In 1988, the United States, the Soviet Union, Pakistan and the government of Afghanistan signed the Geneva Accords, bringing the nearly decade-long Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan to a close. The U.S.S.R. agreed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, while the United States promised to cut funding for the insurgency.
The government of then-President Najibullah was in a precarious position. To survive, it needed to secure a favorable agreement, along with assurances of continued political support. But it received nothing of the sort.
Instead, the 1988 peace talks sidelined crucial players in Afghanistan, centering instead on the needs of the United States and the Soviet Union. Neither great power devoted much attention to planning for the peace to which they were agreeing. They largely ignored the lives of ordinary Afghans and the need to rebuild the country after the war.
Even worse, the United States broke the accords by continuing to filter money through Pakistan into the hands of the insurgency for some time after, while the U.S.S.R. was mostly concerned about withdrawing its troops quickly for internal political reasons.
By largely sidelining Najibullah’s government, the two powers dashed its hopes that they might legitimize it as a serious player. This left the government of Afghanistan contending with a crisis of legitimacy. Within four years, it collapsed, too weak to contain old, neglected grievances that boiled over into a multifaceted civil war as mujahideen turned on mujahideen.
The United States helped fuel this war by funding the insurgency. Into the fractures of a civil-war-riven Afghanistan entered the Taliban, a political organization and movement. It quickly seized power and established itself, despite resistance within the country and beyond it, as the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The mismanagement of the Geneva Accords gave the world the Taliban’s brutality, with devastating repercussions not only for Afghans living directly under its power but also for all the victims of terrorism supported by the regime. The emergence of this terrorist-supporting regime led the United States to wage an ongoing 18-year-long war in Afghanistan, with mixed results at best.
Today, Afghanistan faces a danger similar to the one it faced in 1988. For months, the Trump administration, through its envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, has negotiated with Taliban leaders. Although each side has claimed to desire peace, the underlying goal for both is merely a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, an event that both could spin as a victory. Trump would trumpet it as a campaign promise kept, while for the Taliban it would represent the culmination of a long-sought dream: the removal of foreign troops from Afghan lands.
The negotiations with the Taliban highlight how ill equipped the U.S. government is to deliver a workable peace. Just as in 1988, Khalilzad cut out important players in Afghanistan’s political future. He shouldered out the Afghan government and ignored most of Afghan civil society, including crucial segments of the population, such as women and ethnic and religious minorities whose interests and lives are threatened daily by the Taliban. It is unclear why Khalilzad excluded these key players — perhaps to appease the Taliban — but by doing so he cast doubts on the talks from the start.
In an eerie echo of 1988, this reckless maneuver damaged the already tenuous standing of the Afghan government, whose sovereignty and popularity are deeply questioned by parts of Afghan society that see it as an American puppet. This move also promoted the brutal, tyrannical Taliban as a legitimate peace partner. Rather than cementing a stable vision for a postwar Afghanistan, the peace talks have focused on scoring political victories that the Taliban and the U.S. government could sell to their respective bases.
It is unclear how truthful Trump’s stated reason for canceling the Taliban visit was. There is some indication that he was concerned with political fallout, especially from his base in conservative media. But regardless of his reasons, the outcome spells danger for Afghans and the rest of the world.
If history is any indication, the consequences of the Trump administration’s reckless attempt at an agreement and even hastier reversal will be borne out by Afghans themselves — a reality that Afghans know all too well. Just recently, Trump offhandedly commented that he could win the Afghanistan war if he was willing to kill 10 million Afghans. The comments were picked up in Afghanistan as evidence of how little the U.S. government is concerned about the lives of Afghans. The poorly structured peace talks — and now, their collapse — simply reinforced this message.
With the legitimization of the Taliban and simultaneous stalling of the peace deal, an escalation of war and violence is likely. Afghans lived through those consequences before. They stand on the precipice once again.