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Is an agreement with the Taliban a step toward peace?

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Is the agreement the U.S. is about to sign with the Taliban a step toward peace, an excuse for withdrawal or something in between? Much is not clear, including a number of purported secret annexes reported by the media but not confirmed that would, if true, leave some counter-terrorist forces in Afghanistan. Additionally, some un-agreed points between the sides likely will have been bridged with ambiguous language that leave room for different interpretations.  

The agreement represents both the best chance for peace in many years and a slim chance of ultimate success; a first step on a very long road. The agreement will reduce our troops in Afghanistan but not take them all out for at least a year or two, and possibly not then. Peace is worth trying even if there are many reasons to doubt the outcome but not every risk is worth taking. Thus, because so much is unclear, a realistic appraisal of an unfinished process must focus on understanding crucial points to be watched as the process unfolds.  

Our partial withdrawal, and agreement to a further withdrawal over time, is supposed to be a precondition to the start of direct talks between the Taliban and Afghans on our side. The Taliban won’t negotiate directly with the Afghan government but has agreed to start talks with a composite group of Afghans, including the Afghan government. Here are some of the problems and issues to watch.

One issue is whether our further withdrawal is on a fixed timeline or whether that can be adjusted based on conditions (and whether we will really insist the conditions be respected). If we’re going to withdraw at a fixed date, no matter what, we will leave the Afghan government in a very weak position since the Taliban will know that the government’s position will steadily weaken over time and the Taliban will have little reason to make concessions.

A second issue is what kind of military support we will give the Afghan security forces. If we cease air support, they will be in a weak position since they still have only a very small air force with limited ground support capabilities. President Barack Obama stopped all air support for nearly two years and we almost lost the war, and most of what our troop surge had gained, during those two years. Afghan security forces are stronger now but still unlikely to hold without some support.  

It is not clear what we’re going to do. If we are going to keep air support and help for the Afghan commandos (special forces), then we probably will have enough force to do so, even with the drawdown.

The agreement appears to call for some form of reduction of violence, some of which is to be in a pre-signing test phase. A third issue is how much reduction will be called for and what is possible. The Taliban may have trouble controlling all their forces. The Islamic State (ISIS) is in Afghanistan and will continue to fight. Numerous armed groups make a living out of the dangers of a war and may act as spoilers. With so many groups able to cause violence, it may be difficult to tell if the reduction of violence works. The answer may need to be reviewed as conditions change.

The fourth problem will be internal strains among the Afghans. A mixed delegation won’t be fully under the control of the Afghan government. There will be lots of independent maneuvering within the delegation and between Afghan political leaders. This is particularly the case if the just announced reelection of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani leads to a long, drawn out political crisis.Thus, the negotiations may start with Afghan leadership in contention.

Fifth, neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban have shown any sign of being ready for real concessions. Each seems to believe that peace means they win and the other side accepts a few ministries and joins a government. Ghani insists on maintaining an electoral system, something that we have supported. Because the Taliban probably lack the popular support to gain power through elections, they have little reason to agree to this. So negotiations look like they will be long, bumpy and with a high chance of deadlock and even breakdown.  

Finally, nobody really knows what the U.S. will do over the probably long period needed for a successful peace negotiation. America has its own election yet to go, meaning even the shape of the U.S. administration in 2021 is in doubt. For now, rather than celebrate peace or bemoan a sellout, it is probably better to focus on the immediately essential issues — will the U.S. keep exerting pressure through its troops and air power, and will the two sides find the will for a real peace?

Ronald E. Neumann was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan 2005-2007 and has returned frequently since.

Tags Afghan peace process Afghanistan Barack Obama Taliban Withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan
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