Afghanistan, site of America’s longest war, will remain a battleground for the foreseeable future. On Saturday President Donald Trump announced via Twitter he was halting a nearly year-long negotiation effort that saw American and Taliban officials on the cusp of a peace deal. He also revealed he was calling off a secret Camp David summit involving the Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Trump’s tweets came five days after U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad announced a draft peace deal with the insurgents. As part of the deal – which awaited Trump’s approval – the U.S. would withdraw 5,000 troops and close five bases over 135 days in exchange for Taliban counterterrorism guarantees against al Qaeda and the Islamic State; a reduction in violence in Parwan and Kabul provinces; and a pledge to hold talks with the government in Kabul. Yet for Trump, persisting violence from the Taliban amid an ideological clash between Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHouse Democrats demand administration consult with Congress before determining refugee admissions Pompeo jokes about speaking at Trump hotel: ‘The guy who owns it’ is ‘going to be successful’ Why the Taliban still want dialogue with the United States MORE, who supported the peace plan, and recently fired National Security Adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonGood riddance, John Bolton Williamson urges followers to contact Senate, House over possible Bolton replacement Trump called out for ‘my favorite dictator’ while awaiting Egyptian leader at summit: report MORE, who was against it, drove his decision to pull out of talks, at least for now.
The ostensible collapse of the U.S.-Taliban dialogue and Trump’s proposed Camp David summit drew an assortment of responses in Washington, including criticism from members of the Republican Party. But the reactions of three actors in particular – the Taliban, Pakistan and the Afghan government – are important for what they reveal about the political and strategic dimensions of the conflict and the path ahead.
On September 8, the Taliban released a statement criticizing Trump while expressing apparent bewilderment over the about-turn in the process in light of Khalilzad’s draft deal. Cautioning the United States that the decision would “harm America more than anyone else,” the Taliban nevertheless expressed a desire to continue dialogue. This desire is rooted in the Taliban’s belief that a political settlement is a surefire way to achieve the insurgency’s paramount aim: the complete withdrawal of all 22,000 U.S., NATO and allied forces.
By seeking an exit of foreign forces, the Taliban are in step with the historical ethos of Afghanistan, a nation whose fierce resistance to external rule has long bedeviled invading superpowers throughout the ages, including the British Empire in the 19th Century, the Soviet Union in the 20th Century and the United States today. For the Taliban, a focus on expelling the United States also creates a unity of purpose across the insurgency’s internal fault lines, explaining why this demand will endure as fighting persists.
For Pakistan, whose sponsorship of the Taliban makes it a central external player in the conflict, Trump’s decision was disconcerting. The Foreign Ministry released a statement September 8 calling for the “earliest resumption of talks” in favor of a political settlement to end the nearly 18-year long war. By pushing the Taliban into dialogue with the United States, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, which enjoys the backing of the country’s politically powerful army, has played a crucial behind-the-scenes role. This is part of Khan’s attempt at bolstering relations with the United States that sharply deteriorated last year when Trump accused Pakistan of “lies & deceit” and suspended $1.3 billion in security funding.
Moral considerations aside, Pakistan’s support for the Taliban serves a strategic purpose: Pakistan wants to shape an allied government in Kabul that will acknowledge the Durand Line as the legitimate border between the two countries, renounce Afghanistan’s claims to Pakistan’s Pashtun-speaking territories and weaken the Delhi-Kabul partnership to cool Pakistan’s fears of Indian encirclement.
In the 1980s, Islamabad’s desire to sponsor Islamist proxies in Kabul to counter Pashtun nationalism overlapped with Washington’s desire to defeat the Soviets, as the two partnered to arm the anti-Soviet mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War. But Pakistan continued this strategy. And its pursuit of strategic advantage through support for the Taliban has repeatedly brought Islamabad at odds with Washington across the long arc of the Afghan war.
For President Ashraf Ghani, who heads the National Unity Government in Kabul, Trump’s decision to call off talks at this stage comes with a silver lining: It removes uncertainty clouding the country’s already twice delayed September 28 presidential elections, which could have been delayed a third time as part of an accord. The Presidential Palace’s September 8 statement duly emphasized the importance of elections for “the establishment of a legitimate government through the ballot box.”
Still, Ghani’s government has struggled for relevance in the Afghan peace process. The Taliban have shunned Ghani’s representatives from all nine rounds of the U.S.-Taliban talks, claiming they represent an illegitimate entity propped up by a foreign hand (The Taliban claim sovereignty over the country under their moniker “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”)
For the United States, the Taliban’s refusal to talk to Kabul posed a problem: While Washington long supported an “Afghan-led” peace initiative, a desire to jumpstart the moribund process meant the U.S. dispensed with this notion, taking the lead in talks that began last October under Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Yet for Ghani, being sidelined from talks to end a conflict in which his own troops were fighting and dying by the hour was a point of intense frustration. With an eye towards his legacy, Ghani wants to be the leader who brought peace to Afghanistan — but that requires winning re-election first. Thus, his office’s own September 8 statement stressed the importance of elections and a ceasefire as an essential condition during negotiations, something the Taliban are only willing to concede after extracting a U.S. troop withdrawal agreement.
The peace deal negotiated by Zalmay Khalilzad was doubtless more modest than Trump had hoped for, leaving the crucial nationwide ceasefire to be decided during the Taliban-Kabul dialogue, which will amount to the most complex and tortuous phase of the peace process. But negotiations begin from high positions until the parties whittle down their respective demands and meet in the middle.
Ultimately, the fate of the Afghan peace process hinges on President TrumpDonald John TrumpSupreme Court comes to Trump’s aid on immigration Trump is failing on trade policy Trump holds call with Netanyahu to discuss possible US-Israel defense treaty MORE. Seeking to burnish his foreign policy credentials ahead of the 2020 elections, Trump hasn’t ruled out a partial troop withdrawal, even as U.S. Central Command has pledged to harden its blows against the insurgency. Trump knows a political settlement is the preferred outcome to end a war that outlasted the presidencies of his two predecessors in office. This means talks, whenever they resume, will pave the way forward. But until then, America’s longest war will endure.
Faisel Pervaiz is a South Asia analyst at Stratfor, where he focuses on political, economic, and security developments in the region.