The United States is redoubling its efforts to achieve peace in Afghanistan. In September 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as the U.S. special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, but the 63-year-old, Afghan-born diplomat faces a daunting task in convincing the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire and participate in peace talks with President Ashraf Ghani's administration, all in a bid to end the 17-year war.
Formal peace talks could provide the outline for a political settlement that would likely grant the Taliban a share of power in a post-conflict government. Khalilzad has already conducted three rounds of preliminary talks with the Taliban, but the insurgent movement abruptly withdrew from a fourth round of dialogue scheduled to take place in Saudi Arabia this month. Very simply, the Taliban refuses to engage with officials representing the Afghan government, which the group views as illegitimate. The focus is now on the United States — the country that the Taliban view as their principal antagonist in the conflict. In this regard, the group's terms remain clear; without Washington's complete exit from the conflict, meaningful peace talks remain a pipedream.
Afghanistan is a Eurasian land bridge that links China, Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. Despite its advantageous geographic position, for Afghanistan to realize its potential, the warring country must achieve some semblance of peace. For the United States, pushing the Taliban to join peace talks with Kabul is paramount to ending its 17-year-long involvement in the war. But perhaps Washington's biggest problem will be figuring out how to balance the Taliban's demand for a complete withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces with Kabul's desire for U.S. troops to stay.
The Obstacles to Peace Talks
The primary hurdle to starting formal peace talks is the Taliban's demand that the United States and its partner countries first withdraw all forces from Afghanistan. Foreign troops operating under the aegis of NATO and allied nations peaked at 130,000 personnel in 2011; a steady drawdown culminating in the end of combat operations in 2014 left behind a residual force that today numbers around 22,000 troops — 14,000 from the United States and 8,000 more from other NATO or allied countries. (U.S. forces serve in two complementary missions under Operation Freedom's Sentinel in Afghanistan: Some are part of NATO's Resolute Support Mission while others conduct counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and the Islamic State's Khorasan chapter).
Future progress on talks hinges on whether the United States can make some kind of concession on a withdrawal, though this will drive a wedge between Washington and Kabul as well as between the White House and the Pentagon. To boot: in December 2018, reports emerged that U.S. President Donald Trump was considering a partial drawdown of up to 7,000 troops. While Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's administration has publicly expressed confidence in its ability to secure the country in spite of a partial U.S. drawdown, the fact is that the beleaguered Afghan security forces are already suffering from high casualty and attrition rates, meaning a foreign troop withdrawal will have a serious negative impact. Until now, Kabul and Washington have sought to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table by applying military pressure against the insurgency, using air power in particular (the United States and NATO dropped record amounts of ordnance in Afghanistan in 2018). But an intensified air campaign has not produced any major territorial gains: since October 2017, Kabul has failed to increase its control over Afghanistan's 35 million people — Kabul maintains governance over roughly 65 percent of the population, a number it can't seem to shift in the right direction.
Finally, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban's second-in-command under supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, is thought to favor a military solution to the conflict. If true, this suggests that the Taliban's most influential faction, the Quetta Shura (of which Haqqani is a member), may categorically oppose a political settlement — or, at the very least, will continue to fight against the Afghan military in parallel to any negotiations.
The Price of a Failure to Talk
Aside from the obvious humanitarian implications of continued warfare — including the killing of civilians, internal displacement, and outward migration — there are strategic and economic implications if peace talks fail. In addition to the annual, $45 billion drain on American coffers, continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan will limit Washington's ability to devote sufficient attention and resources to the great power competition with Russia and China — something the U.S. Department of Defense highlighted in last year's National Defense Strategy as "the primary concern in U.S. national security," rather than the erstwhile war on terrorism.
Economically, the severity of the security situation will continue to hamper investor activity while increasing the perception of political instability in Afghanistan's $21 billion economy, which desperately needs to grow faster to provide the government with a bigger pool of revenue (40 percent of which currently comes from foreign aid). Kabul is also struggling to curb the country's poverty rate of 55 percent (up from 34 percent in 2007) and offer alternative sources of livelihood to Afghan farmers cultivating opium, which generates up to $6.6 billion (equivalent to 30 percent of the entire economy). In 2017, thanks to more positive investor sentiment resulting from improving security, Afghanistan's gross domestic product expanded by 2.7 percent, a 0.3 and 1.2 percent rise over the previous two years' growth rates, respectively. Going into 2019, however, the situation is not quite so rosy.
Continued fighting means Afghanistan's ability to capitalize on its location as a land bridge connecting various regions in Eurasia will go unrealized. This includes linking Central Asia to South Asia through the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, as well as attempts to connect Iran's Chabahar Port to Central Asia through the International North-South Transport Corridor. Instability in Afghanistan also poses an obstacle to China's Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to link the western province of Xinjiang with the Middle East through Iran, and Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. At present, however, Afghanistan's conflict has forced Beijing to reroute its trading corridors around the country. Finally, an Afghanistan continuously at war prevents the country from capitalizing on its reserves of rare earth minerals, which a U.S. geological survey valued at $1 trillion in 2010.
Ultimately, Trump can take three courses of action in Afghanistan. He could maintain current troop levels in support of a conditions-based approach as outlined during a speech on South Asia in August 2017 — though that would essentially guarantee a continued stalemate. Alternatively, he could withdraw all 14,000 U.S. personnel from the country. This is the most drastic option, and while it wouldn't entail the immediate departure of the other 8,000 foreign soldiers, it would mark a sudden shift in strategy and an even more abrupt end to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
The risks in this approach are considerable. While the logistical challenges of physically transporting troops and equipment out of the country will necessarily limit the speed of any departure, the relatively rapid withdrawal of support for local security forces would destabilize Afghanistan, giving the Taliban an opportunity to ramp up attacks in a bid to achieve military victory. This option would also force regional actors, including China, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Pakistan — the Taliban's primary external sponsor — to increase their involvement in the country to ensure that transnational jihadists such as Islamic State-Khorasan don't exploit the resulting security vacuum. More than that, such countries would also work to guarantee a modicum of stability in Afghanistan as Kabul forms a post-conflict government.
Persuading the Taliban to sit down for talks will ultimately depend on the United States agreeing to discuss a troop withdrawal.
But the U.S. administration could also take the middle road by withdrawing a limited number of troops. Last month, Trump floated the idea of pulling out 7,000 troops, but more recent reports suggest the White House's military advisers have convinced the president to conduct a smaller withdrawal of around 3,500 troops over a longer period of time. This, in the end, is the most likely option, as it would partially satisfy Trump's own opposition to U.S. involvement in the conflict while also minimizing the risks of a bigger withdrawal. Such a move would also placate the Pentagon, which had originally requested the troop increase in 2017.
Military options aside, Trump's focus on the diplomatic element of his Afghan strategy will hinge on urging Pakistan — which has long hosted Taliban elements within its borders — to pressure the movement to begin talks with Kabul. While Islamabad is cooperating (Pakistan's recent arrest of senior Taliban member Hafiz Mohibullah is undoubtedly part of this effort), persuading the Taliban to sit down for talks will ultimately depend on the United States agreeing to discuss a troop withdrawal. If that doesn't occur, Khalilzad's shuttle diplomacy might all be for naught, to say nothing of the fact that peace talks themselves — whenever they do begin — will be a long, complex and contentious affair.