Everyone Wants a Piece of Afghanistan
A U.S. withdrawal has opened the door to a possible political settlement, but success will depend on regional powers and the country’s neighbors.
President Donald Trump’s intention to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan has given new life to the quest for a political settlement after 41 years of war, including over 17 directly involving the U.S. military. According to both U.S. government and Taliban sources, negotiations between the two sides have led to agreement on the outline of a framework for a deal in which the United States would withdraw troops and the Taliban would guarantee that any future government in which they participate would cooperate with international efforts against terrorism. The Taliban will have to disavow al Qaeda explicitly for the first time.
The U.S. government is negotiating directly with the Taliban because Washington has finally accepted that there is no better military option. Meanwhile, the Islamist group refuses to engage the Afghan government until it has reached agreement with the United States on ending what it calls the “occupation” of Afghanistan.
Under the framework being negotiated by the U.S. government and the Taliban, however, the agreement between these two would be implemented only as one component of a broader pact, including a ceasefire and a domestic political settlement derived from negotiations including the Afghan government and the Taliban, with the representation of a broad range of Afghan society, including women and youth. The main parties to the conflict will also have to agree on the sequencing of the troop pullout, the ceasefire, the political settlement, and long-term assistance to Afghanistan to ensure that the foreign troop withdrawal does not lead to collapse of the government, as was the case in Afghanistan after the 1988 Geneva Accords.
In addition to those core parties to the conflict, for any deal to endure, other regional actors need to agree as well—especially Pakistan. Pakistan supported the Taliban while they were in power and has hosted their leadership and logistics bases since U.S. forces expelled them from Afghanistan.
Pakistan has used support for the Taliban’s military and terrorist activities to pressure Washington and Kabul over five issues: The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which could threaten Pakistan, especially its nuclear arsenal, and, Islamabad believes, provide cover for Indian activities against Pakistan; Afghanistan’s refusal to recognize the international boundary with Pakistan, known as the Durand Line, and its claims on the loyalties of Pashtun and Baloch ethnic groups in the two countries; commercial and transit access to Central Asia via Afghanistan, which Pakistan could obtain at any time by allowing Afghanistan reciprocal access to India, which it has so far refused; some understanding on limiting the Indian presence in Afghanistan, at least in provinces directly bordering Pakistan—while there are no Indian troops in Afghanistan, Pakistan claims that Indian aid and diplomatic missions provide cover for intelligence operations; and limits on building dams on waterways such as the Kabul River that flow into Pakistan, which is experiencing a severe water crisis.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have made some progress on these issues, especially in talks brokered by China, which is involved because it views instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a threat to its massive transcontinental infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative.
Pakistan’s financial crisis has made it more vulnerable to pressure. The balance of payments deficit has so drained the country’s central bank that by the end of 2018 it had only two months of sovereign debt payments in reserves. Pakistan refused the IMF’s tough conditions for a bailout, and China likewise declined to reward its client’s profligacy, leaving it with no alternative but to look to Persian Gulf oil states for help. In December 2018, Saudi Arabia reportedly promised $6 billion in a series of disbursements that U.S. officials claim are conditional on cooperation with the Afghan peace process. The United Arab Emirates simultaneously allocated $3 billion for Pakistan under similar conditions.
The Pakistani military appears to have applied selective pressure on Taliban leaders to join the process. At the request of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations whom Trump has named special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Pakistan released former Taliban deputy leader Mullah Baradar Akhund after nearly nine years of detention.
Baradar was captured in a 2010 CIA counterterrorism raid in Karachi, coordinated with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which wanted to halt an unauthorized dialogue reportedly sponsored by Baradar with the government of then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai. One of the Taliban’s founders, with extensive influence over fighters in southern Afghanistan, Baradar has long been considered one of the Taliban leaders most inclined toward a peaceful settlement. Upon his release, the Taliban reinstated him to his deputy leader position and placed him in charge of the negotiations. He then traveled to Doha, where he is acting as Khalilzad’s counterpart in the talks.
In addition to providing conditional bailouts of Pakistan, the Saudis and Emiratis are seeking to expand their coalition against Iran and Qatar to include Pakistan and to court the favor of the U.S. government. They have offered to use their supposed influence with the Taliban to bring them together with the Afghan government in Abu Dhabi and Jeddah.
The U.S. government agreed to an official opening of a Taliban political office in Doha in June 2013, but Washington blocked the effort when Qatar and the Taliban violated an agreement not to claim the office represented the “Islamic Emirate” of Afghanistan. The members of the office nonetheless stayed on in Qatar, where they have operated without official recognition. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are trying, but have so far failed, to demonstrate that they could replace Qatar as Washington’s broker with the Taliban. The negotiations have continued in Qatar, but Saudi Arabia has used its new leverage with Pakistan to buy a stake in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, to China’s apparent annoyance, and to continue its effort to recruit Pakistan to its anti-Iran coalition.
Iran, meanwhile, charges that Saudi and Emirati intelligence agencies are behind several terrorist attacks in Iran, in some cases making use of Afghan or Pakistani territory. It also charges that U.S. intelligence has established massive facilities to spy on Iran from Afghanistan. After Saudi Arabia’s failed attempt to insert itself in the U.S.-Taliban negotiations, Tehran informed Kabul that it had upgraded its relations with the Taliban from intelligence to diplomatic contacts and reminded it that Iran reserved the right to take action against U.S. interests and those of the Gulf States if they engage in hostilities against it. Washington and Tehran have exchanged messages signaling that they do not want Afghanistan to become another Yemen, but the risks are rising.
Russia may be changing from a spoiler to a U.S. partner in the process, as Moscow is starting to believe that the United States may no longer insist on monopolizing influence in Afghanistan. Russia’s presidential special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, a native of Uzbekistan, started his Afghan diplomacy as second secretary in charge of press relations for the Soviet Embassy in Kabul in the 1980s at the same time as Khalilzad was introducing President Ronald Reagan to the mujahideen leaders in Washington. Kabulov claims that he tried to advise the U.S. government how not to repeat Soviet mistakes in Afghanistan, but that it not only did so but even added some new mistakes of its own invention.
In December 2017, Kabulov launched the so-called Moscow Process for a political settlement in Afghanistan as a challenge to Washington and what Moscow sees as a U.S. client government in Kabul. While Russia helped the Americans gain bases in Central Asia to enter Afghanistan in 2001, it expected the U.S. military presence to end within five years and has increasingly viewed it as a hostile bridgehead on the Asian continent. The goal of the Moscow Process was to orchestrate a peace process based on a consensus of Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and China that would lead to the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the containment of U.S. influence in Afghanistan.
The United States declined Russia’s invitation to participate in the first few rounds of the Moscow Process. After Khalilzad’s appointment, the U.S. government for the first time sent a diplomat from the Moscow embassy to participate in the November 2018 round, which was attended by delegations from both the Taliban and the Afghan government’s High Peace Council. (The government refused to send direct representatives to a meeting where they would be treated as just another Afghan group, equivalent to the Taliban or the opposition).
A December 2018 meeting between Khalilzad and Kabulov in Moscow seems to have led to discussion of further cooperation. Rather than calling another round of the Moscow Process to challenge both the U.S. and Afghan governments, Russia used an association of Afghans resident in Russia to convene an Afghan gathering in Moscow in February. At this meeting, the Taliban political office met with a high-level Afghan delegation led by former President Karzai.
Except for forces aligned with President Ashraf Ghani, virtually the entire Afghan male political gerontocracy was represented. Russian officials did not appear at the forum to claim credit, and the U.S. government did not criticize it. The meeting furthered U.S. goals by increasing pressure on Ghani to allow broader participation in the intra-Afghan part of the peace process. And on a visit to Qatar earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed support for U.S.-Russian cooperation on the Afghan peace process.
Indian officials also participated in the November round of the Moscow Process, the first time that India has joined a meeting with Taliban representatives, as India has long regarded the Taliban as an integral part of the terrorist networks sponsored by Pakistan with the primary goal of targeting India. Russia and Iran long echoed the same position as India against any engagement with the Taliban, but as their view of the Taliban has shifted, India has become more isolated.
India strongly supported Trump’s pro-Indian South Asia strategy but has chafed at U.S. restrictions on its dealings with Iran and Russia. India is also re-evaluating its relationship with China. It is wary of increased Pakistani influence in Afghanistan through any process that includes the Taliban, but it is also exploring possibilities of cooperation with China, including on projects in Afghanistan.
India is the largest regional donor to Afghanistan. And according to public opinion surveys, it is the most popular foreign country in Afghanistan, but it lacks a common border and has little leverage over the actors involved in negotiations. (Territory claimed by India as part of the Kashmir dispute does border on Afghanistan, but that territory, now including the provinces of Gilgit and Baltistan, has been under Pakistan’s control since 1947.) Through cooperation with Iran in developing the port of Chabahar, however, India has developed a transit route to Afghanistan that evades Pakistan, helping Afghanistan achieve a major strategic objective of decreasing dependence on its eastern neighbor.
China has quietly pressured Pakistan to cooperate by declining to bail it out of its balance of payments crisis and increasingly siding with Afghanistan in Afghanistan-Pakistan bilateral conflicts. It lacks the capabilities and personnel to intervene in such quickly moving events in an area where it is only starting to reengage, after centuries during which the ancient Silk Road connections atrophied. China is less interested than many think in Afghanistan’s mineral riches—after all, in January, Beijing landed a space rover on the dark side of the moon, which may have even greater mineral resources than Afghanistan, and where neither U.S. nor Chinese visitors have yet encountered armed resistance.
China’s leadership believes (mistakenly, in all likelihood) that its massive investments in internal repression and border cooperation with Afghanistan and Tajikistan have neutralized the threat to Xinjiang from ethnic Uighur separatists. Its main concern is that of any would-be hegemon: establishing stability that facilitates its economic and strategic expansion. While China opposes permanent U.S. bases in Afghanistan, the time horizon by which it defines “permanent” is longer than that of most other countries. In practice, it has been more concerned that the United States may withdraw too quickly, leading to instability.
China is likely to be a major participant in implementing and sustaining any Afghan peace agreement. Its cooperation with Washington to manage Pakistan could potentially be important, as Pakistani military cooperation, even if unavowed, will be needed to implement a cease-fire and any demobilization of Pakistan-based Taliban fighters and their integration into the Afghan security forces.
Russia has helped build a consensus about Afghanistan with Iran, Pakistan, and China. Like the Taliban, these governments see the U.S. presence and predominance in Afghanistan to a greater or lesser extent as a threat, but they are also ambivalent about the terms under which the Americans should leave. They see their main strategic stakes in the development of regional infrastructure and integration through projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative and Chabahar, which require stability.
Any U.S. exit inevitably raises the question of what might replace the near-total dependence of the Afghan state on Washington for funding, training, technology, and equipment. However concerned these neighboring countries are that Afghanistan has become an extension of U.S. power projection into the region, they have not proposed any alternative way to sustain the Afghan state.
Stabilization of Afghanistan even after an agreement between the Taliban and the government, and a U.S. troop withdrawal, would require a degree of regional consensus over Afghanistan’s final status security issues, namely: What (minimal) redlines can all stakeholders endorse concerning the composition and structure of the Afghan government? What, if any, international military advisory or counterterrorist presence will international actors offer Afghanistan? What will be the size, mission, and composition of the security and defense forces that international actors will support? Who will finance, equip, and train those forces and fund service provision by the state? How will landlocked Afghanistan be integrated into the regional and global economy?
Since the transition from NATO-U.S. security leadership was completed in December 2014, Afghanistan has centered its strategy for security and stability on the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States that Ghani’s administration signed soon after taking office in September 2014. As Washington withdraws its physical troop presence and reduces its level of assistance, residual U.S. support will have to be coordinated with regional support, for which there is no corresponding agreement or understanding. While most of the Bilateral Security Agreement is the equivalent of a status of forces agreement for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, its other provisions could be broadened rather than abrogated by being replaced with a Multilateral Security Agreement, or it could be supplemented with a set of harmonized bilateral agreements.
At present there is no agreed regional framework corresponding to the Doha talks—and neither the U.S. nor Afghan government can lead it. The only regional organization with the appropriate scope seems to be the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes not only its original members—Russia, China, and Central Asian countries—but also India and Pakistan, with Afghanistan as an observer. The organization remains diplomatically weak, however, and is perceived by the U.S. government as a front for Russia and China. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation could bring some symbolic legitimacy to an agreement with the Taliban, but it is headquartered in Saudi Arabia and largely impotent on the ground. There seems little alternative to the U.N. as convener of any official regional process, but so far Afghanistan, the United States, and Russia have all shown reluctance to cede political space to it on such a sensitive issue.
Multilateral cooperation through the U.N. would in any case seem to contradict every tenet of Trump’s “America first” foreign policy. The administration’s determination to confront Iran in alliance with the Gulf monarchies could crash head-on into its attempt to stabilize Afghanistan, which depends on Iran’s cooperation. At least a minimal understanding with Russia and China, which the administration’s National Security Strategy defines as the top global threats, and an ability to shield the process from the periodic crises between India and Pakistan, will be needed. And a single Trump tweet signaling troop withdrawal or any other unilateral decision could upset the entire process.
With the apparent support of Secretary Pompeo, Khalilzad has thus far enjoyed considerable autonomy from the chaos at the commanding heights of the Trump administration. He or his successors may need to outlast it. Afghanistan certainly will.
Barnett R. Rubin is director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project and associate director at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. He is also a nonresident fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He has taught at Yale University and Columbia University, headed the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and served as senior advisor to both the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009-2013) and the U.N. special representative of the secretary-general for Afghanistan (2001-2002). His next book, Afghanistan: What Everyone Needs to Know, will be published by Oxford University Press in July.