Barnett R. Rubin is a senior fellow and associate director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, where he directs the Afghanistan Pakistan Regional Program.
President Trump’s willingness to withdraw U.S. military forces from Afghanistan opened the way for peace negotiations between the Taliban and U.S. officials. Trump deserves credit for discarding the Washington dogma that the United States must maintain an indefinite military presence in Afghanistan in pursuit of an ever-receding position of strength. As of this week, a framework agreement on U.S. troop withdrawal and Taliban counterterrorism guarantees seems to be emerging from the talks.
But avoiding the recurrence of bloodshed will require more than that agreement and the negotiations with the Afghan government that must follow. It will also depend on reliable international assistance and cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbors. Those might be more challenging than negotiating with the Taliban.
The emerging U.S.-Taliban agreement can open the door to the next stage of the process: negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government over the country’s political future, with public participation and including women and youths. The United States may have acceded to the Taliban’s demand to negotiate a troop withdrawal first, but as U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has said, “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and ‘everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire.” This linkage makes this a peace agreement rather than an excuse for withdrawal. Any signals that the United States is willing to withdraw without these commitments will undermine the process.
Though Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has promised that basic principles such as human rights will not be up for negotiation, some fear a weakened Afghan government might be pressured into concessions. The Taliban, however, has moderated its declaratory positions on issues such as the social role of women, education and political pluralism, and has not explicitly demanded reversal of current policies in negotiations or informal talks. The Taliban’s practices in areas it controls, however, sometimes recall the group’s time in power.
The key to a successful agreement is to link the withdrawal to political change so that a settlement does not mean returning the Taliban to power. A poorly conceived or implemented deal might enable armed Taliban members to overpower the government after a U.S. withdrawal, but a peace agreement that sequences implementation of withdrawal and reconciliation and provides for integration of incumbents and insurgents could create conditions for building common security forces. The Taliban is unlikely to overthrow a government in which it participates. Building unified forces might require a different international military deployment or continued U.S. engagement.
Yet the main threats to Afghanistan’s gains are not the Taliban or the withdrawal of U.S. troops. They are the decline of international financial support and prominence of ongoing strategic rivalries.
Even after 17 years during which the United States spent the equivalent of more than the entire Marshall Plan on aid to Afghanistan, it remains one of the poorest countries in the world. It depends more on foreign aid than all but eight other countries, including four African nations and four island micro-states. Humanitarian indicators have improved in recent years almost entirely because of the massive aid expenditure on health and education. If aid declines, so will those indicators. If the United States and the international community walk back on aid after an agreement, Afghans could return to deprivation without the Taliban launching a single attack.
Afghanistan’s security forces also depend almost entirely on foreign assistance. It is little wonder: The country had to bear the burden of becoming a front-line state against the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War and then became the epicenter of the global war on terrorism. Its security forces’ unilateral dependence on the United States is seen as a threat by its neighbors, which include four nuclear powers — Russia, China, India and Pakistan — and Iran. Its forces need support based on a regional consensus, not just a bilateral agreement with the United States that provokes regional tensions.
The lodestar of Afghan stability is assuring international assistance and the influence that accompanies it without provoking Afghanistan’s neighbors. The growth of the mega-economies of China and India — respectively the second- and sixth-largest in the world — has created incentives for such a regional agreement. Both powers have embarked on unprecedented collaborations for infrastructure building — China with its Belt and Road Initiative, and India with the North-South Transport Corridor linking the Iranian port of Chabahar to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Russia. Nascent proposals to link these megaprojects, such as the joint projects that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed at their April 2018 summit in Wuhan, China, could anchor the region’s transformation.
All of this would require something that this administration has at times seemed averse to: multilateral diplomacy. The United States might need the United Nations to convene regional powers to agree on common measures for the security of Afghanistan. The European Union would also be involved, as Afghanistan has already discussed how the body could act as a guarantor of any peace agreement.
The Trump administration has proved willing at times to engage with enemies such as North Korea and the Taliban. For Afghanistan’s future, can it also engage with allies and international organizations?