Seth G. Jones holds the Harold Brown chair, is director of the Transnational Threats Project, and is a senior advisor to the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Afghan peace talks have, at least for the moment, bogged down. Violence has spiked, and there have been revelations that GRU Unit 29155—a shadowy component of Russia’s military intelligence agency—provided aid, including bounties, to the Taliban. None of this bodes well for a quick resolution of the war.
A peace agreement that prevents Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for international terrorism would allow the United States to withdraw its forces—already down from 14,000 U.S. troops to 8,600 this year—and reduce its security and development assistance. An agreement is particularly desirable as the United States deals with the budgetary pressures caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic and competition from countries like China.
But achieving an acceptable peace agreement will be challenging. It is unclear—and perhaps unlikely—that the Taliban is serious about reaching a deal. Taliban leaders, led by Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, may well be negotiating simply to get U.S. troops to withdraw so that Taliban forces can overthrow the Afghan government. And even if the Taliban is negotiating in good faith, significant issues need to be resolved—from political power-sharing to the role of Islam and women’s rights. At this point, a deal would make the best of a bad situation.
Given these challenges, the risk of the peace process collapsing or stalling indefinitely is significant. In either case, domestic U.S. pressure to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan would likely intensify. Some Republicans and Democrats already advocate a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces, regardless of the outcome of negotiations.
But, as I lay out in a recent report, “A Failed Afghan Peace Deal,” a U.S. withdrawal would be a mistake, especially if the Taliban is largely at fault. The United States still has interests in Afghanistan, such as preventing the country from becoming a sanctuary for terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State; averting regional instability as Afghanistan’s neighbors, including India and Pakistan, compete for influence; minimizing the likelihood of a major humanitarian crisis; and preventing U.S. competitors like Iran and Russia from filling the vacuum. Furthermore, a precipitous U.S. withdrawal without a peace deal would raise serious questions among partners about U.S. reliability.
Based on the current difficulties with the peace process, the United States should be prepared to maintain several thousand U.S. military forces—along with diplomats and intelligence operatives—in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, especially if Taliban intransigence is a major cause of collapsed or stalled intra-Afghan negotiations. Although the Donald J. Trump administration appears to be going in the opposite direction by cutting the number of U.S. forces even further between now and the November elections, a U.S. presence in Afghanistan is important as long as there are serious threats to U.S. national security—such as the presence of international terrorist groups—in the country.
In addition, the United States should develop credible threats to punish the Taliban for reneging on its commitment to a peace deal. A weakness of some past negotiated settlements has been the lack of a credible guarantee to punish parties that repudiate their pledges. If the Taliban reneges on its commitments to support a peace deal—which is possible—the United States should reimpose sanctions against the Taliban and its members, ramp up the targeting of Taliban leaders in Afghanistan and possibly in Pakistan, and enlist Pakistan to pressure Taliban leaders who undermine the peace process.
While it is sensible to support peace talks in Afghanistan, it is equally important to prepare a Plan B if talks fail. We may be closer to that point than most Americans realize.
For my full analysis and recommendations on how to prevent or mitigate a failed Afghan peace process, read the report.