"Blessed are the Peacemakers"
After more than a year of direct negotiations, the U.S. government and the Taliban signed a peace agreement on February 29, 2020, that sets a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Under the agreement, the United States will draw down U.S. forces to approximately 8,500 troops within 135 days and complete a full withdrawal within fourteen months. In return, the Taliban pledged to prevent territory under their control from being used by terrorist groups and enter into negotiations with the Afghan government in March 2020. The agreement was signed following a seven-day reduction in violence, a period which required the Taliban to adhere to a “significant and nationwide” reduction in violence, and also required that U.S. and Afghan forces refrain from targeting Taliban-controlled areas of the country.
Despite this new agreement, there is still no official cease-fire in place. Throughout 2019 and into 2020, violence continued across Afghanistan as the United States increased air strikes and raids targeting the Taliban, while the Taliban continued to carry out attacks on Afghan government targets, make territorial gains, and target Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) bases and outposts. The Taliban have also carried out high-profile attacks across the country, including in Kabul. After the reduction in violence period ended, the Taliban quickly resumed attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians.
Prospects for negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban remain uncertain. The onset of negotiations is also subject to delay or disruption due to a disagreement on the timing of the release of five thousand Taliban prisoners. The Taliban expects the prisoners to be released before talks can begin, while the Afghan government plans to release the prisoners after the negotiations start. The Afghan government itself remains divided after a contentious election, further complicating prospects for the talk. In February 2020, the Independent Election Commission declared President Ashraf Ghani the winner of the September 2019 presidential election; his main rival and current Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah rejected the results, declared himself the winner, and held a parallel inauguration ceremony in March 2020.
Over the eighteen months, the Islamic State in Khorasan has also continued to expand its presence in several eastern Afghan provinces, continues to carry out major attacks in Kabul, and is responsible for an increase in suicide attacks targeting civilians.
After the Taliban government refused to hand over terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in the wake of al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership quickly lost control of the country and relocated to southern Afghanistan and across the border to Pakistan. From there, they have waged an insurgency against the Western-backed government in Kabul, international coalition troops, and Afghan national security forces.
In the eighteenth year of the war, and in their fifth year of being responsible for securing the country, the ANDSF continue to face significant challenges in holding territory and defending population centers, while the Taliban continues to contest districts and carry out suicide attacks in major cities. For more than four years the war has been at a stalemate, with, according to official U.S. government estimates as of 2019, only 53.8 percent of Afghan districts under government control or influence, 33.9 percent contested, and the remaining 12.3 percent under the control or influence of the Taliban. The ANDSF continue to suffer heavy casualties and, while actual figures have now been classified by the U.S. military, senior Afghan officials estimate that for several months in 2018 as many as thirty to forty ANDSF personnel were killed every day. 2018 also saw a record-high number of 10,993 civilian casualties, with the UN documenting 3,804 deaths and 7,189 injuries. While 2019 saw a slight decline, with 3,403 civilians killed and 6,989 injured, civilian casualties exceeded 10,000 for the sixth year in a row and brought the total UN-documented civilian casualties since 2010 to more than 100,000.
In addition to a stronghold in the strategically important southern province of Helmand, the Taliban controls or contests territory in nearly every province, and continues to threaten multiple provincial capitals. The Taliban briefly seized the capital of Farah Province in May 2018, and in August 2018 captured the capital of Ghazni Province, holding the city for nearly a week before U.S. and Afghan troops took back control. In addition to a U.S. troop increase in 2017 and continuing combat missions, the U.S. military shifted its strategy to include the targeting of Taliban revenue sources as well as fighters, conducting an air campaign against drug labs and opium production sites. After more than two hundred air strikes targeting the Taliban’s drug production and transportation networks, the campaign was ended in late 2018.
Uncertainty surrounding the future of international donor assistance has strained the Afghan economy. While the United States and its allies have pledged to provide support to Kabul, the transition to a peacetime economy risks further destabilizing Afghan society by inflating the budget deficit and increasing unemployment rates.
The United States has a vital interest in preserving the many political, economic, and security gains that have been achieved in Afghanistan since 2001. A resurgence of the Taliban insurgency could once again turn Afghanistan into a terrorist safe haven. Moreover, internal instability in Afghanistan could have larger regional ramifications as Pakistan, India, Iran, and Russia all compete for influence in Kabul and with subnational actors.