Laurel Miller on the U.S. Taliban Talks

Laurel Miller is the Director of Crisis Group’s Asia Program, and is an expert on conflict resolution, democratisation, institution-building, and anti-corruption in countries throughout the world. She has previously worked as a policy expert at the RAND Corporation, and has had an illustrious career in U.S. government service.
Shreya Bhatnagar CMC'20 interviewed Laurel Miller in October 2019. 

Last month, President Trump broke off negotiations with the Taliban following the death of a U.S. serviceman in a car bomb in Kabul. In addition to the loss of a U.S. soldier, why were the talks and the Taliban’s visit to Camp David canceled?

There were several reasons: first, these negotiations were thrown together in the spur of the moment. It was not well-planned, nor did they fit with the negotiations process as it had been going on previously. This seems to be an idea that President Trump himself came up with. In reality, the first factor in the disintegration of these talks seems to have been that the Taliban never accepted the invitation. So, the President’s claim that he organized and then cancelled the meeting for his own reasons is somewhat inaccurate because the Taliban never accepted the invite.

It's not surprising why they wouldn't have. Their position was that they would come to the U.S. only if the agreement, negotiated over the course of several months prior to this, was signed first. From their perspective, they were not interested in coming to Washington at the risk of President Trump re-negotiating the agreement. There never really was a firm plan in place for this meeting.

Second, the closer the negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban got to producing an agreement, the more the critics in Washington became vocal in criticizing the deal. Although I don't know what was in President Trump’s mind, it is certainly possible that he got ‘cold feet’ because of the criticisms being leveled at him, even by members of his own party.

Third, it was due to the complete political implausibility of bringing the Taliban to Camp David on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary. The reaction we saw after it became known that President Trump had been planning this visit indicates the kind of political firestorm there would have been if this meeting had gone ahead. Even for someone like myself who is very favorable to these negotiations, the idea of bringing the Taliban to the U.S. on 9/11 was uncomfortable—it just doesn't make any political sense. So, these are all the rational explanations for why the meeting was stopped short—cancelled is not the right word since it was never really confirmed.

The question whether President Trump was also reacting to the death of the U.S. service member when he called off the meeting, I can't say for sure. This is not a particularly logical reason considering the most recent violence he pointed to as a reason is no different than the violence that has been occurring all throughout the negotiations. Beginning in January 2019, this violence has continued, with some Americans and many more Afghans dying during this time.

Given your previous statements, in your opinion what is required by the United States and the Taliban to resume negotiations productively? Does the U.S. seek an increased “bargaining” chip to continue the talks that President Trump has termed “dead”?

From the Taliban perspective, the process should pick up precisely where it left off. They are not going to be inclined to see any reason why they should offer more than they did before, considering it was the U.S. that disrupted the process. The U.S. will be looking for something more, as a way to save face.

For this process to be revived, the U.S. will try to get a commitment to a near-term reduction of violence. But whether they can get that or not is uncertain. The publicly revealed details of the draft deal were sparse, so frankly the U.S. could claim to have improved the deal after Trump upset the talks and no one would even know whether that was so.

President Trump’s disruption of the talks weakens the U.S. hand. It's not as if the Taliban are in the weaker position here. The U.S. is the party who has been more urgently trying to negotiate.  I don't think the U.S. has a new card to play here; they will try to get something additional in order to explain the resuming of the talks after the president termed them “dead.” But I’m doubtful they will get much more. The U.S. will have to make a choice—do they want to go ahead without getting much more or do they want to let this all fall apart after all the efforts over not getting something more.

Do you think we can attribute these events because of a difference in the way the Taliban has engaged with the Trump administration relative to the Obama administration?

The main difference is not in how the Taliban have dealt with the U.S.; it’s the opposite. The distinction is in the change of U.S. policy between then and now. During the Obama administration, the U.S. position regarding the peace process was that there would be no separate deal between the U.S. and the Taliban. Any deal-making would have to include the Afghan government at the table from the outset.All the issues involving the U.S. could be discussed during negotiations, including the question of a drawdown of U.S. forces. However, the U.S. rejected the Taliban’s demand for sequencing negotiations by starting with the U.S. talking to the Taliban about troop withdrawal and then, once that issue was resolved, moving to talks including the Afghan government. The U.S. position during the Obama Administration was the same as the Afghan government position which remains the same today—there should not be a separate U.S.-Taliban deal.

About a year ago the U.S. changed its policy and made a concession to the Taliban—the U.S. conceded to the idea of splitting the negotiations into the ‘U.S.-Taliban track’ and the ‘intra- Afghan track” and to sequence these talks beginning with the former, and then moving to the latter.

This was a concession to the Taliban since it was advantageous to the them to win a big negotiating victory upfront with the U.S. by getting a commitment to troop withdrawal before negotiating with other Afghans. And so that's what caused the breakthrough in the peace process—the change in the U.S. position on how to go about negotiating.

On the Taliban’s perspective on the U.S., they know what is going on in Washington D.C. They read Trump's tweets, so they know that he wants to get out of Afghanistan. This has probably reinforced their stubbornness in their positions in the talks, because the reality is that the President's clear and open statements about wanting to get out of Afghanistan undermine American leverage in the negotiations. And the Taliban are well aware of that.

Shifting our focus to the security of Afghanistan, at the recent General Assembly in New York, their UN representative and National Security Advisor Mr. Mohib called the Taliban a ‘puppet’ of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Could you comment on how the Taliban influences Afghan-Pakistani relations?

Yes. Mohib is the Afghan National Security Advisor and former Ambassador to Washington, but he was the head of the delegation to the UNGA opening session as he was the senior-most official representing Afghanistan present at that meeting. However, he is actually considered to be a relatively low-level representative for that event; due to the Afghan election process occurring that same weekend, they didn't have a more senior official to send.

In any event, it is a very long-standing Afghan government talking point that the Taliban is a ‘puppet’ of Pakistan just like it is a very long standing talking point of the Taliban that the Afghan government is a puppet of the United States. It’s a mirror image situation but the reality is that there is support on both sides on their points.

The U.S. supports the Afghan government to such a large extent that the Afghan government is dependent on the U.S. and other foreign donors to finance its operations. On the other hand, the Taliban has enjoyed the benefits of Pakistani support over a long time. It has enjoyed safe havens for its leadership and sometimes its fighters in Pakistan.

Of course, the nature of support from Pakistan to Afghanistan it is much less transparent—it is not like in the U.S. where one has to report to Congress the amount of money one is giving another government. Being a supporter of a government or entity gives you influence but doesn't mean you have control. There are many ways in which the interests of the supporting power coincide with the interests of the supported entity. You see actions that benefit both, but if you look objectively—if you enjoy that support, does that make you a puppet? Puppetry is in the eye of the beholder.

There's no question that Pakistan has been involved with the Taliban, but they do not direct them what to do—it's not that fine-tuned. It’s very easy for others to assume that all the U.S. had to do is direct the Afghan government, similarly it's easy to assume that Pakistan directs the Taliban. In either case, it’s not that simple.

Additionally, the Afghans have a bad history with Pakistan so it's understandable why the government is beyond frustrated with Pakistani policy, but that doesn't mean that you can flip a switch with Pakistan, and you get a better policy. I’m sure there are many times that American officials wished they could flip a switch with Pakistan!

Do you see a future in which U.S. troops will withdraw completely from Afghanistan as promised by both the Obama and Trump Administration, considering neither have fulfilled this campaign promise? Is this feasible in the foreseeable future? Can we expect the Taliban to work constructively to avoid the unleashing of another round of fighting if the United States draws down its troop levels significantly?

Yes, but first, in President Obama’s situation, the problem was the risk-tolerance. It was easy enough to say were going to do something in 2-3 years when it came to troop withdrawal. But the closer you get to that point where you actually implement something like military withdrawal, the less tolerable the risk begins to look. I don't think that President Obama decided that he was perfectly fine keeping American troops there, it's that he was unwilling to take the risk of pulling them out at the time.

However, to answer the question of if the U.S. ever can withdraw, the political reality is that the U.S. will withdraw at some point. It is hard to pinpoint when that will be, but it is politically unsustainable to keep American troops in Afghanistan forever.

And this is not a situation like Germany and Japan where you can have troops over there for decades; the U.S. has never fought an insurgency in those countries. The conditions were peaceful enough that American troops brought their families in those situations, so there's no comparison to the situation in Afghanistan.

Eventually the U.S. will withdraw. With president Trump saying he wants troops out, and every serious democratic candidate opposing him in the upcoming 2020 election saying the same, this says a lot about how the political tide is turning.

The question is how you are going to go about withdrawing. In my view, the best and optimal way to do this is with a peace agreement in hand. To get to a point where you have actual agreement among the Afghans, you reach a political settlement that will not be perfect but has some prospect of being implemented.

If the U.S. withdraws troops in those circumstances, there will not be guaranteed success. But there is some chance that the U.S. could withdraw troops and leave relative stability in their wake. If the U.S. simply pulls out its forces without a peace deal, the most likely scenario is an intensified civil war beyond what we see now.

However, there is no military victory scenario—there’s no situation where we stay for x amount of time, the Taliban are defeated, and then we go home. That’s not happening.

How should we evaluate the legitimacy of this week’s Afghan presidential elections, given threats of violence by the Taliban and low voter turnout, estimated to be around 20 to 30 percent of the electorate?

Legitimacy is a question of perception more than anything else. If the Afghans accept the result as legitimate, that is basically good enough.

If low turnout was a measure of legitimacy, you could question a lot of elections. However, this is an especially low turnout—only 20-30%. That’s especially low. However, even in the U.S. we have some local elections with very low turnouts, and no one questions that legitimacy. If you look at places where judges are elected for instance. If turnout was a measure of legitimacy, where is the cutoff? Is it 30%? 40%? There's no magic number for that.

We need to wait and watch here, and it's going to take days and weeks to see what the main storyline is. If the results are accepted by all the contenders and if the process of counting the ballots, adjudicating the complaints about the flaws in the balloting by the electoral complaints commission, and other processes are regarded as fair. If the commissions running the elections are regarded as having done their work impartially, and the results are accepted by the people—these are the things to watch for if you want to call this a sufficiently legitimate election.

Apart from Afghans accepting the results of the election, some experts are saying that the threats of violence by the Taliban affected the legitimacy of the election due to fears of extreme voter suppression. Additionally, the phenomenon of ‘ghost voters’, voters who don't exist but are recorded in the polls, is also worrisome. Could you comment on these causes of concern in the election? In your opinion, are there any other reasons why this election had low turnout?

It's hard to say: the Taliban have threatened every single election in Afghanistan, and every election day before this last one was the most violent day of that year. Whether that will be the case with this election is to be determined—it will take a little while to know that. This is not to excuse it the violence, but just to say there's nothing new about this.

The reason for the low turnout is not due to the threat of violence alone since that factor was the same in prior elections too. In fact, in the prior elections there was even more violence than in this one.

What are the other factors? Close to a third of the polling places were not even opened due to security concerns and risk. But does one attribute that specifically to the violence? There are some theories that the government was closing poll stations in places where they didn't think they would get the votes. Again, I have no definite information about that, but it is just enough to say that there's going to be a lot of debate on this election. There are also theories that the Afghan people were just fed up of all the politicians and that there was general voter apathy. I have no confirmation on that yet, but again, there could be a variety of factors that suppressed turnout this time around.

Another factor might have been the new technical measures used for the first time in this election. They started using biometric verification of voters which is new—and so some people are saying that turnout might not have actually been lower this time. Maybe the turnout was just inflated in prior elections due to fraud. There have been efforts in the past years to improve the system to eliminate this problem of “ghosts”, but the efforts were not sufficiently effective. Because there is this new biometric system no one quite knows yet how well this works at preventing fraud, and thus it becomes hard to compare this election to previous elections.


Shreya Bhatnagar CMC'20Student Journalist

US. Army [Public domain]

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