On February 29, 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement intended to be a first step toward an intra-Afghan peace deal. Important provisions of the deal included a U.S. commitment to eventually withdraw all U.S. and foreign troops from Afghanistan, a Taliban pledge to prevent al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups from using Afghan territory to threaten the United States and its partners, and a promise by both sides to support intra-Afghan peace negotiations. As part of the agreement, the United States promised to decrease the number of U.S. forces from approximately 14,000 to 8,600 soldiers, proportionately reduce the number of other international forces in Afghanistan, and work with both sides to release prisoners. There were notable problems with the agreement, such as its failure to include the Afghan government in the negotiations. It was an attempt to make the best of a bad situation.
Despite such problems, a peace agreement that prevents Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for international terrorism would allow the United States to withdraw its forces and reduce its security and development assistance, which exceeded $800 billion between 2001 and 2019. An agreement is particularly desirable as the United States focuses on competition with China and Russia, and as the United States deals with the budgetary pressures caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Achieving an acceptable peace agreement, however, will not be easy. It is unclear whether the Taliban is serious about reaching a deal or whether its leaders are negotiating simply to get U.S. troops to withdraw so that Taliban forces can overthrow the Afghan government. 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.
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 this 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 international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State; averting regional instability as Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and India compete for influence in Afghanistan; and minimizing the likelihood of a major humanitarian crisis. The overthrow of the Afghan government by the Taliban would also likely be a boon for Islamist extremists. Finally, a precipitous U.S. withdrawal without a peace deal would likely raise serious questions about U.S. reliability from its allies.
Map of Afghanistan
A failure to strike a deal could play out in two ways in the next twelve to eighteen months. The first is a collapsed peace process. The second involves negotiations that begin but eventually stall. The difference between the two is subtle but important. Collapsed negotiations would mean an end to negotiations; one or both sides refuse to meet and no serious prospects for discussion remain for the foreseeable future. Stalled negotiations would reflect a stalemate. Both sides are willing to keep talking, at least in principle, but are unable or unwilling to make meaningful progress on issues. The sides could even reach an interim deal, but implementation breaks down.
The effort to reach a negotiated settlement could also crumble if President Donald J. Trump decided to withdraw all U.S. forces without a deal because of domestic political calculations (such as a desire to gain political support before the November 2020 presidential election), challenges with the negotiations, or concerns about a corrupt and illegitimate Afghan government. In all of these cases, administration officials would likely assess that the costs of withdrawal are minimal, and the benefits of staying are low because of other domestic and international priorities. A U.S. decision to withdraw all forces would be a mistake and would likely lead to a collapsed peace process and the withdrawal of European and other international forces in Afghanistan. This is a fundamentally different scenario than discussed in the remainder of this memo, and it would mean the U.S. government had decided that preventing the contingency is no longer a policy priority.
Collapsed Peace Process
The first possibility involves the collapse of the peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban. A collapse could occur for several reasons.
The Afghan government could fracture, triggering an end to negotiations. In February 2020, the Independent Election Commission announced that incumbent President Ashraf Ghani had secured 50.6 percent of the vote in the September 2019 elections, beating Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who had won 39.5 percent of votes. But Abdullah and his supporters disputed the results, alleging extensive fraud, and formed a parallel government. In May 2020, the two sides reached an agreement. Ghani gave Abdullah the leading role in the peace process and the right to appoint half the cabinet. But the political situation remains tense, and negotiations could collapse if Abdullah—who now leads the High Council for National Reconciliation—were to quit the government.
Another possibility is that the Taliban is the main reason for collapsed talks, either because Taliban leaders refuse to begin negotiations or else make demands that are unacceptable to the United States and Afghan government. The Taliban has already objected to numerous issues, such as the legitimacy of the current Afghan government and prisoner exchanges. The Afghan government was not a participant of the February 2020 agreement because the Taliban considered the Ghani government illegitimate and refused to negotiate with its representatives. Taliban leaders also walked out of discussions with the Afghan government in April 2020 after failing to reach an agreement on prisoner swaps.
Taliban intransigence has contributed to rising violence. The Taliban increased attacks on Afghan forces after the February 2020 agreement, according to the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. UN data showed similar trends. Taliban attacks in April 2020 were up 25 percent from April 2019 levels, with violence spilling into twenty of the country’s thirty-four provinces.
Stalled Peace Process
The second route to a failed deal involves a situation in which intra-Afghan peace talks begin, but either the negotiations halt or the implementation of a tentative agreement runs into serious problems.
One way that could happen would be a failure of the negotiating teams to agree on issues such as political power-sharing arrangements (including at the national, provincial, or district levels), the Afghan constitution, the role of religion, women’s rights, continuing violence, prisoner returns, and future elections. The February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement did not seriously address these issues, and they present potentially formidable challenges.
Another way would be the failure of one or both sides to gain the support of their respective constituencies. The Afghan government could face difficulties in selling a deal to those opposed to any settlement with the Taliban, including anti-Taliban blocs among some Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Pashtuns. Ghani already faces significant opposition from power brokers such as former President Hamid Karzai, Atta Mohammad Noor, Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Mohammad Karim Khalili.
The Taliban could also face difficulties convincing skeptics in the Quetta Shura—the Taliban’s leadership council, or Rahbari Shura—such as Abdul Qayyum Zakir, Mullah Ibrahim Sadar, Mullah Yaqub, and even leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada. Lower-level Taliban commanders or partner groups like al-Qaeda could also oppose a deal or object to how one is implemented. According to a UN assessment, al-Qaeda leaders have conducted shuttle diplomacy to influence senior Taliban leaders and field commanders to oppose peace negotiations—even pledging to increase al-Qaeda’s financial assistance to the Taliban.
Groups such as the Islamic State in Khorasan could oppose negotiations and attempt to attract disaffected Taliban. The insurgency is not a homogenous organization. It includes other insurgent groups, drug-trafficking organizations, tribes, and militia forces, some of which could strongly oppose a peace deal. Even successful peace agreements have been threatened by spoilers that refuse to participate and instead remain committed to violence to achieve their objectives, such as the Real Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland and the National Liberation Army in Colombia. Both conducted attacks before, during, and after the peace accords.
In a variant of this contingency, the Afghan government and the Taliban could reach a fragile interim agreement, but one or both sides would fail to implement a portion of the agreement. This situation could place the United States in a precarious position. It would need to decide whether it should continue withdrawing its military forces because the sides have reached a deal or whether it should halt the withdrawal until a resolution is reached.
Several indicators would suggest an increased likelihood of the contingency occurring. A collapsed peace process could be preceded by the following events:
- Abdullah publicly threatens to quit the government. The May 2020 deal between Ghani and Abdullah remains fragile. Credible threats by Abdullah, who is the government’s lead for the negotiations, to quit could increase the prospect of collapsed negotiations.
- Provincial or local governments begin undermining Kabul’s authority. Provincial or local government officials could flout Kabul’s authority and trigger a collapse of the government. President Ghani has significant power to appoint and replace national, provincial, and district officials. But a provincial governor, police chief, or other appointed official publicly refusing to be replaced or acting independently could signal a weakening of the central government. In addition, a substantial growth in the number, size, and capability of substate militias, which begin to outpace the size and strength of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, would be a cause for concern.
- One or both sides refuse to participate in negotiations. The Afghan government or the Taliban could withdraw from the negotiations because one or both of them are unwilling to make concessions on issues such as political power-sharing, the role of Islam, and prisoner swaps. Such a refusal, rather than coming about abruptly, could be preceded by public or private warnings from one or both sides that they are considering withdrawing from negotiations.
- The Taliban overruns one or more cities. Although the Taliban has failed to capture and hold a major urban area, that situation could change over the next twelve to eighteen months. Over the past few years, the Taliban has threatened cities such as Farah, Ghazni, Kunduz, and Pul-i-Khumri. Based on its current strategy and operations, the Taliban could overrun and hold one or more provincial capitals. The Taliban has already threatened several provincial capitals by attacking static positions in outlying areas, attempting to cut off lines of communication, and conducting assassinations and bombings. A major Taliban military advance could trigger a collapse of negotiations.
The following warning indicators could signal the growing possibility of stalled negotiations:
- There are one or more high-profile attacks. The killing of senior Afghan government, Taliban, or U.S. officials—including members of their negotiating teams—could trigger a freeze (or potentially even a collapse) in the negotiations or undermine the implementation of a fragile agreement. While violence will continue during the negotiations, a high-profile attack could cause one or both sides to stop participating in the peace process—at least for the moment. A potential exception would be an attack perpetrated by a spoiler group, such as the Islamic State in Khorasan. The group is enemies with both the government and the Taliban and an attack would not necessarily undermine trust between the negotiating parties.
- Both sides fail to agree on a date or location for future meetings. Another warning indicator of stalled negotiations is the persistent failure of both sides to agree on a date and location for future meetings. In this case, neither side formally walks out of negotiations, but talks move into a freeze.
- The Taliban fails to seriously discuss disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating. In virtually every successful peace agreement, the insurgent group has agreed to hand in weapons and ammunition (disarm), break up its military units (disband), and support training and assistance for former combatants to rejoin civilian life (reintegrate). However, the Taliban has thus far refused to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate its fighters into Afghan society or to seriously discuss integrating its forces into a new national security structure with Afghan army and police forces. This behavior has raised questions about whether the Taliban is seriously committed to a peace settlement. Continuing intransigence—even after a fragile agreement—could likely raise the possibility of stalled negotiations.
Implications for U.S. Interests
Collapsed or stalled negotiations could undermine U.S. interests in several ways. First, they would likely lead to increased violence in Afghanistan, which would endanger U.S. personnel and increase the number of refugees and displaced persons with potentially destabilizing consequences. With 2.7 million refugees, Afghanistan already has the second-largest refugee population in the world, behind Syria, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Several cases highlight the dangers of collapsed negotiations. The second intifada erupted in 2000 between Israelis and Palestinians following the collapse of the Camp David peace talks, which triggered the highest levels of violence up to that point between the two sides. In Angola, the collapse of the Lusaka Accords in 1998 plunged the country back into all-out war, which continued for several more years.
Second, the terrorism problem could become more acute. If the Taliban increased its control of territory, Afghanistan could see a rise in the number of terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, Islamic State in Khorasan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.
Third, a collapsed or stalled peace process and a burgeoning war could increase regional instability as India, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia support a mix of Afghan central government forces, substate militias, and insurgent groups. Several of these countries, such as Iran and Russia, are major competitors of the United States. Growing Taliban control of Afghanistan and an increase in militant group activity could also increase regional friction between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. Tensions between the two have risen recently, in part following the Indian government’s 2019 decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutionally protected special status (which gave the region some autonomy) under Article 370 of the Indian constitution and at least temporarily imposing tight security measures across the Kashmir Valley.
To minimize the likelihood of stalled or collapsed negotiations, the United States has several preventive options, which are not mutually exclusive.
- The United States could take steps to shape intra-Afghan negotiations in ways that decrease the likelihood of stalled negotiations. They include selecting a third-party mediator; determining the structure of negotiations, including the number and type of working groups, subjects to be discussed, and the role of civil society in the talks; and, as highlighted by the International Crisis Group, establishing a “Friends of the Peace Process” forum that includes major donors and neighbors of Afghanistan (such as China, India, Pakistan, Russia, and even Iran). The forum could meet regularly to discuss important aspects of the peace process, major challenges, and potential options to achieve a negotiated settlement. The inclusion of Russia, China, and Iran will pose a challenge, as the United States is involved in broader competition with them, but their involvement is important. It is exceptionally difficult to reach a sustainable settlement in a country if its neighbors are trying to tear it apart. Every effort should be made to secure their support.
- The United States could announce its willingness to extend long-term economic, diplomatic, intelligence, and military support to Afghanistan. Such a side agreement, regardless of the outcome of intra-Afghan negotiations, would constitute a hedge against the possibility that the Taliban’s pledges are tactical and calculated to expedite U.S. military withdrawal.
- If the Afghan government is the main reason for collapsed negotiations, the United States could communicate privately and publicly that unwarranted Afghan intransigence could lead to a termination of U.S. and other international assistance—including military support. While it should be expected that the Afghan government will have serious concerns during the course of negotiations, it would be unhelpful if the Afghan government were to negotiate in bad faith or unjustly renege on previous commitments. In March 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States would slash $1 billion in U.S. aid to Afghanistan if the Afghan government did not resolve its election dispute. U.S. pressure would have to be multilateral and involve coordination with other donor countries and U.S. officials across the executive and legislative branches. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and the severe effect on the U.S. economy, neither Democratic nor Republican members of Congress would likely support high levels of assistance to a government that is the main cause of collapsed negotiations. The same is true of Afghanistan’s other major donors. The United States could also consider postponing the next donor conference for Afghanistan, tentatively scheduled for late 2020.
- To address fissures on the Afghan government side, the United States could also ameliorate some of the grievances of Ghani’s political rivals. For example, the Afghan government has attempted to directly control the finance ministry—which collects revenue, manages aid inflows, pays public employees, and funds important public services—by putting several important positions directly under the president rather than the minister of finance. The United States, other major donors, and international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) could make the withdrawal of these types of decrees a condition of current and future aid pledges.
- If negotiations stall because of Taliban foot-dragging, the United States could increase or reimpose sanctions against the Taliban. As part of the February 2020 agreement, the United States committed to review U.S. sanctions against the Taliban and remove some members from the UN Security Council sanctions list. The United States could also work closely with the Pakistan government to punish the Taliban (or specific Taliban leaders) for failing to negotiate in good faith. Pakistan’s leaders have generally been helpful in encouraging peace negotiations. They could help break a logjam by credibly committing to banish one or more senior Taliban leaders and their families from Pakistan. The Taliban’s Quetta Shura, or senior military leadership council, continues to reside in Pakistan, as do the Taliban’s regional shuras that support the Afghan war. Arresting or banishing one or more senior shura officials who oppose negotiations would send a strong signal that Islamabad supports a peace deal and could help prevent a stalemate.
- If Pakistan is unhelpful—or even counterproductive—in preventing stalled negotiations, the United States could consider suspending or terminating Pakistan’s non–North Atlantic Treaty Organization (non-NATO) ally status, which offers military and financial advantages that generally are not available to non-NATO countries. Washington could also consider placing Pakistan on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. After all, U.S. and other Western intelligence agencies have collected an abundance of information about Pakistan’s ties to terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan and India, from Lashkar-e-Taiba (fronted by Jamaat-ud-Dawa) to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.
The United States could take several steps to mitigate the consequences of collapsed or stalled negotiations if they occur.
- The United States could conduct emergency diplomatic intervention through a “Friends of the Peace Process” forum that includes major donors and neighbors of Afghanistan. It would also be important to include regional powers—such as China, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia—that have an interest in Afghanistan’s future.
- The United States and other international donors could make a portion of international assistance contingent on the parties reaching a final settlement. The United States would have to coordinate closely with relevant international organizations (such as the IMF and World Bank) and other international donors (such as Japan, the European Union, and the United Kingdom).
- If talks stall because of Taliban obstinacy, the United States could announce that it would be prepared to keep several thousand U.S. forces in Afghanistan—along with CIA operatives and contractors—to conduct counterterrorism operations and train, advise, and assist Afghan forces. In the February 2020 agreement, the United States committed to an eventual withdrawal of all its forces from Afghanistan. But stalled negotiations and the continuing presence of terrorist organizations would provide a strong rationale to maintain a military presence. This option would be particularly important to consider if the sides reached a tentative deal but ran into serious problems during implementation.
- If negotiations collapse largely because of Taliban actions, the United States could reach an agreement with the Afghan government to provide long-term economic, military, and other support. Even after the February 2020 agreement, legitimate questions remain about whether the Taliban’s pledges to reach a peace agreement are shallow and designed to bring about a U.S. military withdrawal rather than peace or an end to terrorism. In this case, the United States would not reward Taliban intransigence. Instead, the United States would commit to keeping as many as 8,600 military personnel in Afghanistan—supplemented by other international forces—to conduct counterterrorism operations and provide training, advice, and assistance to the Afghan army and police.
- If negotiations break down largely because of Afghan intransigence, the United States could consider withdrawing most or all of its military forces and cut U.S. assistance to Afghanistan. In light of the severe effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the U.S. economy as well as other U.S. priorities overseas such as competing with China and Russia, it would make little sense to risk American lives and money if the Afghan government is the source of the problem. In some ways, this course of action would resemble the problem the United States faced with the South Vietnamese government in the 1970s. As former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara wrote, it eventually became clear that “political stability did not exist and was unlikely ever to be achieved” and “the South Vietnamese, even with our training assistance and logistical support, were incapable of defending themselves.” Afghanistan today is not South Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, but it would be difficult for any U.S. administration to support an Afghan government that collapses.
A final peace agreement and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces remain important priorities. The United States has deployed combat forces to Afghanistan for nearly two decades and has pressing interests at home and overseas—including countering and recovering from COVID-19 and competing with major powers such as Russia and China. But Americans should be aware that peace negotiations will likely be long and difficult. As tempting as it may be to withdraw U.S. forces without a deal, doing so would be a mistake—especially if the Taliban is at fault. A U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan without a peace deal would significantly increase the level of violence in Afghanistan, risk a growing regional war, trigger a humanitarian crisis, allow an extremist Islamic group to overrun Kabul, and raise serious questions among allies about U.S. reliability.
Moving forward, the United States’ primary goals should be to build political consensus within Afghanistan, support intra-Afghan peace negotiations with the help of regional and international partners, and bolster Afghan security forces so that they can handle threats with limited outside involvement. To advance these goals, U.S. policymakers should take the following immediate steps:
- Announce an agreement to provide long-term economic, military, and intelligence assistance to the Afghan government. This step should include financial support and aid to Afghan security agencies. An agreement between the United States and the Afghan government would constitute a hedge against the possibility that the Taliban’s pledges are primarily designed to bring about U.S. military withdrawal. A commitment to the Afghan government would reassure its leaders and population that they were not being abandoned. Such an announcement would also be well received by U.S. partners, who have become concerned about the United States’ multilateral commitments. A U.S. commitment to provide long-term military aid would also help mitigate against the possibility that the Afghan government and Taliban reach an agreement, the United States withdraws its forces, and then the Taliban reneges on the deal and attempts to overthrow the government.
- Shape the structure and other aspects of intra-Afghan negotiations in ways that decrease the possibility of stalled negotiations. Examples include choosing a third-party mediator, agreeing on an approximate timeline and structure for the negotiations, and establishing a “Friends of the Peace Process” forum that includes major donors and neighbors of Afghanistan. The United States should also help outline the main issues for discussion, such as future elections, political power-sharing arrangements (including at the national, provincial, and district levels), prisoner swaps, changes to the Afghan constitution, the role of Islam, women’s rights, as well as disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration.
The United States should be prepared to take the following steps over the next twelve to eighteen months if negotiations begin to fail:
- Maintain forces in Afghanistan if Taliban leaders renege on their commitment to a peace deal. The United States should keep several thousand U.S. military forces and CIA personnel in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future if Taliban intransigence is a major cause of collapsed or stalled intra-Afghan negotiations. A U.S. presence would be important as long as there are serious threats to U.S. national security, such as the presence of international terrorist groups. The United States should also be prepared to temporarily halt the withdrawal of forces if the implementation of a deal breaks down, or consider reinserting counterterrorism forces if the Taliban reneges on a deal after a U.S. withdrawal.
- Develop credible threats to punish the Taliban from 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, 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, including by possibly banishing from Pakistan Taliban leaders (and their families) who have undermined the prospects for peace. Research on the end of civil wars and insurgencies indicates that the absence of a credible threat of punishment leaves settlements vulnerable either to outright cheating or to tactical cease-fires in which one or all parties simply use the respite to rearm.
- Signal that the United States is prepared to withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan if the Afghan government negotiates in bad faith and is the main cause of collapsed or stalled negotiations. The Afghan government will naturally have concerns over the course of negotiations, particularly because it is dealing with a bitter enemy that it has fought for two decades. But it would make little sense for the United States to continue to prop up a failed government or one that unjustifiably reneges on its previous commitments.
- Provide incentives to both sides to reach a final settlement. The United States and its partners should offer concrete benefits to achieving a peace deal. For example, the United States should consider an amnesty to most Taliban leaders and fighters—except those involved in major human rights abuses—who lay down their arms, provide long-term assistance to the government after a peace deal, and help integrate the Taliban and Afghan army and police forces into a new national security structure. The United States and its partners should also make a portion of international assistance contingent on the parties reaching a final settlement.
The Council on Foreign Relations acknowledges the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for its generous support of the Contingency Planning Roundtables and Memoranda.