Last year, when President Donald Trump gave the go-ahead for negotiations to start between the US and the Taliban, nobody expected his patience to last very long. He could sabotage the American negotiating team at any time, many observers feared, by ordering an arbitrary pullout of US forces from Afghanistan, leaving the Afghan government vulnerable to a Taliban takeover of Kabul.
Nor was there much hope that, having decimated the State Department, Trump would ever play by normal diplomatic rules and depend on institutions like the intelligence community that does the leg-work in such negotiations, rather than his own Fox News-driven instincts. Yet Trump has surprised everyone. By appointing Zalmay Khalilzad as chief US negotiator, he chose a highly experienced, Afghan-born diplomat. Although Khalilzad was sometimes seen as a controversial figure during the Bush administrations, when he served stints as the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations, for this job he was acceptable to both Republicans and Democrats in Congress as the most qualified person from the foreign service community.
Khalilzad was granted the time and space to build up a comprehensive inter-agency team of experts, which includes representatives from the CIA to the Treasury. He also gained the surprising cooperation of the Pentagon, which has only recently shifted its position—until last year the US Defense Department still favored more aggressive military operations against the Taliban rather than engaging in peace talks.
Trump even kept his tweeting on the subject to a minimum. There were no threats or sarcastic comments about Afghanistan or the Taliban, and near-zero interference in Khalilzad’s mission. The US president’s lack of engagement with what was happening in Afghanistan has , in fact, been a boon for Khalilzad, allowing him a free hand in the negotiations. According to diplomatic sources close to the envoy, Trump has continued to show little interest in the progress of the talks with the Taliban.
Supervision of the chief negotiator’s progress has been left, instead, to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whom some considered just as likely to undermine peace efforts. Last December, in a major speech in Brussels, Pompeo had attacked nearly every international organization working for global peace including the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, and the World Bank. Yet even Pompeo has stayed quiet on the peace efforts in Afghanistan.
With so much freedom from Washington interference, Khalilzad pulled off a seemingly impossible feat. On March 12, after sixteen straight days of talks in Doha, the capital of Qatar, US and Taliban negotiators wrapped up a significant part of the complex deal that could finally bring an end to the fighting in Afghanistan that has continued with scarcely a pause in the more than seventeen years since the US invasion of 2001. Both sides announced they had draft agreements on two issues critical to the US: the timetable of a withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and a Taliban pledge to cut ties with all extremist groups—al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Central Asian jihadist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekitan—and eventually eliminate them from Afghanistan.
Acting with due caution, Khalilzad made sure we would only learn all the details when every part of the agreement is concluded. While the first two elements in the draft agreement might be virtually ready for signature, the overall deal the US wants could be jeopardized by a piecemeal approach.
“Peace requires agreement on four issues: counter-terrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue, and a comprehensive ceasefire,” said Khalilzad in a March 12 tweet, as he left Doha to brief Pompeo. “The conditions for peace have improved,” Khalilzad also said. “It’s clear all sides want to end the war.” Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the political leader who headed the Taliban delegation, echoed this positive assessment.
But now comes the hard part: a ceasefire and the “intra-Afghan dialogue.” President Ashraf Ghani is deeply frustrated that the Taliban are still refusing to hold talks with him or his government. He is angry, according to those who have met him recently—his bitterness fed by speculation in Ghani’s camp that the Americans are conspiring to keep him out of the process as a favor to the Taliban, although there is little basis for this belief: it was widely known that in previous rounds Khalilzad had flown back to Kabul to brief Ghani every time there was a break in the talks.
The Ghani camp’s patience evidently broke on March 14, when Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib, speaking to journalists in Washington, D.C., accused the US of negotiating a surrender. “If this is a recipe for peace, we don’t know what is a recipe for war,” said Mohib, who had earlier served as Afghan ambassador to Washington and should have known better than to criticize his government’s main ally in public. “The last people to find out are us,” he added.
Mohib aimed his most undiplomatic attack at Khalilzad himself, whom Mohib accused of “delegitimizing the Afghan government and weakening it, and at the same time elevating the Taliban.” Khalilzad, he said, had designs on becoming a “viceroy” of Afghanistan. Mohib was immediately called in by the US State Department for a dressing-down, and President Ghani was informed that the unapologetic Mohib would no longer be welcome at the State Department or by US officials. Khalilzad declined to react, unjust though the accusation was.
The reality is that Ghani’s domestic position has weakened. With uncertainty in Kabul over the progress and possible outcome of the Doha talks, his base of support has dwindled, and he faces rising frustration among opposition parties, politicians, warlords, and civil society leaders. Even some former supporters accept that in any political settlement, Ghani would have to step down. Inevitably aware of this, the president is furious with the Americans for, as he sees it, sidelining him in the peace process.
The Taliban themselves inflamed that tension by meeting with Afghan opposition politicians and civil society leaders including women activists in Moscow in February. There are reports that another such meeting could be held in Doha in April, which would again exclude government representatives. The Taliban’s adamant refusal to deal directly with Ghani remains a major obstacle that, whatever the success so far of the Doha round, remains to be overcome.
Khalilzad has made it clear, probably wisely, that this element of the process—the “intra-Afghan dialogue”—is the Afghans’ affair, something for them to sort out themselves. While Ghani may be waiting for more American support in the endeavor, he has done little to help himself so far: he has laid out no framework for such a dialogue, nor even put together a negotiating team—despite Khalilzad’s urging that he should do so.
And there remains the other intractable point: to agree a long-looked-for ceasefire in the war that is still claiming dozens of lives every week. In recent weeks, scores of Afghan soldiers have been killed and more than fifty have been captured by the Taliban in a battle for control of the western province of Badghis. On March 17 and 18, another hundred Afghan security personnel attempted to flee into neighboring Turkmenistan but were returned by the Turkmen authorities. At the same time, the Taliban claimed that ninety soldiers had surrendered to their forces in the Badghis province. Many fear a further intensification of the fighting because the Taliban traditionally launch a major offensive in the spring. According to current estimates, the Taliban now control up to half the country, though they have yet to capture a major city.
The last peace process that older Afghans remember was the UN-led talks that ended in the Geneva Accords in 1988 and led to the final withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Those talks took four years to conclude. Now, for the first time since the Russians left, many Afghans are hoping for a possible end to the war and a political deal that most could live with—even if some, inevitably, fear the prospect of a new government in which the Taliban is a partner. If the uncharacteristic patience of the normally impulsive US president holds, Khalilzad may yet deliver such a settlement.
Ahmed Rashid is the author of Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and several books on Afghanistan and Central Asia, including The Resurgence of Central Asia, Islam or Nationalism. He lives in Lahore. (September 2018)