By all accounts, the United States and Afghan Taliban are on track to reach a deal by year’s end. Both parties need to wrap up this conflict – and that imperative outweighs the obstacles that arise along the way. The U.S. and the Taliban are the major players in the current negotiations, but a bevy of others will try to influence the final agreement. Their power to do so is limited. But their buy-in is requisite for a deal to stick and to prevent immediate disruption once the U.S. withdraws its forces.
Afghanistan’s strategic location means that its stability is often fleeting. Outside powers periodically make forays into this buffer area, seeking to expand their sphere of control or influence; their efforts have been met with varying degrees of success. Afghanistan’s strategic value is derived from its position at the crossroads of the Middle East, South Asia and Russia, and its vast natural resources add to its appeal. But its terrain – desert in the west and high altitudes in the east – often frustrates efforts at sustained military campaigns. Its people are a hodgepodge of ethnic groups, often isolated from one another by a strong tribal culture and geographic barriers, and not easily united under a single ruler.
These features make conquering and consolidating control over Afghanistan particularly difficult. The U.S. is by no means the first power to get bogged down in military operations there, and likely will not be the last. Both sides of this conflict – the U.S. and the Taliban – have been drained of resources in a nearly two-decade war that has essentially reached a stalemate. The U.S. needs to prioritize its military commitments elsewhere (and it’s pivoting to address conflicts with economic means, rather than military intervention). Further, Russia and China – not Islamic extremists – are its key geopolitical foes, and it needs to allocate resources accordingly. On the other side of the table, the Taliban’s successful offensive, resulting in significant territorial gains, has earned it substantial leverage in the negotiations. Rather than let the war drag on any further, both parties have an interest in cutting their losses and ending the fighting – that’s what is driving the current peace talks, and it’s why they should be taken seriously.
A Crowded Table
The U.S. government and the Afghan Taliban will be the primary brokers of a peace agreement. The Afghan government, for all its rhetoric, derives its power from the U.S., and it’s not strong enough to stand on its own and dictate terms. Other regional players have expressed interest in the peace process, but there’s little they can do to influence the outcome.
The U.S. and the Taliban must now face the dilemma of how to broker a peace deal with honor. Having spent billions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of lives, they must reach an agreement without blatantly admitting to a draw. At a late-January meeting in Qatar, the parties agreed to a general framework for a deal. The Taliban reportedly agreed not to allow any groups to use Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks on any other countries and to keep al-Qaida and the Islamic State out of the country. In exchange, the U.S. would withdraw its troops, save for a minimal force. Once a withdrawal timetable is established, the Afghan government will be brought in to discuss issues like a cease-fire, the release of prisoners and the future of the government itself.
Complicating matters, Afghanistan’s geopolitical position means that its neighbors will have to, at minimum, buy into the basic terms of the agreement if it is to have any chance at lasting. Its neighbors – and others with an interest in the country – want stability in Afghanistan, but they also want the chance to influence the peace process. Given Afghanistan’s propensity for chaos, Washington has engaged in a concerted effort to secure their buy-in, but they hold no real power in the negotiations. All of these parties – including Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Iran, China and Russia – have their own set of threats to deal with; achieving some degree of stability in Afghanistan checks one major item off their lists.
Russia, which has a complex history with Afghanistan, is primarily concerned with preventing the Afghan conflict from spilling over and with staunching the regional spread of Islamic extremism. Moscow is none too eager to strengthen the extremist parts of the Taliban, particularly as the organization’s more radical branches threaten to spread its extremist brand of Islam in Central Asia. Its concern is not misplaced: Bomb threats in Moscow (and even across Russia) and arrests of extremists in Central Asia are becoming more frequent.
With its military already engaged in Ukraine and Syria, opening a third front in Afghanistan is not a desirable option for Russia; instead, Moscow will look to less resource-intensive options. Still, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Central Asian tour to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan shows that Russia wants to increase its military influence in the region. Negotiations for a second Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan are underway, and the combat capabilities of Russia’s 201st Military Base in Tajikistan have been significantly increased. It’s also providing support to local security forces (including those of Tajikistan, the Taliban and Afghanistan) to go after extremist threats like the Islamic State’s branch in Khorasan province. Politically, Russia is working to cement its strong ties with Central Asian states; though Russia has little hope of influencing the U.S.-backed Afghan government, it can invite opposition members and Taliban representatives to talks in Moscow. (It’s no coincidence the meetings coincided with Lavrov’s regional tour.) Those talks won’t produce a deal, but they will help Moscow build foundational relationships with Afghanistan’s future political forces.
To the west, Iran wants influence over a post-deal Afghanistan, though it faces some major constraints. Afghanistan serves as an important buffer between Iran and Pakistan and a key source of water for eastern Iran. The southwestern Helmand River basin – one of five in Afghanistan – is an essential source of fresh water for Iran’s border region. Just beyond the Helmand basin lies desert terrain, making that water source even more valuable for Iran, which is experiencing a water shortage. But Tehran’s engagement with the Taliban is limited, and its resources have been stretched thin since its involvement in Syria and Iraq. And amid U.S. efforts to combat Iranian influence, Afghan and Taliban officials find it more prudent to work with the U.S. – and even Russia – rather than with a sanctioned regime in the middle of an economic crisis.
Any discussion of Afghanistan’s future must include Pakistan, which seeks a stable neighbor and a friendly, collaborative government in Kabul. In 2001, Islamabad didn’t want the Taliban ousted from power in Kabul. Since then, its relationship with Washington has become only more fraught. The U.S. has relied on Pakistani cooperation to maintain its supply routes, but Washington has accused Islamabad of sheltering Taliban and other extremist fighters responsible for attacks in Afghanistan. The Pakistani government says its influence over these groups is vastly overestimated, and Islamabad has not been particularly cooperative with the U.S. in the peace process. But Pakistan has changed a lot since 2001. It no longer benefits much from supporting the Afghan Taliban and runs a lower risk for going after it. It has worked to reduce domestic terrorism, and its economy is struggling. Iran and India have replaced Pakistan as Afghanistan’s main trade partners. Pakistan is vulnerable, and incentives offered by the U.S. and its allies at this moment may be sufficient to coax Pakistan into supporting a peace deal. The U.S. has floated the possibility of trade agreements, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE have provided billions in loans to help ease Pakistan’s debt. It’s yet to be seen if that’s enough to bring Pakistan on board.
Closing the Deal
The window of opportunity to finalize an agreement is open but won’t be forever, and there’s a sense of urgency to strike a deal. The fighting has eased over the winter months, but spring is on the horizon, and that could give the Taliban leverage in the talks. In addition, presidential elections in Afghanistan are scheduled for July, giving the U.S. and Taliban an opportunity to ensure that the next Afghan government buys into a peace deal. Both have some influence over candidate selection, so it’s likely the next president will be on board with a U.S.-Taliban agreement. The elections, therefore, serve as something of an informal deadline. (Notably, just after the U.S. and Taliban began talks in late December, the elections were rescheduled from April to July, extending the window of opportunity.) A post-election deal is not impossible – but such a deal could make buy-in more difficult to secure and fighting more difficult to end.
In the meantime, there’s more to negotiate, and the negotiators will need to bring the Afghan government back into the fold. Efforts to carefully involve Afghanistan’s neighbors will continue. And as the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation put it: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”