Foreign Affairs

The Taliban Is Getting Sick of #Winning

August 16, 2019
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(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Whatever else you think of him, Donald Trump’s great strength was supposed to be dealmaking. His administration is nearing a peace deal with the Taliban, and it is frightening everybody who cares about the future of Afghanistan and wants to avoid Afghanistan’s becoming a safe haven for terrorism again.

The speculated agreement would officially end the war in Afghanistan and compel the United States to withdraw from the country militarily over the course of two years. In return, the Taliban will put down its arms and share power with the current Afghan government.

If this framework is generally correct, then the agreement will have three parties—the United States, the Afghan government, and the Taliban. And it will be not at all favorable to two of them.

Following a Senate hearing with the special envoy for the talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, neither Republican nor Democratic senators were satisfied with what they heard from the administration. And why would they be? An agreement in which the Taliban puts aside its weapons and then receives political power rests on the assumption that once the United States is gone, the Taliban will not pick their weapons back up. Why settle for half a loaf when the whole thing is there for the taking?

It gets worse. These negotiations for the future of Afghanistan have been missing one of the parties: Afghanistan’s legitimate government. No, really.

The Taliban representatives have refused to meet with the Afghan government. They claim that the Afghan regime is illegitimate and has no right to offer any concessions or make any demands. And if that’s how the Taliban views the Afghan government now, just imagine what they’ll do once they have run of the place.

And then there’s the simple political arithmetic: The Afghan government is secular and democratic. The Taliban is Islamist and authoritarian. It is impossible to see how the Afghan government could agree to share power with the Taliban, or vice versa. The New York Timesreports that the Taliban is resisting an immediate ceasefire because if “the lengthy power-sharing part of the peace process hits a wall, they will struggle to remobilize their guerrilla forces and lose the only leverage they have, which is violence.” And the power-sharing negotiations will hit a wall. The two parties do not have ideological disagreements within the same philosophical framework; they disagree on every single fundamental issue.

Mr. Khalilzad’s defense has been that the “moderate” Taliban negotiating partners have put down their arms and are committed to peace. Perhaps. But these Taliban negotiators are based in Pakistan.

Even if we were to accept their overtures at face value—an “if” the size of Everest—why would we believe that these “moderates” have the power to persuade their “hardline” partners inside the organization to put down their arms, too?

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To complicate matters even further, there is actually a third partner in the negotiations: Pakistan.

Pakistan has been, for years, an antagonist the Afghanistan story. Remember, this is the state which hid Osama bin Laden a few miles away from its version of West Point and then claimed it had no idea that the most wanted man in the world was living in a large armed compound.

Pakistan’s foreign policy toward the West relies on nuclear blackmail. And like the Taliban, there are logistical problems with making deals with the Pakistanis. Because while the United States might get an agreement from Pakistan’s civilian government, the country has a parallel state—the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) operating within it.

The ISI is Pakistan’s military intelligence service and while it is officially under the command of the prime minister, it unofficially operates separately from civilian control and pursues its own agenda. The ISI, to take just one instance, has been arming Islamic militants for the entirety of the war.


The administration’s Afghanistan policy relies on the belief that the Taliban is engaging in the current negotiations in good faith and will genuinely share power with the secular Afghan government.

The correct policy against terrorists in not negotiating with them; it’s defeating them.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri is a graduate student of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies. He grew up in Iran and left the country in 2011. He is currently seeking political asylum in the United States. Follow him @ShayKhatiri.