WWS Reacts

WWS Reacts: U.S.-Taliban Peace Talks

Jan 31, 2019
B. Rose Kelly
Woodrow Wilson School

The United States and the Taliban in Afghanistan are currently in the midst of negotiations about a possible withdrawal by the U.S. from that country. Many fear this could signal a “surrender” by the U.S., putting Afghanistan at risk of becoming a hub for terrorism.   

We discussed the peace talks with Jacob Shapiro, associate professor of politics and international affairs. Shapiro studies political violence, economic and political development in conflict zones, security policy and urban conflict.

Q. What sparked the peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban?

Shapiro: These talks have been going on and off at varying levels of intensity since at least 2011. The framework agreed to is not significantly different than one agreed to in 2013 before the Taliban scuttled the talks by opening an office in Qatar in a manner that suggested it did not recognize the government of Afghanistan. I cannot answer the “why this month?” question, but three trends have come together. First, as others have argued, military leaders in the United States are increasingly focused on great power competition over counterterrorism; thus, there is now less resistance within the U.S. government to risking the counterterrorism mission by withdrawing from Afghanistan. Second, the Afghan government has proved more durable at relatively low levels of U.S. support (compared to past years) than many expected, which may have shifted calculations on the Taliban side. Third, political events in Pakistan, including legal changes that will bring voters from border regions into the political process, have been increasing the political costs of supporting cross-border militancy. Those three long-term trends all favor compromises that would have been unpalatable a year ago.

Q. If the U.S. withdrawals from Afghanistan, what does this mean for the country? How likely would a Taliban takeover be?

Shapiro: Very unlikely. There is a long way between talks that agree to a framework and an eventual agreement. That ultimate agreement will surely have to entail strong guarantees and a long implementation timeline. Moreover, we tend to forget that the United States was able to break the last Taliban government in six weeks with far fewer forces and much less advanced technology than it has at its disposal today. Any Taliban leader with ambitions of seizing Kabul and reinstating rule as it was pre-2001 will have that in the back of their minds, which will moderate behavior.

Q. What are the short and long-term steps that need to be taken for a complete U.S. withdrawal from the region?

Shapiro: In the short-term, there will need to be an extended period of confidence-building measures between the Taliban and the Afghan government before there is a U.S. withdrawal. This may happen in stages, but U.S. engagement can be turned up as well as turned down, and the Taliban is aware of that.

Q. How stable is the Afghanistan government? Is the Afghan National Army strong enough to keep the country away from war?

Shapiro: The Afghan government is dependent on external support and will be for many years. However, the Afghan National Army has proven more resilient than many expected and the Taliban know they have no prospects for a military takeover of the entire country. Too many parties would oppose that for it to happen, including the U.S. and European Union, whose leaders would face significant political costs for standing by if the government were falling to an armed attack in which minorities were being slaughtered and women placed back under an oppressive rule.

Q. What would a possible Taliban takeover mean for women in Afghanistan?

Shapiro: It would be a tragedy, but the possibility of it happening is very low, in large part because it would be such a tragedy. I suspect the future holds some kind of government in which the Taliban play a role representing a portion of the Pashtun population of Afghanistan, but I find it hard to imagine a future in which a Taliban takeover of the entire country is possible. We often see the Vietnam analogy used here, but let’s not forget that when the U.S. left, its opponents had a superpower behind them and were fighting a Republic of South Vietnam government with no international legitimacy. Neither condition holds in this case.

WWS Reacts is a series of interviews with Woodrow Wilson School experts addressing current events.