The hard work has just begun in Afghanistan

Michael Kugelman

It is surreal, even unbelievable, to be writing about a signed troop withdrawal agreement between the US government and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
There have been many false starts and unsuccessful attempts to launch and sustain negotiations with the insurgents. And, as those attempts floundered, the war intensified, leading to so much tragedy for a country that had experienced conflict for many years even before US forces arrived in 2001.
And yet here we are, with a US-Taliban accord in place. The deal creates a path to launch a formal peace process — an intra-Afghan dialogue — that is meant to end an endless war. It is a tremendous opportunity. But it also entails incredible amounts of hard work.
Indeed, as tough as it was to get to the finish line with the US-Taliban deal, launching and carrying out a successful Afghan peace process will be even harder. The US-Taliban negotiations, as fraught as they often were, represent the low-hanging fruit of the broader peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan. For the Afghan government and other non-Taliban entities, a key initial step of the intra-Afghan dialogue will be to cobble together a negotiating team. This may sound simple, but in the current toxic and divisive Afghan political environment, it’s no walk in the park. The recent announcement of the Afghan presidential election results, which declared current President Ashraf Ghani as the winner, has exacerbated a bitter rivalry between Ghani and his most powerful rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who served as chief executive in the prior national unity government.
Abdullah has signaled his support for the peace process, but rejected the election results and threatened to establish a parallel government. At a moment when the Afghan political class needs to present a common and united front to chart a path toward peace, a post-election crisis has amplified and intensified an incredibly divided political scene. Putting together a negotiating team, and crafting a negotiating strategy, will be fraught with challenges under these circumstances.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the top US negotiator who has worked exhaustively for more than a year to get a deal with the Taliban, has one more major assignment: To mediate these rising political tensions so that they don’t imperil a fledgling peace and reconciliation process. This is what he has been trying to do in Kabul in recent days.
For the Taliban, violence is leverage, and it won’t easily relinquish that leverage.
And then there’s the Taliban side to all this. Even the most starry-eyed optimist about the peace process must acknowledge there are very real questions about the Taliban’s commitment to negotiate, conclude and maintain peace. The Taliban has long rejected the Afghan political system. This raises the question as to whether it would truly be interested in sharing power — the most likely outcome of a successful peace negotiation — within a political system that it has long vowed to overthrow by force. For Kabul and other non-Taliban Afghan negotiators, and for the US and other key actors likely to have some type of indirect consulting role in an intra-Afghan dialogue, the big question is how to create an incentive structure that convinces the Taliban that laying down its arms is the right thing to do.
Incentivizing the Taliban in this way will be even tougher if US forces start withdrawing from Afghanistan in the early stages of the intra-Afghan dialogue. Such a prospect would give the Taliban a huge battlefield advantage, and a strong motivation to take up arms and try to overthrow the Afghan government by force.
What can be done to maximize the early chances of success in talks? As a first step, the US government should refuse to start withdrawing troops until the Taliban has agreed to another, longer reduction in violence — or, even better, a cease-fire — as part of the intra-Afghan dialogue. If the insurgents do so, this would suggest a real willingness to work toward peace. It would also be a major confidence-building measure early on in a dialogue process that promises to be long and fraught.
A Taliban commitment to curbing violence or agreeing to a cease-fire would be an appropriate quid pro quo following a potential move by Kabul to release thousands of Taliban prisoners — a step the Taliban would like Kabul to take in advance of an intra-Afghan dialogue.
Of course, for the Taliban, violence is leverage, and it won’t easily relinquish that leverage. And, if Kabul refuses to launch talks without a violence reduction or cease-fire, the Taliban could happily return to the battlefield.–AN