There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
Washington’s latest idea of a transitional government would be worse than the dysfunctional status quo.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
If there is one thing the United States should have learned after two decades in Afghanistan, it’s that there are no quick fixes. That has proved true for the war, and it’s true for any possibility of a negotiated peace. But faced with the decision whether to comply with a May 1 deadline for pulling out all troops under a deal the U.S. government signed with the Taliban in February 2020, Washington is now searching for a shortcut to an Afghan political settlement. There isn’t one.
U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has delivered to the Afghan government and Taliban a draft Afghanistan Peace Agreement—the central idea of which is replacing the elected Afghan government with a so-called transitional one that would include the Taliban and then negotiate among its members the future permanent system of government. Crucial blank spaces in the draft include the exact share of power for each of the warring sides and which side would control security institutions.
At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a letter that soon leaked, saying it was “urgent” to “accelerate peace talks” and move “quickly toward a settlement.” The letter states that the United States has asked Turkey to host a high-level meeting between the Afghan sides “in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement.” The letter also references a U.S.-proposed 90-day reduction in violence (a concept short of a cease-fire) while diplomacy continues—which suggests that Washington knows an agreement within weeks is unlikely.
Chances that Taliban leaders or Ghani would agree to anything like the U.S. draft peace agreement are vanishingly small. But if they do, the result will be worse than this gambit failing.
For the Taliban, the draft has too many hallmarks of the existing government setup: It includes a commitment to holding elections and keeping in place the constitution devised under U.S. auspices in 2004 until a new one is written. The available evidence of Taliban thinking points to their rejecting any arrangement that would make them appear co-opted into a system they have long opposed in exchange for a partial share of power.
For Ghani, the proposal is premised on him relinquishing power. That brutal fact, plus the rough-edged tone of Blinken’s letter, has whipped up a political tempest in Kabul. Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh reacted most bluntly, saying Afghanistan would “never accept a bossy and imposed peace.” Ghani knows that the main Afghan enthusiasts of the transitional government idea are his political opposition and the country’s former mujahideen, who sense opportunity to gain power as it is parceled out.
In the unlikely event the new U.S. peace plan materializes, the power-sharing arrangement it envisions would be prone to collapse. A body comprising multiple factions plus the Taliban—at a stage of the peace process before they’ve even begun to hash out core issues that divide them—would be less functional and less stable than the fragile government in place now. The hard work of negotiating the structure of a future Afghan state will not be eased by prematurely erasing the current one. And if a fractious transitional government fails, the cease-fire the U.S. plan promises would evaporate with it.
The U.S. proposal reflects a boiling over of Washington’s frustrations with Ghani. The Afghan leader’s critics have accused him of obstructing a peace process that has sapped his government of its already tenuous authority. The past several Afghan elections have been bitterly contested, the country’s politics are deeply corrupt, and service provision is increasingly limited to population centers, with the Taliban insurgency operating freely throughout much of the countryside.
But however much Ghani has contributed to slowing the process, dismantling the elected government is unlikely to hasten peace. The Taliban have not moved any faster. It took over a year of bilateral negotiations and numerous U.S. concessions for the Taliban to sign a four-page agreement spelling out a tight timeline for U.S. and NATO withdrawal and more ambiguous Taliban promises to prevent Afghanistan being used as a launching pad for terrorists. And the Taliban remain coy about details of the political vision they seek to realize. Official Taliban statements that their movement will accept some degree of power sharing are contradicted by internal messaging emphasizing victory and ascendance.
After delays for which the United States was as much to blame as any other party, Afghan talks finally commenced last September in Doha, Qatar. They’ve progressed haltingly, at least in part because the parties are waiting for a new U.S. government to signal whether it will stay committed to a process the previous one catalyzed.
The slow pace now clashes with the deadline for withdrawing foreign troops. That’s a problem the U.S.-Taliban deal caused by decoupling the withdrawal timetable from any requirement of progress in negotiations. But it’s also a problem that can’t be solved by demands to speed up the hard slog of reaching a political settlement.
It will be difficult to get the peace process in Doha to produce results, but it’s too soon to jettison a process that has taken years to set up and has only just begun. Instead of promoting a new plan that has almost no chance of being accepted and that would further weaken the Afghan state, Washington should put its energy into testing whether the Doha process can be made to work.
This should include rallying the regional powers, especially Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and India—who all have links to actors in the Afghan conflict—around generating momentum for the existing process. A high-level meeting of this group, which Washington has asked the United Nations to convene, is a good idea, but these stakeholders need a better peace plan to coalesce around than the new U.S. proposal.
If the United States wants to give the talks a real chance, then it will need to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond May 1 to maintain leverage for forging a settlement and to forestall a downward security spiral that would spike the process.
Ongoing talks would provide the best argument Washington could make to regional powers, especially Pakistan, for why they should help pressure the Taliban to let the deadline slip.
But if talks break down—as they probably will, given how divided the parties are and how rarely peace processes succeed—then it will be better to have even a dysfunctional Afghan government still standing than to have replaced it with a stopgap transitional one whose existence would not survive the end of negotiations. And if the Biden administration plans to pull out U.S. forces soon, then it’s better not to risk leaving such wreckage behind.
Laurel Miller is the director of the Asia program at the International Crisis Group and was the deputy and then acting U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013 to 2017.
Andrew Watkins is the senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group.