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Afghanistan: Where do we go from here?

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It is in the strong interest of Afghanistan, its neighbors, its international partners and especially the United States, that the Afghanistan peace process not be abandoned, despite President Trump’s declaring the U.S.-Taliban talks “dead.”  

No party can win a military victory any time soon in current circumstances, and Afghans across the spectrum long for peace. Recent Gallup polling found unprecedented despair among Afghans.  

Though reporting and polling signal that many Afghans also fear a return to Taliban rule, advances made during U.S.-Taliban talks are welcome and should be built upon. That message came through in a Sept. 19 congressional discussion of the state of play. Even the Taliban are saying that the doors for negotiation with the U.S. remain open.  

It is unclear, however, when and how a process toward peace might be revived. A key step will be to initiate serious intra-Afghan talks. Such negotiations are essential to hammering out a workable peace settlement and, thus far, the Taliban have resisted.  

Hopefully, moves toward a serious ceasefire also would be possible soon as part of a revived process. President Trump cited the death of a U.S. soldier in a Taliban attack when cancelling U.S.-Taliban talks. The Taliban repeatedly have said that they would continue fighting, especially against the Afghan government. They see their ability to launch attacks, including against civilian targets, as a key source of leverage.

A core worry that led many to raise concerns about the previous U.S.-Taliban negotiations was that too-rapid U.S. troop withdrawals and a reduction in U.S. leverage would leave the Taliban free to drag out any talks with the Afghan government and simultaneously seek to impose a solution via violence. In turn, such a situation could spark a chaotic and vicious civil war, as Afghanistan experienced in the 1990s.   

The opportunity of a renewed negotiating process is to forge a peace agreement with checks and balances that enhance its chances of lasting. This requires agreement on a framework and process to help sustain peacebuilding under any new government arrangement, as Afghans and their partners seek to implement a settlement. In a stronger process, the Taliban would demonstrate willingness to build peace and work with other Afghans, and the U.S. and others would retain the capacity to respond effectively to serious breaches of a settlement accord.

Achieving such goals means that the U.S. should stay engaged and likely be militarily present during a transition and, for the best chances of enduring peace, the U.S. and international partners should remain engaged in providing assistance even after military forces have departed. 

The U.S. has a responsibility to the Afghans with whom it has worked and supported, including the millions of Afghan women and young people who now have more opportunities than ever before and who greatly fear a return of the Taliban. The Taliban’s continued attacks on civilian targets in Kabul and elsewhere deepen those fears.

The United States’s prime interest in preventing terrorists from operating internationally from Afghanistan was made clear in Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad’s negotiations with the Taliban.  The challenge is addressing well both of these serious concerns as negotiations resume and evolve.

Currently, all sides are trying to bolster their positions. The Taliban are launching suicide bomb attacks in Kabul and elsewhere. Afghan Special Forces with U.S. military support are actively going after Taliban forces. Civilian casualties continue to mount.

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani and his main competitor, Abdullah Abdullah, are engaged in campaigning for presidential elections slated for Sept. 28, which the Taliban are expected to try to disrupt. That electoral process will need to come to closure before non-Taliban Afghans will be ready to engage in a peace process. The elections, by definition, will deepen competition between Ghani and his rivals and have politicized government performance, generating criticism from the U.S. and other donors. The results may be seriously disputed among Kabul elites.

It will take creativity and hard work to revive negotiations and move toward a peaceful settlement.

The U.S. should work to maintain and bolster the broad international and regional support carefully built by Special Envoy Khalilzad.   

Particular focus should be given to Pakistan’s willingness to do heavy lifting to get the Taliban to the table and engage in serious talks with other Afghans. Pakistan’s role, always key, is even more important now.

The U.S. and its partners also need to focus attention on getting the non-Taliban Afghans to hammer out agreements on a common negotiating program and a politically acceptable process to manage what will doubtless be a complex, difficult negotiation. Divisions among non-Taliban Afghans have been major impediments in the Afghan government’s effectiveness and will weaken their hand in intra-Afghan negotiations.

At the center of consideration needs to be how to get to a deal with solid commitments and checks to produce a sustainable agreement and post-settlement process that can bring Taliban and non-Taliban together in a functioning system that builds trust over time.  

No one should underestimate the challenges of implementing an agreement and supporting a return to economic growth and development in Afghanistan after fighting has stopped. Substantial international assistance will be vital, given Afghanistan’s poverty, its weak institutions, its youthful population seeking jobs, the need to reintegrate fighters and refugees, and to counter opposition from ISIS-Khorasan and other extremists, just to mention some of the challenges a new government will face.

There is much to be sorted through to turn this moment into a path toward peace and an end to U.S. military engagement. Creativity and openness to new channels, as well as reviving those exchanges that brought the progress so far, will be essential. 

The pause initiated by President Trump can be seen as an opportunity to regroup and re-engage toward a more sustainable peace framework. It is worth the patient determination of Americans to try to forge such a way forward with Afghans and key international partners. 

Earl Anthony Wayne is a retired career ambassador, who served two years in Afghanistan during his diplomatic career, and now is a diplomat in residence at American University’s School of International Service and a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center. Follow him on Twitter @EAnthonyWayne.

Tags Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani Donald Trump peace negotiations Taliban us troop withdrawal War in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad

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