The talks between the United States and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, which were abruptly canceled by President Trump in September, are back on track. After several months of diplomatic regrouping, American and Taliban negotiators are once again on the verge of sealing a deal.
The negotiators haven’t revised the basic transaction they set out last August — an American commitment to withdraw troops from Afghanistan for a Taliban promise not to allow the country to be used by transnational terrorists. Rather, they have added sweeteners to the bargain: As a Taliban concession, a seven-day “reduction in violence” before the United States will sign the deal, possibly followed by further steps to keep violence down, and the release of prisoners demanded by the insurgents.
These measures may help build confidence in the plausibility of good-faith negotiation, but they are primarily face-saving devices. The violence reduction allows President Trump to reverse his repudiation of the talks and the Afghan government to stop insisting that it would not participate in the next stage of negotiations unless the Taliban declare and hold a cease-fire for at least a month.
“Reduction in violence” is a tricky concept — and hinging the finalization of an agreement on it puts the tentative deal on unsteady footing. The phrase is probably being used to skirt the Taliban’s rejection, for now, of a cease-fire, but its meaning is effectively the same as a temporary and limited cease-fire. (The scale and geographic spread of the reduction in violence has not yet been revealed.)
Its terms are likely to be ambiguous; compliance may be difficult to verify. Any type of cease-fire early in a negotiating process, when the parties have not yet built any momentum, will be especially vulnerable to violations.
If the violence reduction deal falls apart, hopes for a peace process would probably shatter. It’s unlikely the pieces would be picked up any time soon. Time and trust were lost after Mr. Trump called off talks in September. The United States seemed fickle because, in fact, it was. Another round of Trumpian fickleness could be an irredeemable error.
But if the Taliban do reduce violence as promised, an agreement between the United States and the Taliban would be signed later this month. It will be a major milestone — the first of such significance in ten years of on-and-off efforts to launch a peace process.
Important as that will be, the expected agreement is not actually a peace deal. It is a chance to get one. The agreement will break the logjam of the Taliban’s longstanding unwillingness to sit in talks with the Afghan government and other Afghan power brokers without first achieving an American commitment to withdraw forces.
That the Taliban won the commitment in the Doha talks — which excluded the Afghan government — will burnish its legitimacy as a worthy interlocutor with the United States. The group will start the so-called “intra-Afghan” talks the agreement requires with its leverage enhanced.
The agreement’s value lies in opening the door to an Afghan peace process — it will retain its salience only if it is followed by that next phase. So the details may not matter all that much.
Some have criticized the possible U.S.-Taliban agreement as nothing more than a fig leaf for American military withdrawal. But if all the United States wanted to do was leave Afghanistan, it could do so without making a deal with the Taliban. And if intra-Afghan negotiations fall apart, it is hard to imagine the United States will feel bound by whatever it has agreed with the Taliban. Ultimately, America will pull out of Afghanistan on its own terms — just as it invaded and dialed up and down its troop numbers in accord with American interests.
On the flip side, the Taliban will only have reason to abide by its antiterrorism promises if a peace agreement helps it become part of the political mainstream and gain a stake in maintaining the legitimacy it has already begun to enjoy.
Making the most of this opportunity will not be simple: The next stage of talks could easily consume a year or more. They will have to tackle much thornier questions of how to share power and security responsibilities and how to modify state structures to satisfy both the government’s interest in maintaining the current system and the Taliban’s interest in something they would regard as more Islamic.
What’s more, there are no doubt some on both sides who maintain maximalist aspirations, still hoping to exclude the other side from power by any means. These elements will be inclined either to provoke failure of the talks or to outlast American and other outsiders’ pressure to persevere.
The most important task now is to start and generate traction in intra-Afghan negotiations, without getting distracted by those who might seek to capitalize on the fragility of the “reduction in violence” pledge or any cease-fire agreements that follow. It is nearly certain there will be continued violence during the talks.
Patience is an absolute necessity. A peace process won’t be done as fast as long-suffering Afghans hope, nor quickly enough to produce a definitive political win before the American presidential election. And a durable peace process needs a neutral mediator to manage it, help to bridge mistrust and nudge the parties toward compromises. This can’t be the United States, which isn’t neutral in the Afghan war. But there won’t be a neutral mediator without American backing for the idea.
The United States will need to lead the way to an appointment of an effective mediator accepted by all sides. A senior figure who would command the respect not only of those involved but also the leaders of Afghanistan’s meddlesome neighbors — who will need to be consulted — would be ideal. The United States can and should continue to exert its influence behind the scenes.
Tragedy is the word that best sums up American failure to seek a political settlement much sooner. Negotiating now, with one foot out the door, requires accepting uncomfortable compromises and precarious formulas — like “reduction in violence.” But a good enough deal is the one you can actually get.
Laurel Miller (@LaurelMillerICG), director of the Asia Program at the International Crisis Group, was the American deputy and then acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013 to 2017.