Ex-ambassador: Don’t leave Afghanistan without a deal built on national unification
When I led the U.S. team trying to bring peace to Afghanistan, we coined a term — “dirty reconciliation” — for the United States making a deal with the Taliban that protected our minimal security interests, while abandoning both the Afghan government and any attempt to preserve the gains made in Afghan society since 2001. The idea was purely a scenario to be avoided, not an actual strategy. But the possibility of such a deal now seems more likely.
In order to avoid a dirty deal, the United States needs to signal clearly that no separate peace with the Taliban will be possible and that the Taliban must negotiate with Kabul. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani also needs to overcome his reluctance to appointing a negotiating team than includes representatives of all Afghans who stand to lose if the Taliban come back, not just government officials.
The U.S.-Taliban talks in Doha, Qatar, center around two issues: the withdrawal of foreign troops and counterterrorism. An understanding could easily be struck covering the two points — America agrees to a timetable for withdrawal in return for the Taliban breaking definitively with al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups.
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Many other issues need to be resolved, including the future role of the Taliban in the Afghan government, the rights of women and minorities, the Islamic nature of Afghanistan, whether the Afghan Constitution needs to be amended and the establishment of a cease-fire. President Ghani announced that negotiations with the Taliban can take place without preconditions, meaning any of these topics can be negotiated in an intra-Afghan dialogue.
Don’t leave Afghanistan without a deal
But there is no intra-Afghan dialogue.
The reason for the lack of Afghan talks is the refusal of the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government, until after it has met its principal objective: ending the foreign “occupation.” The Taliban argue that this position is justified because earlier attempts to negotiate with the Afghan government were torpedoed by the U.S. government. But if the Taliban precondition prevails, the government of Afghanistan would be in the unenviable position of negotiating after its principal leverage (foreign troop presence) is removed. Negotiations in such conditions would most likely fail and lead to a civil war, or if they “succeed,” allow a return of the Taliban on terms that most Afghans would not want.
To his credit, lead U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad has stated that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” a diplomatic phrase that means the Taliban cannot expect to conclude an agreement with America until they have resolved the other issues through an intra-Afghan dialogue.
However, Ambassador Khalilzad is negotiating on behalf of a war-weary American public and an administration that is impatient to end forever wars. It is possible that the president might find acceptable a deal that does not preserve the international investment in Afghanistan. Even worse, he may order a precipitate withdrawal of U.S. forces without any sort of deal at all.
Afghans need to be united before peace
This baleful possibility is made more likely by the lack of unity among those who most need to negotiate with the Taliban — the silent majority of Afghans. Polling shows that most Afghans support the current constitutional order, which has delivered improvements in education, health care and self-governance.
Despite this broad support, the government has only in the past days assembled an inclusive negotiating team that brings together political parties, regional officials, women and representatives of minorities. This fractiousness is a consequence of the Doha peace process coinciding with upcoming national elections, meaning that the Kabul political elite is more concerned with electoral maneuvering than with preserving the gains of the past 17 years.
At a time when the Taliban are united, moderate Afghans are divided. The bitter irony is that if they did come together, the political strength of the pro-constitution elements could be much greater than the Taliban’s.
Fortunately, the situation is not hopeless. Two things must happen for there to an enduring peace settlement in Afghanistan. First, Afghans who support the current political dispensation must disregard minor political differences to form a unified, cross-party, multiethnic, bigender negotiating team. Second, America needs to harden the soft linkage between the U.S.-Taliban track and the intra-Afghan track. Ambassador Khalilzad’s position that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” should be reinforced at the highest levels, and the United States should make explicit that it will not negotiate a separate peace.
The Taliban need to understand that there will be no U.S. troop withdrawals until they have negotiated an internationally acceptable settlement with the Afghan government.
Richard Olson is a retired Foreign Service Officer. He served as the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and a fellow at the American College of National Security Leaders.