Interests, Negotiations, and the US-Taliban Agreement

5 March 2020

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BY WILLIAM MALLEY On 1 March 1848, the British Foreign Secretary, Viscount Palmerston, gave a famous speech in the House of Commons in which he remarked that ‘Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow’.[1] Ever since, these words have been cited as an example of a realist approach to world affairs, and many governments doubtless continue to think in this way. But with the benefit of hindsight, Palmerston’s approach seriously oversimplifies a much more complex environment for decision-making about foreign policy and relations between powers.

There are several reasons why this is the case. First, interests are not the only factors that can shape the ways in which powers engage with each other. Values can also come into play.[2] So can ideologies. So can personality factors, related to the character of particular leaders or leaderships, and to the ways in which they engage with each other.[3] Second, ‘interests’ themselves are not objective realities. On the contrary, at the highest level they are determined by political processes in which different conceptions about what ends should be pursued, and how actors should position themselves to pursue those ends, can be considered. Interests, conceived as objectives to be pursued, can change as a result of such political deliberation, but they can also change because of shifts in the context or environment within which political actors find themselves. This is particularly relevant to the situation which Afghanistan now faces as a result of the signing on 29 February 2020 of the agreement between the United States and the Taliban. All Afghan actors are repositioning themselves in the light of the signals that the signing of the agreement sends.

One critical point to note at the outset is that when a group is far from the levers of state power, it may be very difficult to judge how it would behave if it managed to seize some of those levers. Lord Acton’s famous warning that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely is worth remembering,[4] and suggests caution in assuming that the Taliban, if they recovered substantial control of the state, would be any more appealing than they proved to be between 1994 and 2001. But problems can also arise not just when a group has actually seized power, but when it feels it is getting closer to power. This is one reason why in peace processes, it is often at this stage of implementation that the greatest problems arise.[5] Where levels of distrust between parties or differences in their fundamental values are large, the risks are particularly high, and this seems to be an accurate way of characterising the situation in Afghanistan. For this reason, one mark of a well-crafted agreement is that it reflects an acute awareness of the problems of implementation. Unfortunately, this is one area where the 29 February agreement appears deeply defective, as has become apparent around the issue of prisoner releases.

There is nothing new about the proposition that during a negotiation, actors can shift their positions in the light of how they see the negotiation proceeding. They may seek consciously to exploit opportunities that they see arising as a result of the perceived weakness of their counterparts in the negotiation. This famously occurred in 1938 during the Czechoslovak crisis, when the German leader Adolf Hitler, meeting in Bad Godesberg with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on 22 September, increased his demands for territorial concessions from Czechoslovakia beyond those he had earlier set out when meeting with Chamberlain in Berchtesgaden on 15 September, demands that Chamberlain had agreed to accept.[6] (Chamberlain in effect capitulated to these new demands at the 29 September Munich conference, which was why Winston Churchill described the outcome as a ‘total and unmitigated defeat’.[7]) But in addition, actors can also shape their approach to implementation in the light of what they have witnessed during the negotiation phase. This is one reason why the 29 February agreement now hangs by a thread. To understand how this has come about, one needs to discuss the apparent interests of the US, the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The process of appraising US interests in Afghanistan is complicated by the presence in the White House of the most erratic and unpredictable presidents in living memory. Putting that to one side, it seems clear that the 29 February agreement met the immediate electoral needs of President Trump, who had long had an instinctive disposition to cut and run from Afghanistan,[8] by providing a timetable for exit and conditioning it only on Taliban steps to prevent the territory of Afghanistan being used by other terrorist groups, steps which the Taliban will almost certainly be willing to take as long as the US withdrawal is in progress – although things could change once the US is gone and the likelihood of any re-intervention by US forces has dropped almost to zero. In this respect, there are striking parallels with the April 1988 Geneva Accords on Afghanistan which provided a veil for the USSR’s evacuation from the Afghan theatre of operations but remitted key issues to the battlefield.[9] One consequence, however, is that US leverage vis-à-vis the Taliban has been substantially reduced. The Taliban have got almost all that they want from the US – status, plus a precise timetable for the withdrawal of US forces – and they know full well that barring a presidential brainstorm, the US is unlikely to execute a U-turn at this point. During the course of the negotiations that led to the 29 February agreement, the United States made concession after concession to the Taliban, to the extent that the Taliban plainly view the US as a weakened power, heading for the door. Nowhere was its weakness more blatantly on display than when it continued with its engagement even as the Taliban claimed responsibility for an 8 May 2019 terrorist attack on the Kabul office of Counterpart International, a civilian aid agency part-funded by USAID. The impression of weakness which this conveyed was then enhanced by the desperation with which US officials sought to revive discussions after they were halted by President Trump on 7 September 2019.

Barred from participation in the negotiations that led to the 29 February agreement, the Afghan government currently has little reason to feel any warmth towards the Trump Administration. As Bruce Riedel has put it, ‘By accepting the Taliban demand to exclude the Afghan government, the Trump administration betrayed our ally and elevated the Taliban to our equal’.[10] Yet the Afghan government remains a crucial actor, for reasons often overlooked by great powers.[11] The maladroit handling by the United States of the issue of the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners has had the unintended consequence of turning the Afghan government into a ‘veto player’,[12] since the US cannot on its own deliver on a commitment to release Taliban prisoners in Afghan custody, and the Afghan government had endorsed neither the numbers nor the timelines that the US side blithely wrote into the US-Taliban agreement. This is the issue on which President Ashraf Ghani has the strongest interest in making no concessions, irrespective of what incentives the United States might try to mobilise. In the absence of any ceasefire, releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners could potentially return thousands of Taliban combatants to the battlefield, and would throw away the strongest card in the government’s hands where future negotiations with the Taliban are concerned. It could well be deeply unpopular with sections of the Afghan public that were unsettled even by the minor prisoner release in 2019 that saw two kidnapped instructors from the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) exchanged for Taliban prisoners in government hands. And it is one issue that could to some degree help to unite the fractured Afghan political elite, since no sensible Afghan leader would want to be heading empty-handed into a negotiation.

An argument incessantly voiced in favour of a US-Taliban agreement is that it would provide for direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government – although the agreement itself makes no mention of ‘the Afghan government’, merely of ‘Afghan sides’. The Taliban, however, have never seen such negotiations as being particularly in their interest, and have every reason to feel that they would do best by preconditioning any participation in such negotiations on the release of their 5,000 prisoners, something which they probably deem to be quite unlikely. The Trump Administration would have done well to recall Francis Bacon’s observation that it ‘is better dealing with men in appetite, than with those that are where they would be’.[13] The Taliban, having got what they wanted on 29 February, and seeing Washington as weak, have no strong incentive to budge, and have been handed an easy pretext for stalling. Instead, they have (predictably) resumed military activity against Afghan targets. In a posting on social media, former US official Laurel Miller remarked that the ‘Taliban appears to be taking a strictly “what is in the agreement is the agreement” approach to what they have committed to do, brushing aside US unilateral statements of “expectations” regarding violence levels beyond the mutually-agreed 7-day period of “reduction in violence”’. This is only partly true: the Taliban will interpret their own responsibilities narrowly, but demand of other actors that they meet the Taliban’s expectations. This is plainly the case with respect to the prisoner issue: the strict wording of the US-Taliban agreement refers to the release of ‘up to’ 5,000 prisoners, which is technically consistent with no prisoners being released at all since it provides a ceiling rather than a floor. But this is not how the Taliban will choose to read it, and nor should those who imprudently accepted the insertion of text about prisoner releases into the agreement be surprised at the Taliban’s reading. At this point, therefore, the so-called ‘peace process’ finds itself at an impasse, and it is not at all clear that it can easily be rescued.


[1]Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, vol.97, col.122, 1 March 1848.

[2]See William Maley, Transition in Afghanistan: Hope, Despair and the Limits of Statebuilding (London: Routledge, 2018) p.234.

[3]Marcus Holmes, Face-to-Face Diplomacy: Social Neuroscience and International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[4]John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, Historical Essays and Studies (London: Macmillan & Co., 1907) p.504.

[5]See Barbara F. Walter, Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[6]Telford Taylor, Munich: The Price of Peace (New York: Doubleday & Co. 1979) p.806.

[7]Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, vol.339, col.360, 5 October 1938.

[8]See Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America (London: Bloomsbury, 2020) pp.129-139.

[9]See William Maley, ‘The Geneva Accords of April 1988’, in Amin Saikal and William Maley (eds.), The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) pp.12-28.

[10]Bruce Riedel, ‘The Mess in Afghanistan’, Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 4 March 2020.

[11]See Walter C. Ladwig III, The Forgotten Front: Patron-Client Relationships in Counterinsurgency (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[12]See George Tsebelis, Veto Players: How Political Institutions Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[13]Francis Bacon, ‘Of Negotiating’, in Francis Bacon, The Essays (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985) pp.203-204 at p.203.

Published: Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University

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