On Sunday, March 7, an Afghan media outlet, TOLOnews, published a leaked letter from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to President Ashraf Ghani. TOLOnews also published an eight-page “peace” proposal by the State Department. While Foggy Bottom hasn’t yet officially acknowledged the authenticity of either document, American press outlets have cited anonymous officials confirming that both documents are genuine.
Per the February 29, 2020, agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban, the U.S. has until May 1, 2021, to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan. If the Biden administration fails to do so, then U.S. forces could be more frequently targeted by the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and allied jihadists once again. For the past year, the jihadists have been willing to let the Americans leave. That could change quickly if May 1 comes and goes without a withdrawal extension. Thus far, the Taliban has rejected any suggestion that U.S. or allied forces stay past the agreed upon withdrawal date.
It is with that fast-approaching date in mind that the two State Department documents were written. The proposed “peace” plan is an act of desperation filled with holes. Let’s examine several of them, as well as the problems with Blinken’s letter to Ghani.
The Taliban doesn’t want a “political settlement,” other than through its own victory and the resurrection of its totalitarian Islamic Emirate.
The premise of the “peace plan” is that the Taliban and the Afghan government want to “share power.” In his letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Secretary Blinken states that the two warring sides should jointly develop the country’s “future constitutional and governing arrangements” in a “new, inclusive government.”
The Taliban has stated—over and over again, in no uncertain terms—that it doesn’t want this.
The Taliban has fought to restore its Islamic Emirate, which controlled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, for nearly 20 years. All of its public messaging is focused on the return of this strict sharia-based regime. For instance, the Taliban released a speech from its deputy emir, Sirajuddin Haqqani, in late February. Haqqani, a U.S.-designated terrorist, is the leader of a notorious jihadi network that incubated al-Qaeda and remains intertwined with the group to this day. “The Islamic Emirate is the home of our faith and our religion, in which we are all united in a sacred bond,” Haqqani told a gathering of his mujahideen. Much of Haqqani’s speech was dedicated to the need for jihadist “unity” under this emirate. Haqqani discussed the emirate’s various commissions, which govern people under the Taliban’s rule, and the problems they have faced. His address was premised on the idea that the Islamic Emirate is on the verge of rising once again and these governing bodies need to be prepared to rule.
The State Department’s “peace plan” assumes that Haqqani doesn’t really mean this – that the Taliban has been lying about its political goals for the past 20 years. That is, the State Department is trying to assume away the central problem of the Afghan War: The Taliban doesn’t want peace, other than through victory. The Taliban’s leaders have consistently rejected the legitimacy of the Afghan government, telling its followers that they are not fighting for “some silly ministerial posts or a share of the power” with Kabul. The jihadists mean it, even if America’s diplomats don’t want to believe it.
The eight-page peace proposal envisions an interim government based on Afghanistan’s 2004 Constitution, which the Taliban has consistently rejected as sacrilegious. According to some U.S. officials, who spoke on background, the plan would have the Taliban assume control over this interim regime’s religious authority. But that doesn’t make sense. The Taliban seeks to impose its religious rule through its political regime. For the Taliban, Afghanistan’s political regime and its radical religion are inseparable.
The Taliban may very well send a delegation to Turkey, the proposed site for the expanded “peace” talks. But it’s not clear why anyone would expect the group to relent on its longstanding political goals, especially now that the U.S. is so close to completely withdrawing. The Taliban’s leaders didn’t seek true peace with Kabul when there were more than 100,000 Americans in country. It is unreasonable to expect them to do so now.
There is no good reason to pressure the Afghan government, America’s putative ally, as the U.S. withdraws its forces.
Secretary Blinken’s letter was widely interpreted as an attempt to pressure Ghani. For example, a headline in NPR reads: “U.S. Warns Kabul It May Withdraw All Forces By May 1 If Peace Talks Do Not Progress.” This is how the letter was interpreted in Kabul.
But why is the State Department pretending that Ghani and the fractious Afghan government is the main obstacle to peace? This is a warped view of the war.
Blinken writes that he wants Kabul and the Taliban to come to “terms” on a “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.” Many Afghans are understandably desperate for a ceasefire after decades of war. Ghani has called for one. The U.S. and foreign representatives have as well. It’s the Taliban that has rejected numerous ceasefire overtures. Yet, the State Department doesn’t blame the Taliban.
In his letter to Ghani, Blinken laments the “high” level of violence in Afghanistan, but at no point does he make it clear that the Taliban is chiefly responsible. Consider that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) found that the Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties in 2020, while violence carried out by the local ISIS branch accounted for 8 percent and other “undetermined anti-government elements” were responsible for 9 percent. In sum, the forces arrayed against Kabul caused approximately 62 percent of the civilian casualties in 2020, with the Taliban leading the way. By comparison, UNAMA attributed only 22 percent of civilian casualties to the Afghan government’s actions and another 3 percent to pro-government forces. The bottom line is that the Taliban launched multiple offensives in 2020 as part of its quest to restore its Islamic Emirate. And the Afghan security forces are playing defense.
Against this dire backdrop, Blinken asks Ghani to “broaden” his “consultative group,” “such that Afghans regard it as inclusive and credible” and “to build consensus on specific goals and objectives for a negotiation with the Taliban about governance, power-sharing, and essential supporting principles; and to agree on overall tactics and public messaging that will demonstrate unity of effort and purpose.”
The implication is that the main obstacle to peace is Ghani’s decision to hoard power for himself and his cronies. Ghani could “broaden” his advisory circle as much as Blinken wants. It wouldn’t change the Taliban’s oft-stated goals. While the Afghan government is problematic and corrupt, it may not even exist in the coming years if the Taliban and al-Qaeda get their way. At best, therefore, Blinken’s menacing request of Ghani is myopic.
Near the end of his letter, Blinken finally states the obvious – that the “Taliban could make rapid territorial gains” after the American withdrawal. But everything that comes before this statement assumes that somehow Ghani can magically make a completely unrealistic “peace plan”—which the Taliban doesn’t want—work.
“I am making this clear to you so that you understand the urgency of my tone regarding the collective work outlined in this letter,” Blinken concludes. It’s a bizarre admonition—one that places the responsibility for the failed peace talks on America’s own supposed ally. The Taliban was never serious about negotiating a peace with Kabul. Ghani’s government was cut out of the bilateral talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. Those talks resulted in the U.S. agreeing to withdraw all of its forces by May 2021. In return, the Taliban granted no concessions to the Afghan government. Instead, the jihadists merely agreed to begin “intra-Afghan talks”—an amorphous phrase that conspicuously avoided recognizing Kabul’s legitimacy. Not once throughout this entire process has the Taliban said that it is willing to share power with Ghani’s government, or any similar regime.
America’s rivals, enemies and frenemies aren’t going to deliver peace in Afghanistan.
Secretary Blinken writes that the State Department intends “to ask the United Nations to convene Foreign Ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India, and the United States to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan.” Blinken then adds: “It is my belief that these countries share an abiding common interest in a stable Afghanistan and must work together if we are to succeed.”
It is not clear how anyone could believe such a thing. Pakistan, a duplicitous American ally (or frenemy) has long harbored the Taliban’s senior leadership and facilitation networks. The Pakistanis do not share any “common interest” with the Indians regarding Afghanistan, as their two nations remain dangerously opposed to one another. The Pakistani military and intelligence establishment directly aided the Taliban in the 1990s, helping the jihadists establish their first Islamic Emirate, which was overthrown by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. The Taliban’s top leadership has plotted to overthrow Kabul from Pakistani soil ever since. One realistic concern is that Pakistani terrorists will increase their targeting of India after helping their Afghan jihadi brethren achieve victory.
The Iranians have consistently aided the Taliban’s insurgents, even while maintaining ties to Kabul’s elite. The Russians have provided a low level of support as well and reportedly even offered bounties to kill Americans in Afghanistan. (Though, it still isn’t clear if the Russian-offered bounties had any effect.) The Pakistanis, Iranians, and Russians have had nearly two decades to prove that they are interested in stabilizing Afghanistan. They chose to back the Taliban’s insurgency instead. Nor is it clear why anyone would think that China, which has positioned itself as America’s greatest rival, would back the desperate U.S. diplomatic effort now. China also has its own friendly ties with Pakistan and tense rivalry with India.
These countries very well may meet to discuss Afghanistan’s future. The idea that they will deliver peace is fanciful.
Blinken doesn’t mention the Taliban’s unbroken relationship with al-Qaeda.
In his letter to Ghani, Blinken makes no mention of the Taliban’s supposed counterterrorism assurances. The Trump administration claimed that the Taliban was going to decisively break with al-Qaeda as a result of the February 29, 2020, withdrawal deal signed in Doha. As I’ve written previously, the language of the agreement itself is more circumspect. That deal fails to provide any concrete verification or enforcement mechanisms.
Nevertheless, American officials concede that there has been no break between the two. Blinken does not raise the issue at all in his missive to Ghani. He does not assure the Afghan president that the U.S. is aware of the Taliban’s failure to deliver on any of its supposed counterterrorism assurances, which included prohibiting anti-American terrorists from operating inside its territory. Al-Qaeda terrorists have been hunted downinside Taliban turf multiple times since February of last year. It is obvious that the Taliban and al-Qaeda remain blood brothers, with Kabul in their crosshairs.
In sum, the Biden administration is pinning its hopes for peace on a plan that ignores the Taliban’s central political goal and ideological beliefs. Secretary Blinken wants America’s rival nations and enemies to somehow stabilize Afghanistan, after some of them have done much to destabilize the country for the past two decades. Blinken apparently sees Ghani as an obstacle to peace, while Ghani’s besieged government clings onto territory the marauding jihadists are preparing to conquer in their final push for victory. Meanwhile, the Taliban remains closely allied with al-Qaeda and hasn’t delivered anything on its supposed counterterrorism assurances.
That the U.S. moved forward with this “peace plan,” despite all of these problems, says much about the failed war effort.