Hopes for a lasting peace settlement in Afghanistan between the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and the insurgent Taliban appear to be at their highest point in years. U.S. and Taliban officials meeting in Qatar for a fourth round of talks that started Jan. 21 and lasted most of the week both reported significant progress on a draft accord that includes a proposal for a U.S. troop withdrawal and a Taliban cease-fire, sticking points that have derailed previous efforts to negotiate a peaceful solution to the yearslong conflict in the country.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born diplomat leading the U.S. negotiating team, traveled to Kabul this week to discuss the mechanics of the tentative agreement with Ashraf Ghani, president of the U.S.-backed Afghan unity government, which has been left out of the talks thus far. Despite the progress of the talks, Khalilzad emphasized that the parties have yet to reach an accord and would not finalize a deal until "everything" is agreed upon, including a comprehensive nationwide cease-fire between the Taliban and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.
The Taliban have categorically rejected Ghani's previous olive branches, as they consider his government an illegitimate entity propped up by foreign support. But securing Ghani’s blessing will be vital before any peace initiative can move forward since the ultimate cessation of hostilities will first require an understanding between Kabul and the Taliban. The movement’s representatives are currently conferring with their senior leaders in Pakistan to discuss their next steps, and talks between the warring parties are expected to resume in February. At this stage, Khalilzad and Ghani's shared goal will focus on compelling the Taliban to overcome their long-standing opposition to speaking directly with the Afghan government. Without their willingness to do so, the negotiations will falter. In this phase of the peace process, the goal will be an agreement that compels all sides to cease combat so that the long and protracted process of shaping the post-conflict government can begin.
What Was Stratfor’s Forecast?
In the annual forecast, Stratfor assessed the likelihood of a successful negotiation in 2019:
"The Taliban will express more serious interest in negotiations, but talks will only begin if NATO commits to a drawdown, which is unlikely next year given concerns that the Afghan army isn't strong enough to handle security on its own."
While the first point remains on track — Washington’s willingness to discuss a drawdown undoubtedly induced the Taliban to take up the talks — the second point was off the mark. To be sure, the current agreement is a draft that lacks consensus on critical details in its current form. And it's possible that the nascent peace process will still collapse if the sides fail to reach a compromise on conditions for a cease-fire or over an as-yet unforeseen circumstance. The Taliban want all foreign troops to leave the country before they will consider halting combat operations, while the United States insists that it will not withdraw before a cease-fire is in place.
Nevertheless, Stratfor underestimated the impact that the great power competition with China and Russia would have on shaping Washington’s continued involvement in Afghanistan. It’s true that Afghan security and defense forces must still overcome organizational and operational deficits that, for now, require support from NATO advisers. But the White House’s concerted effort to seek an exit from Afghanistan means it is ready to act on a key reality: The stalemate between Kabul and the Taliban is essentially frozen — and unlikely to change in the near future. This makes the benefits of seeking an agreement with the Taliban, however imperfect and risky, greater than the cost of maintaining the current stalemate. After all, rather than a military victory, the purpose of the current U.S. strategy is to apply pressure to the insurgents on the battlefield to force the Taliban's leadership to choose to negotiate.
Stratfor's Outlook for the Main Actors in the Conflict
Although the Taliban will drive a hard bargain as they seek to negotiate from a position of strength on the battlefield, they are likely to ultimately commit to a tentative peace agreement (although bickering and debate among the movement's leaders over the details of an accord could lead to a slow and cumbersome process). The Taliban recognize that the current atmosphere presents the best opportunity to clinch their overarching objective of achieving a U.S.-initiated withdrawal of all foreign forces — currently numbering 22,000 U.S., NATO and allied troops.
The Taliban have been hinting at their proclivity to end the conflict for some time now. In February, the Taliban wrote an open letter calling for the American public to pressure Washington to end the war. In June, the Taliban upheld a three-day cease-fire in response to Ghani’s own weeklong cease-fire in commemoration of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, the first such move during the course of the war. (The cessation of most hostilities during the holiday demonstrated the ability of the Taliban's leaders to coordinate a cease-fire policy among its disparate branches.) And on Jan. 24, the Taliban appointed Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a senior official and founding member, to lead its subsequent negotiations from its political office in Doha. His appointment signals the movement's desire for these talks to reach a definitive outcome.
Ultimately, a withdrawal of U.S. forces would enable the Taliban to claim a moral victory and portray the outcome as a vindication of their insurgency to drive out foreign forces.
The Afghan Government
Ghani, naturally, wants an end to the war on favorable terms for the Afghan central government. But because it cannot stand on its own without U.S. and NATO support, it lacks influence over the ultimate U.S. decision to withdraw from the conflict and must adjust to the notion that its security and defense forces will gradually lose external support over time. Since Kabul views the Taliban as an extension of Pakistan, it will want to eventually shape the post-conflict government in a way that minimizes the movement's role, therefore maximizing its autonomy from Islamabad.
The United States
For the United States, the most powerful actor in the conflict, the very fact that it is willing to discuss a drawdown is emblematic of its shifting strategic priorities. The United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 as part of a multinational coalition seeking to dismantle the Taliban regime and destroy al Qaeda. It was the Taliban's protection of the transnational jihadist group that gave it cover to plan and carry out the 9/11 terrorist attacks masterminded by Osama bin Laden.
The White House’s concerted effort to seek an exit from Afghanistan means it is ready to act on a key reality: The stalemate between Kabul and the Taliban is essentially frozen.
The invasion marked the beginning of the global war on terrorism, which eventually expanded to include operations across half the globe. But even as it wound down operations in much of the rest of the world, it still finds itself mired in the continuing conflict at its point of origin more than 17 years later. After trying a variety of approaches, including a troop surge, a troop drawdown, a heightened air campaign and pushes for political reform in Afghan government ministries, a weary United States is now seeking an end to its involvement as it looks beyond Afghanistan to China and Russia. Its 2018 National Defense Strategy said as much: "Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security."
Islamabad’s own shifting strategic priorities are compelling Pakistan, the Taliban's primary external sponsor, to take advantage of Washington’s war fatigue to compel a drawdown of NATO forces from Afghanistan so that it can advance its long-running objective of shaping a friendly government in Kabul. Pakistan is in the midst of an extensive project to erect fencing along the Durand Line, a boundary the British drew over more than 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) of land in 1893 to create a border with Afghanistan — a demarcation that Kabul disputes. The ostensible objective of Pakistan's project is to prevent militants from the Islamic State and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan from passing freely over the line between the countries. Viewed in tandem with last year's landmark merger of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas with neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan's objective becomes clear: It wants to pacify the restive region bordering Afghanistan so it can devote more military resources to its enduring rivalry with India. With this objective in mind, Pakistan will continue pushing the Taliban to participate in negotiations.
Achieving that aim would require a stable Afghanistan. Islamabad would prefer to see a post-conflict Afghan government that features strong Taliban representation to ensure a greater chance that it could influence Kabul to adopt policies that favor Pakistan at India's expense. In any case, Pakistan views the U.S. military presence on its western border with suspicion (especially since the U.S. military has recently moved to forge a stronger defense partnership with India). So Pakistan will be eager to support a drawdown, albeit one that is measured, lest a hasty pullout of U.S. and NATO forces result in a security vacuum that militant groups could exploit. Others with strong regional interests, including Russia, China and Iran, will hedge their bets by making overtures to the Taliban and by extending their influence in the areas of the country closest to their borders.
Winding Up a Longer War
Ultimately, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan represents just the latest phase in a conflict rooted in the Cold War. The Communist coup under the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan in April 1978 triggered an anti-government rebellion that ultimately resulted in a Soviet invasion and occupation that lasted until 1989. That sowed the seeds of the Afghan civil war as the anti-Soviet mujahideen descended into internecine violence. This chaotic landscape gave rise to the Taliban in 1994, which sought to purge the country of the mujahideen.
The Taliban’s conquest of Kabul in 1996 led to a five-year reign that included hosting bin Laden, giving the terrorist leader the opportunity to plot and direct 9/11. Those attacks roused the United States into action against the Taliban government in late 2001, and the United States finds itself mired in conflict there today. Undoubtedly, the Afghan peace process will follow a similarly long and complicated path, marked by setbacks and false starts. But the strategic drivers of the chief actors involved in the current struggle suggests that a resolution to Afghanistan's four decades of bloody war may be closer than ever.