There Will Be No Peace for Afghanistan
Despite optimistic signs from U.S.-led peace talks in Qatar, Afghanistan’s future looks bleak.
As talks to end the war in Afghanistan continue in Qatar this week, and amid continued political disarray in Kabul, there seems to be one clear trend on the ground: The Taliban are consolidating control. The longer the war drags on—now in its 18th year—the more the balance of the conflict tips in the insurgent group’s favor. While there has been fierce debate in the West and in government-controlled areas of Afghanistan about what peace talks with the Taliban mean for women’s rights and the future of Afghan democracy, the view from Taliban-controlled areas suggests a harsh reality that few in the international community seem prepared for: If peace talks succeed, the Taliban will effectively formalize, and likely expand, their control over vast swaths of the country. If peace talks fail, however, the outcome will likely be far worse, with renewed fighting and a precarious government in Kabul.
The Taliban have spent years preparing for a return to power. In areas currently under their control, the insurgency has replaced the Afghan government with their own administration, including sharia courts and a force of shadow civil servants responsible for an array of tasks from monitoring teacher attendance to collecting taxes.
Most Afghans in these areas, which have borne the brunt of the conflict, simply want the fighting to end. They assume that under any U.S.-brokered deal, Taliban control will simply become permanent. And they have strikingly modest hopes for peace: “Once they don’t have to fight anymore, maybe the Taliban will be less strict,” one woman in the eastern province of Logar said. “Maybe they will let girls go back to school.”
If hope is in short supply, it is in part because hopes have been dashed too many times. In June 2018, a three-day cease-fire declared by the Taliban, the Afghan government, and international forces was the first official pause in the 18-year war. It was a remarkable turn of events that few could have predicted. Pictures of Taliban, government forces, and civilians celebrating the Eid holiday together flooded social media. There was little violence and no civilian casualties. Afghans gained a glimpse of what peace might look like and a sense that an end to the war might finally be in sight.
It wasn’t to be. Fighting resumed almost immediately after the cease-fire and has not let up since. The wife of a Taliban fighter described the cease-fire as a cruel trick that created hope only to snatch it away. When I asked about the prospect of peace talks, she waved her hand dismissively. Like many others, she believed that the war would only end if U.S. forces withdrew.
Nonetheless, recent progress made in political talks would have seemed unthinkably optimistic even a year ago. The United States reversed its refusal to talk directly to the Taliban and appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation in September 2018. Khalilzad and Taliban representatives have since engaged in several rounds of negotiations. In January, Khalilzad announced that the United States and the Taliban had broadly agreed on a draft document outlining a withdrawal of U.S. troops and guarantees from the Taliban that they will not harbor or support foreign terrorist organizations. Before it can be finalized, however, the United States has insisted that the Taliban agree to talk directly to the Afghan government and declare another cease-fire. The Taliban have steadfastly refused—they don’t even recognize the government in Kabul.
As talks continued, Washington ramped up airstrikes as well as searches and raids targeting the Taliban. These operations are no longer geared toward reasserting Afghan government control or preventing the Taliban from gaining further ground. The objective is instead to pressure the Taliban into making concessions, such as talking directly to the Afghan government. No one knows any longer how much territory might be under Taliban influence or control. Operation Resolute Support, the NATO mission to advise, train, and support Afghan forces, stopped measuring this in October 2018. Instead, the military focus seems to be on increasing on Taliban body counts. The consequences for civilians have been disastrous. Civilian casualties from airstrikes reached record highs in 2018. In May, the United Nations announced that, for the first time since it started systematically monitoring civilian casualties, international and Afghan government forces are responsible for more civilian deaths than the insurgents.
While this increased military pressure might keep the Taliban at bay, there’s little indication it has dented their resolve. Instead, they present the cease-fire and talks with the United States as a sign of their political and military strength.
“Americans said this group is not united, it is fragmented,” a senior member of the Taliban leadership told me in Dubai last January. “The bottom line is that we did this to prove to the world we are under one command, and everyone should respect this command.”
To fighters on the ground, peace talks are an acknowledgment of the Taliban’s growing power. The fighters I interviewed were resolute: They would not lay down arms until the United States withdrew and what they considered to be a true Islamic government could be established. They uniformly insisted that of course they wanted peace—but on their terms. The Taliban focus is now on waiting out U.S. resolve.
Taliban foot soldiers see no point in talks with the Afghan government. “If the United States stops their support to the government for even a month, we would be able to take all of Afghanistan,” a Taliban commander in Helmand said. “That’s why we have to reach an agreement with Washington.”
Despite refusing to formally engage with the Afghan government, Taliban leaders have indicated that they are open to sharing power with other factions. They have also said that they want an inclusive postwar government. At a conference held in Moscow in February with former President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan power brokers in attendance, the Taliban leadership called for “the establishment of an inclusive independent Islamic System that is acceptable to Afghans and reflects Islamic and Afghan values.”
The degree to which the Taliban’s overtures are genuine is unclear. Fighters on the ground generally assume that they will retain control of their areas—and assert full control in currently contested areas—under any peace deal. The fate of major cities and regions that have resisted Taliban influence was left undefined. What power-sharing seems to mean to these fighters is that the Taliban are willing to allow others to participate in their future government. Fighters hoped that this government would enforce the Taliban’s brand of sharia and conservative social practices that deeply constrain women’s rights and freedoms. If the Taliban were to take power in this way, the best outcome that can be reasonably hoped for is that they will form a less incompetent and more lenient government than they did in the 1990s.
Talks with the Afghan government seem a long way off, however, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the Taliban’s intransigence. The National Unity Government is increasingly divided, with Afghan political factions gearing up for presidential elections scheduled for Sept. 28. A peace jirga, or political gathering, convened by the government last month yielded little consensus and seemed to be more about electoral politics than ending the war. Several major political factions boycotted the jirga, claiming it was a political trick designed to bolster President Ashraf Ghani’s reelection prospects.
The possibility of credible elections is remote. Presidential elections, originally set for April 20, have been twice delayed. Provincial and district council elections, also initially scheduled for September, have been indefinitely postponed. In parliamentary elections held last October, at least one-third of polling stations could not open due to insecurity, and the results were so contested that they took six months to announce. Afghanistan’s last two presidential elections, in 2009 and 2014, were widely fraudulent, and the results were disputed. In the 2014 elections, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry intervened to broker a power-sharing agreement that would prevent the government from unraveling. To expect a conclusive result in the next round of voting would be deeply unrealistic.
Even the best potential outcome is likely to be a deeply unpalatable one. If peace talks actually succeed, the Taliban will exert considerable power, if not outright control, in any future government. The consequences for Afghans, particularly women, in areas currently held by the government are likely to be severe. Donors in Kabul have consistently articulated support for peace efforts. Whether they would continue to support such a government is another question altogether. The alternatives, however, may be even worse: a continued escalation in violence or all-out civil war.
“The fighters on the front line on both sides can make peace easily,” a fighter in Helmand argued. “If we left it up to them the war would be settled, but, like every war, it is not the fighters who decide.”
For better or worse, the fate of Afghanistan is up to political leaders in Washington, Kabul, and Doha to decide. As the current round of talks—the seventh such attempt—continues in Qatar, the United States is eager to finalize a deal to end its involvement in the war. U.S. military and State department officials said privately that they were working with a “tweet of Damocles” hanging over their heads, fearing that U.S. President Donald Trump will spontaneously issue a tweet withdrawing troops from Afghanistan as he did with Syria in December 2018. The Afghan government is increasingly consumed by infighting and electoral politics. And the Taliban are running out the clock, betting that their refusal to talk to the Afghan government will allow them to strengthen their negotiating hand and their territorial control. At present, none of these actors appear ready, or able, to make the sacrifices required to end the war.
Ashley Jackson is the co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute. Twitter: @a_a_jackson