If all goes well, on February 29 the United States and the Taliban will sign a bilateral agreement in Doha that could potentially mark a turning point in the long-running Afghan conflict. In exchange for U.S. commitments on troop reductions, the Taliban will agree to cut ties and join the international community in opposing extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and, crucially, will agree to enter into negotiations with the Afghan government aimed at conclusively resolving the conflict. These “intra-Afghan” talks would likely begin within a month of the signing of the bilateral agreement. The talks will present a historic opportunity to bring peace to Afghanistan that should be seized upon by all sides.
Considering the Taliban’s consistent reluctance to talk to the Afghan government, getting the parties into the same room and talking to each other will be a significant, and essential, step in the peace process. But it will not be easy for the Afghan government and the Taliban to reach an agreement — particularly an agreement that international partners are able to live with and would see as a basis for continuing to provide the development funding that the country sorely needs. Such an agreement is within reach. But it will require commitment, patience, and moderation from the parties, and continued support from Afghanistan’s international partners.
Success will depend on deftly navigating risks that could endanger the nascent peace process, some of which could derail intra-Afghan talks before they even begin. Here are six potential challenges that will need to be tackled before the start of talks.
1. Reducing and Containing Violence
At the end of last summer, a deal very similar to the one currently on the table between the United States and the Taliban appeared imminent. Then a Taliban attack claimed the life of a U.S. soldier and the deal, already controversial in D.C. policy circles, was shelved (through a tweet from President Donald Trump). Months of diplomacy over the winter succeeded in reviving the basic outlines of the deal. The key difference between the current agreement and last summer’s is the Taliban commitment to a “reduction of violence” between 21 February and the signing of the deal at the end of the month. This is intended to demonstrate the Taliban’s ability to rein in their forces, and makes the deal more palatable to the Afghan government, which originally demanded a full ceasefire as a precondition to talks.
However, ensuring even a partial moratorium on violence in Afghanistan (as in other conflict countries) is fraught with risk. Afghan media report that 18 security forces were killed during the first four days of the reduction of violence period. In any case the agreement on reduction of violence is not equivalent to a complete ceasefire (as the Afghan government had initially insisted upon) and certain military operations may continue. As of yet there is no clear commitment from the Taliban to a longer-term reduction of violence beyond the period immediately preceding the signing of the bilateral agreement. This heightens the risk that violent incidents may provoke either side to withdraw their agreement to participate in negotiations (as Trump did in September). Even if the Taliban were to agree to a longer-term reduction of violence, there is always a risk of spoilers, acting outside of the usual command and control structures, who are intent on derailing the peace process. This risk will continue well into the intra-Afghan negotiations.
2. Maintaining Unity Within the Afghan Government
Alongside the drama of upcoming negotiations with the Taliban, an entirely unrelated political crisis has engulfed Afghanistan in recent weeks. Presidential elections took place on September 28, 2019. They were marred by an exceptionally low turnout amid the ever-present threat of violence. Final results were only announced on February 18, 2020, five months after the initial vote. These results suggested that incumbent president, Ashraf Ghani, had been narrowly re-elected with 50.64 percent of the vote, thereby avoiding the need for a runoff. But the outcome was quickly refuted by his chief challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, calling the results fraudulent.
This situation has parallels with presidential elections in 2014, when both of these two candidates claimed victory. In that case a power-sharing agreement was mediated between them by the United States, with Ghani taking on the presidency and Abdullah the newly created role of chief executive officer.
At the time of writing, both candidates have declared victory in the presidential elections and are planning to establish parallel governments. For the moment the situation has remained peaceful but each candidate is backed by powerful factions able to mobilize significant political and military resources. If not resolved, this rivalry has a dangerous potential to escalate. The only winners from a deep political schism at the current moment, throwing the country further into chaos, would be the Taliban.
3. Establishing a Broad-Based Negotiating Team
Related to the above political situation, appointing a negotiating team on behalf of the Afghan republic that has broad based support across political lines has proved to be an exceptionally difficult task. All sides accept the need for the negotiating team (and, potentially, a larger “leadership council” of senior figures that would provide overall strategic guidance) to fulfil the demands of “inclusivity” and receive the collective buy-in of the Afghan political elite. Even setting aside the current deadlock between the two opposing presidential candidates, the Afghan political scene consists of many powerful factions who all wish to see their concerns and delegates represented within the negotiating team or leadership council.
The government has spent recent months reaching out across the political spectrum to discuss the structure and composition of the team that will represent the republic in talks. But in the current political situation, reaching conclusive agreement has proved difficult. In the meantime, political attention in Kabul remains, understandably, focused on the structure and composition of the negotiating team, rather than the content of future talks.
4. Setting Ground Rules for Talks
Through two decades of insurgency, the Taliban have consistently refused to talk to the Afghan government. The key achievement and breakthrough of the bilateral U.S.-Taliban agreement is therefore that it will finally open the door to intra-Afghan talks. Nevertheless, the devil is in the details and it is not clear that the bilateral agreement contains a commitment from the Taliban to talk to any future team that is nominated to represent the Afghan republic, or whether it leaves scope for the Taliban to object to certain members of the government’s negotiating team.
A dialogue session between the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan republic took place over two days in Doha last July, with delegates participating in their personal capacities. But an attempt to recreate this dialogue in Beijing in November fell apart when the Taliban allegedly objected to the inclusion of certain individuals in the government team. If the Taliban again claim to be ostensibly willing to engage in negotiations, but retain the right to object to particular individuals, this could halt intra-Afghan talks before they even begin.
5. Agreeing on a Location for Intra-Afghan Talks
It is thought that the bilateral agreement between the United States and the Taliban does not specify a location for intra-Afghan talks. In any case this would need to be agreed upon first and foremost between the two parties. But the Afghan government is not directly involved in the current bilateral talks and the Taliban have so far refused to publicly pronounce their preference for the location for talks. Hence an agreement on the location, for at least the first stage of intra-Afghan talks, will need to be negotiated between the Taliban and Afghan government following the signing of the bilateral agreement at the end of this month. Last summer there were indications that both sides would be willing to accept Oslo as a location for the talks. However, surprises are always possible and there are certain locations that would presumably be unacceptable to one or other of the parties.
6. Reaching Agreement on a Prisoner Exchange
Finally, a mutual prisoner release is thought to be part of the bilateral U.S.-Taliban deal as a confidence building measure in anticipation of talks. This would reportedly consist of the Taliban freeing around 1,000 prisoners in exchange for the Afghan government releasing around 5,000 Taliban currently held in captivity. Notably, however, the Afghan government was not involved in these negotiations and sees the Taliban prisoners, who are within the government’s custody, as one of their key points of leverage with the Taliban. They are hence reluctant to release these prisoners before negotiations begin. If they do not, however, the Taliban have signalled they will not enter intra-Afghan talks.
The Start of the Journey
If all parties manage to successfully navigate the pitfalls outlined above, they will then sit down together for the first time to engage in negotiations aimed at bringing the Afghan war to a close. This would be a significant achievement after so many years of war.
The good news is that many of these risks are manageable. The more extensive and lasting joint commitments to reduce violence can be made to be, the better the chances are that the peace process will succeed. Agreed rules on joint communications can minimize the risk of escalation following violent incidents or attempts by spoilers to derail talks. The Taliban’s motivation to remain committed to talks will be bolstered if the international community avoids sending signals that it is looking for the exit in Afghanistan and instead demonstrates its long-term commitment to the Afghan government until an acceptable peace deal is agreed. This will reduce any temptation the Taliban may have to seek procedural impediments to avoid talking to the Afghan government, or to attempt to run down the clock without constructively engaging in talks. Experience and good practice from peace negotiations elsewhere can inform intra-Afghan talks and help the parties to reach agreement.
The split between Ghani and Abdullah may also be resolved with careful handling and readiness to compromise. In particular, it is positive that both sides have close positions regarding peace talks with the Taliban: both seek to preserve Afghanistan’s constitution, in particular the democratic character of the republic, and the progress the country has made since 2001 on issues such as women’s rights. This provides a good basis to build consensus on a negotiating mandate for the republic.
There are further reasons to be hopeful. Actors across the political spectrum in Kabul see an opportunity worth seizing in these talks. A new generation of Afghans is ready for peace: public opinion strongly favors a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Pakistan has so far played a constructive role in pushing the Taliban to the negotiating table, while most of Afghanistan’s other neighbors remain hopeful for a settlement and many have offered to play a supporting role. In anticipation of intra-Afghan talks, the government has recently created a State Ministry of Peace, a very positive step, and is now focussing its efforts on preparing for negotiations. These efforts should be strongly supported by Afghanistan’s partners.
Bringing the parties together is only the very start of the process. It will then be necessary to hammer out an agreement, over the course of months, or perhaps years, on many issues where both sides are very far apart. Any agreement will need to be acceptable to Afghanistan’s neighbors and its donors (who will be looking for reassurances on democracy, human and women’s rights, and countering of extremist groups, in return for the international development assistance Afghanistan still badly requires for its survival). Opening the door to intra-Afghan talks would be a historic milestone. Reaching agreement in those talks is a challenge of a much greater magnitude.
Matthew Willner-Reid is the Afghanistan coordinator for the European Institute of Peace. He holds a doctorate in international development from the University of Oxford. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the EIP.