The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The leaked U.S. plan to end the war in Afghanistan

Students leave school in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in December. The school was used as a Taliban recruitment center when the group was in power. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A leaked State Department document presents the clearest picture yet of a political settlement to the Afghan conflict that would satisfy the Biden administration and pave the way for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.

Read the full document

The United States delivered the document to the Taliban and Afghan government last week as frustration grows in Washington over long-stalled talks between the two Afghan sides and as violence rises across the country. It comes as the Biden administration is conducting a review of U.S. Afghanistan policy and the agreement between the United States and the Taliban, which calls for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops by May 1 if the militants met specific conditions.

The Washington Post obtained the eight-page proposal and verified its authenticity with two senior Afghan officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on a sensitive policy proposal. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the document.

The years-long U.S. diplomatic strategy behind the push to end the conflict in Afghanistan has largely been shrouded in secrecy. Under the Trump administration, only a four-page summary was released after the United States and the Taliban reached a peace deal in February 2020.

In contrast, sections of the draft peace agreement go into detail, especially in the suggested structure of Afghanistan’s future government. In some instances, the number of people on powerful councils and commissions is specified. Afghan news organization TOLO first published the document on Sunday.

U.S. proposes interim power-sharing government with Taliban in Afghanistan

Overall, the document calls for Afghanistan’s current government to be replaced with temporary leaders, a new constitution to be drafted and a cease-fire to be brokered. Within those proposals are elements both sides have described as nonnegotiable, so the plan is unlikely to be implemented in its current form.

Below are some of the most important issues raised by the proposal.

Who will govern Afghanistan

One of the key stumbling blocks in talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban is the militant group’s claim that President Ashraf Ghani’s government is illegitimate — an issue that is addressed in the latest U.S. peace proposal with the establishment of an interim government.

After eking out a slim election victory for a second term, Ghani has repeatedly refused to step down despite the Taliban’s unwillingness to negotiate with him or his administration.

And while Ghani’s government has expressed openness to amending the Afghan constitution, it opposes rewriting it. Language in the U.S. proposal does set parameters for how the constitution can potentially be rewritten, stating that Afghanistan’s “2004 constitution will be the initial template.”

Afghan government officials and supporters of democratic structures fear that a new constitution could pave the way for the Taliban to secure significant power in a future government. Such authority could give the militants the ability to roll back women’s rights, curb civil liberties such as freedom of speech and craft an archaic justice system.

The role of Islam and the question of elections

The draft agreement appears to attempt to balance the Taliban’s demand that Afghanistan be ruled by Islamic law and the Afghan government’s appeal for the country to be governed democratically.

The U.S. proposal calls for elections to be held after the formation of an interim government. While it does not specify when, this could be viewed as a compromise to the leaders in Kabul because the Taliban has described elections as a red line in the past, deeming them a Western-imposed construct.

Islam also plays a prominent role in the draft peace plan. According to the document, a “High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence” would provide guidance and advice “to all national and local government structures.” But in cases where the council disagrees with the country’s judiciary, the position of the country’s Supreme Court would be “final and binding.”

How to end the fighting

The proposal calls for a cease-fire to begin with hours of the deal signing. The end of hostilities is described as similar to the successful temporary reduction in violence that preceded the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, but this move would be “permanent and comprehensive.”

The United States and the international community for months have called for violence levels to be reduced. Afghanistan remains the most violent conflict in the world, with the Taliban and Afghan forces clashing across the country as the militants look to expand their territory.

The U.S. draft also calls on the Taliban to “remove their military structures and offices from neighboring countries,” a reference to Pakistan.

The Taliban deny the existence of such sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan and would probably refuse to agree to a document calling for their elimination. But reports including from the Pentagon claim Pakistan has long hosted Taliban leaders and their families and provided medical treatment to the movement’s fighters. The longtime relationship would be complicated to untangle. Pakistan denies supporting the Taliban.

Sharif Hassan in Kabul and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.