With a May 1 deadline looming for the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan, stalled intra-Afghan “peace talks” in Doha, and a dramatic rise in violence across the country marked by assassinations of the country’s civic leaders and journalists, the Biden administration is reviewing the U.S.-Taliban deal it inherited. NATO leaders, meeting toward the end of February, postponed their decision for withdrawal, awaiting a U.S. decision. Various studies and analysts have recommended delaying the troop withdrawal beyond May 1 to ensure that conditions on the ground are fertile enough for a peace settlement. However, the Taliban’s response to this dilemma has been to threaten a possible shutdown of the “diplomatic pathway” and a renewal of its war against U.S. forces. With a weak government in Kabul, and little international appetite to recommit to Afghanistan, an even bloodier spring is underway, with the people of Afghanistan as the sacrificial lamb.
At this delicate and dangerous moment, whatever policy the Biden administration chooses will affect the legacy of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and its standing in the region and beyond. It is a choice between a messy withdrawal, where the state’s collapse is likely and a civil war would be on the Biden administration’s watch, or remaining in Afghanistan by maintaining the status quo, which means the continuation of war and ongoing civilian casualties. In either case, the Biden administration is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Afghanistan, and the Afghan people stand to pay the ultimate price.
A recent proposal has been shared by the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad with the Afghan government and the Taliban. It aims to accelerate the “peace process” by holding a “new Bonn” conference and form a “participatory government.” The proposal has been informally rejected by both sides, however, we have yet to see any formal response to the proposal. It is argued that the initiative seems to be a new “exit strategy” for Washington and offers little incentive for the Taliban to commit to a ceasefire or a meaningful power-sharing arrangement, especially as time and the battlefield appear to be on their side. However, the crack of light in this darkness could be a U.S.-led effort to reenergize diplomatic efforts internationally and regionally to reach a strong and clear consensus that objects to the Taliban taking over the country by force, allowing it to rule over Afghanistan beyond the withdrawal of troops.
The unpopularity of the Taliban among the people of Afghanistan is well documented, as well as the failures of the Afghan government and international partners in achieving stability in Afghanistan over the last two decades. Twenty years after the intervention in Afghanistan, the United States and the international community have been signaling that it is now up to the people of Afghanistan to decide their future. This is a welcome recognition that the fate of Afghanistan belongs to her people. Still, it is important to move beyond political gestures and rhetoric and meaningfully assist the people in deciding their future. That requires conditions in which they can be heard and have the ability to influence their desirable end state without fearing the Taliban will take over militarily.
The U.S. bipartisan report of the Afghanistan Study Group briefly outlines a vision of a desirable end state suggesting “an independent, democratic, and sovereign Afghan state… that supports and protects minorities, women’s rights, the democratic character of the state, and a free press….” Such an outcome could secure the interests of the United States and its allies as well as protect the hard-won gains of post-2001 for the Afghan people.
Yet such an end state, desirable as it is for the international community and the people of Afghanistan, may not be acceptable to the Taliban, especially as it would be difficult to sell it to their fighters. Why would the Taliban, with a powerful presence in the countryside and at the negotiating table, acquiesce to an end state so similar to the current system? Unlike President Ashraf Ghani’s Republic as the “red line,” the Taliban have been tactical in setting a “red line” based on the end state but vaguely, yet consistently, demanding an “Islamic” system. They reject the current system as not sufficiently Islamic and founded under the influence of foreign occupation.
There may be two main reasons for this tactical flexibility. First, there is a strong feeling in the international community against the return of the Taliban’s Emirate in Afghanistan. The Taliban seek international legitimacy more than ever. They are tactical in being less rigid about the word “Emirate” to define their desired end state, but they are also disguising their desirable end state under the rubric of an “Islamic” system. Second, the Taliban’s Emirate, which never gained international recognition and legitimacy when it was in power from 1996 to 2001, is seen as Afghanistan’s darkest, most barbaric, and brutal era for women, minorities, and human rights in general. The Taliban are aware that they will face immense opposition from diverse elements of the Afghan population if they advertise a desire to bring about the return of their notorious Emirate.
The United States and the international community could use political legitimacy and recognition as sources of leverage to reject the Taliban’s return through force. To gain either, the Taliban should be required to commit to the desire of the people of Afghanistan — that is, a political settlement where a meaningful concession in favor of an inclusive governance structure is made and the use of force in pursuit of political goals is prohibited. Hence, the United States and the international community can tilt their support for a desirable end state by clarifying to the Taliban that a military takeover is utterly unacceptable and, under no circumstance, would it be recognized internationally.
Committing to the principle of non-return of the Taliban through force would send an important and clear message to the Taliban and the actors involved in Afghanistan’s affairs that the concept of “no military solution” is all-encompassing. It includes the Taliban too. No level of Taliban intransigence or dallying tactics should open a path for military takeover and a return of their defunct system. Short of this, a Taliban onslaught behind their traditional rural bases, and in the absence of a credible international deterrent, could result in the worst kind of civil war and mass murders. Communities who have traditionally resisted the Taliban and their ideology could once again mobilize and resist against the Taliban take over by force. The scale of violence and instability could compel another military intervention on humanitarian grounds by powerful regional States. An international consensus on “non-return of the Taliban through force” would serve two long-term purposes: It would secure the interests of the United States in Afghanistan by diminishing threats from al-Qaeda, as well as serve as a green shoot that the people of Afghanistan could use to fertilize the ground, providing stability by means beyond violence.
In the 100 years since Amir Amanullah declared independence in 1919, Afghanistan experienced various systems of governance: monarchy, republic, dictatorship, theocracy, and democracy under at least seven different constitutions. As a mosaic nation with a traditional society, with a weak state and strong community, leadership changes in Afghanistan during the past century have come about through assassinations, coups, forced exiles, civil wars, and international interventions. Throughout these rapid changes of power in Afghanistan, the legitimacy of the ruler and accountability of the system have remained problematic and renewed the cycle of conflict. Any agreement — if it gets to that stage — needs to review the political history and the emerging realities of 21st century Afghanistan. A quick lesson from a century of struggle is that stability and durable peace in Afghanistan require a practical and endogenous socio-political governance structure that is not susceptible to authoritarianism and dictatorship of any type.
The United States and the international community can at least help the people of Afghanistan on their struggle to own an end state that is dignified and not recognize one that is enforced through violence.