Things are moving fast in Afghanistan. On July 31, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation and the lead negotiator in U.S. talks with the Taliban, tweeted that the United States is ready "to conclude the agreement" provided the Taliban "do their part." Khalilzad’s comments, which came ahead of the eighth round of talks between the United States and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, offer the strongest indication yet that the two parties are on the cusp of sealing a landmark peace deal to end their 18-year-long conflict. Just two days earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said U.S President Donald Trump wanted a reduction in U.S. forces from Afghanistan ahead of the 2020 presidential elections. Though a peace deal appears imminent, this juncture provides the perfect opportunity to look at what's driving the three most likely outcomes to the contentious, 10-month-long peace process: namely a collapse in talks, a continuation of both negotiations and fighting — that is, the status quo — or a peace deal to finally end the fighting.
The 18-year war in Afghanistan is Washington's longest-running conflict. But a combination of various factors — including a persistent stalemate on the battlefield between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces and a U.S. shift in focus toward the great power competition — have compelled the United States to find an exit from the conflict under Trump, who was opposed to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan from the beginning. But even if peace between Washington and the Taliban is at hand, the next round of the peace process will center on the far more complex task of negotiating a power-sharing agreement between the militant group and the central government.
Scenario #1: Talks Collapse
In this scenario, Taliban and U.S. demands would prove irreconcilable, leading one or both parties to call off the talks. Such a development wouldn't necessarily scuttle hopes for the resumption of talks down the road, but it would signify that one or both sides believe a military solution — as opposed to a political solution — is desirable. Ultimately, the main implication of an end to negotiations is that the United States and NATO, which have 14,000 and 8,000 troops in the country, respectively, would remain involved in the 18-year conflict. Aside from the obvious humanitarian consequences of sustained bloodshed, a warring Afghanistan, in turn, would hurt the country's regional economic integration — which includes capitalizing on its role as a key landbridge at the crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and China. An Afghanistan beset by war would have little chance of advancing the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Pipeline, participating in China's Belt and Road Initiative or capitalizing on a trillion dollars' worth of mineral deposits.
The main implication of an end to negotiations is that the United States and NATO, which have 14,000 and 8,000 troops in Afghanistan, respectively, would remain involved in the 18-year conflict.
Scenario #2: Talks and Fighting Continue
In this scenario, fighting between NATO-backed Afghan security forces and the Taliban-led insurgency would continue in parallel with multiple rounds of talks involving the militants and the United States. The Taliban would likely continue to fight until Washington announces a troop withdrawal — meaning the Afghan security forces would have to continue fighting in response. Given this, one of Khalilzad's core demands from the Taliban is a permanent cease-fire. The Taliban have said they support such a demand, but only if the United States first announces a troop pullout, which would enable the group to claim victory in achieving the paramount aim of the insurgency: withdrawal of the foreign forces who initially toppled the Taliban in 2001, leading them to regroup in Pakistan as an insurgency.
Scenario #3: Peace Deal
A peace deal is the stated goal of the current talks. Under this scenario, the United States and the Taliban would clinch a peace deal featuring four main points: a permanent cease-fire that ends the war, a Taliban pledge to prevent transnational extremist groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State's Khorasan branch from using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks, a U.S. timeline to withdraw its troops and a Taliban commitment to begin dialogue with the NATO-backed central government in Kabul. Although there are many variations, the United States could implement a phased drawdown that takes place over a few years while still retaining a residual number of troops — something that the Taliban oppose. However, as momentous as a U.S.-Taliban peace deal would be, it would open the door to a far more complex phase of the peace process: intra-Afghan talks between the insurgents and Kabul to hammer out a power-sharing agreement. Fundamental questions pertaining to the validity of the Afghan constitution, women's rights and the Taliban's own attitude toward elections and democracy would require solutions in what would be a long, difficult and contentious process ahead of twice-delayed Afghan presidential elections that are scheduled for next month.
Ultimately, a collapse of talks is the least likely scenario, given that the United States wishes to withdraw troops but cannot do so without some sort of accord with the Taliban that would include a counterterrorism pledge from the group, as well as a potentially strong intelligence presence to deny transnational groups the ability to plot another 9/11-style attack. After all, Trump's instinct is to reduce U.S. involvement in foreign wars (he only reluctantly agreed to send a few thousand more troops to Afghanistan in 2017), while the United States' larger strategy is to redirect its attention from terrorism to the great power competition.
The chances of a peace deal are higher than ever, especially as the United States does not want to hold talks indefinitely without achieving a clear outcome.
This, accordingly, is why the United States decided to include the troop presence itself in its negotiations with the Taliban for the first time — and why the United States decided to take the lead in those talks instead of supporting dialogue led by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government. The Taliban, for their part, don't want the talks to collapse because they view this as a golden opportunity to achieve the withdrawal of foreign forces.
To be sure, there are numerous issues that could derail the process; for example, in 2015, revelations emerged that Taliban founder Mullah Omar had died two years previously, opening up rifts within the group between those aware of the leader's demise and those that had remained in the dark; ultimately, the news derailed incipient Taliban-Kabul peace talks, becoming just one of various stumbling blocks that have hurt the peace process and enabled the war to continue. Nevertheless, the chances of a peace deal are higher than ever, especially because the United States does not want to hold talks indefinitely without achieving a clear outcome and because Pakistan, the Taliban's primary external sponsor, has forced the militants into talks as it seeks improved ties with Washington. (This desire was demonstrated by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent meeting with Trump in Washington.) Naturally, however, a U.S.-Taliban deal would only set the stage for a far trickier proposition: intra-Afghan talks.