Getting Afghanistan to Peace Will Require Persistent U.S. Engagement

With the February 29 signing of a U.S.-Taliban agreement, the road to peace in Afghanistan looks more promising than at any time in the last 15 years. And as it should be, the Afghans on both sides should soon be the key drivers crafting a final and durable peace settlement.

Nevertheless, despite the unprecedented breakthrough achieved in the U.S.-Taliban talks, ensuring a real peace in Afghanistan that protects U.S. and allied security interests will require persistent U.S. diplomacy, sustained on the ground U.S. and NATO military leverage, and substantial U.S. and other international assistance programs to help bring Afghanistan to peace.

The back and forth between the parties over possible prisoner releases and the upswing in violence just underscore the need for persistent U.S. engagement.

While the U.S.-Taliban agreement calls for the phased withdrawal of U.S. forces, its actual implementation will play a critical role in determining whether genuine peace can be achieved. The presence of U.S. and NATO forces during the key stages of the Afghan negotiations scheduled to begin in mid-March in Norway will serve as a “conditions-based” guarantee of existing U.S. and allied security commitments to the government in Kabul.

By contrast, an overly rapid U.S. withdrawal of troops and military capacity could send a signal to the Taliban leadership of lack of U.S. will and invite them to relaunch a destabilizing military insurgency. The return to fighting and killing will undermine prospects for the Afghans to reach an agreement successfully.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan lives in a volatile region, and the activities of its neighbors, principally Pakistan and Iran, are important elements to success or failure. If they see it in their interest, Pakistan and Iran can serve as spoilers and can seek to undermine what is likely to be a bumpy and prolonged negotiating process.

An energized and focused U.S. and international partner diplomacy will be vital to keep Afghans at the table as they work through the tendentious issues. That diplomacy will need to keep key regional parties working to promote agreement rather than to derail talks in favor of their clients. U.S. diplomacy will need to engage key stakeholders, such as China and Russia, to ensure they use their influence with all political factions in Kabul and with Taliban leaders in support of a negotiated settlement.

After decades of war, the Afghan parties don’t trust each other. They have yet to define the outlines of a settlement, and they hold very divergent views of the forms of government and society that could allow for a peaceful governing arrangement. It is not evident that either the Taliban, who appear to favor a return of its “Islamic Emirate,” or President Ghani and the leading Afghan parties, who advocate for the maintenance of the “Islamic Republic’s” liberal-democratic constitution, have developed tangible proposals to address the problems of reconciling a terribly scarred national social fabric, building mutual confidence, and generating the jobs and economic growth needed to absorb insurgent fighters, soldiers, police, and Afghanistan’s sizable youth population, if peace arrives. In the best of circumstances, negotiations are going to be difficult within Afghanistan’s fractious political class in Kabul as well as between them and the Taliban.

During negotiations, Afghanistan’s international friends should also support Afghan civil society groups to mobilize and focus the widespread desire of the Afghan population for peace by fostering programs to build mutual understanding. This can help keep Afghan negotiators and politicians focused on forging solutions.

To be ready for an agreement, the United States and its partners should prepare for sustained investment in programs that will be needed to achieve reconciliation, disarmament, and demobilization of former fighters and security personnel. An eventual peace agreement can only flourish if Afghanistan’s international partners also fund programs that help create needed jobs for former fighters and other Afghans seeking work. Fortunately, the World Bank and international donors have already begun to define the programs needed to keep the economy and governance on track for the next few years. The United States and others will also need to support Afghan security forces after a settlement to maintain law and order and manage those who seek to disrupt a new governing arrangement.

For the United States, this boils down to not underestimating the urgency of sustained engagement and to realizing the costs of abandoning that presence, attention, and investment. The United States paid a huge price for abandoning Afghanistan in the 1990s after the Soviets left, and again in the early 2000s when U.S. attention and resources shifted to Iraq, as well as for its underestimation of security needs in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ambassador Khalilzad and his team deserve great credit for their vital contribution to forging an agreement in which the Taliban made commitments regarding international terrorism and undertaking negotiations with other Afghans on a peace settlement and related issues. U.S. officials rightly stress that the agreement is conditions-based, which is essential to avoid a situation where the Taliban bide their time in negotiations until the United States has too little military leverage to stop the Taliban from imposing their will by force.

Many Afghans and others, including some in the U.S. Congress, worry the Taliban will do exactly that. Such a Taliban effort to impose victory could easily lead to a return to civil war and chaos with disastrous results for Afghanistan, the region, and U.S. strategic interests. Thus, the United States should retain sufficient ground and air military capacity to intervene if needed in the event the Taliban violates its commitments and seeks to use military force and violence to achieve power. A credible U.S. and NATO military presence is an indispensable tool complementing U.S. and allied diplomacy to help ensure that all Afghan parties stay engaged in good faith negotiations.

It is helpful to think of three phases of what could generate a “successful” peace process: (1) getting key Afghan actors to the table and launching a serious negotiating process, (2) crafting a potentially workable settlement, and (3) implementing that settlement and building peace. This will certainly be a multiyear process in the best of circumstances.

An immediate challenge is to get the Kabul-based Afghan political leaders to forge a unified negotiating team and a representative process to set policy for the negotiations. President Ghani and his chief political rival and one-time governing partner, Abdullah Abdullah, are locked in a political battle over who won the 2019 presidential election. Ghani has been declared the winner, but Abdullah has accused the electoral authorities of being complicit in large-scale fraud. Both have a national following and a strong coalition of supporters. A key task for U.S. diplomats in Kabul is to urgently and intensely engage the government and all elements of the Afghan political class to find a post-electoral political formula (even if temporary) that includes the creation on an emergency basis of a coalition government representative of Afghanistan’s ethnic and tribal diversity.

It is hard to imagine any possibility of success in negotiations with the Taliban if the political class in Kabul is unable to come together in the aftermath of their elections and create a credible and representative delegation to the peace talks in Norway. In practical terms, this means that Kabul’s sharply divided elites need to transform into a coherent “team of rivals” that can agree on an effective negotiating strategy, appoint competent negotiators, and forge a decisionmaking process that includes women and civil society representatives. While the Afghans must do the actual teambuilding, the United States and others will need to exert pressure to achieve this end effectively.

The initial questioning by Ghani about when and how to carry out an initial prisoner exchange, as outlined in the U.S.-Taliban agreement, is just a foretaste of the complex negotiations ahead.

Once negotiations get underway, the process will likely focus on the outlines of a future governing arrangement as well as when and under what circumstances a full ceasefire might be agreed. While the Taliban desires an Islamic Emirate and Kabul figures favor a version of the current “Islamic Republic,” both sides need to be ready to tackle a range of tough issues. It is not clear what the Taliban or the elements in Kabul are ready to offer. What is evident is that a semblance of unity within both camps is essential to ensure the best chance of coming up with negotiated solutions to the complex and multiplicity of issues required in a final peace settlement. In this regard, U.S. diplomacy will need to be effective with the Pakistanis, the Saudis, and others to influence Taliban leaders while engaging directly and influencing all key political actors in Kabul.

There are many ideas regarding how talks might proceed. Some experts see a prolonged set of negotiations working through issue by issue, while others favor an initial negotiation on key issues like a cease-fire and other confidence-building measures like the prisoner releases and perhaps establishing an interim government with power-sharing while more detailed negotiations on a future constitution proceed. Again, whatever the negotiating scenario, there will be a need for substantial diplomatic and military leverage from the United States to keep spoilers at bay and to assure that the main parties don’t try to tip the balance with military actions.

If a peace settlement is reached, the key to success is effective implementation. Afghans, with support from their international partners, will need to define checks and balances to assure good faith implementation and to hold off disrupters. For example, a recent RAND study argues that a settlement will need effective programs for DDR —disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration—as well as funds to sustain Afghan security forces. This could require an international commitment of $4-5 billion a year.

Separately, the World Bank and international donor community have crafted an outline of economic and development assistance needed to support the economic growth, job creation, provision of services and increased trade and investment so essential for peace to take root over the next five years. This would require an additional estimated $5 billion in aid from donors over five years.

Persistent U.S. and allied diplomacy and funding will thus be vital to support peace. The United States should retain the military capacity to act decisively if the situation warrants and, with partners, should also continue programs to promote Afghan peacebuilding and economic growth—a “peace dividend” for the Afghan people.

A serious journey to peace in Afghanistan has begun. The United States should not make the mistake of diverting its attention or failing to make the investment necessary to secure and sustain peace.

Earl Anthony Wayne is a senior adviser (non-resident) with the Project on Prosperity and Development (PPD) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. He served as deputy ambassador in Afghanistan among other posts before leaving the U.S. diplomatic service as a career ambassador.

Hugo Llorens is a retired U.S. ambassador. He most recently led the U.S. embassy in Kabul, serving as the special charge d’affaires in 2016-17. Previously, he served as the assistant chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Kabul in 2012-13. He currently runs his own international consulting company, AHLLGP.

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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Earl Anthony Wayne
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development

Hugo Llorens

Former U.S. Ambassador