Months of aggressive negotiations seem to have finally bore fruit. Officials from the United States and the Taliban have reportedly agreed “in principle” to a peace framework. The structure of this new deal could eventually bring Afghanistan’s long-running war to an end.
This update was first revealed on 28 January in a New York Times interview of America’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad.
Under the framework for peace, the Taliban would commit to preventing the country being used as a hub for terrorism in return for a U.S. military withdrawal. Representative Khalilzad’s comments were later confirmed by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
The details of this deal are still rather vague. “We have a draft of the framework that has to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement,” said Khalilzad. “The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.”
It is important to point out that nothing has actually been finalized and neither side has yet to commit to anything. While the ongoing talks in Doha, Qatar have been described by American diplomats as “more productive than they have been in the past,” signaling the first significant shift in the geopolitical stalemate in years. Khalilad made clear that no concrete steps will be made on the ground until all the details are clear: “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
Finally, Reaping What They Sowed
The breakthrough in Doha is the culmination of months of careful planning on the part of U.S. diplomats and administration officials. For this they should be commended.
The effort to achieve reconciliation with the Taliban began last summer when President Trump ordered the State Department to seek out direct communications with the Taliban. The efforts of State culminated in a face-to-face sit- down between Taliban representatives and American negotiators in Doha back in October. The Taliban even admitted the meeting took place, confirming the plan for more meetings in the future. In the Taliban’s official English-language statement on the meeting, the militant group confirmed a “negotiation team of the Political Office of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – comprising the head [and other members] of the Political Office met with the US negotiation team.” Just as now, the U.S. side was headed by Special Representative Khalilzad and centered around “ending the occupation” of Afghanistan by U.S. forces. Now, nearly six months after the negotiations effort began, the two sides are closer than ever to attaining their interests: the Taliban may see the country ridden of American and other foreign troops. The U.S. may get the Taliban to abide by their vision of a future Afghanistan.
The fact that Taliban-American talks have gotten as far as they have highlights a very important element of the war in Afghanistan.
The Taliban, while certainly ideologically antithetical to America and the West, was never the primary enemy in Afghanistan. During the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. was after Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda cohorts, not the regime of Mullah Omar. It was an indirect necessity that the United States ended up facing off against the Taliban state, a necessity that could have easily been avoided. Following the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration issued an ultimatum to Afghanistan to hand over Osama bin Laden and other high-ranking al-Qaeda officials. Omar explained his refusal to comply was not due to any alliance he held with bin Laden or his organization, but rather to a religious conviction of not delivering a fellow Muslim to his enemy: “We cannot do that. If we did, it means we are not Muslims, that Islam is finished. If we were afraid of attack, we could have surrendered him the last time we were threatened,” said Omar during an interview with American media. The Afghan ruler reiterated this position in an address to senior Taliban officials: “Islam says that when a Muslim asks for shelter, give the shelter and never hand him over to enemy. And our Afghan tradition says that, even if your enemy asks for shelter, forgive him and give him shelter. Osama has helped the jihad in Afghanistan, he was with us in bad days [of the Russian invasion] and I am not going to give him to anyone.” While Omar was adamant, many of his top aides were more willing to be flexible. Several senior Taliban officials including the ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef, the foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, and Prime Minister Abdul Kabir were prepared to try bin Laden in an Islamic court or even hand him over to a third party.
In the end, the hardliners won the day. A council of some 1,000 clerics convening in Kabul weeks after the 9/11 attacks voted against turning over bin Laden. Even still, the very same council urged bin Laden to leave Afghanistan of his own accord to avoid the potential “tumult” that might result. Omar abided by this advice and reportedly tried to convince bin Laden to flee the country. On his part, bin Laden refused to abandon the infrastructure of fighters and facilities he’d set up in Afghanistan. Perhaps he understood that attempting to flee to a neighboring country would all but guarantee his capture. Omar stuck to his ideological guns. America came looking for their enemy number-one.
But eighteen years after the initial invasion, and eight years after bin Laden was found and killed, the U.S. still found itself bogged down in Afghanistan. A switch of strategy was needed. The major boost to the military effort which began in 2017 failed to meet expectations. The administration came to the conclusion that a fundamental shift was called for.
What the U.S. is facing today is a Taliban that seemingly just wants to be left alone. Even the Taliban official appointed to head talks with the Americans, Abdul Ghani Baradar was essentially chosen by the U.S. to be their negotiating partner, as it was a request from the White House that got him freed from Pakistani detention. Baradar comes from a bygone era of Taliban leadership, the one that had been prepared to talk to the Americans nearly two decades ago in an effort to prevent an invasion. It is the sentiments of Baradar and his like-minded colleagues that are the driving force on the Taliban side.
Much remains to be dealt with if an actual deal is to be implemented, not the least of which is whether the Taliban can guarantee in any substantial way it will not open its doors for the next bin Laden. But one thing is for sure: Reconciliation in Afghanistan has reached a major milestone, one that will hopefully lead to a final end to the conflict.