So is there any hope of more negotiations?
Why would the Taliban choose to negotiate now?
One could argue that the Taliban is increasingly in a position to outlast the United States and claim a decisive military victory. If today’s Taliban were as cohesive as the Taliban that managed to control Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, that might well be true. But it’s not.
IS-K’s numbers are still small compared to those of the Taliban, but its strength is steadily increasing. IS-K’s proven ability to claim both fighters and territory from the Taliban suggests the Taliban had good reason to pursue peace talks with the United States. That might have resulted in both a U.S. withdrawal and international recognition and legitimization.
If both sides were ready, why did peace fall apart?
Trump said he scuttled the peace talks because a Taliban suicide bombing killed an American service member, adding he was concerned that the Taliban wasn’t strong enough to deliver peace. Many have speculated that either the Taliban attack was a justification for what the president wanted to do anyway or that the peace talks would have fallen apart anyway.
But Trump is not the only player in the talks. By negotiating, the Taliban leadership was taking a big risk. It stood to gain a lot if it could secure a U.S. withdrawal. Even with U.S. troops aiding the Afghan government, the Taliban controls or contests large swaths of Afghan territory. With a U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban might be able to increase its political power. But if the United States did not bring home its troops or delayed doing so, Taliban forces might increasingly defect to IS-K — or other Taliban factions, those opposed to compromise with the United States and President Ashraf Ghani’s administration, might grab power.
Our research and work by political scientists Andy Kydd and Barbara Walter suggest that parties excluded from peace talks and those that don’t favor negotiations tend to use violence to spoil those talks. If the Taliban leadership were to negotiate a cease-fire, it might see more defections to IS-K, a move that would undermine its leverage in the peace process.
That may have been what ended the peace talks: dissatisfaction within the Taliban, including deep internal divisions and fear of defections. These divisions mean the negotiators do not speak for the whole insurgency — or even necessarily all of the Taliban. So the president may be right that the attacks revealed the Taliban’s negotiators couldn’t commit the group to peace.
Trump’s erratic nature doesn’t inspire confidence from the Taliban’s leadership or the Ghani administration. By ending the process with relatively little justification, the president risks undermining those in the Taliban willing to negotiate. Worse, some Taliban leaders or members may interpret Trump’s behavior as a bad faith attempt to increase infighting. With so much to lose and so little confidence that the Trump administration would deliver on its promises, the Taliban is in a difficult position.
So what comes next?
If IS-K keeps growing in power, Taliban leaders may again feel they must risk negotiating with a less-than-reliable U.S. president. Such a deal might offer the United States a chance to withdraw, while producing even more infighting within the insurgency as the Taliban tries to consolidate power.
Meanwhile, the Afghan people will continue enduring conflict, whether or not there is a peace agreement.