On Sept. 2, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad heralded a draft peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan, capping almost a year of negotiations. But an insurgent attack in Kabul on the heels of that announcement prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to abruptly call off negotiations on Sept. 7, which were aimed at starting the long process to finally end their 18-year conflict in Afghanistan. U.S.-Taliban talks, however, were always likely to resume due to the two sides' shared need for a political settlement. And indeed, with officials from both sides arriving in Pakistan on Oct. 2, it looks as if they might soon recommence.
But until the government in Kabul reaches its own "intra-Afghan" cease-fire agreement with the Taliban, fighting will persist regardless of whatever deal the United States eventually strikes with the insurgent organization. And thus, the fate of peace in Afghanistan will hinge more on whether the winner of the country's Sept. 28 presidential election can successfully broker his own deal with the Taliban.
Afghanistan's twice-delayed presidential vote finally took place on Sept. 28. But a declaration of victory by the two leading candidates before the votes had been tallied suggests another troubled transition ahead. Whatever government eventually rises from the fray will pose fundamental questions about the country's future internal stability by advancing a long-running debate in Afghan politics over the centralization of power.
Afghanistan Comes to an Apex
Only 2.5 million Afghans turned out to vote on Sept. 28 — a far cry from the 7 million who voted in the country's contentious 2014 election. Preliminary results from the recent balloting are expected Oct. 17, but the two leading presidential candidates — incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah — have both already claimed they're leading the vote count, pointing to challenges ahead for long-lasting internal stability.
Whoever eventually takes office will shape a fundamental debate over competing models of governance and could portend a shift in the balance of power away from Pashtuns, the country's historically dominant ethnic group. Ghani is part of a long legacy of Pashtuns who have largely ruled over Afghanistan since it gained its independence in 1919. And like his Pashtun predecessor, Hamid Karzai, Ghani has favored a presidential system that imbues the executive branch with the sweeping powers believed necessary to advance reforms, preserve unity and weaken challenges from influential regional politicians. Abdullah, on the other hand, is a Tajik, who constitute about 25 percent of the Afghan population (Uzbeks and Hazaras, the other main ethnic minority groups, account for roughly 10 percent apiece). And unlike Ghani, he favors a decentralized model under a parliamentary system that devolves powers to the regions.
50 Years of Peace Under Decentralized Rule
These two competing governance models have historically had striking implications on Afghanistan's political stability and could provide insight into the prospects for long-lasting peace in the country — regardless of U.S. involvement. Beginning in 1929, the country experienced almost 50 years of peace under the Musahiban Pashtun dynasty's decentralized model, even as vast tracts of Europe and Asia were engulfed by violent conflict during World War II. But in 1978, the Communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan launched a coup and imposed an extreme version of centralized rule to promote rapid social reforms. This triggered a countrywide rebellion and culminated in the Soviet invasion in 1979, followed by the outbreak of the Afghan civil war in 1989 and the collapse of the party in 1992.
The instability borne of the civil war set the table for the rise of an extreme reactionary movement, the Taliban, which conquered Kabul in 1996. Five years later, the United States invaded Afghanistan to dismantle the Taliban government that had sheltered al Qaeda, which plotted the 9/11 attacks under Osama bin Laden — thus sparking involvement in a war that has spanned three U.S. administrations, amounting to Washington's longest-ever conflict. Upon defeating the Taliban in 2001, the United States helped craft a postwar settlement, the Bonn Agreement, favoring a centralized model of government under President Hamid Karzai, which it believed would be most conducive to rebuilding a state shattered by decades of war.
But allegations of corruption hobbled Karzai's 13-year tenure, enabling the Taliban to raise an elaborate shadow government apparatus that competed with Kabul for the delivery of services in fields such as healthcare, education, security and justice. The U.S. military began shifting its resources from Afghanistan to Iraq as early as 2002, giving the Taliban even more room to regroup as an insurgency in Pakistan.
The Forces Driving a U.S.-Taliban Deal
As a result, the United States has been unable to finish off the Taliban despite deploying more than 100,000 troops at the peak of the conflict in 2010. And so, roughly 14,000 U.S. troops remain stationed in the country — much to the chagrin of the White House, as well as the Taliban. This mutual desire for some sort of peace agreement will continue to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table, even as the wider conflict persists in the absence of a comprehensive cease-fire between Kabul and the Taliban.
Washington sees a political settlement as the only viable option it has left to finally end the conflict, after having already tested the limits of pursuing a military victory. And as a result, the United States has offered to draw down its military presence in exchange for a cease-fire. The Taliban, for their part, will also continue to push for a deal in support of their own chief objective — the complete withdrawal of all 22,000 U.S., NATO and other foreign forces currently stationed in Afghanistan. This explains why the Taliban was seemingly left bewildered by Trump's decision to cancel talks, noting that they hoped dialogue with the United States would continue.
But negotiating with Washington, its sworn enemy, is not without risk for the mainline Taliban leadership. A deal can deepen divisions within the organization, as evidenced by the recent bombing of a mosque outside the Pakistani city of Quetta, which killed the brother of the movement's supreme leader. Doubtless, the Taliban leadership believes it cannot afford to be seen as capitulating to the United States, which is why it sees even a partial troop withdrawal as crucial to any peace deal.
The outcome of Afghanistan's recent election could sharpen ethnic divisions in a country still struggling to restore some sense of stability after decades of war.
Today, the Taliban's posture toward the United States can be summarized as follows: Once the occupation ends, so too will the fighting. But if the occupation continues, so too will the war. For the United States, this raises the question of whether the Taliban can be trusted to keep their word to both sever their ties with terrorist groups like al Qaeda, and reduce violence against Afghan citizens and foreign forces. To mitigate this risk, Khalilzad has pushed for a gradual military drawdown in tandem with cease-fire negotiations with the Taliban. But the insurgents have nonetheless vowed to continue fighting on the battlefield. That's why day-to-day violence in Afghanistan will likely persist in the months ahead, continuing to intermittently stall U.S.-Taliban talks in the process. But the mutual allure of a political settlement will nonetheless ultimately compel both sides to reach a limited peace deal.
The winner of Afghanistan's Sept. 28 presidential election will help to rekindle negotiations with the Taliban, whenever that opportunity does arrive. But more broadly, the winner will also decipher the country's next model of governance, which could sharpen divisions in a multiethnic society struggling to restore some sense of stability after decades of war.