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Will the Afghan Peace Talks Succeed?

September 18, 2020
Aila Matanock


Last Saturday saw Afghan factions come together in Doha for peace talks. The Taliban, Afghan government officials, and Afghan opposition leaders and others from outside the current administration began negotiations to locate a settlement to end decades of conflict in the country. Even reaching the negotiating table has been tricky. The country has faced competing political claims (the government, for example, is still viewed as illegitimate by the Taliban), continued violence, and foreign intervention.

Now that the factions have come together, will they sign a settlement and bring stability to Afghanistan? It will not be easy. Even when fighting factions begin negotiations, they often fail. Before a deal is reached, factions must first agree among themselves on how strong each side is, and typically reach a costly stalemate before they have a sense of how to structure a bargain each finds beneficial—conditions that may not have been met yet in Afghanistan. They also need to trust that the other factions will commit to their end of the bargain, and will not take advantage of moments of weakness during implementation to renege on the agreement.

These commitment problems stem in part from mistrust built up over years of fighting one another, with continued struggles to uphold past promises about ceasefires and prisoner deals, but they also stem from the nature of peace agreements. Most peace agreements require that state institutions allow opposing groups to share power. During the transition period, there are opportunities (and therefore incentives) to take advantage, especially for the government, which is most familiar with the institutions and typically continues to hold the largest share of power. Fear of these commitment problems alone can drive factions back to fighting.

How might the Afghan negotiations deal with commitment problems while trying to strike a stable settlement? My recent review shows that international actors can help to enforce domestic bargains—and specifically overcome these commitment problems—through a variety of mechanisms to monitor and condition incentives on implementation of agreements. While many studies have shown the importance of peacekeepers in helping to secure peace agreements, even unarmed observers working together with aid donors can do so. By doing things like monitoring post-conflict elections with rebel parties, for example, these actors can help to enforce compliance.

Could this kind of international enforcement work in Afghanistan? My review suggests that two factors consistently drive which domestic bargains international actors can help enforce: domestic actors’ resources and international actors’ interests.

First, for international monitoring and donor incentives conditioned on compliance to have “teeth,” domestic actors must depend on those international relationships, especially foreign aid. In other words, if a country does not need the aid or the relationship, then the “carrot” of securing it, or the “stick” of losing it, is not likely to spur compliance. Afghanistan is deeply dependent on outside resources. Indeed, commentators recently noted that even the Taliban have said “they would want foreign aid to continue even after the Western military coalition leaves” because they otherwise anticipate funding shortages that would make governing difficult.

Second, in order to enforce compliance, international actors must want the domestic bargain to succeed and not be too invested in backing one side over another, what is known as a Goldilocks condition. In Afghanistan, international actors have been criticized for potentially failing to meet these conditions, either because they are too invested in one side, or not sufficiently interested in stability. The international actors who might be expected to enforce a settlement, including the five permanent members of the United Nations, have often clearly backed one or another fighting faction. For example, the United States waged war against the Taliban, and international actors in the country subsequently took positions that at times failed to enforce the rules on initial Afghan administrations. These actors credibility to enforce a bargain for all factions has therefore been low. On the other hand, international intervention is decreasing, especially by the United States. As the United States, in particular, seeks to withdraw from Afghanistan, the likelihood that it will send a robust observation mission throughout an implementation period is now also low.

Afghanistan, then, meets only one of two criteria that have been crucial in making international enforcement of peace agreements possible across cases.

International actors’ incentives may change over time; intergovernmental organizations, and specifically the UN or regional peacekeepers, might be able to provide the monitors needed by sharing the burden with a number of countries. But they have been struggling to put together these missions. It is also possible that the United States will choose to support an agreement by backing a settlement with conditional aid, perhaps while relying on other international actors to deploy observers. Indeed, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated as the Afghan peace talks began: “As you make your decisions, you should keep in mind that your choices and conduct will affect both the size and scope of future U.S. assistance,” perhaps foreshadowing US intentions to employ such a mechanism.

Without international enforcement, however, a settlement would need to be enforced by another mechanism if it is to succeed and stabilize Afghanistan. Some countries seek to rely on domestic institutions to enforce bargains, but many conflict-affected states need to strengthen and reform these very institutions as part of the settlement. The rare states that have sought to enforce peace agreements mainly through domestic institutions, perhaps with very “light touch” international teams, have done so with mixed results. Countries could instead rely on each faction maintaining a unilateral ability to maintain some fighting capacity to enforce the bargain but these states can then return to conflict very easily.

While the Afghan talks are challenging for many reasons, unless the options currently available for enforcement change, our current understanding of conflict suggests that it will be difficult for the Afghan factions to sign a settlement. Even if they do so, the peace agreement is likely to be short-lived.

This blog post was originally published on Political Violence at a Glance. It has been reprinted with permission.