It sounds like the start to a bad joke, but what do the Kremlin, the Chinese Communist Party, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Taliban, al-Qa‘ida, the Haqqani Network, the Islamic State, the Pakistani intelligence services, exhausted members of NATO, nearly every Democratic candidate for president in the 2020 election, and the current President of the United States all have in common? They all want the United States to end its military campaign in Afghanistan.
On virtually every other issue, these parties would not be aligned, but despite their vastly different interests in the conflict, there is a growing recognition that the American-led war has achieved few, if any, of its strategic objectives and a peace agreement with once unthinkable compromises is starting to take shape.
Afghans, suffering continual war since the 1970s, cannot fairly be listed as part of this growing consensus, given the great diversity in political interests among Afghans and that the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has not even been a party to the talks at times. While Afghanistan has witnessed extraordinary improvements in public health, repatriation of refugees, and women’s access to education, the country remains mired in conflict and the American and NATO presence is ill-equipped to mitigate the harm, is causing its own damage, and is generally oriented towards counterterrorism and security sector assistance, not building a free, stable, and prosperous Afghanistan.
With negotiations between the United States and the Taliban underway, it is too soon to assess specific provisions of the agreement. Overall themes, however, have already emerged. The United States and NATO will apparently begin to pare down their military contingent and, in turn, the Taliban are expected to renounce their ties to al-Qa‘ida (a pledge of loyalty from one dead man, Osama bin Laden, to another, Mullah Mohammed Omar, remains binding on the parties but is clearly up for discussion) and – whether this is officially stated or not – will continue their military campaign against elements of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. In short, the United States is assuming an element of the armed opposition will remain able and willing to mitigate an authentic Afghanistan-based terrorist threat.
While a broad alignment around ending American involvement in the war exists, the concept the United States’ principal negotiator is pursuing is not without its critics. While national security hawks’ views are not surprising, it is an inescapable reality that Afghanistan hosts threats to Afghans, threats to countries throughout the region, and even threats to Europe and North America. The proposed agreement will not even likely lead to a real peace, it will simply change the structure of the conflict. As previously noted, Afghans are not uniform in their view on the proposals. Afghans who committed themselves to fighting the Taliban, ethnic and religious minorities like the Hazara, and Afghan women all stand to suffer if the Taliban is granted the political legitimacy these proposals will confer.
Ultimately, nations, terrorist groups, international organizations, and other actors all have shifting interests, so this overarching alignment may only be a temporary curiosity. However, the alignment of two of these entities – President Trump and a range of possible successors – will likely remain in place, despite the actions of these other actors. The war in Afghanistan is deeply unpopular in the United States, and there is little constituency for continuing it in its current form outside of national security circles or op-ed pages, so the United States is witnessing an unintentional connection between actors that could not be more dissimilar.
Whether President Trump or a successor commits to end the American intervention in Afghanistan, and whether the Taliban agrees to pursue the Islamic State, are uncertainties. What is certain is that Afghans have now witnessed more than four decades of continual conflict and are almost bystanders to discussions to conclude the war. Regrettably for the Afghan victims of war, the end to this conflict currently being discussed remains predicated on assumptions so broad that any precise prediction about the next phase of Afghan history should be treated skeptically.