What Is Wrong With Afghanistan’s Peace Process
A hasty American withdrawal will jeopardize hard-won gains such as constitutional rights, citizens’ rights and democratic institutions.
By Mariam Safi and Muqaddesa Yourish
Feb. 20, 2019
New York Times
President Trump’s announcement of an impending withdrawal of United States troops from Afghanistan and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s declaration that the Americans and the Taliban have “in principle” agreed to a framework for a deal have been described by both sides as a leap toward ending the war in Afghanistan.
But a hasty American withdrawal will jeopardize for Afghans the future of hard-won gains such as constitutional rights, freedoms of citizens and democratic institutions. The United States must recognize that the absence of war — the focus of current talks — alone will not translate to peace in Afghanistan.
Mr. Khalilzad’s talks with the Taliban and the signs of an American withdrawal have bypassed numerous Afghan voices and increased fears among the most vulnerable of them — women, ethnic minorities and civil society — about the loss of security and freedoms that Afghanistan’s young and flawed democracy afforded them.
For women like Ghazaal Habibyar, who until recently served as a deputy minister, the talks have been alarming. “I, like other Afghans, want peace, but when I heard of the deal, I recalled the days when I wasn’t allowed to go to school under the Taliban,” said Ms. Habibyar. “I certainly don’t want the same for my children or the millions of other Afghan children.”
Mr. Khalilzad has conveniently deferred questions concerning citizens’ rights and freedom of the press to an intra-Afghan dialogue, which itself is surrounded by ambiguity. We don’t know which local actors will be included, how inclusivity will be ensured.
Such worries have further been reinforced by the Taliban’s inflexibility, exemplified by comments from their chief negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, who in a recent interview claimed that the future of the country will be controlled by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
American withdrawal conditioned solely on the Taliban ensuring Afghan territory would not be used by militant groups against America’s interests reflects American desperation.
Without guarantees to safeguard the achievements of the past 17 years, these talks will only clear the way for the Taliban to shape the political order in ways that will not only oppose the values of democracy cherished by Afghans but also undermine the struggle of Americans and their international partners for the protection and promotion of women’s rights and freedoms fought for since 2001.
This fear has been reinforced by the Taliban’s statement at the Moscow talks, which demanded the Constitution of the country must be revised.
Yet a Taliban leader claimed in Moscow that his group will not stop Afghan women from going to schools, universities and work. According to Afghan women who attended the Moscow talks, the Taliban told them a woman can serve in a political position but cannot become president.
Ghizaal Haress, a commissioner at the Independent Commission for Overseeing the Implementation of the Constitution, thinks “it is imperative that these constitutional rights are not compromised during the peace negotiations, as there has been a broad social and political consensus around the Constitution.”
There is a growing sense among Afghans that their concerns have remained secondary in United States-Taliban talks. For Shaharzad Akbar, a political activist in Kabul, for example, the talks would be successful if they lead to direct negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan stakeholders — government, political parties, civil society, women, youth and representatives of the victims of conflict.
These talks should concern not only the constitution but also the Taliban’s transition to a political movement and the disarmament of their militants, transitional justice and postwar development.
In light of these demands, any withdrawal of foreign troops must be gradual, linked to the capacity of Afghan security forces to mitigate risks that emanate from potential factions of the Taliban who might disagree with a peace deal and from other regional and international terrorist groups.
The exit strategy must also be aligned with Afghanistan’s development priorities in infrastructure, agriculture, extractive industries, and private sector and human capital development, to help generate greater revenue, continue delivering services and create long-term jobs.
Afghanistan’s international partners should retain the official development assistance they provide at current levels — $15.2 billion pledged at Brussels from 2016 to 2020 — in any pledging conference to adequately support demilitarization and disarmament of Taliban fighters.
The should also take into account lessons learned from the failure of previous similar efforts such as the Afghan “New Beginnings” program from 2003 to 2005, the “Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups” program from 2006 to 2007 and the Afghanistan “Peace and Reintegration” program between 2010 and 2016.
To arrive at a sustainable peace, the withdrawal of forces, the negotiation process and the implementation of any potential agreement must be monitored by a neutral third-party observer, such as the United Nations or European Union, which can establish an enforcement mechanism that can ensure all parties deliver on their commitments.
The E.U., leaning on its experiences in the Colombia and Aceh peace processes and as “a major donor” to Afghanistan, has offered its “support to be a guarantor for the peace process and to support its implementation in very practical terms.”
Given the complex domestic and external drivers of the conflict, the challenges of a sustainable peace in Afghanistan cannot be underestimated. Peace is the demand of every Afghan, but the desperation to end the bloodshed would not be accepted at the cost of their nascent democracy, human rights, women’s rights, free media or their vibrant civil society.
Mariam Safi is the director of the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies in Kabul, Afghanistan. Muqaddesa Yourish is a commissioner on Afghanistan’s Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission.