A U.S.-Taliban Deal Hinges on Reducing Violence. It Might Work Like This.


The New York Times

As a start, all sides are supposed to halt attacks for one week — mostly. It’s not a full cease-fire, and even then it may be difficult to do.

American military personnel in a helicopter flying over Helmand Province in September.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States and the Taliban are perhaps the closest they have been to a deal that could begin the end of America’s longest war, with President Trump giving a conditional green light to his diplomats to prepare for signing.

That condition, however, is no small one.

The United States is demanding that in the week before any agreement is signed, there be a sustained, significant reduction in hostilities — something described as close to a cease-fire.

The reduction is seen as a test of the ability of all sides to control their ranks, and to hold their fire in a complex conflict that is increasingly mixed up with local feuds and regional rivalries. The hope is that it will serve as a dry run for a more lasting cease-fire.

If the sides do succeed in observing a period of reduced hostilities, the next steps of the deal will fall into place: first a formal signing between the United States and the Taliban that rolls out a schedule for gradual withdrawal of the remaining American troops, and then the start of negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan leaders over the political future of the country.

Here is what the pause in hostilities and the next steps of the peace process might look like, based on interviews with nearly a dozen current and former Afghan and Western officials as well as Taliban leaders who have followed the negotiations closely. They all spoke on the condition of anonymity, because the details of the deal have not been publicly shared.

President Trump addressed U.S. troops at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan in November.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The bulk of the negotiations between the United States and the Taliban happened in 2019, one of the most violent years on record. Excluded from the talks and under pressure as its citizens died at a rate of dozens a day, the Afghan government demanded that the Americans push for a cease-fire before they signed a deal that, among other things, would start their troop withdrawal.

But U.S. negotiators knew they could not get the Taliban to agree to a full cease-fire. Instead, they tried to get something as close to one as possible without using the term. They spoke instead of goals like “violence reduction.”

For the week before any deal signing, the goal is for all sides to hold fire. Many see it as an exercise in demobilization, and a proof of control.

Initially, the Taliban agreed only that it would not attack major population centers, but U.S. negotiators pushed for a more comprehensive cessation of violence.

The Taliban have now agreed not to attack population centers, highways and government institutions, with some exceptions (that’s why it is not a full cease-fire). One of those exceptions: They have retained the right to attack if they believe government convoys are using the period of calm to supply areas otherwise out of their reach.

There was less certainty among officials on what reduced hostilities might look like in the next phase of the peace process: the negotiations between the Afghan sides after the United States and the Taliban sign their deal.

One senior Afghan official briefed on the discussions said the expectation was that after the one-week test period, there should not be a return to more attacks, and that the situation will perhaps even more closely resemble a cease-fire.

But other officials said that the Americans might apply a less strict gauge during what will probably be a long period of negotiation between Afghans, and that they might be willing to put up with a certain amount of violence as long as it is significantly reduced from the current levels. (Over the past year, the insurgents have carried out anywhere between 50 to 90 attacks a day.)

Still, there will be deterrents against the Taliban stepping up attacks after reaching a deal with the United States. Among them: U.S. negotiators are likely to reserve the right to come to the help of Afghan forces with air power.

Some are expressing an ambitious hope: that when the two Afghan sides do begin talks, they will agree on a formal cease-fire right away. To date, the Taliban have resisted that, fearing that a cease-fire could break their ranks. Many of their commanders have been unhappy with what they see as their political leaders giving in to shifting U.S. demands that they fear are a trap to weaken them on the battlefield. But if they secure a deal for a U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban’s commanders might become more amenable.

Afghan Army commandos at their graduation ceremony at a training center on the outskirts of Kabul in January.
Credit…Rahmat Gul/Associated Press

The most serious concern is this: Even if negotiators on both sides truly intend to reduce violence, can they really make that happen, especially in local areas where the war has grown increasingly complex and decentralized?

U.S. and Afghan officials have repeatedly expressed concern that the Taliban are not monolithic, and might not be able to control some of their extremist factions. But at a certain level, the same concern exists about the Afghan forces, which in some places heavily rely on help from local militias.

Jawed Kohistani, an Afghan security analyst, said the reality of the battlefield was so complicated, with factional and regional influences on both sides, that guaranteeing that a deal is not breached would be difficult.

Some Afghan officials fear the United States is entering a deal to reduce violence without appreciating the groundwork required to prepare military forces down at the local level.

“This war, this geography is very complex,” Mr. Kohistani said. “There are groups that see their benefit in the continuation of the war. This will be a very complex, difficult process. It will require wisdom and tolerance, it will require comprehensive monitoring and cooperation.”

In trying to restart negotiations after President Trump abruptly pulled out of talks as a deal seemed near last September, the two sides resorted to trust-building measures, including a major prisoner swap.

As part of that swap, three districts in southern Zabul Province were to try a brief cessation of hostilities. But it fell apart.

Exactly what happened is under dispute. The Taliban pointed fingers at government forces, saying they killed two of their fighters. Afghan officials say that they stood down for two days, and that then Taliban started launching attacks.

One Western official said the lessons from the Zabul experiment — among them the need for a good monitoring mechanism — were being drawn on during the negotiations to reduce hostilities.

Jailed Taliban members at a prison in Kabul in December.
Credit…Rahmat Gul/Associated Press

If the two sides formally announce an official reduction of hostilities, and if it is deemed a success, the United States and the Taliban will officially sign a deal.

Then as Washington begins a gradual withdrawal of the roughly 12,000 remaining troops, a process that could take as long as two years, the Taliban will sit down with other Afghan leaders to discuss a future of power-sharing.

But getting there will be difficult.

A major sticking point could be the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners. The insurgents expect that to happen between their signing of the deal with the Americans and their sitting down with Afghan leaders.

But Afghan officials seem reluctant to give away that leverage so early in their talks, before they have secured Taliban commitments on basic issues. Among them are rights for women and minorities, and the shape of a future democratic government.

The Afghan political elite has also been extremely divided, the rifts widened by a bitterly contested presidential election. More than four months after the vote, there is still no declared winner.

And all the Afghan factions would have to agree on a united negotiating team to seat across from the Taliban — a task that has proved extremely difficult so far.

Fatima Faizi, Najim Rahim and Taimoor Shah contributed reporting.

A U.S.-Taliban Deal Hinges on Reducing Violence. It Might Work Like This.