March 22, 2021
IntelBrief: Great Game 3.0? Afghan Negotiations Approach a Crossroads
The Biden administration is weighing the option of whether to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the May 1 deadline or to extend through November 2021. Department of Defense officials have reportedly presented President Biden with several options, including pulling all troops in the beginning of May; keeping troops in Afghanistan indefinitely; and extending the deadline for withdrawal until November. It remains unclear exactly what the administration believes could be accomplished over the next six months that the United States has been unable to achieve over the past twenty years. All parties to the conflict recognize that the Taliban has failed to uphold its end of the agreement. Violence remains high throughout the country, and there are no indications that the Taliban have, or plan to, break in any meaningful way from al-Qaeda. According to Edmund Fitton-Brown, who coordinates the U.N. Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, “the top leadership of Al Qaeda is still under Taliban protection,” and there is widespread skepticism that the Taliban will withdraw their protective mantle over al-Qaeda any time in the future. Indeed, the Taliban has little incentive to do so, because it is apparent to all sides in the negotiations that Washington is eager to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in the near future.
Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), head of the Armed Services Committee, suggested that “to pull out within several months now is a very challenging and destabilizing effort.” Yet, speaking from Moscow – where Taliban leadership attended a conference designed to bring together major stakeholders in the ongoing negotiations – the group issued a warning to the United States about extending the troop withdrawal past the May deadline. U.S. Peace Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad attended the talks in Moscow, as did representatives from the Taliban, the Afghan government, Pakistan, Iran, India, and China. These same regional powers called on the Taliban to eschew its annual Spring offensive, and instead concentrate on finding a way to move forward with a negotiated political settlement. Next month, negotiations will continue, hosted by Turkey, where discussions will focus on confidence building measures, including a ceasefire and a proposal for a power-sharing agreement. The U.S. decision to reach out to Turkey to host an important step in the negotiations is being heralded as a big win for Ankara, at a time when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is determined to play a more high-profile role in international affairs. The U.S. has also asked the United Nations to convene a high-level meeting of regional powers.
Some who favor a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan argue that al-Qaeda has been neutralized and no longer remains a threat to the U.S. homeland. Its leadership has been decimated and, while it will likely remain a threat, the attenuation of its organizational and operational capabilities mean that the U.S. can withdraw its troops without fear of al-Qaedarebuilding its external operations infrastructure. Proponents of remaining in Afghanistan disagree, pointing out that since the Taliban has refused to break from al-Qaeda, an Afghanistan where the Taliban holds any semblance of political power will lead to the country once again becoming an unfettered safe haven for al-Qaeda and other jihadists to network, train, and plan spectacular attacks. Discussion of the Haqqani network has also been muted, even as this group remains one of the most potent terrorist threats to Afghanistan. Sirajuddin Haqqani, designated by the United States as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity, is the leader of the Haqqani network, but also functions as the deputy emir of the Taliban and the group’s top military leader.
The United States recently shared its proposal for a transitional government as part of a draft Afghanistan Peace Agreement. Yet, the prospects for a sustainable power-sharing agreement seem extremely limited. Few observers expect the Taliban and the Afghan government to reach an agreement, and certainly not on the expedited timeline being pushed by the Biden administration. Despite tremendous amounts of blood and treasure spilled in Afghanistan over two decades, U.S. leverage seems to be decreasing with each passing month. Meanwhile, regional powers, especially Russia and Iran, are deftly maneuvering to increase their respective influence. With the twenty-year anniversary of 9/11 approaching in September, the debate over “ending endless wars,” or so-called “forever wars,” will inevitably heat up.