The US and Taliban have agreed to a draft agreement after 16 difficult and lengthy days of what is the latest round of negotiations. The talks began on 25 February and ended on 13 March, and although no final agreement has been reached, the two parties have come to terms on the question of a US troop withdrawal and counterterrorism assurances. All this, without yet revealing the full details.

While progress towards peace has finally been taken, the road ahead for US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the United States remains long and tumultuous. “The conditions for peace have improved,” Khalilzad said late in the talks:

It’s clear all sides want to end the war. Despite ups and downs, we kept things on track and made real strides.

He went on to add that long-term peace in Afghanistan requires agreement on four issues: counter-terrorism assurances (essentially for the Taliban to disavow other terrorist groups), troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue, and a comprehensive ceasefire.

In January, the Taliban and the US agreed in principle on the first two issues: counter-terrorism and troop withdrawal. After the talks in March, the two parties agreed in draft, one step closer to a final agreement. However, Khalilzad said there is no final agreement until the ceasefire is achieved. These are the complexities of the situation in the months ahead. 

There are currently roughly 14,000 US troops deployed in Afghanistan, involved in combat missions, training local forces, and conducting intelligence operations. US President Donald Trump has long been cynical about military involvement in Afghanistan. He has continuously called for the withdrawal of US troops from the region, despite opposition from his cabinet and advisers.

Trump is sceptical of the Afghan government’s capacity to deal with the conflict. Hence he introduced a grand Afghanistan and South Asia strategy in 2017, highlighting two main aspects:

  1. Increased American troops presence in Afghanistan; and
     
  2. Future overseas missions should have attainable objectives, a fixed duration, and a clear exit strategy.
     

He soon drifted from the first aspect, and in December 2018 ordered that troops be pulled out, describing war with the Taliban as a waste of US taxpayer’s money and troops. A few months before the Trump announcement, Khalilzad had been appointed Special Representative to negotiate with the Taliban in an attempt to work towards the aim of having a clear exit strategy,

The Taliban has come to the negotiating table from a position of power and strength. The Taliban now is in control of more territory than since it was ousted in 2001. It managed to take control of the first provincial capital city Kunduz in 2015. The 2017 Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan report stated that around 11% of the country is under the Taliban control, with a presence in almost 70% of the country.

Afghanistan is probably the first country where a democratically elected government is not a party to the peace agreement. Its absence in a process to determine the future of its nation has raised questions over its legitimacy and power.

Conspicuously missing from the peace talks is the involvement of the Afghan government. The Taliban has refused to meet or negotiate with the government dismissing them as “puppets” of the US. Afghanistan is probably the first country where a democratically elected government is not a party to the peace agreement. Its absence in a process to determine the future of its nation has raised questions over its legitimacy and power.

This is only the most obvious several major hurdles that could upend the peace process.

First, the lack of involvement of the Afghan government delegitimises its authority and undermines the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered an unprecedented ceasefire to the Taliban last year, which was met with reciprocity. The ceasefire saw rare scenes of Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters rejoicing Eid together. Although the Taliban ruled out the offer for a ceasefire extension, it has displayed the government’s tenacity to end the Afghan war at all cost.

Second, the withdrawal of US troops out of Afghanistan is seen as precipitous. Trump’s call to pull out American troops by Trump was criticised by senior US officials, and the sudden resignation of former US defense secretary Jim Mattis’s was due to differences with Trump over his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and Syria. Although Trump since said in his State of the Union Address that he may consider keeping a small number of US military personnel to focus on counterterrorism, there is a high likelihood of chaos in Kabul when the bulk of US troops have left.

Third, against the backdrop of peace talks, the US and Taliban are undertaking military operations with the aim of strengthening their bargaining positions. For example, the Taliban continues to carry out violent attacks on major military bases and civilians in parts of Afghanistan. The US is also carrying out airstrike operations against the Taliban as the peace talks are ongoing. This continuing violence only compounds the peace talks.

Last, there is a lack of gender representation in the negotiations, with Afghan women sidelined. Many Afghan women want to speak out about the gains they have made since 2001 and ensure that their basic needs are addressed. Moreover, there is no active involvement of the civil society.

So while the agreement in draft is a significant step towards peace in Afghanistan, the next round of peace talks must confront two complex issues: intra-Afghan peace negotiations and a ceasefire agreed by Taliban and the Afghan government. Earlier, Khalilzad stated that he wants a comprehensive peace agreement before the July elections. However, given the volume of issues, not just within Afghanistan but also with the involvement and importance of external players, the talks will be anything but straightforward.