The recent success between the Afghan government and the Taliban in agreeing to a "preamble of the [on-going intra-Afghan] negotiation" encourages mutual focus on more concrete conflict-resolution goals, such as a long-term ceasefire. Despite the Taliban steering clear of explicit ceasefire guarantees, the formation of a joint agenda-setting committee makes it difficult for any party to fall out of favor with peacemakers, sidestep ceasefire propositions, and ultimately compromise their own formal endorsements of peaceful progress.
It is against this backdrop that Washington must also promptly address the seasonal shifts within its own troop drawdown narrative. By touting two vastly divergent positions on military withdrawal in recent times, United States risks generating a rift with the emerging intra-Afghan priorities of Taliban insurgents, as well as those of the Afghan government.
The Afghan government's emerging priorities on post-conflict stability are driven by two expectations. First, a demonstrated recourse to nonviolence by Taliban fighters, through a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire agreement. Negotiators consider the move critical to avoiding a high trust deficit. Second, government negotiators are open to exploring the legitimacy of integrating Taliban fighters into a post-conflict governance setup.
Note that the Afghan government has consistently joined the United States Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad, in demanding "reduction in violence" from the Taliban. In the event that a full-scale ceasefire is unlikely, violence reductions have come across as fallback goals to offset peaking civilian collateral in the country.
But the compounding factor is Khalilzad's deep-seated commitment to the Taliban, which endorses the withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan by May 2021. In the current context of Doha talks, such a commitment enables the Taliban to navigate present-day prospects of ceasefires, and attack Washington's aversion to peace at a later stage if it falls short on its commitment to withdraw all troops by the agreed date.
Consider the insurgents' early signs, warning the incoming Biden administration that the "implementation of the [U.S.-Taliban bilateral] agreement is the 'most reasonable and effective tool' for ending the conflict between both our countries." The catch is that the Taliban's newly announced breakthrough deal with the Afghan negotiators is deprived of such highly preferential endorsement, suggesting a predetermined slant towards the U.S.-Taliban bilateral agreement.
It is also worth considering that the Taliban can decide to limit their engagement with the Afghan government at a later juncture. This can take shape if Washington's current urgency to call back troops runs contrary to its own commitment of retaining those numbers deep into next year.
On the constitutional front, Washington's peace advocacy must center on the Taliban's embrace of the 2004 Afghan constitution, and the favorable consequences attached to the constitution's adoption. For instance, in the aftermath of this week's breakthrough Taliban-Afghan negotiation framework, U.S. Envoy Khalilzad wasted precious constitutional advocacy on rhetorical confirmations.
He chose to reiterate the expectation of "rapid progress on a political roadmap and a ceasefire" during the intra-Afghan talks, emphasizing that the U.S. will "work hard with all sides for serious reduction of violence."
What Khalilzad missed was striking a significant chord by pointing out that the Taliban are yet to adopt any constitution to date, raising questions about its ability to come through on present prospects. No attempt was made by Washington to question Taliban's approach to peace under a "Sunni Hanafism" banner – a fundamentalist Islamic governance brand that the Taliban insist as a lifeline.
Thus, a split between the U.S. military establishment and Trump on withdrawal logistics prevent Washington from exercising its peace process advocacy for more tactful and promising gains. At the forefront of these gains lies a pulse of Taliban's compatibility with pre-existing constitutional frameworks for effective post-conflict governance.
The alternative course would be to derive a more predictable set of results. For instance, cosmetic support and mixed withdrawal signals from the U.S. risk reviving the Taliban's interest in their lost Islamic Emirate of 2001, demanding that Islamic jurisprudence – known as the Hanafi fiqh – is accepted as the benchmark for post-conflict governance in Kabul. This could prove particularly troubling as Doha talks begin to take some shape in the coming weeks.
On the other hand, U.S. complacency could also introduce fresh fractures between insurgents and the Afghan peace negotiators, given that the latter endorse continuity in the current Afghan constitution. Hence, the Afghan government should not serve as the only party advocating constitutional merits, especially when pitted against a Taliban line-up that is brimming with skepticism.