On the Verge of a Possible Peace Deal in Afghanistan?

| Intel Brief
The Soufan Center

 

Bottom Line Up Front

  • After a month of on again, off again talks, the United States and the Afghan Taliban seem to have reached an agreement that could lead to a temporary cessation of violence in the near term.
  • The next hurdle will be negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, with a withdrawal of U.S. troops looming as the tipping point that could make or break any talks.
  • One major question will be even if the Taliban orders its fighters to stand down, does the organization have robust enough command-and-control to enforce the order?
  • If the United States is able to reach a deal with the Taliban, and the Taliban can come to terms with the Afghan government, there still remains the issue of the Islamic State Khorasan Province as a destabilizing force.

After a month of on again, off again talks and intensive diplomacy, the United States and the Afghan Taliban seem to have reached an agreement that could lead to a temporary cessation of violence with a broader goal of reaching a negotiated settlement. The specific language framing the talks is a ‘reduction in violence’ over the course of a seven-day stretch. Noticeably absent in the latest round of negotiations has been the use of the term ‘cease-fire.’ If things go according to plan, this could serve as a confidence building measure for both sides as they work to move toward a more comprehensive agreement. Doha, Qatar has been the center of gravity for the peace talks, and U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has been the driving force on the U.S. side.

U.S. President Donald Trump has apparently signaled his willingness to continue moving forward with the process, foreshadowing the imminence of a deal recently, saying ‘I think we’re very close. I think there’s a good chance that we’ll have a deal, and we’ll see.’ Previous deals have come close but ultimately broke down after Taliban attacks and escalating violence. The next hurdle will be negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, with the issue of a withdrawal of U.S. troops looming large as the tipping point that could make or break any talks. There is also the question of the Taliban’s continued cooperation with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, relationships that few believe the Taliban will genuinely break off. All Afghan peace talks are scheduled to be held no later than ten days after the potentially forthcoming agreement between Washington and Taliban insurgents, a force the U.S. military has been battling for close to two decades, following Operation Enduring Freedom, which began in October 2001. Even if the United States and the Taliban can agree to a week of no violence, few are optimistic that negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban will bear fruit. Most expect a drawn-out, internecine dialogue more likely to fail than to succeed.

One major question will be even if the Taliban orders its fighters to stand down, does the organization have robust enough command-and-control to enforce the order? Or, as witnessed in many other insurgencies over the past several decades, will hardliners within the Taliban’s ranks bristle at the prospect of a negotiated settlement and attempt to play the role of spoiler by launching spectacular attacks throughout the country? Per the terms of the agreement, the Taliban has agreed to refrain from attacking major population centers and government institutions, but has made it clear that its fighters will defend themselves against any perceived encroachment by Afghan security forces.

If the United States is able to reach a deal with the Taliban, and the Taliban can come to terms with the Afghan government, there still remains the issue of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), which will remain outside the contours of any negotiated settlement. ISKP reportedly suffered significant losses in 2019, although it retains a core of fighters in eastern Afghanistan, including in Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan’s lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA. ISKP may be a beneficiary of foreign terrorist fighters fleeing Iraq and Syria who are seeking out new battlefields. The group could also absorb Taliban defectors unhappy with the peace plan. Iran could also play a critical role in Afghanistan, working to either destabilize the country in order to bog down U.S. troops, or maneuvering behind the scenes to help contribute to security, in an effort to expedite negotiations that could see a wholesale withdrawal of American forces from the country, something Tehran has long desired. Following the death of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps- Qods Force (IRGC-QF) commander Qasem Soleimani, his replacement Esmail Qaani could seek to extend Iran’s influence in Afghanistan after a U.S. troop withdrawal. Qaani would be particularly well placed to lead this effort since he boasts a long history of working in Afghanistan as well as training Afghan Shia foreign fighters.

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