Can US-Taliban Peace Talks End the War in Afghanistan?

By Amber Duan

August 15, 2019

This year has seen the most intensive diplomacy yet between the United States and the Taliban to end the nearly eighteen-year war in Afghanistan. But disagreement over the conditions of a peace deal, coupled with the Afghan government’s ambiguous role in the talks, calls into question the feasibility of lasting peace.

What’s the latest?

U.S. officials, led by envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, have met with Taliban leaders in eight rounds. The negotiations have gathered momentum over the past few months, in part driven by pressure from Washington to reach a deal by September 1. The parties produced a draft agreement in March and have since inched closer to finalizing its terms.

Separately, the Taliban has met with Afghan leaders since 2017, though only unofficially, because the Taliban views the Afghan government as an illegitimate “puppet regime” of the West. These meetings, especially the recent “intra-Afghan dialogue,” are a positive step, experts say, but still far from the formal negotiations needed for a peace deal.

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Meanwhile, China, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States have held related meetings on the peace process.

What do the Taliban and the United States want?

The negotiations appear to be focused on four elements:

The protection of women’s rights is also one of the United States’ implicit demands, though it is not officially expressed in the draft agreement. Taliban negotiators have acknowledged women’s rights but said that they must be consistent with Islamic principles.

What’s at stake?

Many worry that a failed peace deal will exacerbate fighting and increase the civilian death toll, especially since the Taliban has carried out attacks throughout the negotiations and vowed to target civilian participants in the upcoming presidential election. Over the past five years, more than 45,000 Afghan troops and police officers were killed. A UN report [PDF] found that in the first six months of this year, 3,812 civilians were killed or injured, including 1,207 children. Continued war could also exacerbate the production of illegal drugs and drive more Afghans to seek refuge abroad.

Since the war began in 2001, more than 2,400 Americans have been killed and some 20,000 injured. More than 1,100 NATO troops have also been killed. The war has cost the United States a total of $975 billion [PDF]. On top of that, medical care and disability payments for veterans will cost an estimated $1 trillionover the next forty years.

What are the prospects for a peace deal?

Despite reassurances of progress by Khalilzad, many factors could cause the peace process to fall apart.

For one, it is uncertain whether the Afghan government, largely sidelined from the peace process, will recognize and abide by a U.S.-Taliban deal. The Taliban could also walk away from the negotiating table, believing that it can push U.S. troops to withdraw without a deal.

The biggest deal-breaker may be an inability of the Taliban negotiators to get all the factions of the Taliban to follow any peace document that is signed,” said Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat and UN official, in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Even if the United States and the Taliban reach an agreement, many fear that it will only end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and not conflict in the country at large. If Taliban and Afghan government leaders are unable to broker a power-sharing agreement, many experts say, Afghanistan will remain a hub of instability where its citizens fear attacks, and it could once again serve as a haven for al-Qaeda and terrorist groups affiliated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State. 

This piece, first published by the Council on Foreign Relations, is used with permission.

By Amber Duan // Amber Duan is at the Council on Foreign Relations.

August 15, 2019