raise concerns about the pace of implementation of all the interdependent parts of the agreement while some U.S. troops remained in Afghanistan. The implication was that sanctions would be removed gradually, as the progress of the peace process eliminated the grounds for initially imposing them.
Yet this implicit timetable completely broke down. A six-month delay in the start of negotiations between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic threw off the entire agreement. As a result, the deadlines for releasing prisoners and reviewing sanctions were not met. Negotiations between the U.S. and Afghan governments over the prisoner releases were further complicated by lengthy delays in announcing the disputed outcome of the September 2019 Afghan presidential elections. Nine days after the signing of the agreement, on March 9, 2020, both the declared winner, incumbent President Ashraf Ghani, and his rival, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, held competing inauguration ceremonies. Two weeks later, over 10 days after the government was scheduled to start talks with the Taliban, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rushed to Kabul where, by threatening to withhold aid, he pressured the two leaders into forming a united delegation to begin talks.
To make matters even more complicated, the Taliban prisoners were not held by the United States, but by the Afghan government. In the Doha agreement, the Taliban promised only that the released prisoners would not attack the United States, leaving them free to fight the Afghan government. Not surprisingly, this has been a sticking point for the Afghan government, which now claims the released prisoners are doing just that.
The result is an implementation process that is unbalanced from the point of view of both sides. The U.S. and Afghan governments are concerned that even after the political negotiations among Afghans started — over six months late in September 2020 — they have made little progress. Since January the Taliban have refused to meet the Islamic Republic delegation without assurances that the Biden administration will respect the withdrawal agreement. Hence there is unlikely to be any meaningful progress toward a political settlement by May 1.
Still Time for a New Timeline
A six-month extension could reset the timeline, enabling both sides to still obtain the benefits they envisioned from the Doha agreement. When some, including me, have proposed negotiating with the Taliban to extend the withdrawal deadline, skeptics often ask why the Taliban would agree. The answer is that the United States can offer to recalibrate the entire timetable, both the withdrawal deadline and the schedule for releasing prisoners and removing sanctions. In other words, the United States can still offer the Taliban something they have long sought.
International recognition and legitimacy have been central objectives of the Taliban movement from the time it constituted itself as a government. In January 1997, only four months after the Taliban captured Kabul, Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, who later became Taliban foreign minister, led a delegation to New York to ask the U.N. secretary-general to grant them Afghanistan’s seat in the General Assembly. (They did not realize that the secretary-general could not make this decision, which was up to the General Assembly.) At a public meeting with the delegation that I chaired at Columbia University, Mutawakkil argued that the United States should recognize the Taliban, as they would bring security to Afghanistan and were supposedly willing to partner with the United States in the fight against international terrorism.
After the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on the Taliban in 1999 over their harboring of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the Taliban actively sought to get the sanctions removed. One of the key motives for their total ban on the cultivation of opium poppies in 2000 and 2001 was to meet at least one core international demand. High-level European diplomats told me that at a meeting in Abu Dhabi in January 2010, Tayyib Agha, the head of the Taliban political commission, insisted that being removed from the “blacklist,” as they called the sanctions, was the “paramount” issue for the Taliban. This item remained at the top of their agenda all the way through the Doha agreement. Even if U.S. troops left Afghanistan, and a victorious Taliban freed all of their detainees, they would still be under sanctions and could be subject to even more. That is not the outcome the Taliban are seeking.
The Taliban have seen the deadlines for the release of their prisoners and removal of sanctions pass without action and must now ask themselves how they will achieve their goals. If the United States simply kept troops in Afghanistan after May 1, in effect unilaterally abrogating the Doha agreement, the Taliban would be likely to withdraw from negotiations entirely and launch a major offensive targeting the remaining U.S. and NATO forces in pursuit of their unchanged goals.
If, however, the United States approached the Taliban with an offer to recalibrate the entire agreement to recover the lost six months in such a way as to offer both sides a better chance to achieve what they want, the Taliban would have good reason to consider it. The process of removing the sanctions should not be automatic. The agreement provides for “review,” not summary removal. This enables the United States to negotiate with the Taliban and demand changes in the policies and behaviors that prompted sanctions in the first place. In establishing a sanctions regime for the Taliban separate from al-Qaeda, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1988 (2011) cites the group’s “ongoing violent and terrorist activities.” It is extremely unlikely that the U.N. Security Council would agree to remove these sanctions without significant progress toward a ceasefire. That in turn would put pressure on both the Taliban and the Afghan government to reach a political agreement that would facilitate a ceasefire.
The required regional diplomacy is also starting late and needs time to produce results. In a Feb. 16 interview, Russian Presidential Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov announced that he would convene an international meeting by the end of February “to agree on a collective mechanism for urging the two sides in Afghanistan to sit down at the negotiations table and announce a ceasefire.” Kabulov said that he would use the troika plus mechanism that he and U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad had developed, consisting of the United States, China, and Russia plus the two most influential neighbors of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. If these five actors propose both a ceasefire and a recalibration of the timetable in a way that would serve the interests of all parties, it would be difficult for the Taliban to refuse. They have shown their concern for the views of these countries by sending high-level delegations to their capitals while waiting for the U.S. decision.
In recent weeks, activist organizations from across the political spectrum have sent letters to both Congress and Biden urging them to end America’s “forever wars.” Twenty years in Afghanistan is a long war for the United States, but Afghans have been at war since 1978, over twice as long. Biden’s top priorities — the pandemic, climate change, arms control, and the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal — all require cooperation with adversaries. Instead of fighting the last war against a dead Osama bin Laden, Biden should use another six months to secure an agreement that can help end the longest forever war.
Barnett R. Rubin is a nonresident fellow at the Center on International Cooperation of New York University and the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He has taught at Yale and Columbia universities, headed the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and served as senior adviser to both the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009 to 2013) and the U.N. special representative of the secretary-general for Afghanistan (2001 to 2002). His most recent book, Afghanistan: What Everyone Needs to Know, was published by Oxford University Press in 2020.