Behind The U.S.-Taliban Ceasefire Agreement In Afghanistan

Feb 18, 2020
Originally published on February 18, 2020 6:53 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A tentative deal between the U.S. and the Taliban could provide a path for American forces to leave Afghanistan. It starts with a seven-day reduction in violence, and then the Taliban and the Afghan government would come to the table. Vikram Singh worked for many years at the Defense and State departments, including as deputy special representative for Afghanistan.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

VIKRAM SINGH: Thanks, Ari. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: There have been lots of tentative deals with the Taliban before. Do you think this is going to be the one that sticks?

SINGH: Well, I think this one is manifestly different in that the United States is obviously behind it. The Taliban have said that they have reached an agreement that they're comfortable with, and the Afghan government has also said that it's comfortable with moving forward. So assuming this seven-day period of a reduction in violence starts and holds, it looks like we are closer to a real deal than we've been before. So I'd say I'm the most cautiously optimistic I've been in a long time.

SHAPIRO: The terms of this deal seem to give the Taliban a lot of legitimacy and power over Afghanistan's fate. Do you think that's an admission that the U.S. didn't have much leverage here?

SINGH: Well, I think it's an admission of two things. One is that the politics of the situation, going back to 2002, when the Taliban were excluded from the Bonn negotiations on what would happen to Afghanistan after that initial war when they were ousted - the politics have meant that they've always wanted the United States to basically be the guarantor of their ability to be at the table in some future dispensation.

And the other thing is power. Essentially, they've managed to not lose, which is really all an insurgent group needs to do. And by not losing for long enough, they've shifted the dynamics and made it so that they really do have some say. And the question is, are they really willing to compromise with other Afghans to have a peaceful future for that country?

SHAPIRO: The Taliban says under this deal, it would break with al-Qaida. Does the evidence suggest to you that they are willing and able to end that relationship?

SINGH: You know, I think one of the really difficult things here is that evidence is hard to come by. And one of the best ways to get evidence is to test something like this. And so we have a test that if this moves forward, we'll see for the first time whether both they have the command and control they claim to have and also whether there's a willingness to do what it takes to sever any ties to terrorist groups that are operating in their territory. It seems that they've - at least at some points - taken arms up against groups like ISIS. But it's - you know, it's a pretty murky picture. But giving a peace process a chance is the best way to test those propositions.

SHAPIRO: We've referred to the Afghan government here, but it's a very uncertain time for that government. Today, Afghanistan announced that President Ashraf Ghani narrowly won reelection. But his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, is contesting the results, saying he'll form a parallel government. So how does a government that fractured effectively negotiate with the Taliban?

SINGH: You know, this has been something that's bedeviled Afghanistan. Of course, we've been in a unity government because the last elections were contested. The elections before that were contested. And it's probably good that the election is - has ended. And whether they agree or don't agree on this final outcome, if there's a way to get them all to the table with the Taliban, they'll be talking about the thing that's most important for Afghanistan's future, which is ending 40 years of war.

SHAPIRO: And if this deal sticks, what do you think that means for a future U.S. role in Afghanistan? What would that look like?

SINGH: The announced troop reduction the United States seems like it was going to make anyway also seems to be the down payment for this deal. So if it moves forward, the United States will be on track to reduce about 5,000 troops. The more important question over the long term is going to be development assistance and continued investment in Afghan institutions by not just the United States, but the international community. Afghanistan as a modern state has never survived without patronage. It's landlocked, and it needs external support in order to function, and will for quite some time. And one of the questions now is, are world powers ready to stand by Afghanistan even if it - as it moves towards peace?

SHAPIRO: That's Vikram Singh, who served in the State Department as deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He's now with the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Thank you very much.

SINGH: Thanks, Ari.

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