What Future for Afghan Peace Talks under a Biden Administration?

International Crisis Group

13 January 2021

Peace talks in Afghanistan have only inched forward even as the pace of conflict has picked up. As the Afghan government and Taliban await clearer policy signals from the incoming U.S. administration, their primary goal should be to keep the vital negotiations going.

What’s new? Afghan peace talks have stalled in their opening rounds, as all parties wait for the incoming Biden administration to reveal what changes it might make to U.S. Afghanistan policy, particularly vis-à-vis the peace process and the U.S. military presence.

Why does it matter? The U.S. has been a primary driver of progress in peace talks, nudging two mistrustful parties forward. Peace in Afghanistan will ultimately depend on the conflict parties’ willingness to compromise, but Washington’s actions are also of vital importance.

What should be done? The U.S. should commit to continued support for the peace talks and resolve short-term challenges – including expectations of a military withdrawal by May 2021. The Taliban should commit to a significant reduction of violence, and Afghan political leaders should continue working toward a unified approach to peace.

I.Overview

Peace negotiations between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban commenced in Doha, Qatar, on 12 September, after more than six months of delay amid political dysfunction in Kabul and continued conflict. Since then, talks have only inched forward and fighting in many parts of Afghanistan has escalated. Negotiators spent three months reaching agreement on a mere three-page set of procedures for the talks and were just beginning to discuss what substantive topics to put on their agenda when they took a weeks-long break. With the Trump administration a lame duck, the incoming Biden administration’s approach to the peace process uncertain, Taliban violence on the rise, and the Afghan government struggling to manage multi-dimensional security and political challenges, it is far from clear where negotiations are headed. A path is open to achieving a political settlement – by far the best outcome for a country that has been continuously at war for the last four decades – but in order for it to remain so, negotiators should stick to a basic goal during the delicate transitional period: keep the peace process alive.

The sluggishness of the Doha process appears partly linked to how closely its timeline has converged with that of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The U.S., perhaps wanting to avoid just this scenario, tried to get the process moving faster but proved unable to make its preferred timetable stick. In late 2018, at the outset of bilateral talks with the Taliban, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad reportedly claimed that negotiators had a six-month deadline, but the talks stretched well over a year. Nor did talks speed up after the U.S. and Taliban signed their 29 February 2020 deal. The Afghan government’s reluctance to accept concessions the U.S. had made on its behalf, an uptick in Taliban violence and posturing on both sides contributed to a six-month delay in starting intra-Afghan negotiations. At that point, with the U.S. election just two months away, all parties involved had good reason to move slowly, first to see who would emerge victorious and then – once it became clear that Joe Biden had won – to see whether the new administration in Washington would adhere to the February deal that forms the backdrop to negotiations.

Meanwhile, the conflict has picked up pace. After violence abated substantially in the six months preceding the February agreement, it has gradually reintensified, driven in large part by a Taliban campaign of asymmetric tactics. The resurgence in violence, spurred by the Taliban and responded to by Afghan security forces, which have resumed airstrikes and night raids, has led to an accrual of mistrust and scepticism on both sides. Any glimmers of hope among Afghans that the peace process might reduce the daily incidence of violence have now faded.

Still, this process remains the country’s best hope for reaching a political settlement that can underwrite a more peaceful future: sustaining it should be the paramount objective for all parties with a stake in Afghan and regional security. Washington will remain central to this effort. Arriving at even this early fragile stage would not have been possible without persistent U.S. leverage and pressure. But with the Trump administration soon to depart, exactly how the U.S. will approach the talks going forward is unclear. The process will likely tread water until sometime after the Biden administration takes office on 20 January, when it makes more details about its Afghanistan policy known.

The position Biden will inherit is coloured by President Donald Trump’s order on 17 November to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by January. This reduction came after speculation that Trump might order a full military withdrawal before his term’s end, a precipitous move that almost certainly would have killed the peace process. The Taliban would likely have viewed the move as endorsing their return to power, while the Afghan government would have little to gain from negotiating after losing its greatest advantage. Even the drawdown to 2,500 troops has likely shifted the balance of leverage in the talks. Yet a lengthy extension of the U.S.-NATO mission would equally doom the process, pushing the Taliban back to all-out warfare and Kabul to dig in defending the status quo. With this quandary in mind, the Biden team should sidestep sweeping pronouncements about its intentions while it sizes up the negotiation dynamics. So long as the process stays on life support while the new team gets its bearings, there will be time to re-energise the talks and to make any necessary course corrections.

II.Peace Process Perspectives

A.The Biden Administration: Policy Direction Indicators

President-elect Joe Biden has a longer, more detailed history of opinion and advice on Afghanistan than any previous incoming U.S. president – a record that hints at the policy directions he may take. That said, Biden will be stepping into a new role as president and it is not certain that he will adhere to views he espoused as a senator or vice president.

Biden has consistently advocated for the lightest possible military footprint in Afghanistan, focused purely on counter-terrorism, and he has suggested, more than once in the last decade, that concern for the fate of the Afghan government or people should not determine U.S. policy in the region. Still, even the desire to maintain a small counter-terrorism footprint (Biden has suggested that the force be several thousand strong) will raise difficult issues. If this past view becomes future policy, the new administration will need to confront the question of how long such a footprint should be maintained, as well as whether and how that idea can be reconciled with a peace process made possible by Washington’s commitment to the exact opposite in the 29 February 2020 agreement with the Taliban.

One area where Biden is set to differ with the outgoing administration is in placing renewed emphasis on regional stability, which was not a focus of the Trump team, and which will likely preclude any sudden and potentially destabilising significant change to the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. The Biden administration is expected to re-emphasise the need for a “responsible” withdrawal. It also will put a premium on rekindling U.S. links with close allies, including the NATO partners that work closely with and in many respects rely on the U.S. in Afghanistan, and which have made clear their concerns about the pace of withdrawal indicated by recent U.S. announcements.

 The Biden administration is expected to re-emphasise the need for a “responsible” withdrawal. 

The Biden White House will need to develop an approach that reconciles these considerations, including its possible desire to maintain counter-terrorism-focused forces, with the U.S. withdrawal commitments in the February 2020 agreement. The process of policy review should be able to move relatively swiftly given that already-announced members of and nominees for the new national security team have experience on Afghanistan, but it will still take some time. Assuming that the Biden team holds off on major policy shifts before it completes this process, which would be prudent, big announcements may not occur prior to March or April.

As for what the new policy might look like, it remains unclear how much patience the incoming administration will have with a troubled peace process inherited from political rivals, or whether it might attempt to change at least some of the parameters. For example, without scrapping the U.S. deal with the Taliban altogether, the U.S. might attempt to pressure the insurgents to meet tougher interpretations of their commitments in the Doha agreement, especially via measurable action taken toward al-Qaeda and other groups “who might pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies”. It might even try to negotiate additional understandings bilaterally, to address the ambiguities in that deal and what critics consider its shortcomings.

One issue the new team will have to prioritise is how to handle the May 2021 deadline for troop withdrawal set out in the February 2020 agreement. Given the late start of Afghan talks, the multiple deadlines that have already been missed in the February deal, and reports that senior U.S. military officers and some members of Congress are staunchly opposed to a full withdrawal along the timeline specified in the Doha agreement, it is hard to imagine a Biden administration pulling out all U.S. troops by that date. In order to preserve the framework of the Doha agreement, the U.S. would need to revisit the timeline with the Taliban, who are likely to strongly oppose much delay.

Counter-terrorism will be another major issue. An indefinite presence of even a small number of U.S. counter-terrorism forces, which was long Biden’s preferred approach to Afghanistan, would prompt more than vocal opposition from the Taliban. Should the U.S. dig in too deep signalling an intention to keep an enduring military presence in the country, it could drive the Taliban away from the negotiating table entirely, back to a campaign of unrestricted warfare. Such a signal would also prompt negative reactions from regional powers, including Iran, Russia and China, which are wary of the U.S. leaving too quickly but also of having U.S. troops permanently in what they consider their backyards.

Some in U.S. national security circles suggest that Biden might be able to at least maintain a light, strictly counter-terrorism-focused footprint in Afghanistan until a peace settlement is reached, but the most likely timeline of negotiations is expected to extend well beyond any delay of a full withdrawal the Taliban might feasibly accept. Critically, the Afghan military would be unable to hold back Taliban advances, even in a number of provincial capitals, without U.S. air support. If the U.S. limited aerial and other forms of support strictly to targeting transnational terrorist groups, the Afghan government could soon find itself losing significant battlefield momentum to the Taliban. A U.S. counter-terrorism mission would likely either revert to providing substantial support to Kabul’s war with the Taliban or risk losing its local partner.

 As president, Biden can continue to pursue a political settlement to end the war in Afghanistan, or he can opt for an enduring counter-terrorism mission. 

As president, Biden can continue to pursue a political settlement to end the war in Afghanistan, or he can opt for an enduring counter-terrorism mission. But absent what would be a highly unlikely about-face by the Taliban, he cannot have both.

B.Taliban Actions and Aims

A central question from the conclusion of the February 2o20 agreement onward has been whether the Taliban would meaningfully reduce their use of violence and, if not, what that might mean for sustaining the peace process. It is inarguable that the insurgency remains operational, even aggressive, across the country. The group has adapted its behaviour in notable ways, in what appears to be an attempt to keep its fighting force as active as possible without jeopardising its deal with the U.S. (the text of which was conspicuously silent on the issue of intra-Afghan violence). That calculus seems to have led the Taliban to test the limits of U.S. acceptance, by gradually resuming tactics and campaigns it had curbed in the run-up to 29 February. By October, Taliban fighters threatened the outskirts of Helmand’s capital in a large-scale assault, stepping beyond one of the key restrictions – no sustained assaults on provincial capitals – the group had imposed on its own forces earlier in 2020. The Taliban repeated similar behaviour in neighbouring Kandahar weeks later and also targeted a number of strategic district centres.

Meanwhile, a campaign of unclaimed killings targeting government officials, activists, clerics and journalists has rocked urban centres. Afghan officials pin these killings on the Taliban, the Taliban dubiously blames the Afghan intelligence service, and independent analysts fear they may stem from a combination of coordinated insurgent activity and the opportunism of organised criminal elements seeking position and profit amid the fog of asymmetric war.

 A campaign of unclaimed killings targeting government officials, activists, clerics and journalists has rocked urban centres.  

While it is not fully clear what larger strategy may lie beneath the Taliban’s gradual re-escalation of violence, beyond maintaining its options between talks and conflict, its approach seems in part pegged to U.S. political developments. The Taliban’s offensive in Helmand began just days after Trump’s statement that all U.S. troops “should return home by Christmas”. It followed a pattern in 2020 of the Taliban mounting notable acts of violence shortly after interactions with or statements by U.S. officials. Conversely, the group’s rhetoric shifted sharply from victorious to conciliatory once U.S. electoral results started to become evident. The correlations between the Taliban’s behaviour and U.S. actions and statements do not follow an especially clear logic but could reflect an ongoing effort by the group to test possible shifts in what the U.S. will tolerate, and calibrate the group’s tactics and messaging in light of an evolving situation.

 

Some Taliban interlocutors who spoke to Crisis Group also suggest the group’s leadership, at least its powerful military hierarchy, believe that its intensified use of violence in mid-2020 was an effective means of pressuring the Afghan government into releasing all 5,000 on a list of Taliban prisoners – a provision of the U.S.-Taliban deal that Kabul strongly resisted but ultimately honoured. The Taliban’s perception, as conveyed to Crisis Group, seems to ignore or downplay the decisive role that U.S. pressure played in swaying the Afghan government. This approach and rationale align with a Taliban pattern of behaviour dating back years: at critical political moments in Afghanistan, the group often steps up violence to sap public confidence in the state and broadcast its willingness to fight until victorious. Overall, this pattern bodes ill for prospects of meaningfully reducing violence while negotiations are under way, and illuminates the Taliban’s behaviour since negotiations commenced in September: the group appears to have recommitted to using violence as a means of leveraging favourable political outcomes.

 The Taliban’s perception, as conveyed to Crisis Group, seems to ignore or downplay the decisive role that U.S. pressure played in swaying the Afghan government. 

The resumption of violence does not mean, however, that the Taliban have abandoned negotiations as a potential path to securing their objectives. The group knows how much it has benefitted from its deal with the U.S. throughout 2020: the agreement led to the release of thousands of Taliban fighters, it raised the group’s international profile significantly and U.S. troops continue to leave. The fact that the group has repeatedly insisted on its commitment to the deal underscores how valuable it perceives the promised withdrawal of foreign military forces to be. This position, paired with the insurgency’s daily impact across the country, has only deepened criticism among some Afghans that Washington’s agreement with the Taliban has left them out in the cold. But it also points to the fact that, if the U.S. remains engaged in the peace process, the Taliban are likely to keep testing talks as an advantageous means of securing their political objectives. At the same time, until it achieves those aims, the movement will almost certainly continue to employ violence to preserve its status as a powerful force regardless of the talks’ outcome.

Less certain is what the Taliban’s political objectives might be. What has become increasingly clear is the leadership’s collective interpretation of their deal with the U.S.: Taliban officials have issued a number of statements, both for global audiences and for internal consumption, suggesting that the Doha agreement was, in effect, a framework for bringing the movement back to power. Although Taliban officials have also made verbal pledges that any future government stemming from a political settlement will be “inclusive”, the totality of the group’s messaging since 29 February conveys outsized expectations of its role in a future state. The Taliban clearly view themselves as the country’s dominant political force and only legitimate authority, with little acknowledgment of the need for compromise.

While this posture raises the question of the group’s capacity to make concessions, it might also be linked to the leadership’s scepticism of the Afghan government’s intentions. Crisis Group has spoken to a number of Taliban figures who expressed serious doubts about senior Afghan government officials’ commitment to pursuing an end to conflict through a power-sharing agreement – a perspective that mirrors widespread suspicions about the Taliban among Afghan and Western officials. The Taliban’s disbelief stems in part from the history of Afghan reconciliation efforts since 2009, which these figures framed as little more than veiled attempts to splinter their movement into more easily defeated factions, rather than genuine attempts at peace. Taliban figures also point to recent official rhetoric as evidence that leaders in Kabul seek to stoke conflict.

 The Taliban seem unwilling to cease their use of violence during what could be lengthy peace negotiations.  

One sobering conclusion has come increasingly into focus over the course of the past year: the Taliban seem unwilling to cease their use of violence during what could be lengthy peace negotiations, whether to ensure that talks produce results they deem acceptable or to allow them to fall back quickly upon military means if talks fail. Many observers accordingly ask if peace talks that bring Afghans no peace are worth pursuing. Yet, deeply unsatisfying as the Taliban’s approach may be, and galling as it is that acts of war on both sides continue to cause civilian suffering, the possibility of de-intensifying the conflict will remain viable only so long as talks continue.

C.Kabul’s Challenges

The Afghan government was critical of U.S.-led efforts to negotiate a political settlement from the start and it has been something of a reluctant partner in the effort ever since. The core concession made by Washington that kickstarted the process, to sit bilaterally with the Taliban without the Afghan government present, was described in 2018 by Afghan officials as a betrayal that delegitimised the authorities in Kabul. In view of these misgivings, Kabul’s approach has been to cooperate with U.S. requests, but also to slow the process as much, and as creatively, as possible.

When, in September, nascent peace talks almost immediately reached an impasse, Kabul was relieved of some international pressure as progress became more dependent on daily engagement between the two teams in Doha. But as negotiating teams appeared to forge a compromise resolving initial disagreements in late November, reports emerged of resistance from the presidential palace – prompting donors and foreign allies to call for political leaders other than President Ashraf Ghani to play a larger role in crafting the Afghan government’s approach to peace. Kabul’s halting pace recalled its approach to carrying out the prisoner exchange indicated in the U.S.-Taliban agreement, which stretched out over six months and, as noted, inched forward only under recurrent U.S. diplomatic pressure. Kabul will likely continue in the same vein even if the Biden administration presses it to move as quickly as possible to reach a political settlement.

This go-slow approach is underpinned by concerns among Ghani and his senior staff, shared by much of Afghan civil society, that the U.S.-led peace process has placed the government at a severe, even existential disadvantage. A number of Afghan officials worry that a political settlement, under the present circumstances, would scrap the constitutional order erected over the past two decades and essentially restore the Taliban to power. Many feel betrayed both by international partners’ retraction of financial and military support, and the fact that these partners have begun outreach to the Taliban’s political office in seeming anticipation of them playing an official role in Afghan governance.

Some critics accuse Ghani and his advisers of resisting the peace process to preserve their own political power, as both the Taliban and political opposition leaders have made clear they anticipate that the country will be led by a “clean slate” following any political settlement. In response, figures within and close to the presidential palace have told Crisis Group that resistance to an unravelling of the political order is not only deeply principled, but also rooted in mistrust of mujahedin-era Afghan stakeholders – as much as (if not even more than) the Taliban. Ghani is renowned for his expansive vision of a prosperous future Afghanistan, and his tenure has elevated younger, progressive officials. Fears that negotiators might bargain away Afghans’ rights, freedoms and (for some) new urban lifestyle are reinforced by the latest international calls for the political opposition, consisting of older and mujahedin-era elites, to play a greater role.

 Afghan security forces have diminished ability to mount offensive campaigns or even hold territory in the face of large-scale Taliban assaults. 

Whatever the Afghan government’s concerns, it is in an increasingly untenable position. Because of the military’s dependence on U.S. airpower, which since February the U.S. has strictly limited to defending Afghan bases, Afghan security forces have diminished ability to mount offensive campaigns or even hold territory in the face of large-scale Taliban assaults. Financially, the country’s international supporters have signalled wariness of making long-term commitments, confirmed by dips in the amount and duration of aid pledged at a major donor conference in Geneva in November. Local and provincial governance remains highly dysfunctional due to perennial issues of corruption and crime – the latter of which is reportedly worsening in Kabul and other cities like Kandahar and Herat.

The possibility that the U.S. may withdraw all its troops, regardless of conditions, has spurred senior officials as well as other Afghan stakeholders to explore contingency plans to prepare for the worst. After denying the possibility for much of the past year, the Afghan government’s top figures now openly warn that full withdrawal could bring about state fracture and civil war; this rhetoric, framed in line with U.S. national security interests, appears aimed at allies in Washington. President Ghani has appointed First Vice President Amrullah Saleh to head an unprecedented task force to tackle the many security threats facing the government, which seems inclined to dramatically expand policing and surveillance powers. Around the country, militias only loosely controlled by Kabul (some of which are directly supported by the U.S.) have ramped up operations, a trend that historically has driven up civilian casualties and fed cycles of revenge. Reports indicate that several mujahedin-era figures are securing funds and equipment from sources other than Kabul, to bolster private militias with no government oversight.

Regional states and their engagement with Afghan elites who are not part of the government could also pose a challenge for Kabul. Pakistan has hosted several Afghan political opposition figures since October, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former insurgent leader who reconciled with Kabul in 2017. Hekmatyar, who flew to Doha to meet Taliban officials in November, recently announced his willingness to partner with the Taliban in rejection of the political order. While he is the only prominent figure to say so openly, sources close to a number of other Afghan leaders tell Crisis Group that back-channel communication with the Taliban has been expanding. Other neighbouring states, including Russia and Iran, have long prioritised the security of border regions, even at the expense of the authority of a centralised Afghan state. Should they decide to encourage or support Afghan opposition figures to pursue arrangements separate from official negotiations, it could prove destabilising to both the peace process and the government in Kabul.

Amid accusations of stalling talks in which the Taliban insist on establishing a “pure Islamic system”, the Afghan government has attempted to demonstrate its own religious credentials. This posturing is not entirely new; Kabul began stepping up outreach years ago to various councils of religious scholars around the world, in an attempt to delegitimise the Taliban’s use of religious interpretations to justify their fight against an “un-Islamic” government. Some recent proposals, including a comprehensive revamping of Afghanistan’s family law and a suggestion to house primary schools in mosques in the most remote rural areas, have not been well received by Western embassies, rights groups and civil society. In spite of the government’s efforts, the Taliban have shown no sign of accepting its narrative about the Islamic nature of the constitutional order. This is a preview of the challenges that Kabul and the West will face as they balance the need to reach a genuine power-sharing agreement with the Taliban with the desire to protect gains in rights and governance made over the last two decades.

As talks resume, the Afghan government has little reason to compromise on the agenda, much less dive into debate over substantive issues, before assessing the new White House’s stance on the Afghan peace process. Yet Kabul’s precarious grip on the country’s security situation, the manoeuvring and dissent of opposition politicians, and the pressure of international donors will all weigh just as heavily in a few months’ time. Kabul cannot sidestep these challenges. The government’s most politically difficult path forward, to proceed with talks even as the U.S. winds down its involvement and support, may nevertheless be the least bad of several poor options, especially in terms of the long-term impact on the Afghan people. Although Afghan officials now warn that a peace deal giving the Taliban too much power will result in wider civil war, progressing toward a political settlement remains the only option that holds out even the possibility of ending the country’s staggering toll of violence.

III.Picking up the Pieces … of Peace

For the Trump administration, the timeline for deal-making has run out, but that should not prompt further last-minute unilateral action. Though the prospect of full withdrawal appears to have lessened under military and congressional pressure, any sudden drawdown below the planned level of 2,500 troops could have severe negative effects well beyond the strictly military impact. The best course of action in the remaining days of Trump’s term is to nudge both sides to continue discussions until Biden is sworn in and as his team settles in. Even if the discussions show a lack of measurable progress, the upshot will be positive, as the potential for the process to stall rises during breaks between rounds of talks. Dialogue can and should also continue with regional actors and donors to the Afghan government – all efforts that the incoming administration should intensify. In other words, the primary objective through the end of January should be to keep the process alive.

 The best course of action in the remaining days of Trump’s term is to nudge both sides to continue discussions until Biden is sworn in and as his team settles in. 

Once in office, the Biden administration will be obliged to direct its attention to Afghanistan sooner than it might otherwise wish, given the demands of other policy priorities at home and abroad. The Doha agreement’s deadline for the foreign troop presence to reach zero, beginning in May 2021, can likely be pushed back somewhat but cannot be ignored, especially if the administration hopes to sustain any chance of achieving a political settlement.

Washington should signal early on that it intends to pursue the peace process as established thus far: that it will not tear up the Doha agreement with the Taliban, but that it will also almost certainly require an extension of the deadline for total troop withdrawal while the talks move into more substantive territory. There is likely some latitude for the U.S. to make arguments for an extension by insisting that the deal’s various commitments are in some cases mutually conditional, and pointing in particular to the Taliban’s lack of measurableactions on terrorism concerns. Washington could also point out that the parties have missed all deadlines specified in the agreement thus far, and therefore would benefit from flexibility in the interest of peace – but the centrality of the removal of foreign troops to the Taliban’s objectives could render this line of argument unpersuasive.

There are additional incentives the U.S. could offer the Taliban in place of a strict observance of the May 2021 deadline, including more prisoner releases, progress toward the sanctions relief promised by February’s Doha agreement, or even changes to the extent of U.S. support still provided to Afghan forces. Critics have argued that the U.S. has given the Taliban too much already, emboldening the group and thereby souring the atmosphere for talks. Indeed, the terms and conditions of the U.S.-Taliban agreement have benefitted the insurgent group by bolstering its international legitimacy and internal morale. Although it is difficult to predict how the Taliban may react to the postponement of their chief aim, and the group is not likely to accept what it considers a renegotiation of the deal’s terms without some form of give-and-take, if the Taliban were to reject a short-term extension of the deadline it would reveal a weakness of commitment to peaceful conclusion of the war.

 The U.S. and its allies should now propose limited, clearly defined parameters for multiple periods of violence reduction. 

Regardless of how the U.S. approaches the withdrawal date, any incentives offered to the Taliban should be explicitly tied to a comprehensive, immediately implemented framework for reducing their use of violence. Several senior U.S. officials have engaged with the Taliban’s political office, ostensibly in order to persuade the group that it must de-escalate the insurgency for the talks to succeed. These petitions have not been fruitful; nor have efforts led by European diplomats to shame the Taliban into a total ceasefire. The most successful episodes of violence reduction have occurred under specific conditions: a week prior to the 29 February agreement signing ceremony and two three-day ceasefires during the Eid holidays. The U.S. and its allies should now propose limited, clearly defined parameters for multiple periods of violence reduction. Optimally, such a framework would create a direct channel between the Taliban and Afghan security forces. The two sides might erect this mechanism within the framework of their Doha negotiators’ working groups or build on the progress made during talks on prisoner release.

One negotiating strategy that the U.S. might adopt would be to assert a stiffer interpretation of the ambiguous conditionality elements of the agreement writ large; in particular, its commitments to withdrawal and to financial support for Afghanistan’s future government should be emphasised as contingent on the Taliban fulfilling its commitments – as both parties understand them, not as the Taliban unilaterally characterises them. It will be extremely difficult to establish an effective monitoring mechanism for the Taliban’s interactions with al-Qaeda and other foreign jihadist groups (beyond what may have been outlined in the secret annexes to the Doha agreement, which do not seem to have produced publicly measurable changes in the Taliban’s posture toward such groups thus far).

The U.S. should also flex its diplomatic muscle with neighbouring states to establish a formal regional dialogue to support a political settlement. Such discussions are long overdue. In addition, it should consider adjusting its supporting role by advocating for a neutral third-party mediator to guide and assist the talks without the baggage that Washington carries as a function of its role in the conflict and relationship with Kabul.

On Kabul’s part, it will be important to approach the Biden administration with realistic expectations. Because the new team will need time to settle into their roles and determine their policy, the Afghan government has gained a reprieve before the U.S. presses it again to comply with its desired approach to the peace process. Still, the transition in administrations is not likely to result in a full policy reset.

 Washington almost certainly will remain focused on reducing its role in Afghanistan. 

Washington almost certainly will remain focused on reducing its role in Afghanistan. The risks and trade-offs of straining its relationship with Kabul by engaging with the Taliban remain much the same as they did two years ago. The Biden team will need to prepare for the fundamental resistance of some senior Afghan officials to negotiating away the constitutional order over which they preside – a factor the Trump administration never seemed to account for in its approach. Given the perception of existential threat among some Afghan officials, the new administration’s best bet for persuading Kabul to cooperate may lie in improved communication and coordination with NATO and other donors. For much of the past year, some EU and European officials have publicly raised concerns about the U.S. approach and have taken pains to distinguish their support for the Afghan government. Unified messaging from Kabul’s backers would carry great weight.

The Taliban should likewise approach the incoming administration with prudence. Many officials in the new administration likely will have a great deal of scepticism about the deal Trump’s team reached with the insurgent group. They will not necessarily be inclined to approach the Taliban in a similar fashion – even if their ultimate goal with respect to disengagement from Afghanistan proves to be broadly the same as the prior administration’s. If the Taliban hopes to preserve the Doha agreement and the commitment to U.S. withdrawal sooner rather than later, it will need to show the U.S., through verifiable and measurable activity, that it takes its terrorism-related commitments seriously. Moreover, if the Taliban intends to genuinely pursue a resolution to the country’s conflict, it will need to demonstrate that it is prepared to engage in the serious compromise – and the gradual transition into a non-violent political entity – that any lasting settlement to the war will require.

Kabul/Washington/Brussels, 13 January 2021

What Future for Afghan Peace Talks under a Biden Administration?