As the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban begin this weekend, there are concerns among current and former US national security officials that efforts to develop a solid path towards peace in Afghanistan could be jeopardized by President Donald Trump’s goal of declaring victory by withdrawing American troops before November’s election.
“The long-term success of a peace process, which will take a tremendous amount of time and effort once the parties come to the negotiating table, is at odds with short term political win for the Trump administration,” said a State Department official.
Current and former national security officials say that the Trump administration kickstarted the peace process in general, including the intra-Afghan negotiations, because most Americans agree that it is time for the US to withdraw from the country. A peace process involving the Taliban is viewed by many as the only way to accomplish that goal.
The intra-Afghan negotiations are a major step for the country which has been mired in a deadly war for almost 20 years.
But peace processes take time and experts say it’s highly unlikely the process will be concluded before early November.
“It is preposterous to think that there will be something that they can label a victory less than two months from now,” said a former State Department official. “And I am also fearful about the improvisational planning on behalf of US heading into the intra-Afghan negotiations.”
Talks ‘are a first step’
An Afghan government official said the talks “are a first step” but said “there must be continued support and commitment to keeping the security architecture, the institutions the civil service systems … in order to ensure that what is being discussed could be implemented and monitored.”
Other former officials who have worked in Afghanistan expressed optimism about the talks on the whole – but stressed that the process cannot be sped up to meet Trump’s campaign agenda.
“There are historical examples where the positions of the negotiating parties over time turns into something where areas of convergence starts to become clear. Two sides which appear to be very far apart at the beginning can find themselves having fleshed out areas in which they truly can live and work together,” said Annie Pforzheimer, a former deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Kabul last year and now a senior non-resident associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “People should not push a peace process into some kind of early conclusion.”
Trump, who has been blunt about his desire to end the conflict and pull out all US troops since he was a candidate, did not put any time constraints on the negotiations when he announced them on Thursday. He described the talks as “the result of a bold diplomatic effort,” which involved rounds of talks between the Taliban and US officials.
The Trump administration announced plans for a further US troop drawdown in Afghanistan this week, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying the troop level would hit 4,500 by late fall. This announcement less than two months before election day is viewed by current and former national security officials as an effort to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise of bringing home troops from Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who arrives in Doha for the opening of the talks this weekend, rejected the suggestion that the drawdown is related to election-year politics in an interview this week.
“I don’t know what they’re talking about in terms of politics,” Pompeo told Fox News. “This has always been about delivering counterterrorism, protecting America, and reducing the cost both in blood and treasure to the American public.”
Some fear that a further reduction of US troops – from about 8,600 to about 4,500 in a move that has been discussed by the administration over the last few months, as reported by CNN – could benefit the Taliban in the intra-Afghan negotiations.
“Withdrawing more US forces right now is the single biggest factor that will undermine the peace process. Why would the Taliban seriously negotiate on anything when all political signals from Washington are that the US is going to leave, no matter how the negotiations turn out?” said Seth Jones, an expert at CSIS and a former adviser to US Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan.
The Afghan official who spoke to CNN seemed to express some concern about US troops being withdrawn during the negotiations, noting that the talks were just a starting point.
“The drawdown, the way I see it, it has two sides. One side is that it might be further encouraging for the Taliban to say that we are very committed to the, to the agreement that was made with the Taliban and the drawdown is happening and it’s phased as was expected,” the official told CNN. “On the other hand, it is also a signal for a group who is continuously using violence as an instrument and is only responding to force,” they added.
When asked about the concerns, Pompeo said he believes “the Taliban has every incentive to get this right,” when he spoke to reporters during his flight to Doha for the opening of the peace talks.
Behind the scenes scramble
The looming deadline of the US election has also impacted the behind the scenes tactics of top US Taliban negotiator, Zalmay Khalilizad, as he sought to speed up the process of releasing Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government, sources explained to CNN.
The prisoner release issue has been a major sticking point preventing the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations – which were supposed to begin six months ago, according to the US-Taliban agreement which was signed in February. Australia and France have publicly objected to the release of certain Taliban prisoners, due to attacks they carried out which killed international troops in Afghanistan.
At one point in recent months Khalilzad suggested that the Afghan government release the Taliban prisoners after the US election, according to two sources familiar with his suggestion. The hope was to sweep the impediment under the rug for now, the sources explained.
The idea was rejected by the players involved, yet the proposal itself demonstrates the lengths to which the top Trump administration negotiator has been willing to go in order to hustle the process along, in hopes of creating a narrative of victory before Trump faces re-election.
Those who are watching the process closely say Khalilzad has applied a very improvisational approach to the negotiations with the Afghan government and the Taliban over the last two years. The free-wheeling approach is a natural characteristic of his, particularly because he has been involved in this space for decades and knows most of the players personally, but it is also a product of him being under enormous pressure to deliver results to Trump.
“I don’t think the sense of urgency and the hope for quick negotiations were really coming from Khalilzad or the negotiating team but were coming from the White House. It was the constraint the negotiators have been under. A quick turnaround on the negotiations will serve a political purpose because the election is coming up,” said Jones.
Some who worked with Khalilizad voiced support for his approach and reiterated the impossible mission he was given due to Trumps’ insistence on getting America out of the country.
“For the time I observed him directly he was realist working with a nearly untenable set of parameters,” said a second former State Department official who worked with him in recent years.
CNN’s Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.