Amid a week-long trip across Asia, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unannounced visit to Kabul on Tuesday, meeting with senior Afghan officials, including President Ashraf Ghani. The top U.S. diplomat told reporters in the Afghan capital that he hopes for a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban insurgent group by September 1, adding that this is the “mission set” of the Trump administration.
The latest round of talks between the United States and the Afghan Taliban is set to begin on Saturday amid uncertainty as to how the process has been faring. The previous round of talks appears to have ended abruptly in the aftermath of a Taliban attack on a non-government organization in early May. The Afghan Taliban also refused to agree to an announced ceasefire during the holy month of Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr holiday, despite numerous appeals by Washington.
But there are indications that the process is moving toward some closure. In a recent interview with Time magazine, President Donald Trump said that the U.S. is “doing fine in terms of Afghanistan” and “some good things are happening” there. Tellingly, the only specific metric he offered was the reduction in U.S. troop levels in the country. Trump said quite explicitly (referring to Afghanistan as part of the Middle East): “I’d like to get out of the Middle East, we should have never been in the Middle East.” So it’s clear that by “good things,” he means progress toward a deal with the Taliban that would allow for a U.S. withdrawal.
There are more indications that the United States and the Taliban are closer to a deal. U.S. officials, including the American envoy in Kabul John Bass, speak of future assistance to Afghanistan as being contingent upon that government’s performance and ability to reform. American officials also now speak of the Taliban as a potential partner against ISIS. Earlier, they had projected the rivalry between the two groups as a war of attrition the U.S. could benefit from. And just today, Pompeo spoke of Pakistan’s role in helping implement a peace agreement with the Taliban, rather than simply securing one.
But there is one major roadblock to a U.S.-Taliban deal: the insurgents don’t want to speak to the government in Kabul. And the Trump administration’s special envoy for Afghan peace Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad has tied an intra-Afghan agreement and ceasefire to a final deal with the Taliban. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” has become the catchphrase of Khalilzad and other U.S. officials.
And that explains why Pompeo said that Washington seeks a peace deal before September 1. Afghanistan’s presidential elections have been rescheduled to September 28. The Taliban would likely require the formation of an interim government as part of a settlement with other Afghan power brokers. A newly-elected president or reelected Ghani would be unlikely to cede power to an interim administration. And the presidential elections, like all of Afghanistan’s previous elections, will probably be rigged and followed by disputes over their legitimacy, creating even more instability and making an intra-Afghan peace deal more difficult.
The bottom line is this: Washington and the Taliban may be moving closer to a deal, but the clock is ticking and Afghanistan’s messy politics may get in the way. Still, Trump being Trump may just do away with the prerequisite of an intra-Afghan deal for a final agreement with the Taliban and say, “Hasta la vista, Kabul.”
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News and host of The Pivot podcast. He's contributed to publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, and POLITICO Magazine, and has appeared on broadcast outlets such as Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio. Rafiq is also a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.