Just How Far Apart Are the Taliban and the Afghan Government?
December 9, 2020
Hope was abundant in Afghanistan in February 2020 when the United States and the Taliban signed a peace agreement that, among its provisions, paved the way for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country, garnered counterterrorism commitments from the Taliban, and led to the start of intra-Afghan talks in Doha, Qatar, on September 12, 2020. This hope was tempered, however, by concerns over some of the content of the peace agreement and the apparent legitimacy it conferred upon the Taliban movement. Primary among those concerns were the inclusion of secret annexes and the position in which the agreement placed the Afghan government—both politically and militarily—as it entered the intra-Afghan talks. Regardless, the agreement did represent some long-awaited, tangible progress and a chance for all sides to move tentatively towards a peaceful end state. This optimism, unfortunately, has since been tainted by a lack of real headway in the talks and the recent rise in violence, which has left many feeling skeptical about the prospects for peace and stability in the longer term.
The U.S.-Taliban peace agreement put the Afghan government in an awkward position from the start. Though it was not a party to the agreement, the government was bound to uphold a U.S. commitment to release some 5,000 Taliban prisoners, a politically and emotionally sensitive issue that became an early sticking point for the intra-Afghan negotiations when the government refused to carry out the release. The government later acquiesced, but it continued to detain 400 prisoners, many of whom had been accused or convicted of serious crimes. Ultimately, a Loya Jirga convened by the government approved the decision to release the remaining 400, removing the last obstacle to the start of intra-Afghan talks, but the episode was an early sign of the difficult path ahead.
Since the start of the intra-Afghan talks, the parties have spent several months in a deadlock over a framework for formal negotiations to proceed. At the time of this writing there had just been a breakthrough, with the two sides agreeing to the principles and procedures that will guide future negotiations between them, but the early deadlock shines a light on issues that may continue to plague formal negotiations. The concern and uncertainty surrounding the peace talks is reflected in data obtained by The Asia Foundation’s recent Flash Survey on Peace, Covid-19, and the Economy. Based on telephone interviews using random-digit dialing with over 4,300 Afghans across the country, the Survey found that 54.1 percent of respondents believe peace is possible in the next two years, while 34.3 percent say it is not. This less-than-definitive optimism reflects the struggle to get the talks fully underway and an awareness of just how difficult this process may be. Indeed, of the 34.3 percent of respondents who say peace is not achievable, 16.2 percent say that the government and Taliban are too far apart, reflecting the prospect that talks may fail.
Fifty-four percent believe peace is possible in the next two years, but 34 percent say it is not.
A further complication is the perception that both the Afghan government and the Taliban lack commitment. There is a belief that the government may be waiting to see how a new U.S. administration will proceed before firmly committing to the intra-Afghan talks. A major U.S. policy shift appears unlikely, however, as both presidential candidates during the campaign expressed their desire for military disengagement from Afghanistan. The recent announcement by the Trump administration of an additional withdrawal of U.S. troops will likely undermine any Afghan government hopes for a reset of U.S. policy. Concerns persist that the Taliban are not serious about the peace talks, and there is some belief that they will simply prolong the intra-Afghan talks until the U.S. withdraws, then push for a military victory over the government. Underscoring these concerns, of the 34.3 percent of respondents who say that peace is not achievable in the next two years, 9.3 percent say this is because the Taliban are not interested in peace.
Of those who say peace is not achievable in the next two years, 9 percent say the Taliban are not interested in peace.
The potential for regional and international spoilers to undermine any peace talks has been noted by many observers. A number of geopolitical actors have reason to undermine the process, and Afghan opinion also reflects this concern. Among respondents who say that peace is not achievable in the next two years, interference by other countries is cited as the main reason by 36.7 percent (an aggregate of those who cite specific countries).
As the peace talks continue to unfold, data on Afghan perceptions over time is essential. Following the first round of The Asia Foundation’s Flash Surveys, which were conducted from September 6 to October 4, 2020, a second wave of interviews is now underway, which will be followed by a third wave ending in January. The findings will be available in December 2020 and early 2021, respectively.
Tabasum Akseer is director of policy and research and David Swift is director of security for The Asia Foundation in Afghanistan. The can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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