Khalilzad Edges Closer to Pact With Taliban
The U.S. envoy is expected to travel to Afghanistan within days to seek approval from President Ashraf Ghani.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghan reconciliation, is on the verge of an agreement with the Taliban that would pave the way for the withdrawal of some 14,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan in exchange for guarantees that the war-wracked nation would not be used as a haven for international terrorism, according to diplomatic sources.
Khalilzad will now mount a final push to persuade Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, to accept the agreement ahead of the country’s Sept. 28 presidential election. If a deal is clinched, the United States will hold a signing ceremony with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, before an audience of representatives from key world powers, including from the region, Europe, and possibly China and Russia.
After reaching a tentative deal with the Taliban during the ninth round of talks in Doha, Khalilzad is expected to travel to Kabul for two to three days to seek Ghani’s approval, according to a diplomatic source with contacts in the Afghan government and the Taliban. Khalilzad would then return to Doha to sign the pact with the Taliban’s chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the source said.
The final pact, which is being translated into Dari and Pashto, will call for the phased withdrawal of some U.S. troops over the next 15 to 18 months—just in time for the 2020 U.S. presidential election. It will include a cease-fire, detail verifiable assurances that the Taliban will not permit terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda or the Islamic State to maintain a toehold in territory under their control, and set a date for intra-Afghan talks in Oslo, Norway. In anticipation of a deal, a team of scholars and diplomats has already arrived in Oslo to prepare the groundwork for the talks.
Observers cautioned that the deal is not done until the parties have signed it and that there is still work to be done to finalize the text and win over critics in Washington and Kabul.
The U.S. envoy’s push for peace faces a complex web of domestic political pressures in both Washington and Afghanistan, as fears mount among experts and former U.S. officials over what a final deal with the Taliban will entail. Some have criticized Khalilzad for engaging in peace talks with the Taliban without the Afghan government, which the Taliban so far have refused to directly negotiate with (though Taliban and Afghan representatives have engaged in more informal talks through an intra-Afghan dialogue).
Critics also fear the coming deal could strengthen the hand of the Taliban. The militant group has continued carrying out deadly attacks against Afghan and U.S. forces even as it sends representatives to negotiate with the United States, currently in a ninth rounds of talks.
The Afghan-born Khalilzad has sought to assure Afghans that the United States wouldn’t abandon the country after any agreement with the Taliban. “A Reuters report quoting two unnamed Talib commanders alleges we will cease support of the Afghan forces as part of any agreement. Not true!” he tweeted on Monday. “No one should be intimidated or fooled by propoganda! Let me be clear: We will defend Afghan forces now and after any agreement w/ the Talibs. All sides agree Afghanistan’s future will be determined in intra-Afghan negotiations,” he wrote in a follow-up tweet.
Other experts fear that the upcoming Afghan elections could trigger a spike in violence and that the ultimate victor—Ghani is the front-runner—may be disinclined to any talks with the Taliban on sharing power. In fact, Ghani may be looking to delay any agreement until after he presumably wins the election, when he will have more political leverage.
“Ghani has a strong interest in holding the election, winning the election, and then negotiating over a longer period of time to try to get the best deal possible for preserving the gains that Afghanistan has made,” said one source familiar with the negotiations.
Some experts believe there is little to no room to get an intra-Afghan deal before Sept. 28. “It is unthinkable that these two groups that have been fighting for two decades are going to compose their differences in a matter of three weeks,” said James Dobbins, who served as the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013 to 2014. “It’s ludicrous.”
Others say no peace deal is possible without keeping elections on track. “It’s important to hold the elections. There’s not going to be any guaranteed pathway to peace that would merit postponing them or not having them in place,” said James Cunningham, who was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 to 2014. “If there’s going to be any negotiation between the Taliban and the Afghans, the Afghans will need a legitimate political authority to have that discussion.”
It remains unclear whether, following a U.S. withdrawal, the United States will be able to preserve a military presence in the country in the long term. At least initially, it’s likely the United States will withdraw only a few thousand troops, bringing force levels down to where they were when former President Barack Obama left office. Obama reduced force levels in Afghanistan from a high of around 100,000 in 2010 to just 8,400 by January 2017.
Trump told Fox News Radio on Thursday that he would cut the number of troops to 8,600 for the time being and “make a determination from there as to what happens.” He didn’t offer additional details on the timeline of the withdrawal in his interview.
“The full withdrawal should be conditioned on the full implementation of an intra-Afghan deal,” Dobbins said. A decision on whether the United States can leave a “residual force” will likely be made by the new Afghan government that emerges from the talks, he said.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed in an Aug. 28 press conference at the Pentagon that any agreement will be “conditions-based.”
“The president and the secretary have been quite clear to me that, as this progresses, we are going to ensure that our counterterrorism objectives are addressed,” Dunford said, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump and his defense secretary, Mark Esper. “I’m not using the ‘withdraw’ word right now. … We’re going to make sure that Afghanistan is not a sanctuary, and we are going to try to have an effort to bring peace and security to Afghanistan.”
But reducing the number of U.S. troops, many of whom focus on training and advising Afghan forces, presents a delicate challenge. As the United States withdraws, Afghanistan’s military and police forces will likely consolidate, opening up more ground to the Taliban, said one former defense official who worked on Afghanistan.
“Instead of being out patrolling and therefore controlling, they stay on their base, and they don’t go as far. They don’t project power as far,” the former official said. The U.S. withdrawal gives the Taliban more leverage to continue attacks “because it changes the military dynamics on the ground.”
In the meantime, the Taliban have made clear that they will not stop launching attacks on Afghan forces. If the U.S. military does begin a drawdown without any commitment to a cease-fire, the burden of preventing an escalation in violence will fall largely on the Afghan National Security Forces, whose numbers have fallen to their lowest levels since 2015, when NATO’s Resolute Support mission began, according to a U.S. watchdog.
“The test will be whether the Afghan National Security Forces, which have been increasing their capabilities, can maintain a stalemate,” said Scott Worden, the director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Given the current violence, U.S. officials and their Afghan partners agree that Afghan forces are not able to maintain security without some U.S. support, Dunford said. But if an agreement is reached, the security environment may change, and “obviously our posture will adjust,” he added.
As U.S. soldiers return home, the Afghan military and police force will take on more of the burden of not only defending against Taliban attacks but also fighting international terrorist groups in the country. While intra-Afghan peace talks are in their early stages at least, the Afghan government may direct security forces to focus primarily on the Taliban.
Worden said a deal on these two issues—a U.S. drawdown and a Taliban commitment to disavowing terrorists—is a “gateway” to moving forward on the key tenets of any lasting peace agreement: intra-Afghan negotiations and a permanent cease-fire. But for the first phase of the negotiations, the details will be key.
“One thing to look for is to what extent is conditionality among these issues spelled out and also to what extent are the counterterrorism commitments by the Taliban verifiable,” Worden said.
“You don’t turn a light switch, and then suddenly you’re withdrawn. It’s very complicated, and it takes time,” said Cunningham, the former ambassador. “How that’s handled and what the conditions are for actual withdrawal will be really important elements.”
It is unlikely that the Taliban will agree to a full cease-fire at this early stage of the peace talks because they see the use of violence as the primary means of leverage, Worden stressed. It is possible that whatever agreement Khalilzad and the Taliban announce this week could include more limited cease-fires, restricted to certain parts of the country.
“The Taliban are trying to reserve that card to play at the end of negotiations, rather than the beginning,” he said.
On Wednesday, a Taliban spokesperson sounded upbeat about the prospects of a deal, saying that “we hope to have good news soon for our Muslim, independence-seeking nation,” according to Reuters.
Trump and top officials in his administration also have struck an optimistic tone but have yet to offer any concrete details on what a final negotiation with the Taliban will entail.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking in Indiana this week, offered a commitment to peace talks that reflected a growing impatience in Washington over finally ending the 18-year war in Afghanistan. “America has never sought a permanent military presence in Afghanistan, and all sides recognize that time moves on,” he said. “We continue to work to a clear-eyed engagement with all Afghans. We don’t know how these efforts towards peace and reconciliation will end. But President Trump is committed to make sure that we get it right.”
Trump told reporters at the G-7 summit in France on Monday that talks with the Taliban were on “no timeline” and the United States was “in no rush,” giving Khalilzad breathing room for the tortuous negotiations with Taliban counterparts.
Khalilzad’s push for a U.S. troop withdrawal has alarmed some in the U.S. military and intelligence community who feel the United States should maintain a presence in Afghanistan. This week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Trump, advised the president to leave U.S. troops in Afghanistan, saying that the Taliban could not be trusted to confront al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
“They will hit us if we leave,” he said on Fox & Friends. “You can’t trust the Taliban to take care of ISIS and al Qaeda. There is no substitute for American forces in Afghanistan to protect the American homeland from radical Islam. There will be another 9/11 if we pull the plug. If you don’t believe me, ask the generals in the intelligence community.”
But some of the strongest resistance has come from Ghani, who sees the U.S. negotiation with the Taliban as a betrayal of Afghanistan’s democracy.
“President Ghani’s relations with the Americans are not good,” said Kai Eide, a retired Norwegian diplomat who previously served as the U.N. special representative to Afghanistan. “He thinks the Americans have been working contrary to his interest because he wants to stay on.”
Despite its reservations, the Afghan government in April formed a council of senior current and former political leaders, headed by Ghani, to select a delegation to negotiate with the Taliban. At the end of July, Afghanistan appointed a 15-member delegation to negotiate with the Taliban in Oslo. But observers say the government has not identified all the delegation members, feeding concerns that it could include controversial individuals whose participation may be contested, leading to further delays.
“If [Khalilzad] goes back to Kabul and says, ‘I have this deal, my friend, do you agree to it?’ I think Ashraf could drag his feet,” Eide added. “He wants to buy time, and the Americans want to win time.”
Eide worries that Ghani’s political ambitions could undercut efforts to broker a deal ending the country’s war. “It’s amazing that this man who wants to be a man of peace could now stand in the way of peace,” he said.
“[Ghani] is definitely in a difficult position but not just because of the elections,” Cunningham said. “He’s certainly getting a lot of conflicting advice and [has] a very politically complex domestic situation to deal with.”
Update, Aug. 29, 2019: This story was updated to include comments from Trump on Fox News Radio on troop numbers in Afghanistan.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch
Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman