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Getting to ‘Yes’ Has Just Gotten a Lot Harder in Afghanistan

An abrupt end to a possible deal with the Taliban sticks the United States deeper in the quagmire.

By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
Taliban members attend Intra-Afghan Dialogue talks in Doha, Qatar, on July 8.
Taliban members attend Intra-Afghan Dialogue talks in Doha, Qatar, on July 8. Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images

On Sept. 10, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton became the latest victim of the Trump administration’s nonstop revolving door—one that has produced dizzying levels of personnel turnover at the highest levels.

Bolton’s last major act as national security advisor was to urge Trump to back away from an emerging deal between U.S. negotiators and the Taliban. Bolton won that final policy battle; Trump called off Taliban talks, including an alleged secret summit with the insurgents at Camp David, in a series of tweets on Sept. 7—although he publicly attributed the decision to Taliban attacks, not Bolton’s advice. Three days later, Bolton was sacked.

Trump’s ouster of one of the most vocal administration opponents of Washington’s negotiations with the Taliban suggests that the president may be willing to give talks another try. In fact, there are several reasons to believe that U.S. officials will try to pick up the pieces of a shattered U.S.-Taliban deal. But make no mistake: Now that Trump has scuttled talks, it will be a much tougher road. And the broader implications for Afghanistan of an increasingly elusive agreement are stark.

In all likelihood, Trump canceled talks not, as he claimed, because of a Taliban attack that killed an American soldier last week—insurgents have been relentlessly staging deadly attacks throughout their talks with Washington, and more than a dozen American troops have been killed in Afghanistan so far this year. Rather, the decision can be chalked up to the Taliban’s refusal to participate in a potential Camp David meeting, but also to mounting opposition within the Trump administration to a flawed deal that obliged the Taliban to do little other than promise it will deny space to international terrorists on Afghan soil.

This opposition, however, does not extend to negotiations with the Taliban in general. Indeed, the morning after Trump’s tweets about the canceled meeting, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the administration remains open to a negotiated end to the war. “That’s what President Trump and I are both focused on, and we’re going to keep driving toward that outcome,” he said.

Both civilian and military leaders in the United States share a consensus that the war can’t be won militarily, thanks to many years of failing to break a stalemate marked by Taliban strength in (and growing control of) rural spaces coupled with Afghan forces’ control of urban areas. The lack of a viable military option accentuates the desirability of continuing to pursue negotiations. Furthermore, with the 2020 U.S. presidential election fast approaching, political considerations give Trump an incentive to pursue fresh talks. He has often made clear his intention to leave Afghanistan. If he can get a troop withdrawal deal with a major Taliban concession, such as a cease-fire, then he’ll be much less susceptible to charges of surrender than if he were to pull troops unilaterally, with no deal. Not surprisingly, there are already indications that talks may not be altogether dead, despite Trump’s contention to the contrary.

Not surprisingly, there are already indications that talks may not be altogether dead, despite Trump’s contention to the contrary. CNN reports that even after Trump scuttled talks, the White House is still exploring dates for a potential meeting between the Taliban and the Afghan government, even though to this point the Taliban have categorically rejected talks with Kabul until they reach a troop withdrawal deal with Washington. Analysts with the International Crisis Group say that negotiators for both the Taliban and the Afghan government have told them that they are preparing for talks “in case the U.S. returns to the table.”

But here’s the rub. If Washington manages to get talks back on the rails, getting to “yes” will be even harder than it was the last time.

First, Washington will set higher expectations for future negotiations that are unlikely to be met. With talks off the table for now, the U.S. strategy is to pound the Taliban on the battlefield. In the immediate term, the idea is to telegraph messages of toughness and resolve. But this can also be read as an attempt to soften up the Taliban and get them to make concessions in future negotiations that they refused to make previously. The objective would be to get a deal that’s more favorable to Washington’s—and Kabul’s—interests. This means an accord that commits the Taliban to stop fighting and start talking to the Afghan government and other Afghan political stakeholders before U.S. troops begin leaving.

The problem is that the Taliban—which, unlike the United States, is in no rush to sign a deal—won’t be any more likely to agree to those concessions than they would have been before. If the United States believes it can put enough battlefield pressure on the Taliban to make major concessions in talks, then it’s sorely mistaken. After all, if 100,000 U.S. troops during the height of the surge in 2010 and 2011 couldn’t tame the Taliban, then you can bet your bottom dollar that the 13,000 in place now won’t do so either. Furthermore, if the Taliban agreed to a cease-fire prior to a deal with the United States, then it would forfeit a key bargaining chip. Violence is leverage for the Taliban. The insurgents, like the United States, understand the value of escalating violence to strengthen their bargaining position in talks.

Second, Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential election, scheduled for Sept. 28, will complicate talks—and Afghan politics on the whole. The election, which might well have been postponed had the talks not been canceled, promises to be a messy affair at best and a paralyzing political cataclysm at worst. Given the history of election-rigging in Afghanistan, there’s good reason to believe that the electoral outcome will be inconclusive, precipitating a crisis that exacerbates the deep fractures within Afghanistan’s politics and plunges the country’s political future into extended uncertainty.

Indeed, President Ashraf Ghani, who has consistently prioritized elections over a peace process because the former gives him the best chance to stay in power, is a big winner from the scuttled talks. The upper hand that Ghani now has will further inflame his many powerful rivals, giving them added incentive to reject and contest any election result that declares him the winner.

The United States would be hard-pressed to relaunch talks under such turbulent conditions, and especially if Washington—as is likely—tries to make a greater pitch to include the Afghan government in any future talks with the Taliban. And even if talks do eventually resume, lingering bitterness and deepening cleavages emerging from the election outcome will constrain efforts to build the political cohesion and common front needed to pursue and sustain an intra-Afghan dialogue meant to chart a path toward peace.

A key external factor in all this is Pakistan, which enjoys leverage over the Taliban because of the safe havens it provides to the group’s top leadership. Washington has applauded Islamabad’s efforts over the last year to help bring Taliban leaders to the negotiating table.

If U.S. officials try to relaunch talks, they will lean on Islamabad once again, but this time with more ambitious asks—such as prodding the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire and to launch talks with Kabul prior to signing a deal with Washington. Pakistan has relished its role in the talks, particularly because the negotiations are oriented toward an endgame that enables the Taliban to play a prominent role in a future Afghan government—an outcome strongly supported by Islamabad.

In this regard, Islamabad would likely try to help Washington even if the requests become more challenging. But if their efforts fail, future talks don’t go anywhere, and Afghanistan’s security situation continues to worsen, the Pakistanis may well pull back. Pakistan certainly suffers from the spillover effects—such as refugee flows, cross-border terrorism, and the drug trade—of an Afghanistan at war. However, Islamabad is arguably the only regional player that also derives strategic benefits from a conflicted and destabilized Afghanistan, because such an environment ensures the continued strength of its Taliban ally. Islamabad’s incentive to assist Washington in talks with the Taliban isn’t as strong or limitless as it might seem.

In short, thanks in part to Trump’s abrupt move to cancel talks, Afghanistan is in for a rough ride on an already-perilous road. Expect to see deliberately increased violence from both sides. Expect an election that provokes a long period of political uncertainty, and with it more violence. And expect a deal between the United States and the Taliban to remain elusive, even if Washington convinces the insurgents to return to the table. And as more time goes by without a deal, Afghans will become increasingly apprehensive about the very real possibility of Trump losing patience and deciding to remove all troops without a agreement—an outcome that would destabilize Afghanistan in a big and potentially catastrophic way.

The best-case scenario for Washington—and one Kabul could live with—would be a deal with the Taliban that calls for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops but also stipulates that a small, counterterrorism-focused residual force remains in place. This plan would be set in motion after the insurgents implement a cease-fire and begin formal talks with the Afghan government. This would provide a double political benefit for Trump: He could tell the American people that he’s bringing soldiers home, while also ensuring that the U.S. homeland remains safe from terrorism.

In reality, pursuing a best-case scenario deal in Afghanistan amounts to asking for the moon. Trump may hope that calling off talks will buy his administration some time to craft a new strategy that eventually produces a better agreement. Instead, his decision is likely to move the needle in a dangerous direction, worsening a longstanding policy quagmire and—more importantly and tragically—the afflictions of the Afghan people.

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman