Ending the War in Afghanistan: A Diplomatic Perspective

There is a widespread recognition that the conflict in Afghanistan can end only through a political settlement. Though public discussion has focused mostly on military aspects of the conflict, and especially troop levels, military leaders from General David Petraeus on have recognized that eventually any resolution must take the form of a settlement between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. Ideally, this settlement would include a Taliban surrender (or its functional equivalent, the reintegration of various Taliban elements under Afghan government authority), but such a prospect seems unlikely. The Taliban holds increasing swathes of Afghan territory, even though it does not hold major population centers and is unlikely to be able to take the main cities. The government can resist Taliban attacks, especially in urban areas, but has lost ground in the countryside and only holds those cities at an increasing cost to personnel, resulting in a de facto war of attrition. General John Nicholson has characterized the military situation as being in danger of stalemate, and since the Taliban enjoys safe haven in Pakistan, even another massive surge would be unlikely to reverse the trend toward military impasse, surely the key lesson of 2009–2014.

Since a clear-cut military victory by one side or the other is unlikely, perhaps impossible, the alternative is some kind of agreement between the government and the Taliban. This is a conclusion that the region has already embraced and one of the reasons key players (Pakistan, Russia, Iran, and China) are engaged in hedging strategies: formally recognizing the government of Afghanistan, while quietly building or maintaining relationships with the Taliban, and in the case of Pakistan, actively supporting them. The result has been a gradual erosion of the international consensus, forged at Bonn in 2001, to support only the government of Afghanistan.

Several initiatives to start a peace process—including the Quadrilateral Coordinating Committee (QCG), the 6+1 process (involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and the United States), and most recently the Kabul Process—maintained a semblance of regional consensus but failed on the core objective of establishing a negotiating track, because they did not include the Taliban. The absence of the Taliban virtually guarantees that the group will reject any outcomes developed in its absence, even if its perceived interests are addressed. The most effective way for the United States to reverse this downward spiral of regional hedging is to take the initiative to launch a peace process directly with the Taliban, in close coordination with our Afghan allies.

While the ultimate work of a peace deal will have to take place among Afghans, the first step must be taken by the United States. Why? Because the principal stated grievance of the Taliban is the presence of foreign troops. Though we should not take that grievance at face value, and certainly not make any premature concessions toward addressing the grievance, it is a core issue that will need to be addressed, and it can ultimately only be addressed by the United States and its NATO allies. It goes without saying that any diplomatic initiatives in this arena need to be closely coordinated with and quietly supported by our Afghan allies, but they need to be initiated by the United States.

This commentary imagines what an Afghan peace process might look like.

The first step would be to bring into the public sphere a back channel to the Taliban that has existed for the past five years. The Taliban Political Commission resides, at our request, in Doha, Qatar. Allowing the Taliban office to open formally in return for the immediate beginning of a publicly acknowledged peace process with the Afghan and U.S. governments would create a diplomatic modality for negotiations. We nearly closed this deal in the summer of 2013, but the Taliban overreached by hoisting their flag and putting up signage in the name of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Presidents Hamid Karzai and Barack Obama rightly rejected these symbolic trappings of a national embassy and the deal collapsed. All parties, especially the Qataris, have every incentive to avoid a repeat of this debacle. The deal should be resurrected as an interim measure to create a peace process.

One other piece of preliminary business will be necessary to launch a peace process: the United States will have to signal that it is prepared to discuss troop withdrawals, under the right conditions. Those conditions have already been made clear in principle: the Taliban must break with al Qaeda and international terrorism. There is now reason to believe that the Taliban, facing a threat from the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan, might quietly welcome some continued U.S. presence in a counter-Daesh role. At a minimum, a troop withdrawal would have to be phased and in response to irreversible Taliban compliance. But the topic needs to be put on the table for discussion if the peace process is not to be futile.

Once a peace process is launched in Doha, there should be at least three tracks dealing with the distinct baskets of issues: the first with the intra-Afghan issues; the second with the regional dimension of the war, because the 40-year conflict, while at root a civil war growing out of toxic domestic Afghan politics in the 1970s, has been exacerbated by the interventions of regional players; and the third dealing with withdrawal of foreign forces, as described above.

For the regional discussion, at a minimum, Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran, India, and the Central Asian neighbors need to be represented. The goal for this track should be to reduce the need for proxy interventions in Afghanistan, which to some extent can be achieved through transparency and inclusiveness in the process. The biggest challenge will be addressing Pakistani and Indian equities, which in some ways are at the core of the conflict, at least as far as Pakistan is concerned. Pakistan has a long-standing view that India should not have a droit de regard on Afghan security matters. But Pakistan will also not want to be perceived as the one breaking consensus, so some diplomatic finessing is possible, if challenging. The other participants will likely find their need for hedging strategies diminished if the Taliban are actually talking to the Afghan government.

Ultimately, the more important intra-Afghan track is more difficult to envision in advance. As in other peace processes, the discussions should begin with areas of broad consensus (the sovereignty and indivisibility of Afghanistan, the role of Islam in Afghan society, the desirability of ending foreign intervention), while identifying areas where confidence-building measures can be developed (perhaps an agreement not to attack major infrastructure, already a tacit bargain between the two sides) and eventually moving to the constitution. Here there appears to be a clash of redlines: the government holds that the Taliban must accept the Afghan constitution; the Taliban rejects the constitution. However, the insurgents’ rejection appears to be driven by their exclusion from the drafting process as much as by its substance. And the Afghan constitution, like all such documents, is subject to amendment. While some accommodation seems possible, this is an issue for the endgame and probably one that will have to be addressed through a Loya Jirga, following considerable diplomatic spade work to identify possible outcomes.

It is worth noting that the Afghan track has a built-in timeline. According to the constitution, presidential elections are scheduled for 2019. The elections present a clear opportunity to bring the Taliban into the political process, if a peace process is to be successful. Conversely, if the election proceeds without Taliban participation, it will only harden positions on both sides.

To be successful a Doha peace process will require an international facilitator, someone trusted by both sides who can own the process and serve as an honest broker, as well as handle the logistics of a multitrack process conducted in a minimum of three languages (Dari, Pashto, and English). Though Qatar can serve as host, its tiny diplomatic service makes unlikely any desire to take on the full load of managing the process on a day-to-day basis. The facilitator must be acceptable to all sides, especially the Afghan government, the U.S. government, and the Taliban, and should have substantial organizational or governmental backing.

Finally, during the negotiations, the United States and the international community need to maintain robust levels of military, economic, and diplomatic support for the Afghan government so that the latter can negotiate from a position of strength. Nothing less is required to honor the sacrifices made over the past 16 years by U.S. citizens, allies, and Afghans to build a better society.

The challenges of this process are not to be underestimated. After 16 years of warfare (for the United States that is; for Afghans, it is 40 years), positions are entrenched and emotions run high. But as the alternative of an endless “long war” is unappealing to all, and the prospect of clear military solution unlikely, it is worth pursuing. At the end of the day, three things are necessary for a diplomatic solution: a modality (that is, a way for the opponents to talk to each other); a formula (the substantive solution to the problem); and the political will to succeed. The last is always the most elusive, but there are reasons to believe that in this case all sides recognize the need at least for negotiations. There is every reason to proceed with establishing a peace process.

Richard Olson is a senior associate with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2015–2016) and U.S. ambassador to Pakistan (2012–2015).

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Richard Olson

Senior Associate, Project on Prosperity and Development