The United States Wants Peace. The Taliban Wants an Emirate.
The two sides smiled for the cameras at their historic ceremony in Doha, but they couldn’t hide why they've been enemies for decades.
DOHA, Qatar—At the pyramid-shaped seaside luxury hotel in Doha where the United States and the Taliban signed their long-awaited agreement, the 100 or so black turbans in attendance occasionally fluttered in the wind. The bearded Taliban leaders nonetheless had cheerful looks on their faces. For them, the Americans’ agreement to leave Afghanistan, even without any commitment to a cease-fire, was a declaration of victory for their side.
The United States has promised to initially reduce its troops from 13,000 to 8,600, and eventually remove them all, along with other coalition forces, within the next 14 months. The withdrawal is binding only if the Taliban keeps its side of the bargain, by not allowing any terrorist organization to again attack the United States or its allies from Afghan soil, as happened on 9/11.
Around 3,500 U.S. and coalition soldiers have died in the conflict; the number of Afghan deaths is estimated at more than 150,000. Both the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump and the Taliban have agreed they would now like to end their war. Far less clear is whether they have any common vision of the future.
Start with the Taliban’s commitment to crack down on international terrorist organizations. Douglas London, a former CIA officer who was its head of counterterrorism in South and Southwest Asia, told Foreign Policy that the United States had little reason to trust the Taliban’s leadership would carry out its promises. There’s also reason to doubt Abdul Ghani Baradar, the mullah who signed the agreement on behalf of the Taliban (after having been released from a Pakistani prison in October 2018 after a push by the United States to get the talks going), is in a position to make commitments or grant concessions. “Doha-based representatives [Mohammad Abbas] Stanakzai and Baradar have little sway,” London said.
He also warned against interpreting the drop in violence in Afghanistan in the seven days prior to the signing of the deal—in adherence with commitments made to the United States—as an indication of the Taliban’s commitment to peace. “We shouldn’t read too much into the reduction of violence last week because violence is always relatively low in winter with the fighting season commencing with the spring thaw,” he said, referring to the annual change in weather conditions in Afghanistan. “The Taliban won’t agree to a cease-fire anytime soon over concern that fighters would not return from a prolonged break, or some could switch allegiance to ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. Nevertheless, the Trump administration has chosen to believe that the Taliban is a cohesive group and that foot soldiers are following a centralized command.
The text of the deal also gives little indication of how to achieve reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which the group still does not recognize as legitimate. According to the agreement, intra-Afghan talks will begin on March 10. Anas Haqqani, a recently released prisoner and the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network which is a part of the Taliban, confirmed to Foreign Policy that the Taliban would engage in these talks. “On March 10, we will talk to all Afghans,” he told me as he rushed out of the conference hall where the signing took place.
Qatar is one of the contenders to host those talks, along with Germany, Norway, Indonesia, and Uzbekistan. Qatari representatives, like those from the Taliban and Pakistan, were jubilant at the signing, seeing it as an endorsement of their own credentials as mediators. They were especially pleased to be seen to have succeeded where similar talks hosted by their great regional rival, the United Arab Emirates, failed. Qatar’s top negotiator, Mutlaq Al-Qahtani, told Foreign Policy of his country’s critical role. “We told the U.S. from day one to streamline the process of talks, consolidate the efforts if they wanted the process to succeed,” he said. “There were many regional spoilers.” He added: “It’s an ongoing process, and we stand ready to support as needed.”
It remains unclear how the deal will unfold in the coming weeks and months. Many fear that violence will return as winter ends. An initial impediment has already stalled further progress. While the U.S.-Taliban deal speaks of working “immediately” efforts to plan the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners from the Afghan government’s jails, in exchange for 1,000 held by the Taliban, the joint statement by the Afghan government and the United States says the “feasibility” of the prisoner release would be discussed once the March 10 talks are underway.
Meanwhile, some of the Taliban representatives in Doha inadvertently gave credence to fears of eventual backsliding of Afghan political freedoms. Ahmadullah Wasiq, a former Taliban fighter who flew in from Kandahar, spoke in positive terms with Foreign Policy about the education received by his daughters at an Islamic madrassa. He also professed to see nothing wrong with child marriage—including older men marrying girls under 14 years old—as long it has not been “forced” on the child.
There were, of course, no women in the 100-plus group of Taliban representatives that attended the signing ceremony. There was just one cleanshaven man, a Taliban lobbyist in the West who refused to reveal his identity, saying he wanted to be able to speak his mind without upsetting the bosses. “We are a very disciplined force,” he said. “The Taliban is not and will never be ready for elections or women’s rights as in the West.”
“Actually, there is no agreement even among the Taliban on what sort of power-sharing, if any, or governance structure there should be,” he continued. “Maybe something like Iran?” In Iran’s political system, although there are elections between varieties of pro-regime politicians, the broader state policy is still decided by the supreme leader and his team of clerics. Some Taliban leaders say the group will push for a similar system to be adopted in Afghanistan, but with power vested in a Kandahar-based amir ul–momineen (leader of the faithful)—the title conferred on long-time Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. But in a country split by tribal loyalties and still ruled by warlords in many parts, it’s unclear how a single religious leader can expect to command the respect of all Afghans.
The first and perhaps most important political battle to resolve, if and when the intra-Afghan talks happen, is the nature of the future Afghan state—a conversation that will inevitably become a debate about religion. The Taliban have repeatedly said they want a restoration of the Islamic emirate they claim to have created before the U.S. invasion. Afghanistan’s current government says the existing constitution already establishes the state as Islamic, while also providing for a republic, and that any religious objections made by the Taliban to these arrangements are ultimately only self-serving.
For now, the Taliban are celebrating what seems to be a victory. Other Afghans, almost certainly the majority, are left to wonder whether they will survive their country’s next round of Talibanization.
Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra