top of page
  • Writer's pictureMichael MacArthur Bosack

Breaking down the "Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan"

Soldiers walk the perimeter of an outpost in Helmand Province, 2011


Next week will mark the three-year anniversary of the signing of the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.” On 29 February 2020, representatives from the United States and the Taliban came together in Doha, Qatar to produce a deal aimed at ending nearly twenty years of hostilities. The core trade-offs of the agreement were straightforward: the United States would withdraw coalition forces from Afghanistan and release Taliban prisoners; in return, the Taliban would negotiate an intra-Afghan peace settlement with the government in Kabul and refrain from executing or facilitating any attacks against the United States.

The events that followed demonstrated that implementation was anything but straightforward. The Taliban balked at preserving a ceasefire, prompting the U.S. government to slow (but not halt) implementation timelines. Subsequent negotiating efforts yielded few if any concessions from a party that was simply waiting out the other side. Finally, in the summer of 2021, the Taliban launched an all-out offensive that led to mass evacuations and the fall of the government in Kabul.

So, what happened? Why was the deal so unsuccessful? Although there are many different factors that contributed to the failed peace in Afghanistan, it is important to examine the negotiated agreement itself and how it affected the outcomes in the peace process.

Background on the Afghan War

On 11 September 2001, 19 militants tied to the Al-Qaida extremist organization hijacked four civilian airliners and executed coordinated attacks against symbols of U.S. power. Two crashed into the World Trade Center towers; one struck the Pentagon; and the last was headed for the White House until the passengers aboard the plane took matters into their own hands and forced the aircraft down into an empty field in Pennsylvania. The attack claimed nearly 3,000 lives.

In response, the United States pursued the leader of Al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, who was reportedly residing in Afghanistan under the tacit protection of the Taliban-led government. The United States government set about finding bin Laden and eliminating the terrorist network in the country. To do so, the United States opted to join forces with the Northern Alliance—a regional coalition of armed groups based principally in the north-eastern provinces of Afghanistan—bolstering indigenous operations with special forces support and airstrikes.

Provinces of Afghanistan

The idea was simple enough: (1) oust the Taliban and eliminate Al-Qaida networks; (2) support a caretaker government until democratic processes could take root; (3) bolster infrastructure improvement and social programs; and (4) build up Afghan security forces so that they would be able to provide for their own law enforcement and defense. However, for myriad reasons, those efforts failed.

The Taliban continued to maintain key strongholds across the country, especially in southwestern provinces such as Helmand. The Taliban, Al-Qaida, and other insurgent groups took advantage of porous borders to funnel in reinforcements and weaponry. They evolved their tactics and frustrated allied efforts to clear, hold, and build-up areas of the country. Exacerbating conditions was endemic corruption in Afghan governance.

After surging forces in 2009 in an attempt to turn the tide, the Barack Obama administration briefly engaged in negotiations with the Taliban before initiating a mass withdrawal of troops and equipment. The first attempt to negotiate with the Taliban came in 2010, but Taliban representatives balked at any discussions that would involve the Hamid Karzai-led government in Kabul. Following that, the so-called “retrograde” began in earnest in 2012, and by 2017, only a few thousand American troops and contractors remained in the country.

It was at that time that the presidential administration changed hands to Donald Trump, who campaigned on the promise of pulling all troops out of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Taliban’s continued desire to remove foreign forces from Afghan soil presented a window for negotiations to begin.

A U.S. pararescue jumper cradles an Afghan child en route to a hospital in Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province

What the negotiations produced

The United States and Taliban began negotiations in Doha on 22 January 2019, carrying them out sporadically until the signing ceremony in February 2020. What they produced was a framework agreement, which is a lesser form of peace agreement. A framework agreement is where the parties establish pledges and expectations for proceeding with negotiations and/or implementation of peace arrangements but leaves critical features of ceasefire deals or peace treaties (e.g., rulesets for military forces and boundary lines) unresolved.

The Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan presented a framework for a peace settlement composed of four parts:

  1. Security guarantees for the United States

  2. Withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan

  3. Intra-Afghan negotiations on post-conflict governance

  4. A permanent and comprehensive ceasefire via intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations

To lay the foundation for parts three and four, the U.S. government separately negotiated the “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” with the Ashraf Ghani administration. This was aimed at gaining the incumbent government’s acceptance of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, particularly the decisions related to intra-Afghan negotiations, troop withdrawals, and prisoner releases.

In addition to those two published documents, there were secret annexes to the U.S.-Taliban agreement. The specific content of those annexes are still classified, but they reportedly contained provisions related to ceasefire obligations and protection commitments (that is, the Taliban agreed to protect U.S. forces from attacks by Al-Qaida or other insurgent groups).

The U.S. and Taliban representatives sign the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, 29 February 2020

Problems in the agreement

There is a legitimate argument to be made that the Taliban entered the negotiations in bad faith and had no intention of securing a political peace with the sitting administration in Kabul. However, perfidy is difficult to prove, and it obscures the fact that structural flaws of the U.S.-Taliban agreement made it exponentially easier to exploit.

To understand those structural flaws, it is useful to break down the agreement based on the twelve features that contribute to a durable peace:

(1) Durable peace agreements are crafted by the parties to conflict. The challenge with the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan is that it was a deal between only two of the parties to conflict. The obvious omission was the Afghan government in Kabul, and the presence of other insurgent forces in the country further complicated the issue.

(2) They have provisions for third-party mediation and renegotiation during the implementation phase. There were no provisions for this in the U.S.-Taliban agreement.

(3) They are balanced. When considering just the two parties of the U.S.-Taliban deal, one could argue that the terms were balanced and reflected their respective indispensable interests. However, because intra-Afghan negotiations comprised two of four parts of the envisioned peace settlement, the absence of concessions to the government in Kabul created major disparities in the implementation phase.

(4) They channel the struggle for power into nonviolent mechanisms and processes. The agreement established no formal mechanisms or processes.

(5) They call for the withdrawal of troops. The agreement called for the unilateral withdrawal of U.S. coalition forces, but there were no specific measures related to halting Taliban forces from their continued effort to topple the Afghan government. While the Taliban promised to stop attacks against coalition forces, no such provisions were established in support of Afghan National Security and Defense Forces.

(6) They call for the establishment of demilitarized zones. The deal failed to establish any formal demilitarized zones.

(7) They contain an explicit or well-understood third-party guarantee of peace. The agreement provides for UN Security Council affirmation of the document, but did not designate a formal, specific third-party guarantor.

(8) They call for peacekeeping missions to be established. There were no peacekeeping missions formed via this agreement.

(9) They call for ongoing dispute resolution in the form of joint commissions between the parties. The U.S.-Taliban agreement did not establish any joint commissions.

(10) They are specific. The agreement was specific regarding the core tradeoffs of U.S. withdrawal, prisoner returns, and Taliban guarantees vis-à-vis attacks against the United States. These turned out to be the most successful areas of implementation.

(11) They are formal. The agreement was a formal document, signed by delegated representatives of the government and submitted to the UN Security Council via Resolution 2513.

(12) They settle the political issues. The U.S.-Taliban agreement sidestepped the major political issues, leaving those for intra-Afghan negotiations.

Out of the twelve features of durable peace agreements, ten were either deeply flawed or missing altogether from the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan. It is possible that the classified annexes of the U.S.-Taliban agreement included some of those components, but that highlights another fundamental problem: opacity gives maneuver space for bad faith actors.

Because there is no overarching enforcement authority for international agreements, external support comes from things like third party oversight and imposition of direct costs like sanctions or indirect impacts like reputation costs. This is not possible if external parties are unaware of what the provisions of the agreement are and whether violations have occurred. Hence, transparency is better for peace processes.

In addition to those structural flaws, there were four other challenges that plagued implementation of the U.S.-Taliban deal. The first was that the Taliban could wait out the clock based on the terms of the agreement. With an established timetable for prisoner releases and U.S. forces withdrawal and no mechanisms for ensuring implementation, the Taliban simply continued its campaign to expand territory undeterred.

The second challenge was the disparate interests of the Trump administration and the government in Kabul. While the Afghan government sought fair and equitable outcomes that would preserve the gains achieved through two decades of conflict, the Trump administration maintained a different objective for its dealings with the Taliban. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the administration’s interests at the time:

We went to Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaeda there, and we did…We had stopped Afghanistan from becoming a place where terrorists could launch a mass casualty attack on America or anywhere else in the West. For twenty years, we prevented them from planning, training, and executing their plots. This matters a lot. It’s the America First outcome we sought when we went in.

This disparity meant that the U.S.-Taliban agreement and the intra-Afghan negotiations that were meant to follow were not mutually inclusive of each other. This only reinforced the Taliban’s tactic of waiting out the United States. The third challenge was the sense of abandonment that the U.S.-Taliban agreement fostered among some Afghan military members and government officials. This sentiment was captured in the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction report, which stated the following: “SIGAR found that the single most important factor in the ANSDF’s collapse in August 2021 was the U.S. decision to withdraw military forces and contractors from Afghanistan through signing the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February 2020…The agreement set in motion a series of events crucial to understanding the ANSDF’s collapse.” In other words, rather than being seen as something that would underpin a viable peace process, the officials responsible for subsequent intra-Afghan negotiations saw the U.S.-Taliban deal as something that would unravel it. Finally, political competition inside Kabul further eroded prospects for advancing the Afghan peace process. The Afghan elections held in September 2019 were contested between incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, both of whom claimed victory and went so far as to hold rival inauguration ceremonies in April 2020. The two camps entered negotiations together, finally concluding a power-sharing deal on 17 May 2020 that was meant to enable stable governance. However, this presented another vulnerability, as that agreement designated Dr. Abdullah as the lead negotiator for intra-Afghan negotiations, further distancing the Ghani administration from peacemaking efforts. Those factors along with a structurally flawed peace agreement contributed to the rapid deterioration of conditions and, ultimately, the collapse of the Afghan peace process. These outcomes, as unfortunate as they are, present useful lessons for peacemakers and mediators in the future. Fundamentally, it is critical for the parties to conflict to craft agreements that contain the structural components known to underpin a durable peace. A well-designed peace agreement offers no guarantee for successful implementation, but a poorly designed one often guarantees the opposite.


Michael MacArthur Bosack is a seasoned international negotiator and the founder of the Parley Policy Initiative. He is the Special Adviser for Government Relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. Michael is a former East-West Center Fellow, a military veteran, and the author of “Negotiate: A Primer for Practitioners.”


  • Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, 29 February 2020

Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan
Download PDF • 105KB
  • Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, 29 February 2020

Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of Ame
Download • 97KB
  • Cable No. 24: Breaking down the "Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan"

Cable No 24_Breaking down the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan
Download PDF • 464KB


bottom of page