Fading Hope For a Peace Agreement in Afghanistan

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Written by: Jake Mezey, Timothy Dwight College ’21

The peace process in America’s longest war appears to be halted for the near future. The United States and the Taliban began directly negotiating an agreement 10 months ago in December of 2018. Since then, the Trump administration’s principal negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, has led efforts to reach a deal acceptable to both parties even while violence has escalated in the country. However, in the last month, the peace process has paradoxically broken down just as the Taliban and U.S. appeared to be on the verge of an agreement. 

In early September, Khalilzad announced that an agreement had been reached with the Taliban “in principle” pending approval by President Trump. However, on September 5th the Taliban claimed credit for a car bomb attack that killed US serviceman Sergeant Elis Ortiz. On September 7th, Trump canceled a potential meeting with Taliban leaders at Camp David in retaliation for the attack. Since then the peace process has been stalled, even as a deal may still be on the President’s desk. After the announcement, the Taliban warned that the failure of negotiations would lead to increased deaths. 

The U.S.’s main goals in any agreement are credible guarantees that the Taliban will prevent other extremist groups, particularly Al Qaeda from operating and launching attacks from its territory. The main aim of the Taliban is complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. The September 9th deal essentially proposed accommodating both of these demands: The U.S. would pull out and the Taliban would cut ties with Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, the Afghan Government is fearful that if the U.S. withdraws from the country the Taliban will overthrow the current government and likely kill many of its members. As such, the National Government has opposed the proposed agreement and negotiations with the Taliban. 

Other groups involved in the conflict in Afghanistan include NATO which, despite ending its combat role in the country, maintains an advisory role with the Afghan Security Forces. Another group is Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP) which is a splinter group of the Islamic State which operates in Southern and Central Asia. ISIL-KP is not aligned with the Taliban and the two groups frequently fight each other. Finally, Pakistan plays an important role in the conflict as its border with Afghanistan is incredibly porous and the Taliban frequently uses northern Pakistan as safe haven. This dynamic has led the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations to pursue a program of drone strikes inside of Pakistan which has been condemned by NGOs and foreign governments for its violation of international law. 

The proposed deal with the Taliban still did not address several crucial issues at stake in the conflict. Critically, it does not address whether the Taliban will be allowed to establish the religiously conservative government it favors, or whether it will have to agree to share power with the current Afghan government as a condition for American withdraw. Second, the U.S. hopes to keep special forces in the country even after a general withdrawal to combat ISIL. The Taliban views any foreign presence as unacceptable. Finally, the negotiations did not include protections for the rights of Afghani citizens, most importantly women, whose freedoms were harshly restricted under Taliban rule.   

However, there may still be a glimmer of hope. On Thursday October 4th, Zalmay Khalilzad traveled to Islamabad to meet with members of the Pakistani Foreign Ministry. While he was there, it seems he conducted an informal meeting with representatives of the Taliban which lasted over an hour. It is possible that the Pakistani government has played the role of messenger between the two parties while President Trump blocks direct negotiation. If anything is clear, it is that American withdrawal from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years seems imminent. The question now is what state will the country be in when that happens. 

Works Cited:

“A Timeline of the U.S. War in Afghanistan.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed October 7, 2019. https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-war-afghanistan

Constable, Pamela. “The Draft Afghan Peace Plan, Explained.” The Washington Post. WP Company, August 16, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/draft-of-afghan-peace-plan-leaves-key-issues-unmentioned-or-postponed/2019/08/16/be09d57c-c04e-11e9-a8b0-7ed8a0d5dc5d_story.html.

“Drone Strikes: Pakistan.” New America. Accessed October 7, 2019. https://www.newamerica.org/in-depth/americas-counterterrorism-wars/pakistan/

George, Susannah. “U.S. Envoy, Taliban Leadership Said to Meet in Pakistan for First Time since Talks Scuttled.” The Washington Post. WP Company, October 4, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/us-envoy-taliban-leadership-meet-in-pakistan-for-first-time-since-talks-scuttled/2019/10/04/e0359eda-e694-11e9-a331-2df12d56a80b_story.html.