Is Peace with the Taliban Possible?
Khalilzad has just begun his ninth round of negotiations with Taliban representatives in Doha. Separately, he has had numerous meetings with the Afghan government and non-governmental leaders, as well as with regional and international actors – but not Iran, with which the US is locked in a cycle of deepening hostility.
He has focused on four interrelated objectives: a timetable for the exit of all foreign troops currently in Afghanistan; a commitment from the Taliban to prevent hostile acts being launched against the US from Afghan soil; direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which the Taliban regard as “illegitimate” and a “puppet”; and a ceasefire across Afghanistan.
But although Khalilzad may finally manage to reach agreement with the Taliban regarding the first two aims, there is no guarantee that America’s partner in the peace talks will help to realize the remaining two. The Afghan government’s weakness and internal divisions would give the Taliban the upper hand in any power-sharing arrangement, particularly after US and allied forces have left. And it is very doubtful that the Taliban, whether in power or as a partner in power, would be able to control other armed opposition groups, most importantly IS-K, or enlist the support of a cross-section of Afghanistan’s diverse population.
The Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns, hailing specifically from the Ghilzai tribe to which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and many around him belong. Neither the Ghilzais nor the rival Durrani tribe of former President Hamid Karzai are much trusted by non-Pashtun ethnic groups, who (though themselves divided) collectively form the largest share of Afghanistan’s population. To complicate matters further, all Afghan ethnic groups have extensive cross-border ties with the country’s neighbors.
Meanwhile, IS-K has loyalty to no one inside Afghanistan. The group became operational in 2015 and is said to have about 2,000 fighters (including some Taliban defectors), who are dedicated to creating disruption and chaos. They have been responsible for horrific attacks across Afghanistan, especially in Kabul and mostly on civilian targets.
Any withdrawal of US and allied forces during Trump’s current term, whether phased or otherwise, must be based on conditions on the ground. Otherwise, the consequences will be disastrous. Because of the way the peace process and the situation in Afghanistan have evolved, a hasty foreign-troop withdrawal would lead to a fiasco similar to those generated by the earlier Soviet retreat from the country and by the US withdrawal from Vietnam.
To avoid such a catastrophe, the US and its allies need to remain in Afghanistan for at least another decade. But Trump is in a hurry, and thinks that a strong CIA presence in the country will manage to do what Western forces have been unable to achieve. More likely than not, that will prove to be wishful thinking.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.