The signs are mounting, however, that the administration’s talk of a political settlement means waiting for the Taliban to initiate a peace process after the heightened U.S. military effort has the hoped-for effect of reversing Taliban territorial gains. If the United States persists in this approach, the wait is likely to be fruitless. A protracted stalemate is the best plausible course of the conflict, at least over the next several years. In any conflict, every party contemplating negotiation wants to proceed from a position of strength, but the American experience in Afghanistan over the last 16 years shows that we and the Afghan government are not likely to so decisively gain the upper hand that waiting to negotiate would pay off in increased leverage at the table. More to the point, the United States has leverage now. We might not be able to win the war, but we have made clear that we can disrupt Taliban operations and kill Taliban leaders. Like us and like our Afghan allies, the Taliban has reason to deal.
President Donald Trump signaled the waiting approach in his August 21 speech, when he said, “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.” Statements by other officials, particularly Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have more affirmatively leaned into the necessity of a negotiation process, however, suggesting that there may be some continuing debate within the administration on the best approach. Nevertheless, the State Department’s recent disbandment of its long-established expert team focused on trying to launch a peace process appears to be another signal that diplomatic peace initiatives are being deprioritized. And, crucially, the decision reportedly already made or being contemplated to eject the Taliban’s designated negotiators from Qatar, if carried out, will be seen as clear confirmation of lack of U.S. interest in seeking a political settlement.
There are strong reasons not to follow through on that reported decision:
First, if the desired end game is negotiation, why not start such a (no doubt lengthy) process as soon as possible?
Second, shutting down access to the Taliban’s designated negotiators would increase, not reduce, the obstacles to negotiation. When a channel is already available, keeping it open for when it is needed would give the U.S. and Afghan government more flexibility in choosing how and when to move forward.
Third, a generally applicable principle of negotiation is that you don’t get to choose your opponent’s representatives. That’s as true for the Taliban as it is for any other potential negotiating counterpart. The Taliban has repeatedly made clear publicly that the representatives in Doha, Qatar, are their authorized interlocutors with the international community.
Fourth, there is a high risk that the Taliban envoys would relocate to Russia, Iran, Pakistan, or perhaps China — all places in which the United States would have less cognizance of their activities than in Qatar, and where the hosts would gain influence over a future peace process, at the expense of the United States. Moving to Pakistan would in particular seem to run counter to the administration’s overall Pakistan policy — it would reward Islamabad by giving it control over the one element of the Taliban, its political commission, that Pakistan has not been able to dominate.
The main argument in favor of expulsion from Doha appears to be that the Taliban representatives there have not delivered results from their leadership and therefore should not be entitled to remain living in relative comfort and freedom. Although it is true that no breakthroughs have yet been achieved in launching a peace process, that is a reality for which the Doha group is not uniquely responsible, and, in the meantime, it has established itself as an authoritative conduit for communication. And it is a conduit, we should note, that was put in place with explicit American support.
In addition to making the prospects for a peace process more remote than ever, expelling the Taliban representatives from Doha and, more broadly, declining to seek opportunities for contact, would further erode Washington’s already tenuous ability to shore up a regional consensus in support of the Afghan government. China, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia are all averse to the idea of an American policy of indefinite military presence in their backyards. They have largely appreciated the necessity of that presence for the time being, but the more permanent-seeming the presence becomes, the greater the likelihood that they will act to undermine it. The expressed intent of the United States to work toward a negotiated political solution has in the past held together the fragile consensus. Without that intent, the spoiling will escalate. Without a U.S.-led peace initiative, the region will pursue its own solutions, which are not likely to advance American interests. At the same time, European support for the U.S. strategy will be put at risk. Washington may have closed its eyes to the near-term necessity of pursuing a settlement, but Berlin, London, and others have not.
Asserting and carrying out a genuine U.S. commitment to seeking a political settlement will not assure that the endeavor succeeds, but reaching that end state will not happen without making settlement not just a far-off goal, but the object of an active, prioritized, and well-resourced diplomatic initiative. The credibility of U.S. efforts toward a political settlement is already under doubt in Afghanistan and the region, and in the view of those with whom the United States purportedly seeks to engage. Closing down the known and available channel for talking would deal it a gravely damaging blow.