Afghanistan Will Need U.S. Support Long After Any Taliban Peace Deal, Experts Say: 'Peace Is Not an Event, It's a Process'

A tentative truce is underway in Afghanistan that may pave the way to ending 18 years of war between the Taliban, the western coalition and the Afghan government.

The week-long "reduction in violence" began Friday and as of Monday appears to be holding up. International and Afghan forces agreed to pause all major offensive operations and the Taliban said it will not engage in roadside bombings, suicide attacks or rocket strikes.

If successful, the period of reduced violence will give way to a full truce agreement between international forces and the Taliban on February 29 and peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government as soon as March 10.

U.S., NATO and Afghan officials have all expressed hope that this can end a war that has claimed 157,000 lives since 2001, but have also warned that the fragile detente could collapse without Taliban adherence.

But whatever happens, Afghanistan will require international support for years to come, two experts told Newsweek, meaning there is no easy way out for President Donald Trump or the other Western powers.

"The Afghan state is still an experiment in many ways, and a project that requires assistance and support," The International Crisis Group's Andrew Watkins explained from Kabul on Monday. "That's not something that's going to change regardless of the outcome of inter-Afghan negotiations."

This will be a challenge for a Trump administration already largely consumed by the November contest for the White House. This will only intensify as polling day approaches, and Watkins suggested the Afghan political elite is not quite taking into account "the degree to which American domestic political attention might shift elsewhere."

The major issues facing Afghanistan—unemployment, displaced people, environmental degradation and others—are structural, said Hameed Hakimi, a research associate at the Chatham House think tank. "Peace in Afghanistan is not an event, it's a process," he added.

Though reduced violence will ease the pressure on the Afghan national budget, Hakimi warned that the country "certainly wouldn't be able to survive as a political entity as we know it today if the internationals pulled out and said they wouldn't support any more governance or development or humanitarian efforts."

The peace process could also open the country up to fresh violence. The departure of international troops could boost Islamic State elements in Afghanistan—known as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-KP)—who may try to peel away disillusioned Taliban fighters and exploit a power vacuum.

Even without ISIS-KP, Taliban fighters may splinter into dissident groups bent on continuing the fight against Kabul. History has shown that insurgent organizations—decentralized and violent by nature—rarely maintain unity after signing peace deals.

These risks, plus Afghanistan's strategic value, will be a consideration for international powers looking to pare down involvement.

"I'd be very surprised if the United States just literally cut loose and just left," Hakimi—who also worked as an adviser at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs—said, noting the growing influence of nations like Russia and China, plus instability in Pakistan.

"It's important to see Afghanistan's conflict in the dynamic of a very complicated region," he explained.

Still, Watkins—who has worked as a liaison with Afghan security forces for the State Department—said there is a sense of "cautious optimism" around this week's partial truce in Afghanistan. But he added that what may seem like a mark of progress for Western forces will mean little unless the peace process moves forward beyond this week.

The agreement is a "segue into the real process," Watkins explained. "Lasting peace will come from results at the inter-Afghan negotiating table."

Hakimi concurred, and said that while recent developments are hugely welcome for Afghans and important in proving the "tangibility" of peace talks, reaching a lasting peace will be "way more complicated."

The Taliban have historically refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which it calls an illegitimate puppet government of Western forces. The situation is further complicated by September's presidential elections. President Ashraf Ghani claims to have won the poll but his rivals are disputing the results. As such, it is not even clear who would form the government negotiating team.

The process could take a year or more, Watkins said, and even getting the two sides to sit down together will be a challenge in and of itself. Key issues include how the Taliban might be integrated into government or how the constitution might be amended to allow it, Watkins said we are "many steps away" from even asking these questions.

The Taliban, meanwhile, have been vague in their demands. Even a New York Times op-ed by deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani was "abstract" and used "broad strokes," Watkins said, though the article did say the group would not allow foreign terrorist organizations to operate in Afghanistan.

Such uncertainty is driving concern among Afghans, Watkins said, given the brutal repression the Taliban employed the last time it governed the country.

All parties will need to cast any eventual deal as a win. The Taliban will have to cooperate with a government they have rejected as an illegitimate American puppet, while Kabul and the U.S. will have to work with a group they have maligned as extremists and terrorists.

Reintegration and reconciliation needs "planning, sequencing, and sustained international engagement," Hakimi said. "None of that is guaranteed."

Afghanistan, Taliban, peace deal, support, US
This file photo shows Afghan security personnel following a suicide attack near a military base in Kabul, Afghanistan, on February 11, 2020. -/AFP/Getty