2 March 2019

Familiar Issues Cloud the Prospects for Afghan Peace

Because Washington is seeking to exit Afghanistan — one of the Taliban's main demands — their talks will proceed, but various other outstanding issues will impede greater progress. Pakistan, the Taliban's primary external sponsor, will push the movement to remain in talks with the aim of ensuring that any U.S. withdrawal proceeds in an orderly manner. The collapse of the Afghan state would threaten Islamabad's economic and security interests. Even though the talks might not soon produce a breakthrough, yet regional powers like Iran, India, China and Russia will all prepare for the ramifications of a U.S. withdrawal.

Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Second-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments over the next quarter.

After 17 years of war in Afghanistan, the United States is finally sitting down for talks with the militant group it overthrew in 2001. A U.S. delegation headed by special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad gathered with Taliban leaders, including senior Taliban official Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Doha on Feb. 25 for the start of a fifth round of negotiations to end Afghanistan's long war. For the moment, the sides are focusing on five issues: the withdrawal of the 14,000 U.S. and 8,000 allied coalition troops in the country, a cease-fire, a Taliban pledge to prevent the Islamic State's Khorasan Province or al Qaeda from using Afghanistan to launch attacks, the possibility that the militant group could eventually sit down with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's administration, and the Taliban's demand that the U.N. Security Council lift sanctions against them.

An immediate breakthrough in talks to end decades of conflict might not be in the offing, but the possibility of a U.S. military withdrawal will ensure that capitals from Moscow to Tehran and New Delhi to Beijing all have contingency plans in place to deal with the possible security vacuum that a coalition troop pullout would create in Afghanistan. In the end, Washington and the Taliban might be talking, but peace in Afghanistan remains distant, particularly as the Taliban have made it abundantly clear they have no intention of talking to Ghani until the United States — the entity it views as its principal antagonist in the conflict — finally departs.

The Big Picture

As the United States pursues a peace deal between Kabul and the Taliban to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan, key regional powers, including Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran, will also begin preparing for the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal. For the United States, the desire to consider an exit from the conflict is motivated by strategic and political drivers, including a focus on the great power competition among it, Russia and China. 

The Factors Driving the Americans

The U.S. decision to contemplate an exit from Afghanistan stems from strategic and political considerations. On a strategic level, the United States is shifting its focus from counterterrorism missions, which have dominated its foreign policy concerns in the Middle East and South Asia for nearly two decades, to its competition with Russia and China. This shift doesn't entirely preclude continued U.S. involvement in counterterrorism missions, but it does suggest that the United States believes it has largely accomplished its key objectives to deny extremist organizations the ability to launch large-scale attacks against itself and its allies.

On the political level, the United States has long sought to end its involvement in Afghanistan. In 2014, NATO began withdrawing most forces from the country, while the United States also ended combat operations, transitioning to a smaller advisory and counterterrorism role. The Taliban, however, seized the opportunity to make a resurgence, ultimately convincing the Pentagon of the need to bolster the Afghan security forces. And though he had campaigned to reduce U.S. military involvement abroad, U.S. President Donald Trump duly — albeit reluctantly — agreed in 2017 to a Pentagon request to send about 4,000 more troops to reinforce those remaining in the country. That boost, however, failed to alter the stalemate between Kabul and the Taliban, prompting Trump to overrule the Pentagon and initiate talks that even opened the presence of U.S. troops itself to discussion. 

Over the next few months, the United States will focus on finalizing the terms of the draft agreement. But as long as the negotiations continue, so will the fighting, since constant pressure on the battlefield gives both sides leverage in talks. Even so, the Taliban's spring offensive, an annual push that the group conducts as a show of force, remains in question, as the militant organization must weigh whether an intensification of the fighting — even one that gave it a negotiations edge — enhances its image at a time when the movement is seriously considering peace. As it is, the current Taliban-U.S. talks are actually the easy part: The group has steadfastly refused to engage with the Afghan government on the grounds that it is illegitimate — a stance that forced Washington to change tack last July and begin directly engaging the organization after previously pushing it to sit down with Kabul. Thus, unless the Taliban alter their view of Ghani's government, the peace talks will remain at an impasse.

Concerns in Pakistan and China

Even if the talks are inconclusive, other countries in the region will prepare for the ramifications of a withdrawal. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan stands to be the most affected. Islamabad's main concern in the near term will center on the potential consequences of a sudden U.S. withdrawal and funding freeze for Kabul. Both could further destabilize Afghanistan, triggering a mass influx of refugees into Pakistan (already home to 1.4 million Afghans) and hurt Prime Minister Imran Khan's quest to position Pakistan as a safe investment destination amid an economic slowdown. Because preventing the Afghan state from collapsing is paramount for Pakistan, it will continue to pressure the Taliban to participate in talks in the hopes of sealing an agreement that will include a smooth and orderly drawdown and the continuing flow of money to the Afghan government.

China, meanwhile, might be the United States' great power competitor, but it is also concerned about a U.S. troop reduction in Afghanistan. Beijing is especially worried that Uighur militants could use Afghanistan's northern territories as a base to conduct operations into China's far western province of Xinjiang, while the country's leaders also fear that Afghanistan's instability could threaten its Belt and Road Initiative projects in Pakistan, Central Asia and Iran. China has denied rumors that it is constructing a military base in Afghanistan's far northern Wakhan corridor, although it has maintained a small contingent of Chinese troops in Tajikistan near the Afghan border for at least three years. China is unlikely to flex its military muscles in Afghanistan too much, but in the months ahead, Beijing could step in to mediate between Kabul and Islamabad as necessary, given that it enjoys cordial relations with both capitals.

Unless the Taliban alter their view of Ghani's government, the peace talks will remain at an impasse.

Apprehension in India

India, Iran and Russia also have a keen interest in the outcome of the talks. Though it doesn't share a border with Afghanistan, India has the deepest concerns about a U.S. withdrawal from the country, since it recognizes that any post-conflict Afghan government that gives the Taliban a share of power will benefit its eternal rival, Pakistan. In such a situation, India — the region's largest donor to Afghanistan — will have little ability to influence decisions in Kabul beyond continuing its work on development projects in the country. Iran, which also hosts a large Afghan refugee population, will continue to cultivate its ties with the Taliban so that it can maintain a working relationship with its erstwhile enemy (Tehran threatened to invade Afghanistan in the late 1990s after the Taliban killed a number of Iranian diplomats). And then there is Russia, which fought the U.S.- and Pakistan-sponsored mujahideen for nine years in Afghanistan in the 1980s; like Iran, it will aim to cultivate ties with a former foe, albeit in a more public fashion as it encourages dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban. 

Finally, against the backdrop of the U.S.-Taliban talks, Afghanistan will prepare for its presidential election, which originally had been scheduled for April 20, in July. The country's election commission delayed the vote by three months to address the logistical difficulties that cropped up during parliamentary elections in October 2018. Ghani will again contest the election against Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who is part of a diverse field of candidates that also includes Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former warlord whose Hizb-e-Islami militant group signed a peace deal with Kabul in 2016; and Mohammad Hanif Atmar, Ghani's former national security adviser. In light of the 2014 polls, which culminated in a U.S.-brokered national unity government after widespread allegations of fraud triggered a contentious recount, the government's ability to oversee a smooth transition of power will be of critical concern to the United States as it encourages sustainable governance. If peace talks lead to an interim government before then, however, the United States could even push to delay the elections — if not suspend them.
The Way Forward

The United States and the Taliban are talking in Doha, but Afghanistan's peace talks remain fragile. The trust deficit between the Taliban and Kabul, disagreements between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the disputes within a fractious Taliban on how to proceed could all undermine, if not derail, the talks. After all, while a U.S. withdrawal might end American involvement, it wouldn't necessarily bring Afghanistan's conflict to an end. Regardless, Washington's gradual strategic shift to confront Moscow and Beijing in the great power competition is driving the United States to search for an exit from Afghanistan — especially at a time when the U.S. commander-in-chief has no more patience for the conflict — and forcing Kabul's neighbors to consider their next steps. Ultimately, a partial drawdown will push Afghanistan down the road to peace after four decades of war, although the path is unlikely to be anything but long and tortuous.

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