Although we did not hear about the war in Afghanistan during the presidential debates, the presidential election is a big moment for Afghanistan. Despite the U.S.-Taliban deal to end America’s longest war, signed in Doha, Qatar, in February, conflict in Afghanistan hasn’t receded.
Recent attacks by Taliban fighters across the country appear aimed at pressuring the U.S. and Afghan governments. And the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a violent attack on a Kabul tutoring center last weekend that killed 24 people, mainly students.
What will America’s commitment to Afghanistan look like after the election? That’s what Afghans are trying to figure out. Some such as President Ashraf Ghani may be hoping that a Joe Biden presidency would reset the peace process, scrap parts of February’s Doha deal and renew assurance of U.S. support. For now, President Trump appears determined to expedite the timetable and bring all U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan “home by Christmas,” a tweet announcement that took his own administration by surprise.
Here are four key issues affecting the war as the election looms.
Peace negotiations are in flux
The intra-Afghan peace negotiation — which was supposed to start in March — was delayed as the Taliban and the Afghan government disagreed over unilateral U.S. commitments to the Taliban, such as the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Following push and pull on the release of prisoners, Afghan politicians and the Taliban started negotiating directly in September. But since then, the talks remain stalled over foundational principles.
For one, the Taliban insists on making the Doha deal with the United States — which did not include the Afghan government — the basis of the dialogue. But some Afghan negotiators don’t want to ratify American commitments to the Taliban, which they believe undercut the Afghan government’s legitimacy.
The lack of progress in negotiations is complicated by the Taliban’s broader behavior. Instead of becoming more conciliatory, the Taliban has ramped up operations across the country, sending ominous signals that it is preparing for more combat as U.S. forces withdraw. Recently, it launched an offensive in southern Afghanistan.
In addition, the Taliban is threatening to kill those who collaborated with the United States “as long as they do not repent and accept an Islamic system.” This also appears to be a bid to induce defections from Afghan security forces.
The Afghan government’s negotiating power, meanwhile, is undermined by divisions among key elites. The rivalry between Ghani and lead Afghan negotiator Abdullah Abdullah looms large — a division the Taliban will look to exploit. A major sticking point is the proposal of an interim government to oversee the peace process. Although some elites are open to the idea, Ghani remains opposed, because it would probably leave him out of power.
The violence since the February peace agreement has taken a toll on Afghan civilians
The U.S.-Taliban pact has failed to lower the toll of the war on Afghan civilians. The U.N. assistance mission in Afghanistan estimates that the war has killed 2,117 civilians in the first nine months of 2020. While much of the harm has resulted from actions of the Taliban, analysts suspect the Islamic State is brutally targeting vulnerable minorities, including children. The Afghan military continues to harm civilians, too.
The high levels of violence have disappointed many Afghans who hoped that the Doha deal would ease their misery. Since Trump’s signaling of an expedited U.S. force withdrawal, some Afghans question the viability of peace talks — and whether the Taliban genuinely wants a deal.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the American peace envoy for Afghanistan, recently tweeted that the Taliban has ramped up violence inside Afghanistan to extract maximum concessions during the peace process. Other analysts worry that the Taliban is systematically hollowing out all sources of future political and military challenge following the U.S. drawdown.
The Taliban’s ties with al-Qaeda are another point of contention
As part of the Doha deal, the Taliban committed to not let al-Qaeda use Afghan territory against the United States. Some reporting even suggests that in the secret annex to the deal, the Taliban agreed to renounce al-Qaeda.
But since February, the Taliban has taken no publicly discernible steps against al-Qaeda. In a recent report for the Middle East Institute, I argue that there is a firm political basis for the relationship: Both groups fit into each other’s ideology-based political projects, so the Taliban is unlikely to crack down against al-Qaeda.
In mid-October, Afghan forces killed a senior, most-wanted al-Qaeda leader in a Taliban-controlled area. If he was under the protection of a Taliban leader, as some reports suggest, that would potentially violate the U.S.-Taliban deal. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior U.S. intelligence officials are deflecting questions on the Taliban’s ties with al-Qaeda.
Regional rivalries are undermining peace
Amid the uncertainty due to the presidential election, Khalilzad is struggling to constrain the influence of regional countries on Afghanistan. Pakistan’s role in the current stage, for instance, remains unclear. In his 15th visit to Islamabad, Khalilzad leaned on Pakistan’s army chief Qamar Bajwa to persuade allied Taliban to show flexibility on a cease-fire. Bajwa reportedly pledged to send his intelligence chief to Qatar to persuade the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire. But Pakistan’s public pronouncements fall short of urging the Taliban to cease its operations — and warn against archrival India’s influence in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, India isn’t happy that the Doha agreement paves the way for Pakistan-allied Taliban to regain power in Afghanistan. To counter the rise of a Pakistan-leaning government in Kabul, Delhi wants to aid Afghan militia leaders who may be willing to fight the Taliban after a U.S. drawdown.
Other regional players, such as Iran, Russia and China, are also sending signals that undermine the ongoing peace process. Khalilzad has reiterated the risk that rivalries in the Gulf and South Asia could fuel a new cycle of war in Afghanistan. Senior Afghan officials suggest that they want peace but are anticipating a civil war.
For now, the peace process is not a priority for many inside and outside Afghanistan — and the prospects of peace may be tied to the Afghan policy of whoever is in office in the White House in January.
Asfandyar Mir (@asfandyarmir) is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.