Last Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Twitter that the United States had officially “come to an understanding with the Taliban on a significant reduction in violence across Afghanistan.” This announcement was notable, not only because it signified the possibility of some much-needed relief for the violence-plagued people of Afghanistan, but also because it was a precondition for the U.S. to agree to the signing of an official deal with the Taliban. Pompeo’s announcement was quickly confirmed by a tweet from Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s political spokesman, who added that the formal U.S.-Taliban deal would be signed on February 29 in Doha, Qatar. Intra-Afghan negotiations would then begin within weeks of the signing ceremony, at least according to media reports. In those talks, the Taliban will formally discuss the future of the country with a representative group of Afghans that includes members of the government.
Pompeo called this development, “an important step on a long road to peace” — an apt way of describing the situation, since there are many issues yet to be resolved. Here, I’ll briefly discuss four that are especially important.
First is the issue of Taliban coherence and whether the group’s leaders can bring their entire organization out of the cold as part of a peace deal. There have been questions about the Taliban’s organizational coherence for years. Proponents have argued that events like the successful Eid ceasefire of 2018 demonstrated the ability of Taliban leaders to control their fighters, while detractors have pointed to rifts between the political and military councils of the group’s leadership structure over talks with the U.S. as evidence divisions within the group. Washington clearly has lingering questions of its own; and designed the reduction-in-violence precondition in part to test the Taliban’s ability to rein in its field commanders and fighting ranks for a week.
A second issue is the role of the Haqqani Network. The Haqqanis have presented a sticking point for the U.S. all along, since unlike the Taliban, they are a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. But they are also part of the Taliban’s organization, a point made abundantly clear when Sirajuddin Haqqani was elevated to the number two position in the Taliban hierarchy several years ago. The issue of whether or not the Haqqanis will go along with a peace deal is a lingering one, tied into the question of the broader coherence of the Taliban. The New York Times controversially published an editorial attributed to Siraj Haqqani titled “What We, the Taliban, Want,” which was clearly aimed at trying to put these questions to rest.
Third is the issue of the Afghan government’s own coherence. The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan finally announced the results of Afghanistan’s presidential election last week. (The timing, so close to the announcements from the U.S.-Taliban talks, may not have been coincidental.) The election — held last September — was declared in favor of the incumbent, Ashraf Ghani, by just 0.6 points more than the 50 percent vote tally he needed to secure a first-round victory. But voter turnout was the lowest in Afghanistan’s history. About two million votes were cast from among some 10 million registered voters. And the level of fraud in this election was again notable, with plenty of evidence of ballot box stuffing and other illegal activities. Ghani’s primary opponent — until recently, his chief executive officer—Abdullah Abdullah, declared his own, parallel government. This level of political turmoil couldn’t come at a worse time, and it raises serious questions as to whether the elites in Kabul can coalesce in time to provide a united front in negotiations with the Taliban, or whether they will come to the table divided.
A fourth issue to be resolved on the road to peace is the implementation and monitoring of the impending U.S.-Taliban deal in the months to follow. As described by the eminent scholar of Afghanistan Barnett Rubin in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “The agreement provides a timetable for troop withdrawal, counterterrorism guarantees, a path to a cease-fire and a process for political settlement. Implementation would also require dismantling Taliban infrastructure in neighboring Pakistan and assurances by external powers that none will use Afghanistan against others.” These are heady issues that require significant, sustained actions in order to translate the words of a deal into lasting change on the ground. Rubin writes that “an annex [to the deal] establishes a center where the U.S. military and Taliban will share counterterrorist information and monitor possible violations.” But what will that center look like? Where will it exist? Will it be “real” or “virtual,” like a series of WhatsApp chat rooms? What is its remit and what are the limits of its actions? And if violations are discovered, what then? As Rubin said previously, “Peace agreements are not based on trust. They are based on mutual interest, verification and enforcement.” Exactly how the implementation of this deal will be verified and enforced remains to be seen.
There are many more questions that Afghans will need to address among themselves. Among these are the prospect of a full and comprehensive ceasefire, the rights of women and minorities, the fate of Afghanistan’s current constitution and structure of future governments, the reintegration of Taliban fighters — potentially into the Afghan security forces — and the relationship of any post-peace government with the international community, including the continued provision of international aid on which Afghanistan’s economy relies heavily. But first things first. If the reduction in violence can hold for just a few more days, the U.S. and the Taliban will cement the first formal step in their road to peace. Then the hard task of addressing the questions I’ve posed above will begin in earnest.