General Joseph Dunford during a recent visit to Afghanistan. Photo Source: DoD/Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique Pineiro.
Over the past few months, the United States has been negotiating with the Taliban to hammer out a peace deal that would allow the U.S. to remove its troops from Afghanistan after 18 years of conflict. The U.S. has tried to broker deals in the past, but this deal has had the most success, even leading to an invitation for Taliban leaders to travel to Camp David.[i] On September 7, however, President Trump cancelled the peace talks at Camp David due to continued violence from Taliban offensives in Afghanistan.[ii] As details of the negotiation process and proposed deal emerge, it is clear that cancelling the talks may be for the best. No deal is better than a toothless deal that requires a swift withdrawal of US troops. Indeed, such a withdrawal is reminiscent of the Geneva Accords and the US drawdown in Iraq, both of which resulted in disastrous outcomes for the country in question. Moreover, the deal excludes the current government of Afghanistan and undermines its authoritative legitimacy.
There are many challenges to negotiating with the Taliban. Thus far, the Taliban has continued to carry out violent attacks, which suggests the sheer unlikelihood of the Taliban permanently forgoing violence after US troops withdraw.[iii] With no demonstration of goodwill on the part of the Taliban, talks should have failed long before they reached the point of a summit at Camp David. Beyond threatening Afghanistan’s political stability, the potential drawdown minimizes the United States’s ability to keep groups like the Islamic State from rebuilding their bases of support or, at the very least, using Afghanistan as a safe haven. The United States’s continued negotiations with the Taliban signals its desperation to remove itself from the conflict and sacrifices the stability of the country by paving the way for a Taliban-run government.
Recent History Repeating Itself
The current U.S.-Taliban peace deal is reminiscent of the Geneva Accords of 1988 and the United States’s swift drawdown from Iraq in 2011. Both situations necessitated further US interventions in the years following the withdrawal and allowed two destructive regimes to exploit the power vacuums those decisions left behind.
The Geneva Accords of 1988 were negotiated and signed by the Soviet Union, the United States, Pakistan, and the government of Afghanistan. Though the deal touched on many different issues, including foreign aid and refugees’ voluntary return, to name a few, the hastily-penned deal offered little to no enforceable mechanisms for ensuring peace.[iv] The Afghan government was left without assurances of aid to support a fragile, fledgling government.[v] After the Soviet troops withdrew, Afghanistan suffered eight years of civil war, culminating in the Taliban’s rise to power, which lasted until 2001 when the U.S. intervened. The United States’s intervention toppled the Taliban regime and implemented a preliminary framework for a democratic Afghanistan. The current deal has gone a step further than the Accords, completely excluding the legitimate government of Afghanistan from the negotiations and trusting the Taliban to enter into peace talks with the Afghan government.[vi] This move does not bode well for a long-lasting peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
A deal between the U.S. and the Taliban, which exhibits many of the same flaws as the Geneva Accords, would likely lead to a new Afghan civil war. The Taliban has not demonstrated an ability to exist peacefully in the Afghan state, and the continued attacks on Afghan civilians, US military personnel, and other targets shows its persistent pursuit of power within the country. The aftermath of the Geneva Accords demonstrates the Taliban’s propensity to exploit violence to take power from a fragile central government. With a current deal imposing similarly limited constraints on the group, the Taliban may refuse to come to the negotiating table and instead forcefully take power. In the event that the Taliban succeeds in taking control of the Afghan government, its unwillingness to denounce other terror groups and terror attacks on Western targets would make Afghanistan a potential safe haven for terrorist operatives.[vii] This could necessitate further US intervention in the future, which would, in effect, negate both the spirit and the letter of the current deal.
The Geneva Accords led to a horrific civil war in Afghanistan and the emergence of a Taliban-dominated government. The U.S. watched this conflict spread across Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s and, by withdrawing its troops from Iraq in a similar fashion, saw the rise of a brutal Islamic State. The 2011 troop drawdown from Iraq left a power vacuum that the fledgling government and military were unable to fill. In 2014, after the US withdrawal, the Islamic State quickly gained control of a large swath of territory in Iraq and Syria.[viii] Though the United States’s decision to withdraw its troops did not cause the renegotiation of the Iraqi political structure, it did remove the prevailing stabilizing force in the country.[ix] Therefore, by analyzing the long-term impact of the 2011 drawdown from Iraq and its implications on the potential peace deal with the government of Afghanistan, it is clear that the state of Afghanistan’s fragile democracy is not prepared to fight a strong Taliban. Moreover, the United States’s decision to negotiate directly with the Taliban has weakened the position of the Afghan government for future peace talks.
Undermining Afghan Government Legitimacy
By negotiating the deal directly with the Taliban and not involving the Afghan government, the United States has given the Taliban political legitimacy and a powerful negotiating position from which to enter talks with the Afghan government.[x] Furthermore, negotiating solely with the Taliban reduces, if not fully negates, the legitimacy of the current Afghan government. The Taliban should work with the Afghan government to find peace. Similarly, the U.S. should consult the Afghan government on whether to drawdown troops and whether to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table amid continued violence. Any negotiation that involves the internal stability of the Afghan state should undoubtedly include the Afghan government; however, the current negotiations fail to do so. Unsurprisingly, the Afghan government has vocally denounced the deal. Any continued negotiation with the Taliban therefore further undermines the Afghan government’s political legitimacy and power.
Very few of the major questions pertaining to the Taliban’s place in society seem to be addressed in this deal. How will the Taliban interact with the standing government? Will they be a political party and participate in democratic elections? Will they declare their political independence in order to justify using force to cast out the current government? A deal with the Taliban that allows US troops to withdraw from Afghanistan prior to the establishment of a concrete peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government yields a dangerous imbalance in negotiating power. A drawdown not only impacts the fragile Afghan government, minimizing its political legitimacy, but it also eliminates the necessary military support the government requires to counter Taliban power.
that weakens the legitimacy of the Afghan government and removes US power from
the country with no indication of reciprocal peaceful behavior by the Taliban positions
Afghanistan for continued political conflict and, perhaps eventually, civil
war. The deal leaves the U.S. with little military presence and no political leverage,
abandoning the Afghan government to deal with an emboldened Taliban.[xi]
The end result of this inadequate deal is, at best, political instability for
the Afghan government that in turn weakens its negotiating position with the
Taliban. At worst, the deal plunges the country into total civil war. The
current deal strengthens the Taliban by giving it political legitimacy and
operational freedom while simultaneously weakening the current Afghan
government’s political legitimacy and military support. The result is an
outcome much worse than no deal at all because of the political and military stability
at stake in Afghanistan, which, if destabilized, will severely threaten the
United States and other Western nations.
[i] Caroline Kelly and Kylie Atwood, “Trump Says He Canceled Secret Camp David Meeting with Taliban Leaders,” CNN, September 8, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/07/politics/trump-cancels-secret-meeting-taliban-afghanistan-president/index.html.
[ii] “US and Taliban Close to Deal to Allow Peace Talks, Trump Envoy Says,” Guardian, September 1, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/01/us-and-taliban-close-to-deal-to-stop-fighting-and-allow-peace-talks-us-official-says.
[iv] Rosanne Klass, “Afghanistan: The Accords,” Foreign Affairs, Summer, 1988, https://search.proquest.com/docview/214305656?accountid=11091.
[v] Ali A. Olomi, “On or off, Peace Talks with the Taliban Spell Disaster for Afghanistan,” Washington Post, September 9, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/09/09/or-off-peace-talks-with-taliban-spell-disaster-afghanistan/.
[vi] Dan De Luce, “U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan Could Trigger ‘Catastrophic’ Civil War, Ex-US Diplomats Warn,” NBC, September 3, 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/military/u-s-withdrawal-afghanistan-could-trigger-catastrophic-civil-war-ex-n1049341.
[vii] Tzvi Joffre, “Taliban Justifies 9/11 Attacks in Recently Released Video,” JPost, September 8, 2019, https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Taliban-justifies-911-attacks-based-on-US-interventionist-policies-600967.
[viii] Michael Crowley, Lara Jakes, and Mujib Mashal, “Trump Says He’s Called Off Negotiations With Taliban After Afghanistan Bombing,” New York Times, September 7, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/07/us/politics/trump-taliban-afghanistan.html.
[ix] Ryan N. Mannina, “How the 2011 US Troop Withdrawal from Iraq Led to the Rise of ISIS,” Small Wars Journal, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/how-2011-us-troop-withdrawal-iraq-led-rise-isis. https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/how-2011-us-troop-withdrawal-iraq-led-rise-isis.
[x] Ali A. Olomi, “On or off, Peace Talks with the Taliban Spell Disaster for Afghanistan,” Washington Post, September 9, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/09/09/or-off-peace-talks-with-taliban-spell-disaster-afghanistan/.
[xi] Crowley et. al.