Getting ahead of the implications of a U.S.-Taliban deal in Afghanistan
Last week, the United States and the Taliban engaged in another round of talks in Doha, Qatar regarding the future of the war in Afghanistan. These talks, which lasted twice as long as originally scheduled, have been cautiously hailed in the days since their conclusion by both sides as having made significant progress. According to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States and the Taliban have come to at least a framework understanding that includes a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in exchange for the Taliban agreeing to prevent future use of the country as a base for international terrorism. However, Khalilzad also tweeted that “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and ‘everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire.” These additional U.S. demands are significant, as the Taliban to date have steadfastly refused the idea of talking directly with the current Afghan government, which it views as illegitimate. Yet there is a collective sense of cautious optimism that something notable happened last week and that Afghanistan may have advanced on a path toward peace.
The potential promise of this development has naturally led to commentary on what these developments mean and what might come next. For example, questions have been asked as to what “intra-Afghan talks” would address and how they might proceed. What emphasis might the United States place in future talks on the issue of human rights in Afghanistan, especially those pertaining to women and children? What would the pace of a U.S. military withdrawal look like and when might it begin? Would a “full withdrawal” mean all U.S. troops or would it only apply to those forces engaged in combat missions (as opposed to those advising Afghan forces)? And what structure and power-sharing arrangements would a reconciled Afghan government that includes the Taliban have? These are excellent questions, and elements of the U.S. government are no doubt currently engaged in working through possible answers. As someone who has conducted numerous assessments of Afghanistan’s security forces and security situation over the past 12 years, I would add the following four questions pertaining to the future security of Afghanistan, which I believe are some of the key issues to be addressed going forward.
First, what happens to the insurgent and terrorist threat in Afghanistan in the wake of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban? Much of the current discussion appears to assume that the Taliban would reconcile as a coherent entity, a rationalization that I typically hear underpinned by the group’s ability to control its fighters from engaging in any significant violations of the brief ceasefire that took place last summer. But what if that assumption doesn’t hold? While it is notoriously difficult to count numbers of insurgent personnel, unofficial estimates of the Taliban’s strength in recent years have ranged from 20,000 to 60,000 fighters. If we use these numbers for the sake of argument and assume that even 5 percent of these individuals decide not to abide by a settlement, there would still be 1,000 to 3,000 fighters opposed to the Afghan government. To put that in context, estimates of the size of the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan have consistently ranged between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters. As an excellent recent discussion of this group makes clear, even a faction that size can conduct serious numbers of attacks and inflict large numbers of casualties in Afghanistan, to say nothing of what might happen should unreconciled Taliban fighters choose to directly merge ranks with the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Thus, consideration of Taliban splintering in the wake of a peace deal is a notable issue worthy of further examination.
Similar issues exist on the side of the Afghan government, which is to say it’s not clear that all factions of the current government would accept a peace settlement with the Taliban. If such a deal is viewed as antithetical to the interests of various groups (e.g., ethnic, tribal, political) within the country, elements of those groups might also decide to take up arms against a post-settlement government.
The question of what happens with the Haqqani Network is also critical to an effective and lasting settlement. The Haqqanis have been a very influential — and highly lethal — element of the Taliban-led insurgency for many years, and the Haqqani Network is a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, akin to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Will the Haqqanis reconcile along with the Taliban? And if so, will the United States de-list them as a foreign terrorist organization? Or will they continue to conduct spoiler attacks in Kabul and southeast Afghanistan?
Second, how will the United States monitor and verify a Taliban pledge to not allow Afghanistan to serve as a base for international terrorism? Certainly taking their word on this point is not enough. As the eminent scholar on Afghanistan Barnett Rubin recently reminded us on Twitter, peace agreements aren’t based on trust. Rather, he explained, “They are based on mutual interest, verification, and enforcement.” There are numerous options for how this could be pursued, including a U.S. military and intelligence presence, a U.S. intelligence presence alone, or a multinational presence (e.g., a follow-on to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission or a U.N. mission). The size, capabilities, posture, mission parameters, and funding of a verification entity will be heavily dependent on post-settlement conditions — including, as discussed above, the residual nature of the threat — but it’s not too early for the United States and its international partners to start considering options now. An interesting related question is whether the Taliban, given the mutual distaste that all sides have for the Islamic State, might agree to a sustained U.S. counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan — or perhaps even just advisory support to an Afghan-led counter-terrorism force. Here again, though, the issue of the Haqqani Network could prove a critical sticking point.
Third, in their read-out of the recent talks, the Taliban “asserted the U.S. has agreed to help in reconstruction efforts after its troop withdrawal,” but an important unanswered question is what happens to U.S. and international levels of security assistance funding for Afghanistan in the wake of a settlement? Currently, the United States provides the vast majority of the funding for the country’s security forces ($5.2 billion in Fiscal Year 2019), while the rest of the international coalition contributes nearly $1 billion — and the Afghan government around $500 million — for a total funding line of roughly $6.7 billion. In the wake of a peace settlement, a safe assumption is that the U.S. government (and its international partners) will want to provide significantly less. The questions, though, are how much less and what does that mean? While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the Trump administration and Congress’ appetites are for future funding, a useful comparison for the sake of bounding the amount comes in the form of foreign military financing. As this tracker points out, in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2012, that country received $850 million of this type of security assistance. For the sake of argument (and round numbers), let’s assume a high-end estimate of $1 billion in U.S. foreign military financing, plus a generous assumption of $500 million from international donors and Afghanistan’s current level of $500 million, for a total post-settlement budget for Afghanistan’s security forces of about $2 billion.
While that may still seem like a lot of money, it would represent a 70 percent decline in the security budget of the country within a few years. In that context, it is clear that a major restructuring of Afghanistan’s security forces — to include massive reductions in the number of its army and potentially also police forces and locations — would be required. What such a restructuring would look like and how many of Afghanistan’s security forces and bases would need to be cut are just a few of the heady questions that need to be worked through as part of post-settlement security planning.
Fourth, what happens to Taliban fighters and those personnel cut from Afghanistan’s security forces in the wake of a settlement? Should a peace deal be worked out, the country is likely to fairly quickly find itself in a situation in which some tens of thousands — if not a hundred thousand or more — young men currently serving as fighters on both sides are without a steady source of income. In addition, the U.N. Refugee Agency is tracking nearly 2.5 million registered Afghan refugees, the second largest such population in the world. The total number, including unregistered refugees, is likely much larger. If any sizeable fraction of this population returns to Afghanistan immediately after a deal, it will further strain the country’s economic carrying capacity. While Afghanistan’s economic prospects would presumably increase in the wake of a peace deal, such growth is likely to lag the immediate need presented by the issues I’ve just listed, which will in turn create security issues for the country. This then begs several additional questions, such as will the United States and/or the international community fund a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program for Afghanistan? And if so, what might it look like and how would it avoid the failures of previous programs in the country? An alternative approach might be to try and the integrate Taliban fighters into Afghanistan’s security forces. If this option was pursued, would the United States and/or some coalition of international partners be willing to pay continued high levels of security assistance to enable it? And if so, how would this work in practice?
All of these are essential questions for the future security of Afghanistan, and there are certainly many more. Working through these issues is going to require a lot of effort and patience, detailed planning and challenging of commonly held assumptions, and the continued investment of significant funding and personnel for years to come. After all, a country that’s been in a state of civil war for 40 years will not easily be turned away from it. But if the Taliban continue to work with the United States — and eventually the Afghan government — these questions will have to be addressed in order to secure a lasting peace.