The Trump administration’s bid to strike a peace deal with the Taliban might be hitting the rocks with a growing rift between U.S. officials and the Afghan government, which has been excluded from the negotiations at the behest of the Taliban.
Essentially, here is the situation: The United States, having invaded Afghanistan in 2001 on a number of premises, including ousting the Taliban, has figured out that the Taliban is there to stay. Looking for a way out of what is now America’s longest war, the Trump administration is negotiating a “peace” agreement with the Taliban in a series of talks in Doha, Qatar.
But the actual Afghan government, the one that has been voted into office by Afghans, is not invited.
This is a remarkable pivot for President Trump. In 2014, Trump lambasted then President Barack Obama for engaging in a prisoner swap with the Taliban, and in 2012, he accused Obama of “negotiating with our sworn enemy the Taliban–who facilitated 9/11.”
From the Afghan perspective, the government that invaded their country is now negotiating a power-sharing “peace” agreement with the group that has been attacking Afghan civilian and government targets with alacrity for years.
Fears of betrayal
None of this is sitting well with some Afghan officials, who have little faith in Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy leading the talks.
“Khalilzad wants to show that he is the champion of peace and President [Ashraf] Ghani does not want to be the villain. The president believes he is being betrayed,” an Afghan government official told Reuters.
Khalilzad came back from the last round of talks with the Taliban, which lasted over two weeks earlier this month, without even briefing Ghani on them. After the talks ended, Afghan national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib visited Washington, D.C., and told reporters that his government was in the dark, adding he couldn’t reassure Afghan security forces that “they are not being sold out.”
Following his comments, U.S. State Department officials cut all contact with him for the remainder of his visit. Then things got even more tense: When Mohib showed up to a meeting with NATO officials at the presidential palace in Kabul on Monday, American diplomats reportedly walked out.
“We don’t know what’s going on — I think that is our biggest concern. The biggest fear is losing the achievements we’ve made in the past eighteen years, particularly in the realm of press freedoms, and civil liberties, freedom of expression, and democratic values”
A State Department spokesperson told ThinkProgress that it had “no information to provide” regarding what actually happened at Monday’s meeting in Kabul and why the diplomats walked out (though the walkout was not denied).
Unnamed U.S. officials told Reuters that Ghani wants to sabotage the Taliban talks in a bid to hold on to power. After all, it’s possible that if an agreement materializes, Ghani could find himself sidelined while an interim government bridges the gap between his government and whatever comes next.
Vikram Singh, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia and advisory board member at Foreign Policy for America, told ThinkProgress that while this is a difficult situation for the Afghan government, he feels that “their frustration should be with the Taliban more than the United States.”
That certainly seems to be case in some quarters: The country’s Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah, on Wednesday said that the “Taliban has been the obstacle for taking the first step (for peace) because they have an excuse that ‘we do not negotiate with government.'”
But Singh said that there was never any hope that the Taliban would negotiate directly with the Afghan government.
“The enemy has a vote on the battlefield and at the negotiating table,” said Singh, answering questions via email, adding that the United States can’t strike a unilateral deal, without agreement and support from Afghans, regional players, and the larger international community.
Singh said that the Afghan government would be better off if it showed confidence in the United States and held Khalilzad accountable to his commitment that “all issues must be agreed before anything is agreed.”
Ultimately, Singh said, “Division among the Afghan government, other Afghan political groups, and the United States is just a gift to the Taliban.”
What’s at stake?
As of now, there are no future talks scheduled with the Taliban, but according to a State Department spokesperson, Khalilzad will be consulting with the Afghan government and other officials about the status of the Taliban talks, and “encourage the government’s efforts to form a unified, inclusive negotiating team, and discuss next steps in intra-Afghan discussions and negotiations.”
Khalilzad will also meet with civil society groups, per the State Department spokesperson, “to ensure that their concerns are heard and addressed in the peace process.”
Still, with Trump set to pull out troops from Afghanistan, and (as of now) no chance of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, someone has to get the ball rolling on some kind of agreement.
“No one knows what Donald Trump will do. But negotiating with the Taliban is not what made Donald Trump an irresponsible leader,” said Barnett Rubin, senior fellow and Associate Director of NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, where he directs the Afghanistan Pakistan Regional Program.
“Without negotiations he will just withdraw on his own terms. The negotiations are a stopgap measure by [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and Khalilzad to delay his decision to withdraw — which is not opposed by any major US politician — and seek a better outcome,” he added over email.
Rubin points out that Trump doesn’t need negotiations as a justification to withdraw troops. “He justifies whatever he wants to do without need of an externally validated justification. We needed these negotiations and could have gotten them 10 years ago if our military were not obsessed with winning and our politicians with not looking ‘weak,'” said Rubin.
The stakes are high here, much more so for Afghanistan than the United States. If the talks fail, Rubin figures that Trump will either reduce or withdraw troops and cut aid to the already impoverished country. Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker has criticized the negotiations as “surrender,” but Rubin thinks it’s delusional to think things would be better without these talks.
“What is the origin of the delusion that everything in Afghanistan would be great if we did not talk to the Taliban? Is it great now? If we don’t talk to the Taliban will it improve? Why would you think that?” he said.
The situation is extremely dysfunctional.
The Afghan government relies heavily on U.S. security and economic support. The United States sees the Afghan government as legitimate, and yet, it is negotiating with Taliban, which does not recognize Ghani’s government.
On top of all of this are the country’s elections, which are now scheduled for September after having already been delayed twice. Elections in the country tent to be fraught, with the Taliban urging people not to vote for a government it does not recognize, threatening to attack voters at polling locations around the country.
But this democracy, and all the gains that have come with it in the past 18 years, are at risk now, said Najib Sharifi, president of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, based in Kabul.
“We don’t know what’s going on — I think that is our biggest concern. The biggest fear is losing the achievements we’ve made in the past 18 years, particularly in the realm of press freedoms, and civil liberties, freedom of expression, and democratic values,” he said.
The Taliban has not, he said, demonstrated any inclination to protect these gains, and indeed, has regularly killed individual reporters and targeted entire news outlets and voting polls.
The tensions between the Afghan government and the United States, he said, undermine the position of everyone but the Taliban.
The fear of no peace deal — or one that compromises Afghan society’s hard-won gains — he said, means, “There is no hope for the collective effort to move Afghanistan forward — for progress.”