March 2, 2020
IntelBrief: United States and Taliban Reach Agreement to End 18-Year Long Conflict
Over the weekend, the United States and the Afghan Taliban, also referred to as the Quetta Shura Taliban, reached an agreement to move toward ending the nearly two-decade long conflict. The agreement represents the culmination of more than a year of back-and-forth shuttle diplomacy between Washington D.C., Kabul, and Doha, Qatar, where the deal was ultimately signed. Still, the next stage of the process could be the most difficult—the intra-Afghan process, tentatively slated to commence on March 10th. The Trump administration’s approach to the deal has been to sideline the Afghan government during this first phase. The deal comes on the heels of a seven-day reduction in violence agreement, which led to an 80 percent drop in attacks and served as a confidence building measure that the Taliban was serious about seeking a genuine negotiated peace settlement. The agreement, titled ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan’ was signed in Doha by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Special Envoy, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s chief negotiator. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in attendance. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper traveled to Kabul, perhaps as a sign of reassurance to the Afghan government that Washington is fully committed and has no plans of abandoning Afghanistan’s leadership at such a critical juncture in the process.
One of the key tenets of the agreement is the following: ‘The Taliban will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including Al Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.’ Discussion of private annexes as part of the agreement have only served to further obfuscate what many perceive as among the most crucial aspects of the deal—to what extent there are verification mechanisms that the Taliban is adhering to its responsibilities to deny Al Qaeda sanctuary. Al Qaeda’s emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, pledged bay’a, or allegiance, to the Taliban’s leadership on behalf of all Al Qaeda members, suggesting that the link between the groups may be difficult to break. The United States plans to drawn down troop levels according to a phased withdrawal. The current level of 13,000 troops will be reduced to 8,600 over the next 135 days, with the rest withdrawn over a period of 14 months.
After an estimated $2 trillion spent on the conflict and suffering the deaths of more than 3,550 U.S. and NATO and ISAF Coalition troops combined (2,400 of the total deaths have been from the United States), the insurgency finally seems to be entering a new phase. Since 2009, there have been more than 100,000 Afghan civilian casualties, including 35,000 killed and another 65,000 injured. Many tens of thousands of Afghan security forces have also been killed over the course of the conflict although the exact number is difficult to know for certain. Afghanistan still faces considerable challenges, ranging from egregious government corruption to an economy heavily dependent on international aid to remain solvent. The infusions of aid serve to perpetuate the vicious cycle of corruption, which erodes confidence in the Afghan government and contributes to the legitimacy of a range of violent non-state actors, including groups like the Taliban.
The withdrawal is predicated upon the Taliban’s commitment to ensuring that Al Qaeda is not able to enjoy safe haven in Afghanistan, even though the Taliban has consistently and repeatedly lied about the nature and scope of its relationship to Al Qaeda. If the United States withdraws its remaining troops over the next 14 months and talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government falter, there are lingering questions over what could happen next. With a significantly reduced U.S. presence and the potential for Afghanistan to return to a full-blown civil war, this increases the possibility that the country could once again be overrun by criminals, insurgents, and terrorists, to include not just Al Qaeda but other militant groups like the Haqqani Network and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). To guard against this scenario, Washington will need to retain some modicum of an effective counterterrorism capability, to include intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), as well as the ability to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a launching pad to conduct external operations against regional and international targets.
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