For a brief few days this June, the long-suffering people of Afghanistan had a glimpse of what their country might look like at peace. Out of respect for the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Fitr, the Taliban and the Afghan government announced a historic three-day truce, building on previous temporary ceasefire agreements made by the warring parties. The agreement led to scenes reminiscent of the famous World War I “Christmas Truce,” with Taliban and government fighters — who had just days earlier been trying to kill each other — embracing, taking selfies, and exchanging gifts.
After several decades of nearly unremitting warfare — triggered by the Soviet Union’s invasion of the country in the 1979 and punctuated by civil wars and NATO intervention — many Afghans have clearly had enough. In recent months, a grassroots peace movement emerged, consisting of ordinary people who have held protest marches across the country to demand an end to the violence. While recent ceasefires have not been extended indefinitely, there are indications that the political leadership on both sides, as well as the U.S. military, is taking seriously the idea of negotiating an end to the conflict.
A recent report by the nongovernmental conflict research organization Crisis Group also makes a number of recommendations for ending the conflict, building on momentum from the events that took place over the recent holiday. Among these are recommendations that the United States build a direct negotiating channel with the Taliban leadership; that the Taliban formally recognize the Afghan government; and for all sides to engage in confidence-building measures, such as prisoner exchanges and local coordination to deliver basic services.
So is Afghanistan heading towards a new era of peace, free from the nightmare of armed conflict? And is the United States on the precipice of ending its grueling 17-year military occupation of the country? Despite significant challenges, including elites on all sides who have vested interest in the conflict continuing, recent developments may offer the best opportunity for putting an end to the decadeslong violence that has ravaged Afghan society.
“The conflict can’t continue without external aid to both sides. They have to talk to each other eventually — why not now?”
“In many ways the mood music is there for serious peace talks. We are now at the milestone of 40 years of war in Afghanistan and the situation is unsustainable. The conflict can’t continue without external aid to both sides. They have to talk to each other eventually, why not now?” says Kate Clark, co-director of the Afghan Analysts Network. “The Eid ceasefire was immensely helpful for allowing everyone a glimpse of what a peaceful Afghanistan could look like. It provided a humanizing picture of both sides, and the spontaneous nature of the fraternization between low-level Taliban and government forces was important. The Taliban leadership was shocked and dismayed by this. It’s more difficult to motivate your troops if they’ve just been drinking tea and praying with the enemy.”
Signs that the American position on the conflict is evolving could also be consequential. In the years following the 2001 invasion of the country, the United States took a hard line against the Taliban and effectively sought to eradicate the group from Afghanistan. As the years went on and this goal proved impossible, the U.S. position shifted to trying to use long-term pressure to force the Taliban to negotiate an end to the war on unfavorable terms. Seventeen years into the occupation, it now appears as though the United States is entertaining the possibility of trying to find an end to the war on a shorter time horizon, even if it means making concessions to the Taliban.
“The United States has not talked of defeating the Taliban for many years, but they’ve put peace on the far horizon after they’ve successfully forced the Taliban to the negotiating table,” said Clark. “This year, we’ve seen a change. There is a growing a recognition that the U.S. can’t just leave the issue of peace talks to the Kabul government. For the conflict to end, the United States also has to be a central player.”
Despite the hopeful signs, some experts feel that a peaceful outcome in the foreseeable future is still unlikely. And the major culprit behind this might wind up being the Trump administration. Despite signs that it is willing to speak to the Taliban, the administration has shown little ability or willingness to negotiate the wider regional agreements that would be needed to put an end to the war. President Donald Trump’s decision to renege on the Iranian nuclear deal has significantly ramped up tensions with that country. The leadership in Iran, Afghanistan’s western neighbor, has been incentivized to play a spoiler to any U.S.-led agreement, rather than supporting it. And U.S. relations with other countries in the region have not been much more hopeful in terms of consensus-building.
“I think it’s clear that the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the Afghan people as a whole are more ready for peace than ever. At this point, there is a need for assurances from the U.S. side that they will be willing to withdraw their troops, or at least modify their deployments, and that they will accept the result of talks among Afghans,” said Barnett Rubin, a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. “The problem is that any sustainable peace deal also needs to have involvement from other countries in the region, including Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan, and India. The current administration is unable to even cooperate with Canada, so successfully engineering such a deal doesn’t seem very likely.”
“People working in government can get certain processes going with regards to an agreement, but they cannot really get them off the ground with this administration.”
Rubin was heavily involved in previous efforts to start negotiations between the Taliban and the United States — efforts that were ultimately stymied by a lack of enthusiasm and support from government officials. He said that, without competence and buy-in from top leadership, even well-conceived efforts to kickstart peace talks will end up being limited in their ability to stop the war.
“People working in government can get certain processes going with regards to an agreement, but they cannot really get them off the ground with this administration,” Rubin said. “Any such effort would have to wait for an administration that is capable of international cooperation.”
The election of Trump initially raised hopes among many top military brass — as well as notorious American mercenaries — that the U.S. government would have fresh appetite for escalating the war and again sending tens of thousands more Americans to Afghanistan for the long term. Former high-level officials have made public statements about the Afghan conflict being a “generational struggle” that would presumably continue raging for decades toward some uncertain conclusion. While Trump initially agreed to an increase of several thousand more troops, he has not shown any indication that he intends to indulge these fantasies of a decisively ramped-up U.S. military involvement in the country.
All sides in the conflict — the United States, the Taliban, and the Afghan government — thus find themselves locked in a war that nobody can win, but nobody can end either. Despite the barriers in the way of negotiating a lasting peace, the report on peace talks by Crisis Group lays out a number of steps that could be taken to build a framework for an agreement. Among the most important of these are opening a direct U.S. channel for talks with the Taliban about the terms of an eventual agreement. In recent months, the Taliban has issued statements expressing its willingness to pursue serious peace talks, offering an opportunity for the U.S. and Afghan governments to test their position at the negotiating table.
A report in the Wall Street Journal this weekend indicated that U.S. diplomats recently held face-to-face talks with Taliban officials at the group’s political office in Qatar. The report of the meeting was attributed to “sources familiar with the matter,” though Taliban and State Department officials have yet to confirm that they are holding direct talks. If true, the meeting would be an unprecedented step towards kickstarting a negotiation process that could potentially end the war.
Despite the remaining obstacles to kickstarting full peace talks, including sorting out divisions on the Afghan government side and addressing the interests of regional powers, the aftermath of the ceasefire stands as the best opportunity to do so, says the Crisis Group report. “The immediate challenge [is] getting to a peace process,” it says. “A U.S. initiative and offer of formal if exploratory talks with insurgents is the best bet for doing so. The extraordinary scenes of celebration prompted by the Eid ceasefire makes this moment auspicious for such a gesture.”
Update: July 30, 2018
This story was updated to reflect recent reports that U.S. officials met with the Taliban over the weekend at their political office in Qatar.