ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — When the Biden administration took office, American diplomats got to work on a plan to reenergize Afghanistan's sputtering peace talks.
The showpiece: a U.S.-backed conference in Istanbul, Turkey, that would gather the Taliban and Afghan government, alongside regional and international backers. It was meant to help the two sides create a framework for talks, while speeding up negotiations on key issues before U.S. and foreign forces depart Afghanistan, according to American diplomatic officials who spoke to NPR on condition of anonymity in the weeks leading up to the conference scheduled to have begun over the weekend.
The conference didn't happen, and the plan is deadlocked. So are hopes for progress toward a negotiated settlement to end more than four decades of continuous conflict in Afghanistan.
The peace plans were deferred as President Biden announced this month that the U.S. and NATO will unconditionally pull out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11 — skipping the May 1 deadline and preconditions for withdrawal the Trump administration and the Taliban had outlined last year. The withdrawal process has already begun.
The Taliban backed out of the Istanbul conference a couple of days before Biden's April 14 announcement, but the president had been signaling for weeks the U.S. could stay longer than May.
"Until all foreign forces completely withdraw from our homeland, the Islamic Emirate will not participate in any conference that shall make decisions about Afghanistan," Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem said on Twitter.
No new date has been set for the Istanbul conference. Turkey's government said it will take place after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends in mid-May. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said the talks are postponed until "a later date when conditions for making meaningful progress would be more favorable."
The U.S. has lost considerable leverage over the Taliban in declaring an unconditional withdrawal, says Muska Dastageer, a lecturer in peace and security studies at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul.
"The timing surprised me," Dastageer says of Biden's announcement. "I wonder if the consequences of the timing for this announcement were thought through in relation to the peace process, if it was considered that this might seriously disincentivize the Taliban and effectively obstruct the peace process. My fear is that that's where we stand today."
Elizabeth Threlkeld, senior fellow and deputy director of the South Asia Program at Washington-based think tank the Stimson Center, believes the Biden administration was "making good on a long-held sense that additional time, and additional troops, wasn't going to bring the stability that I think certainly the U.S. has long been seeking in Afghanistan."
In her view, the unconditional aspect of the withdrawal underscores a point Biden made in his April 14 speech, that "American troops shouldn't be used as a bargaining chip between warring parties in other countries." It suggests the administration believes "America's diplomats are capable of moving forward with a peace process, even without the leverage that those 2,500 troops would provide," she says.
The U.S. has 2,500 troops and hundreds of special forces in Afghanistan. The Biden administration aims to withdraw them all, plus thousands of supporting civilian contractors, by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks by al-Qaida that prompted the U.S. to invade Afghanistan.
Successive American presidents have boosted and drawn down troops but none has ended its role in the war in Afghanistan, much less achieved peace in the country.
The previous administration set the current attempt in motion, sending envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to Qatar to negotiate with Taliban leaders in 2019. In February 2020, the U.S. and the Taliban signed a deal that laid out a timetable for foreign forces to withdraw from Afghanistan. The Taliban agreed to stop attacking foreign forces, as well as to prevent al-Qaida and other militants from recruiting and staging such attacks. The deal also required the Taliban to enter negotiations with the Afghan government, with a mutual prisoner release before talks began.
Afghanistan's government was angered it was left out of that agreement — especially with the demand it release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. So it delayed their release. Political gridlock in Kabul over contested election results, which returned incumbent President Ashraf Ghani to power, further pushed back the negotiations.
Afghan government and Taliban negotiators finally met in Qatar's capital of Doha in September of last year.
The delay between the U.S.-Taliban deal and the start of Afghan peace talks became a vexing issue for Afghan and U.S. officials, according to NPR interviews with officials and independent analysts watching the process closely. They said they hoped that by tying the troop withdrawal to peace talks there might be enough time to lock in meaty negotiations before foreign forces departed. That didn't happen.
Then the hope was the Biden administration would delay the withdrawal until there appeared to be progress on peace talks. Instead, U.S. and NATO forces will leave within months — and peace talks appear stuck, while deadly violence continues in Afghanistan.
In the past two weeks alone, 120 Afghan security forces personnel, more than 300 Taliban fighters and 65 civilians have been killed, with many wounded, Reuters reported on Thursday.
"Not choosing a peaceful end to this war"
Nader Nadery, a negotiator with the Afghan government team, says the Doha talks ground to a halt around the time of planning for the Istanbul conference. "It's a clear indication that they are not choosing a peaceful end to this war," he says about the Taliban.
A Qatar-based Taliban official disputes that. Speaking on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, he insists the talks are "continuing until both sides reach the desired conclusion." He did not offer further details.
The most pressing issues to discuss, Nadery says, are "the joint principles that we need to agree for the future of the country" — which include elections, women's rights and a political roadmap to the government sharing power with Taliban leaders. But he says the opposing side's negotiators "are reluctant to talk about these issues. And if they continue like that, it means that they have opted for continuing the fighting."
In recent days, Pakistan has been trying to revive those talks, meeting separately with Taliban leaders and Afghan officials to find a way forward. There's been no tangible result yet.
The Taliban have sent letters to Afghan politicians calling for direct talks, but a spokesman for Afghanistan's national reconciliation chief dismissed this as efforts to create discord in the government, according to Afghan news site TOLO.
Risk of more violence
Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that if the U.S. does not provide Afghanistan's security forces "with some support, they certainly will collapse."
In an interview on NPR's All Things Considered, Gen. Sami Sadat, commanding general of the Afghan army, sounded more optimistic.
"The Afghan military is one of the more advanced militaries that learned from the best, from the U.S. forces," he says. "To be honest, for the past one year, the Afghan forces have held their ground pretty good, I'd say."
Supporters of the withdrawal say America's continued military presence no longer makes sense after nearly two decades in Afghanistan. Some lawmakers have criticized the plan, including Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who says the strength of the Taliban puts Afghans at serious risk.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged on CNN Tuesday a "possible scenario" ending in a Taliban takeover or Afghan civil war. But he said "no one has an interest in renewed civil war in Afghanistan" — not the Afghan people, the government, the Taliban or neighboring countries, and it will be up to them to maintain stability.
But, he said, "even as we're withdrawing our forces, we are not disengaging from Afghanistan. We're remaining deeply engaged," with diplomatic, humanitarian and security support for the country.
That day, the State Department ordered nonessential personnel to leave the U.S. Embassy in Kabul amid concerns about heightened violence.
Many analysts warn that the Afghan conflict will intensify after foreign forces depart.
"Unfortunately, I think both sides now have incentives to test their military strength against each other in the absence of U.S. troops," says Scott Worden, director of the Afghanistan program at the United States Institute of Peace.
"The Taliban probably think they will be able to either gain more territory or at least get a greater share of power in Kabul if foreign troops are gone. But the Afghan government I'm sure will not be willing to give that up easily, without fighting."
Afghans are tired of a conflict that has shadowed most of them their whole lives, says Dastageer, of the American University of Afghanistan.
"The Americans are not the only ones beset by war weariness. No one has endured more than Afghans. And it's my hope that eventually the Taliban and the government will relent to some kind of compromise. But this is going to take time," she says. "The costs of perpetuating the war have to exceed the gains for Taliban."
Tom Bowman and Alex Leff contributed to this story from Washington.