Afghanistan: Lessons from America’s Failed Negotiations with the Taliban

This August, the Taliban celebrates the second anniversary of its military and political victory over the United States. It is a bitter victory. They may have ended the threat of suicide bombings by their own rank and file. But they have given rise to epidemic levels of suicide among Afghan women and girls, who feel sheer hopelessness given the bans on education and work, and the prospects of forced marriage and a life of rape and servitude. They may have territorial control, but their policies have also prompted destitution of the entire population. In 2021, prior to the Taliban’s takeover 49.4 percent of Afghans were at risk of poverty. By 2022, 97 percent were impoverished, and 50 percent needed humanitarian assistance.  

In effect, the Taliban may have won the war, but they are losing the peace. Nonetheless, in the eyes of other militant and extremist movements, they are the modern-day David that beat the proverbial Goliath: the US. Their victory has already emboldened others to believe that with enough time and violence, they too can prevail.

To prevent similar situations, understanding how and why the Taliban won are important questions. In the US in the aftermath of August 2021, there was much finger pointing. Politicians blamed the intelligence community for their erroneous assessments of the Taliban’s military strength. President Ashraf Ghani was also blamed and was an easy scapegoat given his early escape and the vacuum of power he left in his wake.

Mediation efforts in Afghanistan must be scrutinized if anything is to be learned

But two years on there has been little public appetite for an analysis of the political processes that resulted in in the Taliban’s win, or whether different outcomes could have been possible. These are awkward questions. The first, forces an admission of defeat that is discomfiting – especially given the nature of the victors. The second, shines a light on the often obscure and exclusive realms of geostrategic diplomacy, where senior envoys and mediators have a demigod-like status. They are rarely open to public scrutiny or accountability, even though their strategies and decisions can put the lives of millions in the balance and have multigenerational consequences.

Arguably in the annals of contemporary war and peace diplomacy, Afghanistan may be considered as a unique case given the extent of military and economic investment in the country. But what happens there, and how diplomacy was practiced, has profound implications for other current and future cases. As such it may be a necessary but uncomfortable litany of ‘what not to do’.

Giving the Taliban a lifeline in 2002 was a fatal mistake

The Doha process in the run-up to the August 2021 withdrawal is central to this discussion, but three key factors in the preamble cannot be ignored. First, in 2002 the US bombarded and parachuted into Afghanistan to rout out Al Qaeda.  The Taliban who had provided the group a haven retreated but never quite disappeared. The decision to exclude them from the UN-facilitated Bonn Process, in 2002, which was billed as an ‘All Afghan’ process, set the stage for the subsequent 20-year enmity and war. Yet, it is also notable that in all those years, while other militant movements were listed as terror groups, the Taliban was always exempted. The twisted logic is that the Taliban never threatened the US. But other factors were always afoot. By being exempted from the terror list, countries such as Pakistan could continue to support them, without falling afoul of US laws and more importantly, while still receiving US aid. In 2013, the Obama administration greenlighted the establishment of the Taliban’s official office in Doha and the Qatari’s facilitation of subsequent dialogues. This clearly indicate that the U.S. was willing to engage and thus legitimate the Taliban. 

Warlords welcomed to the negotiating table, while women’s rights were co-opted 

Second, an array of warlords steeped in blood, rape and corruption were welcomed at Bonn and into the political fold. They were key beneficiaries of the culture of corruption and impunity that became rampant thanks also to the fire-hydrant style of US funding that flowed into the country. Former President Hamid Karzai once admitted, the Central Intelligence Agency had delivered bags of cash to his office for years, calling it “nothing unusual.” As a 2019 Washington Post article confirmed: “To purchase loyalty and information, the CIA gave cash to warlords, governors, parliamentarians, even religious leaders…The US military and other agencies also abetted corruption by doling out payments or contracts to unsavory Afghan power brokers in a misguided quest for stability.” Thanks to them, Afghanistan’s “Corruption Perceptions Index” for the public sector ranked between 92 and 84 out of 100 points between 2012 and 2020. These warlords, wearing well-cut suits, made up the much of political class and the delegations to the Doha peace talks. 

Third, to build domestic U.S. consensus, in 2002 the Bush administration cynically co-opted women’s rights as a pretext for its occupation of Afghanistan. The Taliban were already infamous for their oppression of women, but the US’s stance, reinforced their targeting of women’s lives. They equated women’s rights – to education, healthcare, employment – to the occupation and ‘Westernization.’ This continues today as they assume that oppressing women is an effective tactic to pursue two goals: first to pressure and win further concessions from the US and international community, and second to demonstrate to more ideologically extreme factions that they are steadfast in their ideology too, even though many of their own daughters are being educated abroad. Tragically for the US and much of the international community, women’s lives were not (and are not) a priority, despite much rhetoric.

Another key factor was that US administrations changed but, Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad remained as the US’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. His rivalry with President Ashraf Ghani dating back to their college years was widely reported on. The trust and rapport that he established with key Taliban figures was also a point of concern for observers, especially Afghan women. These factors demonstrating biases should have been criteria for his removal, but he was kept on.

The Taliban exploited these elements to stage their victory and benefitted from the following:

The Taliban played for time, the Afghan Government lost legitimacy and the US got the sequencing wrong

Knowing the US was counting the financial and human cost, and was impatient to withdraw, the Taliban drew on an old Afghan proverb, telling Western Negotiators ‘You have the clocks, but we have the time.’ Their patience paid off.

Between the Obama and Trump administration, the US made a key strategic shift in the sequencing of events and processes. In the Obama years, the approach was first to foster an ‘intra-Afghan’ dialogue, then consider the US withdrawal. US officials claimed that proposals for the design of an inter-Afghan process came from ‘the Afghans.’ But even in 2013, Afghans were skeptical as the Taliban were given more legitimacy than they had with the public. Women’s rights and other human rights and democracy advocates were particularly alarmed. Many pointed to Pakistan as the source of the supposed ‘Afghan designed’ process. As this went on, the Taliban played for time. In 2016 with Trump’s victory in the US, their gambit paid off. Trump with Khalilzad as his advisor and representative changed the sequence and decided to hold direct US-Taliban talks first. This exclusion and de facto undermining of the Afghan government was a further boon for the Taliban. They had long rejected the legitimacy of the Afghan government.  The 2020 disputed Afghan elections further strengthened their narrative, as Ashraf Ghani’s claims of victory were disputed by his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, amidst low voter confidence and turnout.

Concessions were offered to the Taliban with few conditions

The US-Taliban negotiations resulted in a series of concessions. The most significant was the US’s commitment to a timeline for the withdrawal of allied troops. The Taliban agreed to cease attacks against US military personnel. But the US gave further concessions that undermined the Afghan government. For example, they agreed to take senior Taliban figures off sanctions lists thereby enhancing their legitimacy. They also agreed to the release of 5,000 Taliban members from Afghan prisons. The latter concession was made despite objections and alarm from Afghan officials.

As the former Afghan Attorney General later said, with prisoners out, the prosecutors who convicted Talibs for terrorism or murder were suddenly at risk. One was murdered in 2021. Two hundred and forty female prosecutors, trained by USAID in dealing with violence against women, were particularly threatened as the Taliban took control of Kabul. Yet the US concessions came with no conditions for the security of Afghans. The UN reported a 47 percent increase in civilian casualties in early 2021 compared to 2020, prompting Deborah Lyons, the Special Representative of the Secretary General to state, “I implore the Taliban and Afghan leaders to take heed of the conflict’s grim and chilling trajectory and its devastating impact on civilians.”

There were daily attacks against Afghan soldiers, targeted assassinations of women, civil society advocates and minorities such as Tajiks, Hazara and Sikhs. 

For Afghan civilians and their allies internationally, the images of diplomats and politician shaking hands, looking serious and ostensibly talking about peace, was more akin to Kabuki theatre than reality: a grim, Orwellian reality where war is peace. It was insult added to injury when the Taliban offered half-hearted denials or condemnations of such events, blaming rogue elements. It was a convenient excuse but false, given their ability to uphold their ceasefire agreement nationwide vis-à-vis US troops.

Diplomats took a transactional rather than principled stance on women’s rights

On the question of women’s participation in talk and their rights, they should have taken a principled stance from the outset in every negotiation. Instead, they conceded to the Taliban and their claims that their version of ‘rights’ is rooted in Islamic and/or Pashto principles. It is notable that when they get pushback against the claim that their oppressive methods are ‘Islamic,’ they pivot towards Pashto culture which is less familiar to many international actors. Both claims are false. Their treatment of women is a tactic to extract recognition from the international community and the removal of individual figures from the sanction lists. 

Meanwhile, Western Diplomats, particularly non-Muslim men, have either been complicit, frustrated by or at a loss on how to address the issues and been overly culturally relativistic. In the 2018-2021 period many adhered to the narrative that a new improved Taliban 2.0 movement had emerged that was more progressive on women’s rights. While Afghan women warned against this notion, the international diplomatic community persisted with the narrative. When pressed by advocates of the women, peace and security agenda to bring women’s delegations to the Doha talks, governments reacted by calling on UN Women to convene Afghan women’s side events. But this was little more than window dressing.

Some diplomats became de facto mouthpieces for the Taliban, repeating their mantra that the exclusion of women from the political process and issues relating to women’s rights was rooted in ‘Islam and culture’. A senior European official, in a private discussion, even defended the Taliban in September 2021, claiming that ‘forced marriage’ was against their code of honor, even though reports of forced marriages were rampant.

For their own credibility, the international community representatives should have stood by the commitments of the women, peace and security agenda to have independent women’s delegations (especially Afghan women peacebuilders) and taken a principled stance on matters such as women’s employment, health, girls’ education, and other human rights. A transactional stance signals that such issues are open to negotiation. Cultural relativism also undermines decades of interfaith, cross-cultural progress on the universality of human rights. If principles are outmoded, then democratically elected governments should consider their reputation with their own voters: how many would tolerate their tax dollars benefitting a movement that condones child rape and forced marriages?

An exclusive process design, that privileged Taliban over other Afghans

Perhaps one of the key avoidable errors that Khalilzad, the Qatari mediation team, and others in the diplomatic community made was insisting on a highly exclusionary format for the ultimate intra-Afghan negotiations. Instead of convening a multi-stakeholder gathering that was a fair and realistic reflection of the diversity of modern Afghan society, the convenors opted for a traditional and exclusive ‘two-party’ process that has repeatedly been proven to fail. One delegation comprised the Taliban. This signaled that violence is a ticket to the table and gave them far more international legitimacy than they had among Afghans. It also enabled them to sustain their uncompromising stance for all out victory in the political arena. 

Meanwhile the ‘government delegation’ was mix of people representing tribal and political forces, civil society, four women, former warlords dressed as diplomats and kleptocrats sardined together. In other words, most of those at the table had the power of the gun, money, or disruption, as their ticket into the negotiations. But the 65 percent of Afghans under the age of 25, the 40 percent under 14, the 49.5 percent women, Tajiks, Hazaras and others that made up the majority of Afghan society – and who were at the receiving end of much of the violence – were silenced and sidelined from their own futures.  A more inclusive process where sectors of society could have had their own delegations (or a modicum of representativity) would have been more costly and required more facilitation support, but it could have yielded a much better outcome. It would have also debunked the Taliban’s perceptions and myths about Afghan women and girls.

This was a critical missed opportunity, and particularly so for the UN, given its track record of attempting more inclusive processes. The 2002 Bonn process was an important precedent that could have been built upon. In the subsequent years, especially from 2013 UNAMA had supported a number of sub-national mediation processes to resolve disputes and engage youth and women. But in 2020 when the first round of intra-Afghan negotiations commenced in Doha, the UN leadership was at best, an observer. Antonio Guterres appeared in a video message stating, “An inclusive peace process, in which women, youth and victims of conflict are meaningfully represented, offers the best hope of a sustainable solution.” While Deborah Lyons, issued a statement. 

But the US’s switch from conflict party negotiating based on its own interests, to that of facilitator and mediator between the Afghan delegation and the Taliban caused many to question its neutrality and call for independent facilitation. Ultimately it came too little, too late. In April 2021, in line with Secretary Blinken’s call, the UN joined Qatar to announce a high-level conference in Turkey, but on the same day, President Biden announced that the US deadline for withdrawal would be September 11, 2021. A week later, Turkey canceled the event because the Taliban refused to attend. They had won. As one independent assessment notes: “The Taliban Movement emerged as the principal beneficiary of developments since September 2018. It successfully exploited opportunities presented by the peace initiative to boost its international legitimacy and raise morale of its military, while achieving its primary objective of getting international forces to agree to leave the battlefield.”

Security interests ultimately trumped concerns about the future of Afghans

After 40 years of war an inclusive ‘Intra-Afghan’ peace process could have been transformative. Even women peacebuilders and rights activists spoke of the need for engagement. Many of them voiced compassion for families affiliated with the Taliban, knowing that economic factors, retribution, or fear were drivers. But the US failed to acknowledge Afghanistan as a country, a culture, a nation of people. To Washington it was just a ‘theatre of war,’ and there was no acknowledgement that this theatre was in fact people’s homes, schools, and villages.

The negotiations were thus just limited to US and Taliban security interests. Beyond the safety of its own troops, the only future concern the US voiced, was regarding ISIS, Al Qaeda and other terror groups. In effect, the US was litigating the 9/11 attacks of 2001. While the Taliban was seeking retribution for the violence it had endured at the hands of the US. Its rigid ideological positioning was (and is) is both a means of keeping other extremists in the fold and punishing Afghans for daring to build a more tolerant and religiously syncretic society – one more akin to a historic Afghanistan than that of the Taliban’s more recent version.

Neither the US, nor the Taliban or the Afghan official delegations took the opportunity of the talks to focus on a vision of the future. The mediators did not think to reframe the discussions based on sharing responsibility for the wellbeing of the country, instead of power sharing for their factions.

Yet if a more inclusive process had been designed, it would have provided spaces for Afghan youth and women, victims and survivors of violence to share their stories and their hopes. It would have enabled dialogue and debate and a degree of trust building among Afghans. Such a process could have enabled groups to move beyond political positionality and labels to envision a shared and hopeful future. There could have also been scope for envisioning scenarios of a nightmarish future that all would seek to avoid. But this reimagined approach to mediation was never given a chance.

What now for international diplomacy in Afghanistan?

Washington may prefer to keep Afghanistan in its rearview mirror. But it is not staying there.  The dire humanitarian conditions, the severity of gender apartheid and the political quagmire with geopolitical implications are consequences of US decision making. Afghans deserve a fair shot at a future. That can only come if Afghans themselves have the chance to set the future course. The international community may have limited leverage, but by collectively committing to support an inclusive national process, where women, youth and minorities have equal opportunity and representation, the course correction could be possible. Afghan women must have effective representation and women’s rights must be addressed as a tenet of traditional values, rooted in both Islam and universal human rights. It is erroneous to consider such rights as ‘Western liberal’ concepts. Much has been lost, and it may seem too little, but it is never too late.  

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini is a scholar and mediation practitioner working globally on conflicts, peace processes and addressing violent extremism. In 2020 she was awarded an MBE for services to international peacebuilding and women’s rights in HM Queen’s New Year’s Honors’ List. In 2000 she was a civil society leader and drafter of UNSC Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. She is the founder of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and author of Women Building Peace, What they Do, Why it Matters.  W

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