Moving Beyond Informality? The Process Toward Peace in Afghanistan.
Small Wars Journal
Peace making through intrastate and interstate diplomacy are central aspects of the process toward peace in Afghanistan. Beginning in early 2010, these dual diplomatic strategies have, however, been confined to discussing the logistical arrangements for various peace talks; initiating intra-Afghan peace initiatives that have included building a constituency for peace, convening a national jirga for peace, and considering how to demobilize and reintegrate insurgents; informal exchanges between various parties to the conflict, particularly the Afghan government, the Taliban, Pakistan and the United States; and preparing a regional consensus for peace that has involved initial engagement with Pakistan.
From the presidential palace in Kabul (the Arg) to foreign embassies, international agencies to local non-governmental organizations, the proverbial march toward ending the Afghan war and ushering in sustainable peace saw each of these entities begin to draft concept papers, proposals, and coordinate efforts to initiate peacebuilding activities. Simultaneously, in 2010, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, former Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, emphasized the need to initiate a targeted and detailed dialogue between Afghan political leaders and a key regional player, Pakistan. Secret talks between specific Afghan leaders and Taliban representative, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour (whose identity and participation in meetings remained unclear for a long time), marked another critical juncture in the process toward discussing peace in Afghanistan.
In the summer of 2010, a national consultative peace Jirga was conducted that brought together tribal elders, local power brokers, and government officials to discuss peace and an end to the insurgency. 1600 delegates representing a broad cross section of Afghan society from government, and the private and civil society sectors participated in the Jirga. It was hoped this event would bring the country together through focused discussions on the future of Afghanistan generally and on limiting insurgency by reconciling with Taliban insurgents more specifically. After days of discussion, Jirga participants agreed on a sixteen point framework for peace and reconciliation with the Taliban that included embarking on a process of reconciliation with the insurgents, establishing of high peace council, limiting civilian casualties, and preserving existing gains made in the areas of governance, freedom of expression and the press, and women’s rights. Although the event was marked a success by President Karzai’s administration, no concrete results or changes in the status quo followed in its wake.
At the request of the United States in 2013, the Taliban office established in Doha, Qatar facilitated talks between the Taliban, the United States, and other countries in the region, which successfully moved the process toward working for peace in Afghanistan from informality to a more formal, structured process. This move toward the formal continued with the launch of the Afghan peace project in September 2018 and, particularly President Trump’s decision to withdraw United States troops from Afghanistan and pursue an end to America’s longest war. To that end, the United States appointed the former United States Ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan, and United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, to facilitate negotiations between the Taliban, regional states invested in the stabilization of Afghanistan, and Afghans to bring an end to the conflict.
This ongoing peace project coincides with the start of the 2020 Afghan presidential election cycle during which time Kabul is occupied by political deal making between political parties, businessmen, and political elites. This period of time in the political lifecycle of Afghanistan has always been perceived as a sensitive by local Afghans. The existence of the peace project has only served to heighten this perception. As such, while most Afghans welcome these peace efforts and desire sustainable peace, contradictory views exist. Wide skepticism exists about the Taliban’s commitment to peace and their claims to want to protect the human security of Afghans. Far from an unfounded fear, this skepticism is based squarely on the suffering experienced by Afghans during Taliban rule between 1996-2001. Moreover, others have indicated the key to peace is not in Kabul, but rather should be searched for in Pakistan.
Although the process toward peace in Afghanistan has been punctuated by several key junctures beginning in 2010 that continue today, much of the peace-oriented discussions have remained the same with little to no real movement on tangible issues at the negotiating table. Nevertheless, it is possible to point to some of the positive and, of course, negative aspects of the ongoing negotiation process, which must be addressed to avoid repeating past mistakes and fill existing gaps.
- Recently, through various interest-based discussions among the parties and, particularly the Taliban, we have been able to understand more fully their current stance on issue areas ranging from institution building, security sector reform and, and the protection of civil liberties. As it currently stands, there appears to be some degree of flexibility on the part of the Taliban on these issues. It is essential this flexibility is seized upon during discussions in order to actively move the process towards peace in Afghanistan forward.
- The first series of closed-door meetings of the 2018 Afghan peace project began in January 2019 in Doha, Qatar. Continuing for six days, this gathering crucially brought together regional parties involved in the Afghan conflict to facilitate interest-based dialogue and discussions with the Taliban. Though closed in nature, some discussion points were disclosed publicly following the negotiation sessions. These included discussions regarding US withdrawal, a ceasefire, prisoner exchange, and the Taliban committing to not use Afghan soil for any further terrorist activities and attacks. Yet, questions remain whether anything new has emerged from this series of closed-door negotiations, particularly given that many of these issue areas have been previously raised by the Taliban.
- The intra-Afghan talks held in February 2019 in Moscow. Following on from the regional gathering in Doha almost directly, the meeting in Moscow brought Afghan political leaders together, including the Taliban, to create an initial intra-Afghan discussion on working toward peace. During the Moscow meetings, discussions centered on security, institution building, and constitutional law. Women’s rights were discussed albeit briefly. It was in Moscow where the Taliban leadership publicly voiced their desire to see reforms across these sectors. Though positive, no clear or concrete points of negotiation have been advanced in relation to these issues.
- Currently, there are two peace processes progressing in tandem – one led by US envoy, Zalmai Khalilzad, and another led by the Afghan government envoy, Omar Daudzai. These parallel peace processes complicate negotiations and will limit the success of any peace-oriented outcome. More specifically, the clash between these two processes has the potential to create more internal division in Afghanistan regarding support for the peace process and its results. These processes must either be combined or, more realistically, operate as a complement to one another.
- The negotiations are not inclusive of all parties to the conflict. The process towards peace in Afghanistan has been neither Afghan–led nor included all of the surrounding countries such as Iran and China who have a strategic interest in the stabilization of Afghanistan. Relatedly, the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) backed elements of the Taliban are also missing from the negotiation table. Moreover, as a major party to the conflict through its actions of harboring members of the Taliban, Pakistan must be fully engaged in any talks. While Pakistan and Russia have been somewhat involved in the process, none of the tangible issues and interests of these and other significant players have been discussed in detail. Moreover, while paying less attention to the role of Pakistan could bring about a temporary peace deal, their long-term exclusion prevents the resolution of the core issues driving the conflict.
- The Taliban does not recognize the Afghan Government as a legitimate negotiating partner or their inclusion in the process toward peace in Afghanistan more specifically. This stance held by the Taliban challenges a fundamental principle of negotiation that dictates all parties to a conflict must be included in any process towards sustainable peace.
- As a group, the Taliban exists and operates through hard power and strength emanating from their control of almost fifty percent of Afghan territory. As such, the Taliban are seen as having more leverage in any discussions about the future of Afghanistan. The Taliban’s strength at the negotiating table has the potential to benefit them extensively by destabilizing the balance and dynamics of power during future meetings and negotiations associated with Afghanistan’s process toward peace. This could make it even more difficult to bring about consensus and ensure a peaceful and sustainable outcome.
Is There Any Hope for Peace in Afghanistan?
Negotiating peace is a process consisting of more than one or two meetings and conferences. It may take longer than planned and it must be neither rushed nor imposed on the parties. Although it is too early to speculate about the outcomes of the current peace talks within the Afghan process toward peace, it is possible to advance several points for consideration going forward.
- The continued exclusion of the Afghan government, Pakistan, Iran, China, and Russia from participating fully serves to damage the process and jeopardize any peace-oriented outcomes of the negotiations. Each of these countries has a strategic interest in the stabilization of Afghanistan. Therefore, the next stage in the process toward peace in Afghanistan must not only be the active and full engagement of all the parties to the conflict -near and far –but also specific and detailed discussions concerning the interests of each of these parties.
- The period in which the Taliban governed Afghanistan continues to be remembered as dark period in Afghan history. People’s grievances have yet to be resolved. Based on the suffering and fear Afghans experienced during their regime, they would be unlikely to welcome a Taliban lead government. More specifically, the opinions of the Afghan people must be considered seriously, and no political settlement should be made based on promising the possibility of a Taliban lead government. This could further divide the country and lead to another protracted conflict.
- Going forward, critical details are needed regarding state and nation building processes in Afghanistan that prioritize specific points on the Afghan road map to peace. These include how to secure Afghanistan’s borders; empower and strengthen the national police, Afghan security forces, and law enforcement mechanisms; and protect the human security of Afghans. Details of how Afghan women’s rights will be developed and how and through which mechanisms they will be protected are also essential.
- US withdrawal and, more specifically its timeline for withdrawal must be discussed through the lens of protecting human security. Critically, US withdrawal must be a gradual process so as not to endanger the gains made over the past seventeen years in the areas of development, freedom of expression and the press, women’s rights, and the rule of law. Not doing so has the potential to cause an expansion in human insecurities. Lastly, insurances must be given by the Taliban. A peace deal with the Taliban must be conditional on the protection of these elements.
Dr. Nilofar Sakhi is an adjunct faculty of global conflict analysis at George Mason University. She has been involved in the Afghan peace process since 2011 and remained a regular commentator and speaker in a variety of international summits and conferences on various aspect of peace building dynamics. She started the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies in 2008 in Afghanistan with focus on building constituents for peace. In addition, Sakhi has been managing a wide range of development and governance programs including human security, democracy and civil society, women’s rights, higher education and private sector development. Follow her on Twitter @NSakhi12