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'Hopeful Moment': What An 'Afghan-Led, Afghan-Owned' Peace Process Might Look Like

FILE: Afghan Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan.
FILE: Afghan Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan.

After six days of talks in Qatar with Taliban representatives, the U.S. special envoy on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, announced on January 28 that an agreement had been reached on a "framework" peace process to end the 17-year Afghan war.

Khalilzad said the agreement calls for the Taliban to prevent international terrorist groups from basing themselves in Afghanistan and for the United States to withdraw its forces from the country.

RFE/RL spoke with Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group, about what the implications of the development are for an Afghan-led peace process.

RFE/RL: Despite agreeing to a "framework" for future peace talks, the Taliban has yet to make concessions on two key U.S. demands -- implementing a cease-fire and agreeing to negotiate directly with Afghan government representatives as part of an Afghan-led, intra-Afghan peace process. Can these key issues be resolved?

Graeme Smith: The Taliban appears now to be considering whether it is prepared to make such concessions. A major unanswered question is how to structure an intra-Afghan dialogue. It's also unclear what the Taliban will accept on timing and sequencing. Do they see dialogue with the Kabul government starting before a foreign troop withdrawal? Or only later, after a U.S. troop withdrawal is under way that diminishes the leverage of the Afghan government and the United States?

There's a lot of anxiety around the peace process. It's completely understandable. So much is happening. So much could go wrong. But this is, in some ways, a hopeful moment. There is an opportunity here to end the largest war in the world and bring to a conclusion America's longest war.

Graeme Smith
Graeme Smith

RFE/RL: Khalilzad, the U.S. peace envoy, says the Taliban has agreed to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a "platform for international terrorist groups." Would the Taliban be capable of doing that?

Smith: If there was a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government, it would be extremely bad news for any other militant groups. There are hundreds of battles on an annual basis between the Taliban and the Islamic State [extremist group]. The Islamic State would be very afraid of a Taliban that wasn't distracted by fighting Americans or Afghan government forces and could focus its attention on slaughtering the Islamic State.

RFE/RL: The Taliban's complex and secretive structure is not necessarily a unified hierarchy across the local, provincial, regional, and national levels. Does the Taliban's political office in Qatar have the clout to hold sway over local Taliban commanders in battlefields across Afghanistan?

Smith: We got a hint of how the Taliban works in June of 2018 when there was a three-day cease-fire. It was amazing to see the Taliban put out, essentially, a press release -- just a quick statement. It went out over their messaging apps and other channels. Commanders did not know this was coming. Out of the blue, they got instructions from the Taliban leadership for a three-day cessation of violence. Then, all across the country, the guns went silent. It was amazing. From hundreds of kilometers apart, these different Taliban groups all respected their leadership and stopped fighting. Then, at sunset on the third day, when the Taliban leadership said it was time to resume fighting -- boom! It was like a thunderclap. The violence came back.

You can argue night and day about how unified the Taliban is. The fact is that their command-and-control works. And the Taliban political commission in Qatar is part of that. So there is an ability to make people follow a cease-fire order if that order comes down.

Eight Afghan security officers were killed in a roadside bomb blast claimed by the Taliban in Logar Province on January 20.
Eight Afghan security officers were killed in a roadside bomb blast claimed by the Taliban in Logar Province on January 20.

RFE/RL: Is there a risk that less moderate Taliban might continue fighting or even join other militant groups like Al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State?

Smith: The Islamic State is a very small fraction of the militant presence in Afghanistan. Only 2 percent to 5 percent of the violent incidents in Afghanistan are attributable to Islamic State. In other words, if you're concerned about violence in Afghanistan, you're not that concerned about the Islamic State. The Taliban is responsible for more than 90 percent of the militant activity. Islamic State has a presence in just a handful of districts in the east -- primarily in Nangarhar Province and Kunar Province. And there is just a minor presence of other militant groups. I don't know why we're even talking about it.

RFE/RL: The Taliban has been comparing the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan to what it calls recent Taliban "military and political" victories against U.S.-led coalition forces. Are there useful lessons in such comparisons?

The lesson we can learn from the Soviet withdrawal is that you need a peace agreement that sticks."
-- Graeme Smith

Smith: Unfortunately, there's not a lot that we can learn from all the comparisons being thrown around to the Soviet withdrawal and to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. So much is different now. Things have changed dramatically. The lesson we can learn from the Soviet withdrawal is that you need a peace agreement that sticks. Otherwise, just like we saw in 1992 after the Soviet withdrawal -- after the Afghan government was cut off from its subsidies from Moscow -- the government collapsed and the country was torn apart by multifactional civil warfare. Nobody wants to go back to that.

So maybe the only useful lesson from that time is the lingering threat that if this peace process doesn't work, things are going to turn out badly for everybody.

RFE/RL: What is significant about the appointment of a new leader for the Taliban's "political commission" in Qatar, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar?

Smith: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar co-founded the Taliban. He's from southern Afghanistan and he's part of a tight-knit group of Kandaharis who started the whole movement in the early 1990s. [Like former Afghan President Hamid Karzai,] he is a Popalzai tribesman. So he brings a significant amount of political clout, but also a strong military mind, to the negotiating team.

Baradar was appointed last week as the third deputy leader of the Taliban with special responsibilities for the political office in Qatar. That effectively makes him the chief negotiator on behalf of the Taliban. When you see a party to a negotiation appointing more senior people to a negotiating team, it signals that things are escalating and getting to the next level of talks.

Pakistan had imprisoned Bardar in 2010, and released him only last October as U.S. negotiating efforts began to gain traction. Pakistan's decision to free Baradar as part of a confidence-building measure and prelude to these talks signals that Pakistan has decided to take a more constructive role in this round of negotiations.