Highly-anticipated peace talks finally began in early December in Afghanistan, after the Afghan Government and the Taliban spent three months finalising a preliminary deal. As a result of the preamble, the two sides have reached an agreement on the talks' procedures, scope, and conditions. This preliminary deal means that the two parties can actually begin the negotiation process and the Taliban will now (hopefully) agree to a ceasefire—something they refused to commit to during the preamble, but is desperately needed in the war-torn country.
The fact that the preamble has taken so long to organise, and that its achievement is such a big deal, speaks volumes as to just how intricate the country's problems are. But as long and difficult as it was, determining the conditions were the easy part—now the long arduous process of bringing peace to Afghanistan can begin. How successful these talks will remain to be seen, and there is only so much trust that can be given to the Taliban, Afghanistan's oppressive former government that was ousted from power during the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
The Taliban haven't exactly come to the peace table willingly. The intra-Afghanistan peace talks were initiated by Washington and agreed to by the Taliban in return for a withdrawal of American and NATO forces as part of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed in February 2020. So far, the Taliban haven't kept their word on other conditions of the US-Taliban peace deal, so it's easy to be sceptical that they will negotiate in good faith with the Afghan Government—a government they won't even admit is legitimate.
As per the US-Taliban peace agreement, all foreign troops are due to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in return for security guarantees from the Taliban. The US will leave ahead of schedule, with outgoing President Trump pulling all but 2,500 soldiers out by mid-January. These remaining soldiers will continue to help reinforce the Afghan Government, but this is very much a token force that clearly signals to the Taliban that the US is finished in the country.
There is every likelihood that the Taliban are simply waiting out the world before retaking the country back.
With the US and its allies leaving Afghanistan prematurely, the Afghan Government isn't strong enough to stand on its own two feet. This is evident in that large swathes of territory across the country are controlled by the Taliban and even more is contested, even after decades of foreign intervention. Without US support and airpower, the Afghan Government will not be able to hold the country together. We can expect the Taliban to sweep in and fill the power vacuum, as they did with a spike of violence and territorial gains in the months and years following a 2013-14 drawdown.
There are other conditions of the US-Taliban peace agreement that haven't been upheld by the Taliban. They have retained ties with Al-Qaeda, in blatant violation of the agreement, and they have delayed the ceasefire promised to the US Although they have ended attacks on US forces, conditions relating to Afghan troops were vague and so are still ‘fair game’ to Taliban forces. These signs point to the conclusion that the Taliban aren't willing to stick to their end of the peace agreement, but are simply waiting for the US and its partners to leave Afghanistan.
Once May passes and foreign troops leave Afghan soil entirely, the Taliban will have the opportunity to act with impunity. Realistically, once foreign forces leave the country, they won't come back. The costs of re-intervening in Afghanistan are extremely high: troops will need to be redeployed, bases will need to be re-established, and infrastructure will need to be rebuilt. On top of that, politicians will need to deal with the political fallout of reengaging in a foreign war that would promise to drag out for more decades.
Does the world have the energy for another war in Afghanistan? If the Taliban decided to renege on the intra-Afghanistan peace talks and take back the country by force, do any foreign governments have the resolve to recommit to a costly war to force the Taliban out again? If any do, they would enter a war-torn Afghanistan similar to 2001 and would need to root out an emboldened and enraged Taliban all over again.
The Taliban have proven to be slippery and difficult negotiators, as previous US Administrations and the Afghan Government have discovered. In this latest push for peace, the Taliban have been unwilling to renounce Al-Qaeda or put an end to violence within the country, highlighting that the U.S-Taliban peace treaty lacks necessary mechanisms to enforce compliance.
The world watches with bated breath as negotiations begin between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, but there is no reason to think the world will see the successful conclusion of these negotiations. The Taliban shouldn't be trusted to help bring peace to Afghanistan, but unfortunately, there will be nothing to hold them to their word once foreign forces leave the country in May.
Matthew Dodwell has recently graduated with a Masters in International Relations from The University of Melbourne, where he focussed on security issues in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific.