KABUL, Afghanistan — Momentum is building toward peace in Afghanistan.
On Saturday, the United States and the Taliban will sign an agreement that will pave the way for talks between the Taliban and a team of negotiators led by the Afghan government in March. There is hope, at last, of respite from the long war.
The Afghan government deserves credit for planting the seeds of peace two years ago by offering unconditional talks to the Taliban and announcing a unilateral cease-fire that blossomed into a three-day pause in hostilities in June 2018.
Kabul continued to reach out to the Taliban and sent some officials in July to an informal peace dialogue in Doha that brought together the warring sides for the first time. In February, the government of Afghanistan agreed to stop its operations against the Taliban for seven days to facilitate the first formal negotiations between Kabul and the insurgents. The Afghan government and the American forces abided by the agreement. There were reports of several attacks by the Taliban on the Afghan civilians and security forces, but violence certainly decreased during this period.
Negotiations between an inclusive Afghan government-led team with the Taliban offer us a historic opportunity to end the war. If these talks are going to deliver peace, both the Afghan government and the Taliban urgently need to think more clearly about their coming talks and what they envision as the potential outcomes.
President Ghani also put forth the path to resolving long-term local grievances caused by feelings of exclusion from political processes or low levels of accessibility to law enforcement and justice. Furthermore, the plan aims to strengthen national public institutions to maintain order and deliver essential services to the people.
But the Taliban have shown profound and worrying lack of clarity, and their intentions remain inscrutable. They insist that they want the violence to stop, but they agreed to only a seven-day “reduction in violence” and refuse to accept a cease-fire until after official peace negotiations, the parameters of which remain undefined.
The Taliban have also been extremely vague about their proposed policies on human rights, the relationship of the Afghan government to its people and the future of relationships between Kabul and the world.
The details are absolutely crucial. The Taliban have spoken about agreeing with human rights based on Islamic law. Will their interpretation be aligned with the positions of its founder Mullah Omar, or will it align with something that progressive scholars of Islam would approve? They are entirely silent about this.
The Taliban say that their proposed governance system is one that is “based on consensus among people.” But they have not clarified whether they agree that all men and women of age have the right to vote and whether they would accept peaceful transitions of power based on free elections through secret ballots.
The insurgents have not explained whether they would accept the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which is informed by the core ideas of Islam and explicitly prohibits the promulgation of any laws contravening the tenets and provisions of Islam. The people of Afghanistan deserve to hear the Taliban’s positions clearly on these and many other questions.
These uncertainties and the absence of trust of the Taliban have created certain attitudes toward the peace talks among pro-government factions, particularly among some political parties who seek a share of power and a new generation of politicians who don’t want to lose their hard-fought gains.
The most common of these attitudes are the “compromise model” and the “defensive model.” The “compromise model” sees a degree of compromise with the Taliban as a prerequisite to successful peace negotiations, and it is implicitly and explicitly propagated by some international peace experts as well. But it is a shortsighted and problematic approach.
The opponents in negotiations, at best, compromise on superficial bargaining positions rather than on their core interests. In the Afghan context, it focuses on a division of government positions among certain people or groups of people instead of building a sustainable system for political inclusion of all Afghans.
And it is difficult to understand what one can afford to compromise on. Development? Social and political freedoms? People’s right to food and education? Can one agree to halfway rights for women?
In Kabul, the “defensive model” plays out as a feeling of defensiveness, a compelling urge to guard against a dreadful past when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. It stems from a sense that the ideals and achievements of the past two decades are under attack by the Taliban, and that fear is based on the regressive and ultra-Orthodox positions the Taliban demonstrated when they were in power in the 1990s.
Perhaps a better approach for the Afghan talks to succeed and deliver a just and lasting peace could be that both groups take a transformative approach. Negotiators from both sides should meet to create the blueprint of the future by building upon the achievements of the past two decades. They must find common ground based on arguments that reflect the realities of the new Afghanistan.
For such fruitful discussions, the two sides should distinguish between questions that will be resolved in formal talks and questions that can be resolved through informal talks. They need to build an effective mechanism for addressing the right questions in the right settings.
Questions such as an agreement on the venue and timeline of talks, and clearing of roadblocks to peace along the way should be discussed informally. Issues such as return of refugees, reintegration, prisoners, sanctions, political inclusion and agreement on policies to strengthen the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan should be discussed formally.
Finally, the language surrounding the peace process should be agreed upon, because it affects the negotiations. The coming negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban are described by some as “intra-Afghan peace negotiations” and by some as “negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the Taliban.”
The term “Islamic Republic” refers to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as it stands today with a Constitution and a Parliament. It must not be confused with the Taliban’s implied system of some sort of an Islamic emirate. The idea of Afghanistan as an Islamic republic is nonnegotiable, while there is openness to reforms among most Afghans.
It is normal for groups on opposite sides of peace negotiations to joust ahead of time about what narratives to promote by using certain language or what to include on the agenda. That is the reality of a protracted war.
But it is important to maintain the ability to think clearly, strategically and constructively in the midst of the complexities of the peace process. These are confusing times for many Afghans, but the political jigsaw presents the first glimpses of hope for a better future.