Peace has never been further away for the Afghans who desire it most

Peace has never been further away for the Afghans who desire it most
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After the decision by President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally MORE to call off talks with the Taliban, a fledgling peace process in Afghanistan is in jeopardy. What happens next is unclear. Unfortunately, one thing we do know is that increased unrest is in the immediate offing. As always, Afghan civilians will bear the brunt.

When Trump announced that he was scuttling the talks, many Afghans were relieved. They rightly believed the emerging deal between the United States and the insurgents would have done little to curb violence. Indeed, all the deal required from the Taliban was that it sever ties with international terror groups. In effect, a deal meant to provide an opening for a formal peace process contained nothing remotely approximating a ceasefire. Now the situation has gone from bad to worse because with talks off the table for the time being, violence is poised to increase.

While Trump may have called off talks, he still wants the United States out of Afghanistan. This means that he is likely, in due course, to resume efforts to reach an agreement with the Taliban to give him political cover for a withdrawal. A unilateral withdrawal in the absence of a deal would amount to a virtual surrender. With the looming 2020 election, Trump will not want to give such powerful bait to his political opponents.


If the administration resumes talks, it will want to enter from a position of strength that it has lacked to this point. This entails scaling up military activities against the Taliban to put the insurgents on the defensive and compel them to come back to the negotiating table willing to make concessions they have categorically rejected. These include agreeing to a ceasefire before finalizing any agreement with the United States.

The American military has already telegraphed its intention to ramp up the fight. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, who is the head of United States Central Command, said on a visit to Afghanistan after talks were called off that American troops will intensify the pace of their activities to counter assaults by the Taliban with a “total spectrum” of tactics.

Meanwhile, the Taliban has hinted at its own intention to escalate. Hours after Trump canceled the talks, the Taliban issued a statement that warned more American lives will be lost in Afghanistan. However, one of its initial targets will likely be the Afghan presidential election scheduled for later this month. Expect the Taliban, in an effort to deter electoral candidates from campaigning and the public from voting, to ramp up attacks on election related targets in the coming days.

Keep in mind that ratcheting up the violence is not exactly a new tactic in Afghanistan. Even as negotiations were taking place over the last year, both the Taliban, through bombings and battlefield offensives, and the United States, mainly through airstrikes, were scaling up military operations in attempts to strengthen their bargaining positions.

Further escalations of violence will take a terrible toll on Afghans in a country already reeling from record civilian deaths. Last year, according to the United Nations, Afghanistan had nearly 4,000 such deaths from the war, the highest annual number since the figure has been tracked. The United Nations also estimates that American and Afghan airstrikes killed more civilians than did Taliban attacks over the first half of this year. American and Taliban firepower alike constitute threats to Afghan civilians, and it is all poised to increase with talks on hold.


What makes this state of affairs particularly troubling is that all these escalatory measures are unlikely to alter the basic dynamics of the conflict. For years, including during the height of the troop surge in 2010 and 2011 when there were 100,000 American forces in Afghanistan, the United States has tried to tame the Taliban on the battlefield to compel it to enter negotiations and make meaningful concessions.

It is a strategy that has never worked. Instead, the two sides have fought each other for nearly two decades to the same stalemate, one in which the Taliban maintains strength in rural areas and Afghan forces remain in control of cities. Any agreement to end the fighting remains elusive.

In a best case scenario, the United States would eventually ink a deal with the Taliban that results in a phased withdrawal of American troops while keeping a small residual counterterrorism force in place. Such an accord would also oblige the insurgents to agree to a ceasefire, and to begin formal negotiations with the Afghan government and other political leaders on a comprehensive settlement that would end the war.

Unfortunately, in conflict riven Afghanistan, best case scenarios are rare. Instead, for now we are likely to see escalating violence and increasing civilian casualties, with the hardening positions of the American and Taliban sides militating against the possibility of a future deal. That may not be a worst case scenario, but it sure is pretty darn close.

Michael Kugelman is the deputy director of the Asia program and a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. You can find him on Twitter @MichaelKugelman.