Parsing the emerging US-Taliban deal: many questions, few answers

Parsing the emerging US-Taliban deal: many questions, few answers

US envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad on Tolo TV, in Kabul. (Reuters)

After nine rounds of talks, the US government and the Taliban have reached an agreement in principle. It entails the withdrawal of about 5,000 American troops from Afghanistan over several months after the deal is finalized. It also stipulates that the Taliban agree to deny space to international terrorists, with the expectation that it would then turn to an intra-Afghan dialogue meant to lead to a comprehensive political settlement that ends a decades-long war.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the lead US negotiator, is trying to build consensus for the deal. He has held consultations with Kabul — which was sidelined from the talks — and with NATO partners.

This new but not yet finalized agreement is a major development. But it’s also fraught with questions and uncertainties.

The first question revolves around how the deal was announced. Khalilzad publicly revealed details about the agreement in a television interview with Tolo News, a major Afghan television channel. He did this before many key people, including President Donald Trump, had signed off on it. How odd that Khalilzad would offer so much information about a not yet finalized deal in such a prominent public setting, without Trump having signed off on it. Perhaps this was Khalilzad wanting to bend over backwards to make sure that Afghans — and not just their government — were properly consulted after having been locked out of negotiations. But if that’s the case, why did Khalilzad only show the draft accord to Afghan President Ghani when he met him recently — and not actually share a copy of the agreement?

And then there’s the agreement itself. The deal entails the withdrawal of about 5,000 troops, which suggests that about 8,000 more will remain. It’s unclear what the timeframe will be for the withdrawal of those remaining forces — if they are indeed to be withdrawn at all. Additionally, it’s unclear what type of role is envisioned for them. The Taliban, which wants all American troops out of Afghanistan, won’t want them sticking around for long.

Another key question is the much-discussed verification and monitoring issue. It’s unclear what if anything the deal will do to ensure that the Taliban upholds its commitments — such as denying space to international terrorists and reducing violence in areas where US troops withdraw.

Indeed, the US government and Taliban both share a simple goal: reaching agreement on a troop withdrawal plan.

Michael Kugelman

And on a related note, there’s no indication what the US government would do if the Taliban reneges on its commitments. In the Tolo interview, Khalilzad hinted that Washington would not tolerate any Taliban moves that go against the spirit of the agreement. He has said that the US government would not accept “the forcible return” of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate — a likely reference to an outcome in which Afghanistan sees the return of Taliban rule, achieved by the insurgents’ ouster of the government by force. This, he said, would be a “red line.” Khalilzad also said that Washington would “change its mind” about the Taliban if it does not cooperate in the fight against Daesh.

What does this actually mean? What would the United States do under these circumstances, if the Taliban reneges on its commitments? Would it seek to renegotiate a new deal? Would it send troops back to Afghanistan?

This is all enough to make one’s head spin. And yet the sobering reality is that as fraught as the negotiation process has been between the United States and the Taliban over the last year, and despite all these complex questions that remain even with the two sides on the cusp of a deal, this is actually the easier part of the broader Afghan peace and reconciliation process.

Indeed, the US government and the Taliban both share a simple goal: reaching agreement on a troop withdrawal plan. They’ve done so, and in the coming days the deal will be finalized.

The much harder part will come next, when the peace process pivots toward the intra-Afghan dialogue. There is a perfect storm of factors that will make this enterprise a very tall order: The Taliban’s strident opposition to talks with Afghan government representatives; the deep divisions within the Afghan government and the broader political class; an upcoming presidential election that could exacerbate these political divisions; and a lack of clarity on how committed the Taliban is to ending the war, and what type of outcome it would be willing to accept.

This isn’t at all to suggest that what’s happening now in Afghanistan is a bad thing. On the contrary: The country and its people have suffered through war for far too long, and negotiations offer the only hope of ending an endless conflict.

But it won’t be easy. And though the progress we’re seeing in Afghanistan now is unprecedented and therefore cause for optimism, a lot of hard work remains. And the questions, both those cited above and those yet to arise, will continue to mount.

  • Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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