The absence of President Ashraf Ghani’s democratically elected, internationally recognized administration in a process that could decide the future of his country raises questions about who is deciding what about Afghanistan’s fate; whether the United States’ policy of maintaining troops in Afghanistan until the conditions are right for withdrawal can outlive the wishes of President Donald Trump, who wants to pull out; and whether the Taliban can be trusted to keep any promises it makes. (Patrick Shanahan, the acting defense secretary, was in Afghanistan on Monday on a surprise visit and met with Ghani. He denied he had orders to “step down our forces in Afghanistan.”)
Two sets of negotiations with the Taliban are under way in Afghanistan. Neither includes the country’s democratically elected, internationally recognized administration.
Can a peace process work if it excludes the government of the country in conflict? We may be finding out.
At present, there are two distinct efforts under way to bring peace in Afghanistan: In one, Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, has held several discussions with Taliban leaders. In the other, a meeting in Moscow this month brought together influential Afghans, including former President Hamid Karzai, and Taliban leaders. Conspicuously missing from both? The Afghan government.
For now, these peace negotiations’ prospects of success are far from clear: American forces are still carrying out targeted strikes and aerial bombardment of Taliban positions; key regional players (notably Pakistan) will have a role to play in any final settlement; and while the Taliban, in an effort to secure the withdrawal of American troops, has reportedly pledged to ensure that Afghanistan will not be a base for international terrorist groups, how the United States will enforce that agreement is an open question.
Still, efforts to resolve similar conflicts typically involve both the government and the main rebel group—even if, at first, the two sides are talking through an intermediary. That is not happening in this case. Kabul’s absence in this process is remarkable. It would be akin to George Mitchell negotiating directly with Irish republicans while cutting the British government out of the process that resulted in peace in Northern Ireland.
And whatever its final result, Ghani is worried that the U.S.-led effort, especially, is being rushed; that Washington is cutting him out; and that the end result will be a premature withdrawal of American troops. There is good reason for his concern. The Taliban might be making assurances to Khalilzad and to its interlocutors in Moscow, but it is unclear whether those guarantees are acceptable to the Afghan government.
“We sense a lot of anxiety in the [presidential] palace,” Borhan Osman, an Afghanistan-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, a think tank, said in an email.
President Trump told CBS this month that he wanted “to bring our great troops home” after more than 18 years of fighting, but in both Kabul and Washington, there is concern that a precipitous withdrawal will send Afghanistan into a tailspin.
The president’s State of the Union speech last week—in which he left open the possibility that a small portion of the 11,000 American soldiers currently in Afghanistan would remain there to focus on counterterrorism—should assuage that concern somewhat, but it won’t do much for Ghani’s feeling of being cut out. In his speech, Trump specifically named the Taliban as a group the United States was talking with, while referring to Washington’s other interlocutors, presumably including the government, as “a number of Afghan groups.” (Roya Rahmani, the Afghan envoy to the United States, said at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last week that Kabul wasn’t interpreting the speech as official U.S. policy, but as a platform for Trump to discuss his plans.)
There are other reasons for concern on the part of Afghanistan: The U.S. State Department’s own language about talks with the Taliban has undergone a subtle shift in the period since Khalilzad assumed his position. During the Obama years and until at least November 2018, it referred to an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace process. Those words no longer appear in briefings or statements. When asked at an event at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank, why the Afghan government wasn’t a part of the process, Khalilzad said that the dialogue was not at the stage where the government could talk directly with the Taliban, and that “a formula” was still needed for the vaunted “Afghan-owned, Afghan-led [process] to really take place.” (On Sunday, Khalilzad began a two-week trip to Europe, Turkey, Qatar, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to meet his counterparts in the peace process. A State Department statement said that he will “consult with the Afghan government throughout the trip.”)
Part of the challenge is that Washington and Kabul are disclosing different aspects of their conversations with each other. A U.S. statement describing a phone call last week between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ghani said that the chief U.S. diplomat told the Afghan leader about the American commitment to facilitating an inclusive peace process. It added that Pompeo emphasized the importance of intra-Afghan dialogue that leads to a political settlement, as well as the “U.S. desire for a long-term partnership with Afghanistan.”
By contrast, Ghani said on Twitter that Pompeo had stressed that the two countries’ military partnership “will remain until a lasting and inclusive peace is achieved.” The Afghan president added that Pompeo “underscored the central importance of ensuring the centrality of the Afghan government in the peace process [and] reiterated the U.S. commitment and support to holding the upcoming presidential elections in July.”
Those elections, which were supposed to be conducted in April, have already been delayed once; Ghani does not want to postpone them again. He wants to be seen as the man who can deliver peace and stability to his country. But Afghanistan’s gains, though demonstrable, are tenuous and reversible: The government survives because of Western aid and military support; it controls a little more than half of the country’s districts; and corruption and ethnic divisions are widespread. The absence of the Afghan government in a peace process could send a message to the Afghan public about who is—and who isn’t—in charge.
When talks began in July between the United States and the Taliban in Qatar, they were expected to pave the way quickly for direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. That second step hasn’t yet materialized. The Taliban insists it won’t negotiate with the government in Kabul until, among other preconditions, Washington announces a timetable for the withdrawal of its troops. Those talks, accompanied by the process in Moscow, will serve as confirmation for some Afghans that the Afghan government is either weak or a proxy for a foreign power. (Attempts by the Obama administration to talk with the Taliban during the Karzai era enraged the then–Afghan leader.)
There is also a bigger question surrounding talks with the Taliban: Will their words be matched by their actions after the American withdrawal?
The Taliban knows Trump’s goal is to withdraw U.S. forces. Washington, on the other hand, has little idea of what the militants ultimately want: To be part of the Afghan political structure? For the insurgency to continue? Will they allow women to continue to participate in public life? The militants say they want friendly relations with the West in order to keep the flow of foreign aid going, and spokespeople have said women will be allowed to work and go to school if they were in charge.
“The Taliban’s seriousness about these claims,” Osman, the International Crisis Group analyst, said, “remains to be tested.”