The Implications of the US Review of the Afghan Peace Process

Shortly after taking office in January, the administration of President Joe Biden announced that it would undertake a review of the US-Taliban Agreement to determine whether the Taliban were meeting the commitments they made in the deal. Specifically, the administration appears to be reviewing the Taliban’s commitments in part two of the agreement, most notably its pledge to “prevent any group or individual in Afghanistan from threatening the security of the United States and its allies, and [to] prevent them from recruiting, training, and fundraising and…not host them.” The administration is likely also reviewing Taliban commitments made in the agreement’s “secret annexes,” which reportedly include limitations on the Taliban’s use of violence against the US and coalition forces, as well as against certain targets such as major cities and roads.

The White House has not yet announced the results of that review, but it will likely conclude that the Taliban have not held up their end of the bargain. The Pentagon has already announced its belief that the Taliban have not met “their commitments to reduce violence, and to renounce their ties to Al-Qaeda.” The US Treasury Department also recently issued a memo saying that Al-Qaeda was “gaining strength in Afghanistan” as a result of its relationship with the Taliban. And the congressionally-mandated Afghanistan Study Group—a blue-ribbon panel of US National Security experts convened by the US Institute for Peace—concluded that the Taliban “have fallen short of their commitments.” In addition to increased violence levels in Afghanistan, the US officials point to multiple incidents of Al-Qaeda figures being killed in Taliban-controlled areas—including at least one senior member of the group—as evidence of Taliban non-compliance.

Conversely, the Taliban argue that the US has not fully met its commitments, either. Most notably, they state that the US has not taken actions to remove sanctions imposed on them by the US and the United Nations, as stipulated in part one of the agreement. They also claim that the continued US airstrikes against their forces violate the agreement, something the US disputes by arguing that the strikes are in defence of Afghanistan’s security forces and are therefore allowed under the terms of the agreement.

Objectively, it appears that neither side has fully met its commitments under the terms of the agreement. However, it is easier to demonstrate that for the commitments of the US than for those of the Taliban because the former are more concrete than the latter. This leaves the two sides in a problematic dance relative to an upcoming milestone in the agreement: the deadline for the removal of all US troops by May 1. The US maintains somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 troops in Afghanistan today, and NATO maintains another 7,000 or so. Given the logistical difficulties of conducting a complete withdrawal of around 10,000 military forces (plus their equipment and associated contractors), President Biden recently stated the US would be unable to completely withdraw by May 1, “just in terms of tactical reasons.”

For their part, the Taliban have steadfastly maintained that if the US and NATO forces remain in Afghanistan on May 2, they will consider the US to be in violation of the agreement. They will resume attacks against US/NATO forces and against urban areas at a scale like “something they have never seen before.” There is a risk that the Taliban might also walk away from the intra-Afghan peace talks that were to take place in Doha (but are now stalled). However, this is debatable given that the Taliban derive considerable benefit (e.g., international legitimacy and the possibility of sanctions relief) from the existence of the agreement and have deemed it “vital.”

Objectively, it appears that neither side has fully met its commitments under the terms of the agreement. However, it is easier to demonstrate that for the commitments of the US than for those of the Taliban because the former are more concrete than the latter.

Biden’s recent statement that the US “will leave [Afghanistan]…The question is when we leave” has contributed to renewed uncertainty about the US intentions. This uncertainty is likely to be deliberate, and it emanates from the dissatisfaction of the White House with the options handed to it by the administration of the former President Donald Trump. The May 1 deadline, coming only 100 days after Biden took office, forced the new President to confront a decision as to whether to withdraw all US troops, unilaterally keep troops in Afghanistan past that date, or negotiate with the Taliban for an extension of that timeline. All three options have either been disparaged or recommended by various elements of the US foreign policy establishment. Rather than make a firm decision in favour of one of those options, recent moves by the Biden team appear to be designed to generate a de facto extension of the timeline for withdrawal or perhaps to change the paradigm of the options altogether.

In addition to the recent statements by Biden, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken wrote a letter to the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, stating that while the Biden administration’s review was not yet completed, “we have reached an initial conclusion that the best way to advance our shared interests is to do all we can to accelerate peace talks and to bring all parties into compliance with their agreements.” The letter further outlines a set of steps to increasingly bring regional countries into discussions on the future of Afghanistan through several events that end in a Bonn-style conference in Istanbul. The letter also mentions a proposal aimed at accelerating discussions on a negotiated settlement and ceasefire. This draft, “Afghanistan Peace Agreement,” which proposes a set of guiding principles for Afghanistan’s future, as well as a structure for a transitional government and political roadmap, has been circulated to the Afghan political elites and the Taliban by the US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad. The Taliban have not yet formally responded to this proposal, but Ghani has openly rejected it and offered a counter-proposal for new elections to be held in six months. The Blinken letter also mentions US intentions to push for at least a 90-day reduction in violence to provide relief to Afghans and a more conducive atmosphere for the new diplomatic push, which reportedly includes direct negotiations with the Taliban on the possibility of new US concessions—such as stopping airstrikes and the use of drones—in return for the Taliban reducing violence and stopping a wave of targeted assassinations that have plagued the country in recent months.

What are the implications of these developments? Three items come immediately to mind.

The first is that the situation in and surrounding Afghanistan remains highly fluid. Over the next month, we are likely to see a number of important moves by various players, as we have seen in the past few weeks. The recent conference in Moscow is one example; the meeting between key members of the Pakistani security establishment and United Kingdom’s officials in Bahrain is another; Ghani’s proposal for new elections is a third; Biden’s non-committal statements about the US withdrawal timeline are a fourth. Now that the US has opened the door to increased regional participation and tabled sweeping new proposals, the coming weeks will no doubt see a flurry of diplomatic activity and posturing by key actors.

The second is that President Ghani seems increasingly isolated. The letter from Secretary Blinken to him included a thinly-veiled diplomatic threat of withdrawal of the US support if Ghani does not engage in consensus-building actions and the development of proposals for sharing power with the Taliban. Ghani’s counter-proposal for new elections was unsurprisingly immediately rejected by the Taliban and has yet to be endorsed by any other country. Ghani has indicated he will attend the upcoming conference in Istanbul to present his proposal formally. But given the lack of support thus far for his proposal, doing so would likely paint him as a spoiler to the accelerated negotiations that the US is pursuing. It is notable that Biden has yet to talk to Ghani directly. In his first press conference, Biden both mispronounced Ghani’s name and dismissively referred to him as the “leader quote of Afghanistan.”

The third is that, contrary to what the Taliban have demanded, it seems increasingly likely that the US will not be withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan by May 1. While Biden didn’t expressly say it in his recent press conference, his comment “If we leave, we’re going to do so in a safe and orderly way” strongly hinted at that. Secretary Blinken’s remark at a recent NATO summit that “We went in [to Afghanistan] together, we have adjusted together, and when the time is right, we will leave together” echoes Biden’s hint that the US and its NATO partners will be staying past May 1.

Whether the Biden team can make enough diplomatic progress by then to assuage the Taliban from acting on their threats to once again target US and NATO forces (and possibly walk away from the peace process), or whether the US and its western partners will find themselves in the middle of a renewed Taliban campaign alongside an isolated and slighted Afghan President, remains to be seen. What is clear is that the next month will be yet another pivotal time period in the seemingly endless saga of war in Afghanistan.

Dr Jonathan Schroden

Dr Jonathan Schroden

Dr Jonathan Schroden is the Director of CNA’s Countering Threats and Challenges Program and CNA’s Special Operations Program. A recipient of CNA’s Phil E. DePoy Award for Analytic Excellence and the Cornell University Tunis Wentink Award, he is also an adjunct professor at George Washington University where he lectures on military power and effectiveness.

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