No Peace for Afghanistan
Editors’ Note: This article is part of our special series Predictions & Predicaments. It should be read as if written in February 2023. Read more about the special series here.
Despite brokering an Afghanistan peace deal, three years later President Trump’s deal looks to have produced few results. Similar to Afghan President Najibullah’s attempt to maintain control after the Soviet 1989 retreat, President Ashraf Ghani maintains limited authority in much of Afghanistan, with continued instability across the country and increasing Taliban hostility. Talks between the Afghan government and Taliban fell apart more than a year ago, which has resulted in intensifying combat, particularly in the east and south of the country. Now Afghanistan is once again a haphazard archipelago in which government-controlled main roads and cities like Kandahar and Kabul are matched by Taliban dominance in villages and rural areas.
After the U.S. peace agreement with the Taliban in 2020, Afghanistan was condemned to further war after enduring four decades of violence. In reality, the winter peace agreement of 2020 was not one of peace at all. Rather it was a contrived political victory in which President Trump could, before his re-election, claim he had ended the endless war that President Obama could not. The agreement outlined a gradual U.S. withdrawal from the country in exchange for the Taliban cutting ties with terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, and its guarantee that Afghanistan would not be a safe haven for terrorists.
The first Taliban concession was dubious at the onset. Although the Afghan Taliban has a relatively centralized leadership, in the form of a Shura Council, the organization’s cadres in Afghanistan and Pakistan make their own localized strategic decisions and often rely on local networks of support – many of which are tied to al-Qaeda. In 2019, many raids on Taliban strongholds revealed al-Qaeda operatives in the same outposts; it should come as no surprise that raids in 2022, and now in 2023, have shown more of the same.
The second Taliban concession – to disallow international terrorism – was similarly dubious. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TeTP), the Taliban branch originating from Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), is decentralized from Afghan Taliban leadership, has closer ties to al-Qaeda, and has attempted international terrorist attacks in the past. The Pakistani Taliban was responsible for the failed 2010 Times Square bombing that could have caused mass casualties. Despite splitting into various factions as early as 2014, TeTP is still conducting its war on Pakistani security forces and is in close collusion with al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
Given the unlikelihood of maintaining the first two explicit provisions of the peace agreement, it is unsurprising that the Taliban have abandoned the third – to engage in intra-Afghanistan talks and pursue reconciliation with the government. For a brief time fighting paused. However, in 2021 when negotiations faltered, cease fires were broken, and the country slid once more into campaigns of violence. The Taliban, emboldened by their ostensible victory against the U.S., demanded a share of power in a unified Afghanistan that Ghani’s government was not willing to grant. Confident they could impose their wills onto the country, the Taliban resumed their insurgency, continuing to traffic heroin, ambush government security forces, raid villages, and plant roadside bombs. Though unconfirmed by the U.S. intelligence community, some experts believe that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) has resumed patronage of their Afghan Taliban clients, undeterred by U.S. military presence and perturbed by cordial relations of the Indian and Afghan governments.
For now, Ghani’s ever corrupt and incompetent regime is held afloat by considerable U.S. aid, the vast majority of which goes to the country’s faltering military, rather than to the much-needed development of education, infrastructure, or industry. For the foreseeable future, neither side possesses the strength for a decisive victory. The Taliban alone cannot hold major cities and match the conventional force of the Afghan military, while the latter hasn’t the means to mount an effective counterinsurgency, nor the political leverage to engage the Taliban in Pakistan FATA safe havens. And irrespective of how much ground the Taliban does gain, the U.S. public and President have no appetite for re-engagement, even in a limited air capacity. A better 2020 peace agreement would have included a downsized U.S. peacekeeping force to ensure talks between the Taliban and Afghan government did not collapse – threatening some re-engagement if substantial fighting resumed.
Unlike Najibullah’s fall in 1991, precipitated by the Soviet collapse and subsequent cutting of all foreign aid to Afghanistan, the country’s U.S.-backed government of today will likely continue to receive aid – just enough to fund its military and survive, but not nearly enough to sufficiently pursue the kind of developmental projects that foster peace. As long as Ghani and future regimes fail to address the underlying conditions that incite resentment of the government, the Taliban will continue to thrive, exploiting the dissatisfaction and painting itself as a legitimate alternative.