US-Afghan relations are now facing a dramatic recalibration
The deal between the US and Afghan Taliban leadership signed in Doha this week is a diplomatic breakthrough that establishes an exit strategy for American forces after the longest war in the country’s history.
However, the mood in Washington and Kabul is far from celebratory. Doubts about the Taliban’s true intentions, diverse spoilers and likely resistance to the deal’s implementation by President Ashraf Ghani’s government make for a sobering reality.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US negotiator and former envoy to Afghanistan, deserves credit for getting the often-rocky negotiation to the finish line. Since the process began in 2013 with the opening of the diplomatic Taliban office in Qatar, it has faltered many times over broken promises about cease-fires and each side’s core principles: The US has seen talks with the Taliban as a stepping stone to a more comprehensive intra-Afghan peace process, while the Taliban has focused on the withdrawal of US forces to reset its relations with the Kabul government or repudiate its ties with Al-Qaeda.
The deal will see a gradual withdrawal of almost all the 12,000 US troops remaining in country. And that may be the full measure of the US interest and desired outcome, one that President Donald Trump will highlight as one of his national security achievements.
The full implementation is linked to various performance criteria, and the most immediate obstacle may be the unwillingness of the Ghani government in Kabul to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, a pledge the US is committed to “facilitating.”
Politicians and pundits are also scrambling to learn more about secret annexes, which may spell out circumstances in which US troops remain for specific missions, but the focus needs to be on the capacity of the Afghan political actors to support this process.
For the Taliban, the agreement must be seen as a great success that legitimizes the movement as an essential player and the only Afghan actor that may have achieved the withdrawal of foreign forces. One can only imagine a future campaign slogan promoting the heroic Taliban protecting Afghan sovereign rights.
Some believe that the Taliban have mellowed over the years, and should they become part of the formal political system in Kabul, as an opposition or even back in power, they might support more modern policies on education and the status of women. But that is a big unknown, and victims of Taliban violence across Afghan society are reacting negatively to the status conferred on the movement by the US deal.
The lesson of this deal is that Afghanistan — deeply underdeveloped and socially conservative — has to find its own political equilibrium.
The government in Kabul, already stressed by a second contested presidential election between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, has decidedly mixed views about the deal. Ghani has expressed deep dismay that the US, ostensibly his ally, accepted Taliban conditions that excluded government officials from the negotiations. He told CNN on March 1 that the Taliban cannot dictate conditions to Kabul. The Afghan leader explained that the release of prisoners, for example, will require a lengthy process, and that his government still wants to be persuaded that the Taliban will respect a full cease-fire, sever its ties to all terrorist organizations and drug cartels, declare its support for Afghan civilian rights, and more. The deal signed in Doha could well collapse from the weight of the differences between Kabul and the Taliban on all matters of governance and the political values of the state.
For the US, should this agreement actually permit the desired withdrawal of US and NATO forces, it will find its place in the canon of national security literature as another war that did not produce a military victory. Virtually every war since the Second World War, with the notable exception of the Gulf War of 1990-91, failed to achieve a clear military victory and a sustained political settlement. Afghanistan will join Vietnam as a long, tragic engagement where the US lost sight of an achievable goal.
American political leaders over nearly two decades were lured into an expanded set of political objectives that kept shifting the goalposts for the US armed forces. Defeating Al-Qaeda and removing the Taliban from power was achieved in late 2001, but in the flush of success, American leaders wanted to invest in making Afghanistan a more stable and modern place, which would not fall prey to extremism again.
The lesson of this deal is that Afghanistan — deeply underdeveloped and socially conservative — has to find its own political equilibrium. US-Afghan relations are now facing a dramatic recalibration.
- Ellen Laipson, a former vice chair of the US’s National Intelligence Council, is currently director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. She is a former president and CEO of the Stimson Center in Washington. Prior to this, Laipson spent a quarter century in government service. Copyright: Syndication Bureau