Bottom Line Up Front
- Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy for reconciliation in Afghanistan, recently returned to Kabul to jumpstart political negotiations with the Taliban.
- Talks are currently inching toward a ceasefire, though an agreement on the specifics has yet to be reached.
- One of the most significant variables impacting the future of Afghanistan is the role of external actors, including Iran, Pakistan, China, and Russia.
- To remain intact, Afghanistan is going to need help from its neighbors, but each of these regional powers will have their own priorities in mind.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States envoy for reconciliation in Afghanistan, recently returned to Kabul in an attempt to jumpstart political negotiations with the Taliban. The peace talks, which have been mediated in Doha, Qatar, were paused again last week following a Taliban attack on a U.S. military base in Bagram. During his trip, Khalilzad met with President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, and former president Hamid Karzai, in addition to a range of other political and economic powerbrokers. Talks are currently inching toward a ceasefire, though an agreement on the specifics has yet to be reached. In mid-November, a prisoner swap occurred, with the Taliban releasing an American and an Australian hostage in exchange for three senior commanders from the Haqqani network. The swap could serve as a confidence building measure to provide momentum to a negotiated political settlement. A deal is far from inevitable, however, as the Taliban may simply look to wait out the United States. Including the Taliban in a legitimate power-sharing arrangement might be the most effective way to reduce violence in Afghanistan.
In early August, the Trump administration announced that in a preliminary deal with the Taliban, the United States would be withdrawing as many as 6,000 troops from Afghanistan. Although the agreement fell apart, the Trump administration resumed talks in late November, and the President has repeatedly promised to withdraw a significant portion of troops from Afghanistan. An announcement of a drawdown of 4,000 troops could happen within weeks and Trump has promised to have all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan before November 2020. Elements of the U.S. national security establishment have repeatedly expressed concern that a withdrawal of American troops could provide al-Qaeda with the operational space necessary to rebuild its network throughout South Asia and once again begin using Afghanistan as a hub to plan external operations against the West.
One of the most significant variables impacting the future of Afghanistan is the role of external actors, including Iran, Pakistan, China, and Russia. A leading Iranian security official noted last week that Tehran was against the talks, noting that the Afghan government and the country’s citizens have been sidelined in the negotiation process. Iran also accused the United States of deliberately attempting to cause instability in a country that borders Iran, China, and Russia. But over the past two years, Iran has been providing covert support to factions within the Taliban and to the extent that it can, will look to shape the negotiations in order to maximize its position. Ultimately, Iran wants the United States out of Afghanistan, while also ensuring that a hasty withdrawal does not lead to a massive power vacuum that can be filled by elements hostile to Iran including the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP).
Pakistan is a critical player in the Afghan peace talks, as Islamabad has repeatedly come under fire for its lack of political will in denying Taliban militants a safe haven on Pakistani soil. China, for its part, is also concerned by a U.S. withdrawal and how that will impact security in Afghanistan, a country where Beijing has made significant investments. The Chinese are also concerned about Afghanistan being used as a sanctuary for Uighur militants and others looking to target Chinese interests throughout the region. Russia has assumed a more hands-on role in political negotiations, hosting a Taliban delegation and prominent Afghan politicians in Moscow this summer in an effort to influence the contours of a potential deal. To remain intact, Afghanistan is going to need help from its neighbors—the government is still heavily dependent on foreign aid—but each of these regional powers will have their own priorities in mind. The same could be said, moreover, of the powerbrokers and Afghan government representatives whose cooperation with the Taliban will be key to any negotiated political settlement.