by Alex Bittner
The Afghanistan War has now extended beyond its 17th year, with thousands of civilian and military deaths in a conflict that seemingly had no end in sight. However, recent peace talks and negotiations offer hope that a peaceful solution can soon be achieved.
Currently, the United States and its Afghan and coalition partners are effectively at a stalemate with the Taliban, with no clear path to a military or political victory on either side. By almost any metric, the U.S. political and military strategy has been unable to fulfill its dual goals of removing Taliban influence and power and eliminating terrorist safe havens. The Taliban remain in control of a minority of districts and routinely conduct attacks in government strongholds. Furthermore, recent years have seen the rise of new terrorist organizations like the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K), which conducts operations in government-held areas. The secondary goal of establishing a strong centralized government and military force with the capability to provide security and social services has failed to exert much direct control beyond Kabul. The government has also struggled with widespread corruption and misuse of billions of dollars in funding and is seen as illegitimate by much of the Afghan populace. The issues with the Afghan government and military continue to today and are a key reason for the resurgence of the Taliban.
Since 2014, the Taliban have taken advantage of the ineffectiveness and corruption of the Afghan national government, as well as NATO’s shift away from combat operations, to steadily increase their control over rural regions of Afghanistan and contest power in other areas. From a peak of around 130,000 soldiers during the Obama years, U.S. and NATO troop strength has been reduced to a current count of about 16,000, the majority concentrated around Kabul to provide training and assistance to the Afghan armed forces. The existing combat operations are primarily structured around the Trump administration’s strategy of airstrikes and raids aimed at “killing terrorists” rather than the nation-building and counter-insurgency efforts that characterized much of the Afghan campaign under the Bush and Obama administrations. Beyond military operations, U.S. funding to support the Afghan civil sector has suffered a sharp decline, even as corruption continues to prevent the creation of an effective government.
Recently, several peace negotiations in locations ranging from Geneva to Doha have raised the prospects of a potential peace deal. Russia hosted Taliban representatives in Moscow alongside major nations like India, China, Pakistan and Iran who seek to influence the future outcome of Afghanistan to support both their security and economic strategies. These high-level talks are the first of their kind to include the Taliban and reflect the reality of the military situation on the ground by granting political legitimacy to the Taliban while refusing to give the recognized Afghan government a seat at the talks.
Recognition of the Taliban’s strength is seen in the recent bilateral discussions between representatives from the United States and the Taliban in Qatar. One of the most significant aspects of the recent events that differentiate them from previous talks is the level of seriousness by both parties. The Taliban has successfully defended its military strength and resilience, while U.S. forces have demonstrated their commitment to the Afghan government and their willingness to continue deadly airstrikes against Taliban leadership for the foreseeable future. This mutual recognition has enabled talks that could end with an eventual peace deal or power-sharing agreement in Afghanistan.
What a peace agreement would look like and how it would be implemented is still very much up for debate. U.S. negotiators view the elimination of terrorists and their operating bases a vital priority, while various activists and NGOs are demanding Taliban support of basic human rights, which are not recognized under current Taliban ideology. However, liberalizing the Taliban may prove to be an impossible request. Some reports indicate that the Taliban are willing to cut ties with and actually combat terror groups such as IS-K in exchange for concessions. These may include prisoner releases and withdrawal of foreign troops– but doubts remain surrounding the Taliban’s ability to prevent its current members from defecting to terror groups under a peace settlement, and such circumstances may ultimately influence U.S. support for a peace deal.
Potential negotiations are further complicated by nations like Pakistan and India who are engaged in a struggle for influence in Afghanistan and by great powers like Russia and China that seek regional hegemony and the advancement of their economic and political goals. More recently, the existing Afghan government is unilaterally seeking international support for its own peace deal for fear of being left out of other negotiations. These conflicting strategies highlight the need for a single, unified peace agreement. A stalemate has been reached and is recognized by all sides. A future peace deal will likely require concessions and difficult multilateral cooperation. Although obstacles have prevented peace in the past, there has never been a better time to overcome them and reach a deal that could bring an end to 17 years of continuous conflict in Afghanistan.