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In January 2019 the US envoy for the Afghan Conflict, Zalmay Khalilzad, announced that a framework for a peace agreement had been agreed with the Taliban: the US would withdraw its troops and, in return, the Taliban would undertake to prevent Afghanistan being used by terrorists for attacks on other countries. This was hailed by some as a breakthrough.

There remained many unanswered questions about any peace deal, such as how the present government would be involved in the discussions and what role the Taliban might have in a future government. At present the Taliban refuses to talk to the Kabul government because it does not recognise its legitimacy.

The UK supports political negotiations.

Pakistan facilitated the talks, but its role is ambiguous – most observers accept that Pakistan’s ISI has supported the Taliban as a hedge against India. Pakistan’s influence in the future is likely to be crucial, but relations between Pakistan and the US and India can be volatile and may affect the negotiations.

In December Trump administration officials said that half of US troops would soon be withdrawn, but pressure from Senate Republicans and others seems to have caused the administration to retreat from that position; the acting US Defense Secretary said in February 2019 that there would be no unilateral drawdown.

The UK increased its deployment to Afghanistan recently, as part of NATO’s Resolute Support operation. NATO’s mission is to train and support the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces rather than to engage in combat.

The UK’s Department for International Development plans to spend £155 million in Afghanistan in 2019/20. £100 million on reconstruction, £20 million on humanitarian support and £13 million on education support.

The peace talks come against a background of significant setbacks for the campaign against the Taliban: the insurgents have increased the amount of territory they control and have mounted some spectacular attacks in recent months. The UN reports that 2018 was a record year for civilian deaths, including the deaths of children.

Meanwhile, the government is in disarray, riven by rivalries that are partly ethnicity-based, and its performance is further handicapped by corruption. Elections to the Parliament last year were marred by insecurity. The next presidential election is due to take place in 2019.

With the Taliban in a strong position in the conflict, it is difficult to imagine their agreeing to stop fighting unless they get a powerful position in any political settlement. A majority of Afghans is satisfied with democracy, but Afghans are not optimistic about the country’s direction.

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