The Other ‘Peace Process’ on Afghanistan: Geneva Talks 1982-1988


In the past three years, the US government’s role in the Doha Talks (2010-2020) has attracted scrutiny and criticism within the United States and abroad.

Zalmay Khalilzad (USA) and Taliban representative Abdul Ghani Baradar sign the agreement in Doha, Qatar in 2020. State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain

Starting in November 2010, the Doha Talks was a process of intermittent negotiations between the United States and the Afghan Taliban. The culmination of this process was the Doha Agreement, signed in February 2020. The agreement facilitated the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan.

The Geneva talks

However, about three decades earlier, the US government had also played a pivotal role in another peace process on Afghanistan — Geneva Talks. The outcome of the latter talks was the Geneva Accords which facilitated the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in February 1989.

The Geneva Talks took place in the background of a military occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. In late December 1979, tens of thousands of Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan to prop up a client regime in Kabul. The regime — also known as the Afghan Communist regime — had been established a year earlier following a military coup in April 1978. Ever since its establishment the Communist regime faced an armed resistance from anti-Communist resistance fighters — Mujahideen. At the time, the United States along with neighboring Pakistan supported the Mujahideen.

The Soviet Union claimed that it had deployed its forces in Afghanistan at the request of the Afghan government to fend off the threat from the Mujahideen. The United States refuted the Soviet claim. According to American President Jimmy Carter, the Soviet Union had occupied Afghanistan as part of an expansionist policy to acquire warmwater ports on the Indian Ocean — which implied further expansion into neighboring Pakistan. Hence, the United States claimed that the rationale behind its support for the Afghan Mujahideen was to stop the claimed Soviet expansion into the Persian Gulf.

Indirect negotiations for six years

Brokered by the United Nations, the Geneva Talks was a series of twelve rounds of indirect negotiations that ran for six years starting from June 1982 to April 1988. The talks nominally took place between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the key actors behind the scenes were the Soviet Union and the United States. The outcome of this process was the Geneva Accords which was a set of four interrelated agreements signed on 14 April 1988 by the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan and by the US Secretary of State and the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union as the international guarantors.

At the heart of the Geneva talks was an effort by the United Nations to help the parties find a negotiated solution for the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan. The Soviet Union and the Afghan Communist regime reasoned that the Soviet troops would leave Afghanistan once the threat from the Mujahideen was removed. To remove the threat from the Mujahideen, they demanded the United States and Pakistan to halt their support for the Mujahideen first and then the Soviet forces would withdraw. However, the United States and Pakistan contended that the Mujahideen was not the cause but the consequence of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and therefore the Soviet troops must withdraw without any preconditions.

Seeking regime change

In addition to the issue of the Soviet troops, there was another issue at stake which was not overtly part of the negotiations in Geneva but important to both the Soviet Union and the United States. Besides a withdrawal of the Soviet troops, the United States and Pakistan sought a regime change in Kabul. The removal of the Communist regime in Kabul was one of the main objectives behind the US involvement in the Afghan conflict. For that reason the US government, under Jimmy Carter, had supplied covert financial assistance to the Mujahideen about six months prior to the Soviet invasion. However, for the Soviet Union the survival of the regime in Kabul was of paramount importance because according to the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, the primary reason for the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan was to prevent the fall of the regime.

Withdrawal and noninterference

Hence, the two main issues in the Geneva Talks were withdrawal of the Soviet troops and noninterference. Noninterference referred to a cessation of the US and Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Mujahideen. By implication it also meant that the United States and Pakistan would not pursue a regime change in Kabul.

Differences over who would rule Afghanistan after a withdrawal of the Soviet forces withheld progress in the Geneva Talks for several years. In June 1985, following the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev as the leader of the Soviet Union, the US and Soviet governments launched bilateral negotiations over regional issues, including Afghanistan.

The new Soviet leader was determined to withdraw from Afghanistan — calling it a bleeding wound for the Soviet Union. However, the commencement of bilateral US-Soviet negotiations on Afghanistan meant that the Geneva Talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan was merely a proforma exercise. This meant that substantive negotiations took place between the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union, and their outcomes manifested in the Geneva format which was nominally taking place between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In November 1985, Premier Gorbachev and President Reagan met in Geneva. Afghanistan was part of the agenda, and once again, a main point of contention between the two leaders was about the status of the Afghan government. Gorbachev proposed declaring Afghanistan a nonaligned state followed by a withdrawal of the Soviet troops. Reagan, however, demurred. He pointed out that the president of Afghanistan — Babrak Karmal — was a Soviet client and therefore implied that it was not feasible to establish Afghanistan’s nonalignment without a replacement of the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul.

The Soviet Union, however, aimed to preserve the regime in Kabul. In early 1987, the Afghan Communist regime launched a National Reconciliation Program. The program — funded by the Soviet Union — was designed, in addition to offering a share of power to Mujahideen leaders, to lure individual Mujahideen commanders to reconcile with the regime by offering them financial and economic incentives. In other words, the objective of the National Reconciliation Program was to integrate the Mujahideen within the existing political structure in Kabul. Nonetheless, the Mujahideen rejected the program, as they vowed to continue the fight until the destruction of the Communist regime. In Washington, President Reagan also dismissed the Soviet-funded reconciliation program as a “sham.”

Failed reconciliation and intensifying conflict

The failure of the National Reconciliation Program and an intensifying conflict in Afghanistan prompted the Soviet Union to shift its policy from seeking to preserve the Communist regime to preventing a government led by the Mujahideen. In early December 1987, Soviet officials informed their American counterparts that the Soviet Union had made a decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. They urged the Americans to consider mutual interests. A Mujahideen-led government, the Soviet officials said, would also complicate American interests in the region.

Around the same time, Gorbachev and Reagan held another meeting in Washington. On 9 and 10 December 1987, the two leaders discussed the issue of Afghanistan. Reflecting the change in the Soviet position, Gorbachev said that Afghanistan was not a socialist country but a “semi-feudal pluralistic” country. The Soviet Union, he added, was no more concerned about how the people of Afghanistan chose to live. He invited Reagan to “think together in a businesslike approach” to establish a neutral government in the context of a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The US position, however, was that a neutral government could not be established without the removal of the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul. Hence, Reagan proposed disbanding the military structures of the Afghan Communist regime in the context of a Soviet withdrawal. In other words, Reagan wanted to dismantle the ruling regime and then “start from scratch.”

Breaking the deadlock

Two months after the Washington Summit, Gorbachev announced on 9 February 1988 that the Soviet Union was ready to start the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan on 15 May 1988 and to complete it within ten months. He added that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was no more conditional on an agreement about the future government of Afghanistan. That, he said, is “none of our business.”

The unilateral announcement by Gorbachev broke the insistent deadlock in the Geneva Talks which had been taking place between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan but without substantial progress. However, two months after Gorbachev’s announcement, the Geneva Talks concluded in April 1988 with the signing of the Geneva Accords which, among other elements, set a nine-month timeframe for the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

Letting the conflict take its course

Following the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in February 1989, the two superpowers allowed the conflict between the Mujahideen and the Afghan Communist regime to take its course. The expression of this policy was best exemplified in a conversation between Gorbachev and the US Secretary of State, James Baker, in February 1990. Referring to the ongoing war in Afghanistan, Gorbachev said: “Let them boil in their own juices over there.” To which, Baker responded: “When you said, ‘Let them boil,’ I thought we have the same feeling.”


The Other ‘Peace Process’ on Afghanistan: Geneva Talks 1982-1988