On Saturday, President Trump announced the United States had abandoned efforts to negotiate with the Taliban on ending the war in Afghanistan. As the war enters its 18th year, it has cost the United States more than 2,600 lives and billions, if not trillions, of dollars — and has killed tens of thousands of Afghan and Pakistani people. The U.S. position continues to deteriorate; the Afghan government remains plagued by corruption, and there seems to be little hope the Taliban will ever be defeated.
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.
Today’s Taliban includes a variety of factions, such as the prominent Quetta Shura and Pakistani-supported Haqqani network. Beyond these internal divisions lie further divisions among the broader Afghan insurgency, which includes the emerging Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K). Our research in the Journal of Global Security Studies argues that powerful insurgent factions may seek peace to forestall their own decline when rival insurgent factions are increasing in power.
IS-K emerged in 2014, when high-level leaders of Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP or the Pakistani Taliban, a faction that emerged in Pakistan in 2007) pledged their allegiance to Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The IS affiliate has also attracted defectors from other Taliban factions, including the Haqqani network, and it has fought the Taliban for control of territory in Nangarhar province. IS-K has repeatedly clashed with the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan, where the U.S. has attacked IS-K leaders using airstrikes. Despite these setbacks, IS-K has drawn on a rich network of supporters and allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan to stay resilient. The group continues coordinating spectacular attacks against its enemies in both the Taliban and the Afghan government. As the broader Islamic State loses ground in Iraq and Syria, the movement may increasingly turn to Khorasan as its hub.
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.
It’s also possible, as political scientist Jason Lyall suggested here at TMC, that the Taliban is simply employing a strategy of “fighting while talking.” Either way, research tells us that violence tends to increase when peace negotiations are underway, which shouldn’t have surprised the Trump administration.
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.
Navin Bapat (@nbapat) is the chair of the curriculum in peace, war, and defense and professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of Monsters to Destroy: Understanding the War on Terror, forthcoming with Oxford University Press.