by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is an analyst and journalist specializing in Afghanistan and Iraq.Given that neither the Taliban nor the United States appears any closer to lasting victory in 2018 than in 2001, a consensus has emerged in the international community that a political settlement to the War in Afghanistan remains the only way to end it. Some U.S.-politicians and pundits have argued that the U.S. should withdraw from Afghanistan, others that it can defeat the Taliban once and for all by deploying more soldiers. Neither option, however, looks realistic. Unless the Taliban and the U.S. plan to stay at war forever, peace talks seem the only viable alternative if either side wants to effect some kind of change.
Despite the gradual consensus on the need for a political settlement to end the War in Afghanistan, the roadblocks to peace talks have only increased since the start of the conflict. The Taliban has more money and support now than ever before. The insurgents have grown more hostile to the Western world and the U.S. in particular, and their most anti-peace faction has a hold on the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s waning leadership. None of these factors preclude peace talks on their own, but they represent obstacles that the U.S. must navigate if it hopes to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table and learn from past failures.
When the War in Afghanistan began, the U.S. missed an early opportunity to negotiate with the Taliban. In December 2001, Taliban leaders proposed surrendering in exchange for amnesty, but the Afghan government and the U.S. ignored their offer in anticipation of defeating the insurgents on the battlefield (Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014, p. 47). Some observers hypothesized that the Taliban only resorted to insurgency in the first place because the U.S. refused to negotiate with the insurgents once it had overthrown the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Anand Gopal, “The Taliban in Kandahar”, in Talibanistan: Negotiating the Borders between Terror, Politics, and Religion, ed. Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, Oxford University Press, 2013, 1f). After defeating the Taliban in a show of force, the U.S. enjoyed temporary leverage over its demoralized leaders. Seventeen years later, though, the superpower has found itself struggling to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table, a significant turn of events for a country used to influence and victory.
Once the U.S. had reevaluated its position on peace talks, it ran into the obstacle of determining how to initiate negotiations with Taliban leaders who had made their own reassessment about the benefits of peace. U.S. President George W. Bush’s foreign policy had emphasized fighting the Taliban, but U.S. President Barack Obama had campaigned on the goal of extricating U.S.-soldiers from Afghanistan. Afghan and U.S.-diplomats thus had to lean on their allies in the Persian Gulf to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. In 2008, Saudi Arabia organized meetings between representatives of the Afghan government and the insurgents (Thomas Ruttig, “Negotiations with the Taliban”, in Talibanistan, p. 441). The U.S. would complain only a year later, however, that Saudi Arabia was doing too little to stop the insurgents from fundraising on its territory (Declan Walsh, “Wikileaks Cables Portray Saudi Arabia as a Cash Machine for Terrorists“, The Guardian, December 5, 2010). For its part, the United Arab Emirate funded a meeting between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban in Kabul in 2010 (Ruttig, p. 442). These conversations failed to prevent hiccups in the peace process: the same year, the Afghan government discovered that it was negotiating with an impostor who had introduced himself as Mullah Akhtar Mansour, then Mullah Muhammad Omar’s second in command (Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall, “Taliban Leader in Secret Talks Was an Imposto“, The New York Times, November 22, 2010). Some observers expected that the death of Osama bin Laden would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, but those hopes too never came to fruition. The insurgents opened a diplomatic mission in Qatar for the purpose of peace talks in 2013 only for the Afghan government to complain that the Taliban was billing itself as a government in exile (Reza Sayah, “At Their Office in Doha, Taliban Make Changes“, CNN, June 20, 2013). It would take a prisoner swap to bring the insurgents and the U.S. from these frequent episodes of miscommunication into concrete, productive negotiations that might lay the groundwork for peace talks.
Discussions over the fate of Bowe Bergdahl, an U.S.-prisoner of war held by the Taliban for several years, forced the U.S. to negotiate with the Haqqani network, considered the most anti-peace Taliban faction. From Bergdahl’s 2009 capture to his 2014 release, the Haqqanis insisted on exchanging him for the “Taliban Five“, prominent insurgents incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. After five years of back and forth, the U.S. agreed to the Haqqanis’ initial conditions (“Negotiation Analysis: The US, Taliban, and the Bergdahl Exchange“, Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, December 5, 2017). U.S.-diplomats hoped that the release of the “Taliban Five” would act as a building block to peace talks, considering that the prisoner swap amounted to the most substantive negotiations with the Taliban in the history of the War in Afghanistan (Michael Semple, “Why Did the Negotiations to Free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl Take Years?“, Interview by Marco Werman, Public Radio International, June 6, 2014). The U.S. had proved that it could negotiate with even the Haqqanis, the Taliban faction described as the most hostile to peace talks. If the U.S. could conduct a prisoner exchange with them, perhaps it could conclude a political settlement with all the insurgents.To U.S.-diplomats’ surprise, the momentum built by the prisoner exchange would disappear only two years later. In 2016, the U.S. killed Mansour — then the Taliban’s leader — in an airstrike, eliminating an insurgent whom some had considered the U.S.’s best chance of getting the Taliban to the negotiating table. The move angered even some of Obama’s own aides, who anticipated that it would backfire and hinder peace talks (Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan, “A Dubai Shopping Trip and a Missed Chance to Capture the Head of the Taliban“, The Washington Post, March 24, 2018). For their part, the Haqqanis were also simmering over the 2014 arrest of Anas Haqqani, the brother and son of the faction’s top two leaders, while he was traveling to the Gulf (Declan Walsh, “Two Haqqani Militant Leaders Are Captured, Afghan Officials Say“, The New York Times, October 18, 2014). Several months after Mansour’s death, the Taliban threatened reprisals against the Afghan government if it moved to execute Anas (Bill Roggio, “‘Blood Will Be Spilled’ If Anas Haqqani Is Executed, Taliban Threatens“, The Long War Journal, September 6, 2016). According to U.S.-journalist Jere Van Dyke, himself a former Taliban hostage, the Haqqanis had thought that the U.S. agreed to allow Haqqani operatives to travel to the Middle East after Bergdahl’s release. The U.S. detention of Anas surprised them (Jere van Dyk, “The Trade: My Journey into the Labyrinth of Political Kidnapping“, PublicAffairs, 2017, p. 318). The Taliban and the U.S. no longer seemed on the same page, nor did the War in Afghanistan appear any closer to ending in 2016 than it did in 2001. Only after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump did the Taliban signal that it might participate in peace talks after all.
While nothing suggests that the developments relate to Trump himself, his tenure has seen progress in the peace process between the Taliban and the U.S. In a February 2018 letter to “the American people”, the insurgents expressed openness to a political settlement to the War in Afghanistan (Harriet Alexander, “Taliban Publishes Open Letter to Americans“, The Telegraph, February 14, 2018). In response, former Senior Advisor to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Barnett Rubin wrote in his own open letter to the Taliban that, while previous negotiations had failed, this opportunity seemed more promising (Barnett Rubin, “An Open Letter to the Taliban“, The New Yorker, February 27, 2018). It had emerged a month earlier that officials from the Afghan government had held preliminary conversations on peace talks with representatives of the Haqqanis in Turkey, an encouraging sign (“Afghan Peace Talks in Turkey: Haqqani Network Present but Afghan Taliban Main Faction Absent in Talks“, The Times of Islamabad, January 14, 2018). In March 2018, the U.S. indicated its willingness to support peace talks with not only the Taliban but also the Haqqanis, whom, unlike the Taliban, it had labeled a terrorist organization (Carlo Muñoz, “White House Backs Proposed Afghan-Led Peace Talks with Haqqani Network“, The Washington Examiner, March 25, 2018). In July 2017, U.S.-officials signaled that they would pursue direct peace talks with the insurgents (Mujib Mashal and Eric Schmitt, “White House Orders Direct Talks to Jump-Start Afghan Negotiations“, The New York Times, July 15, 2018). The coming months will determine whether these contacts bear fruit or meet the same result encountered by previous Afghan and U.S. attempts at negotiations, but these developments give renewed life to the push for a political settlement to the War in Afghanistan.
The questions of how the U.S. should approach peace talks or whether it should even entertain the possibility have inspired diverse suggestions. A report by the RAND Corporation proposed organizing a ceasefire in conjunction with offering Taliban leaders amnesty and power-sharing. Diplomats Lakhdar Brahimi and Thomas R. Pickering, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of maintaining a military stalemate (Lakhdar Brahimi and Thomas R. Pickering, “Afghanistan: Negotiating Peace“, Century Foundation Press, 2011, p. 2). Others have proved less optimistic. Jack Fairweather, a fellow at the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard University, argued that the U.S. would need to address Afghanistan’s history of ethnic conflict if it wanted a true end to the war (Jack Fairweather, “The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan“, Basic Books, 2014, p, 328). David Cortright, Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute of Peace Studies, advocated for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, calling the war “unwinnable” (David Cortright, “Ending Obama’s War: Responsible Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan“, Paradigm Publishers, 2011, p. 35). Thomas Ruttig, who directs the Afghanistan Analysts Network, noted that the Taliban believes in its ability to outlast the U.S. in the conflict, an expectation that the U.S. has reaffirmed by wavering on whether and how long it will stay in Afghanistan (Ruttig, p. 454). In the face of these disagreements, the possibility of a political settlement to the conflict or even an U.S. withdrawal will require deep introspection from the U.S., which has spent seventeen years fighting an enemy that remains a powerful foe on the battlefield.
While the War in Afghanistan has convinced the U.S. that only a political settlement can bring the conflict to an end, no one knows for sure whether the Taliban has reached the same conclusion. The insurgents have economic, ideological, and political incentives to continue the war. The chaos within their leadership, meanwhile, would present many challenges before and during peace talks. The insurgents’ ideology emphasizes hostility to the U.S.; their support from Iran, Pakistan, and Russia ensures that they can fight Afghan- and U.S.-soldiers for as long as they need to; the illegal drug trade remains as lucrative as ever; and the Haqqanis, with whom the U.S. has experience negotiating but who rarely make concessions, now hold primary sway over the Quetta Shura while other insurgents have started to chart their own path. These obstacles, some recent but others decades in the making, will keep the insurgents from the negotiating table until the U.S. determines how to overcome or at least accommodate them. While U.S.-diplomats, generals, and politicians have spoken of negotiations’ importance, policymakers have spent far less time assessing their own ability to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, a task at which none have succeeded for long. Nothing guarantees that what the U.S. does can change the Taliban’s calculus. However, U.S.-policymakers can dedicate more resources to mitigating the obstacles to peace talks noted here and fewer to a war that, as many have argued, may never reach a conclusion on the battlefield.
The anti-Americanism inherent to the Taliban’s ideology represents the problem that dealmakers will find the hardest to assuage in the short term but the easiest to overcome in the long term. Numerous insurgencies have negotiated with opponents whom they once described as existential enemies, and the Taliban’s anti-Americanism seems to derive less from the U.S. itself than from the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, which would likely decrease or disappear after a peace treaty. In the meantime, the U.S. could offer to withdraw from Afghanistan if the Taliban agrees to a ceasefire — as well as to participate in negotiations. Despite this proposal’s apparent risks, the U.S. has the ability to deploy forces to Afghanistan at a moment’s notice. The U.S. could continue to protect Afghanistan without U.S.-soldiers there, and this superficial withdrawal would go a long way toward building goodwill with the Taliban. Refraining from calling Taliban leaders “terrorists” and removing sanctions on them could also contribute to a reduction in tensions between the insurgents and their U.S. counterparts.
Dealing with the list of regional and world powers backing the Taliban has a more obvious solution. The U.S. should make a greater effort to ensure that the peace process includes not only Pakistan but also China, Iran, and Russia, which have their own national interests in Afghanistan as well as varying degrees of sway over the Taliban. While the insurgents’ alliances with several countries have saved them from dependence on any one, the U.S. could turn the tables by getting all the Taliban’s sponsors to pressure the insurgents to participate in negotiations at once. How or even whether the U.S. could achieve such a feat remains a mystery to even the best diplomats at the State Department, but the U.S.’s current hostility toward China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia is doing nothing to support the prospects for peace. Engaging with these countries can only help the U.S. bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
The Taliban’s participation in the illegal drug trade offers a more complex diplomatic issue. On the one hand, international law prohibits narcotrafficking, and the spread of opium’s derivatives has ruined countless lives in Afghanistan and the rest of the world. On the other, the extent to which the illegal drug trade has become intertwined with the Taliban and the Afghan economy likely precludes enforcing a ban on the production of opium — as the insurgents themselves did almost twenty years ago. The most practical solution also seems the least palatable: turning a blind eye to the Taliban’s current and future participation in the illegal drug trade in the name of bringing peace to Afghanistan. To an extent, the U.S. has already adopted this strategy with regard to officials in the Afghan government, many of whom participate in narcotrafficking. Whether and how much the illegal drug trade will factor into peace talks falls to the U.S., which spearheads not only the War on Terror but also the War on Drugs. Maybe narcotrafficking will stop mattering to the insurgents if they no longer need to fund their war against the U.S., but the U.S. should refrain from making that assumption.
The decentralization of the Taliban could cause the most harm to peace talks, for the Quetta Shura may lack the authority to enforce any peace treaty to which the Taliban agrees. This problem requires a more targeted approach, forcing the U.S. to conduct outreach to several factions of the Taliban as the U.S. devises a political settlement that satisfies most or all of them. Though some pundits have proposed that the U.S. negotiate with moderate Taliban factions but fight radical ones, such a strategy sounds more divisive than productive, having the potential to divide and prolong the insurgency. Instead, the U.S. should adopt an approach that appeals to a spectrum of insurgents, from the Haqqanis to Taliban defectors with their own objectives. While never a monolithic insurgency, the Taliban today seems far more diverse than the self-described resistance movement founded twenty-four years ago.
As the U.S. ponders these obstacles to peace talks and their potential solutions, it should reflect on what it hopes to achieve in Afghanistan and whether a political settlement can produce that result. Seventeen years after the U.S. invaded the country, its goals for Afghanistan remain far from clear. The U.S. has long insisted that Afghans — the Afghan government and the Taliban — must conduct peace talks with the U.S. as a guarantor, but the continued dependence of the Afghan Armed Forces on U.S.-military aid belies this argument. Trump must decide whether to take the Taliban at its word. Assuming that he, like the the international community, judges that only negotiations can end the War in Afghanistan, the U.S. still has a long way to go before it can conduct peace talks with its oldest opponent on the battlefield.
Today, the Taliban represents a challenge far different from the insurgents whom the U.S. confronted and defeated in 2001. They no longer fear the U.S. as they did in the 1990s, nor does the Taliban show the same wariness that the U.S. does. To conduct peace talks with the insurgents and reach a political settlement to the War in Afghanistan, U.S.-policymakers must understand their enemy as well as the Taliban has come to know the U.S.