Editorial Note: Please note that all U.S. troops are now expected to quit Afghanistan by 11 September 2021 although some contractors may remain. This will also probably mean the complete pullout of NATO. As we note in this article, placing a deadline for withdrawal may completely undermine any real possibilities for peace. At the same time, it may bring pressure on Afghans to commit more fully to a peace process.
Most ordinary Afghans appear to have little or no trust in either the Ashraf Ghani government or the Taliban. Many, too, express bitter disenchantment with the lack of credibility of past elections due to political manipulation and threats. But Afghans do seem open to the creation of broadly representative and internationally-overseen interim administration, including women. This would lead to truly free and fair polls resulting in a government that they could respect. The authors look forward to any comments or suggestions that may be used in a final essay on new solutions to be presented by the end of April to the Oslo Forum Peacewriter Prize in Geneva. This is part of Global Geneva Group’s ongoing effort to make relevant journalism-based content and new ideas available in the public interest.
By Edward Girardet and Peter Jouvenal
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Attributed to Albert Einstein.
Whether the German-born 1921 Nobel laureate for physics actually made this sentient statement does not really matter. The Einstein quote aptly describes the manner with which the international community has repeatedly sought to deal with Afghanistan ever since fighting first broke out in the summer of 1978. This led to a brutal war now dragging well into its fifth decade and which shows no signs of being resolved. Over the past 20 years alone, while much has been achieved in the form of education, health care, women’s rights, a vibrant civil society and press, plus other critical aspects, billions of dollars have been wasted, much lost to corruption, on a military-dominated intervention that has largely failed. Hundreds of thousands of human beings, whether Afghan civilians, western and government forces, or insurgents, have been killed or injured. (See Global Insights article on the abandonment of Afghanistan)
The current Doha peace process with related meetings in Moscow and Istanbul is leading nowhere other than a desire by some to impose their own agendas. There is every prospect of a “let’s wash our hands and get out” deal, one that grants few if any favours to ordinary Afghans, including the country’s women and youth. Instead, these talks seek to accommodate artificial timetables but above all non-representative factions, notably the Kabul regime and the Taliban, in which few have any trust. As the overwhelming majority of Afghans are only too aware, these parties are more likely to respond to their own interests than those of the nation.
At the same time, two dozen Afghan political factions and other groups ranging from Islamists such as Jamiat-e-Islami and Hezb-e-Islami to the more moderates have announced proposals for dealing with their country’s ongoing war. Most, however, are presenting their own leaders as possible candidates to head up such an initiative. While none can claim to represent the nation, they do demonstrate a deep lack of faith in the current Doha option.
As matters stand, Doha cannot lead to genuine peace and thereby the conditions conducive for the development of a viable economy that will create jobs and improve livelihoods, particularly in rural areas where over 70 percent of Afghans live. Afghanistan will only succeed if it can provide better prospects for the future and involve leaders who are genuinely accountable to their people. This will also mean granting greater autonomy to the regions, including the direct election of provincial governors, a model in line with the Swiss-style cantonal system. The brand of Kabul-centric rule imposed by the December 2001 Bonn accords has never lived up to the limited promise it once held.
Afghanistan presents a massively difficult dilemma. Virtually every proposal put on the table is as fallible as the other. And yet, to allow the current situation to persist is unacceptable. Both Afghans and the international community have no other option other than to hammer out – and implement – a plan that will finally bring an end to this seemingly interminable conflict. But it has got to be formulated in a manner that responds to the needs of most Afghans and not only the privileged few or specific political factions.
As two journalists who have reported the Afghan conflict from its earliest stages, one arriving just prior to the Soviet invasion on 27 December 1979, the other shortly afterwards, we have witnessed again and again how outside powers have arrogantly (or naively) sought to control events or impose their own visions on what Afghanistan should become. This was true of the Soviets and the Americans, the Chinese, Iranians and Saudis, and also al Qaeda and the one foreign party with arguably the longest tenure of malignant interference: Pakistan. We have seen repeatedly how diverse factions have sought to manipulate ordinary Afghans to do their bidding, ranging from the ruling communist PDPA (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan) to the guerrilla mujahideen (holy warriors) to the Taliban and the current Ashraf Ghani regime. As demonstrated by Afghanistan’s grim history, but also conflicts ranging from Mozambique to Syria, such power interests are hardly conducive to peace and recovery.
No military solutions to Afghanistan
Based on input provided by non-factional Afghans and concerned foreign observers, what we are outlining are suggestions for a more realistic long-term solution that does not sell ordinary Afghans down the river. A majority of this country’s 39 million people (as estimated in 2020 by the UN) are genuinely peace-loving. Moreover, such a proposal would help place Afghanistan and its potential role as a crossroads for trade and communications between East and West, North and South, on the path to a more sustainable future. This includes the development through more intelligent long-term aid and private investment of this country’s significant economic potential: mineral resources, traditional and drip-irrigation farming, eco and cultural tourism, transport, and communications. Afghanistan has far more to offer than many people realise.
The key, however, is to credibly engage and inform Afghans. They need to be convinced that a representative transitional process is imperative for a peace that will produce significant dividends in the form of hundreds of thousands of jobs throughout the country ranging from Kabul, Helmand and Herat to the smallest hamlets in the Hindu Kush and the semi-arid wastelands of the southwest. Employment and infrastructure resources may not only prove the most inducive way to wean support from the Taliban, but also emerge as far more cost-effective than wasting even more billions of dollars on military counter-insurgency. These may also convince Afghans to turn in non-cooperative or foreign armed militants, including groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, given that some will remain outside the law and never agree to such a process.
Afghans are an exceptionally entrepreneurial people and, when given the opportunity, excel in business and community building. Afghanistan would leap into the future in the most constructive way if only its people were finally granted peace and a more representative government, one in which Afghans are prepared to place their trust. Afghans, who are desperately tired of war, need to understand that they have a place in society and that they are not being encumbered, once again, by an outside imposed dog and pony show.
It is imperative that young Afghans be liberated from permanent warfare. Nearly 64 per cent of Afghanistan’s population is under the age of 25 according to UNFPA estimates. Yet younger Afghans, particularly young men, are seeking to migrate (mainly illegally) to Europe because of the perception of their homeland as a hopeless case with no future. Both Afghanistan and the international community must have something more to offer than bombs, joblessness and political nepotism favouring those who have placed themselves at the front of the gravy train.
Disengaging is not an option
Part of the international community believes than now is the time to end NATO’s on-the-ground military engagement and for Afghans to resolve their own erosive conflict once and for all. Such an approach, however, would result in the abandonment of Afghanistan. From the Talib point of view, it would herald victory. Proponents of immediate withdrawal must be prepared to accept that the West’s costly engagement, both in lives and financial support, over the past two decades would all have been for nought. Who among them has the courage to tell the families, whether American, European, Australian or Afghan (the list is long), that their sons, daughters, husbands, fathers, mothers, brothers or sisters died in vain, or that their brutal injuries or trauma were simply the collateral by-products of a pointless war?
As the British discovered to their chagrin in the 19th and early 20th century, there are no military solutions in Afghanistan. Having failed to learn from history, the Soviets relived it in the 1980s, as did the mujahidin in the early 1990s, followed by the Taliban and Al Qaeda a few years later. Since 2001, the U.S. and NATO followed the same disastrous path. Only one country, or rather one nation’s military establishment, has achieved a consistent measure of success in preventing its western neighbour from becoming a regional competitor: Pakistan. If the West is sincerely interested in encouraging democracy and helping Afghanistan achieve peace, then international forces have little choice but to remain, albeit with limited military contingents.
As well, Pakistan’s military and political leaders must be compelled, at long last, to participate in the peace process in a genuinely constructive manner. Pakistan cannot claim to support peace while at the same time giving sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, and elements of al Qaeda and ISIS.
Renewed – but more realistic – international commitment is vital
This requires embracing new and more imaginative approaches capable of not only ending this debilitating conflict but helping to place Afghanistan economically on the path to a more promising era of recovery. Certain Afghan and international organizations ranging from the Swedish Committee and Aga Khan Foundation to smaller NGOs such as the International Foundation of Hope and MADERA have indeed successfully engaged local populations with initiatives that have made a difference. Unfortunately, far too much of the West’s past response has been based on throwing money at the problem. This included top-down, short-term and poorly informed approaches often involving outside contractors who failed to understand Afghan culture, history and circumstances. Often, too, over-the-top credence has been given to elitist Kabulis or expatriate Afghans who have their own interests to push or who are themselves out of touch with their own country.
Such renewed commitment means acting both as arbiter and a donor and without any specific departure dates. Imposing timetables based on security agreements with armed factions that do not represent the majority of Afghans are only likely to founder. The sole effective way forward toward a thriving ‘new’ Afghanistan is one based on transparent social engagement, particularly with the country’s emerging grassroots actors, coupled with serious private investment and trade.
As Afghanistan’s international friends and sponsors, the West has the means to do this. But Western leaders must stop doggedly seeking to re-impose policies that simply do not work. The last thing Afghanistan needs is yet another re-hashing of the past with the usual suspects at the helm.
Afghanistan: a different country today than in 2001
For real peace to emerge, the US-led Coalition but also regional neighbours, such as Pakistan and Iran, need to agree that ordinary Afghans have the right to a say in their own future. Afghanistan in 2021 is a much different place than at the time of the collapse of the Taliban toward the end of 2001. Afghans are far more educated today. Many, too, have access to outside information through social media, foreign broadcasters and a more dogged local press than could not have been imagined in the 1980s or 90s. Women have been able to embrace opportunities, such as undertaking higher studies or setting up their own businesses without requiring permission from their male family members. Furthermore, if peace is to emerge, it is more likely to be the result of female pressure given that women tend to be the ones who suffer the most from war.
Whether the Taliban like it or not, the clock cannot be set back to the 1990s. Furthermore, given that the overwhelming majority of Afghans are young, the country’s youth are not responsible for the mess bequeathed to them by current politicians, former mujahidin and the Taliban, or the ongoing power games played by outsiders. Most young Afghans were not even around when the Taliban took Kabul in 1996.
It follows, then, that no long-term peace plan should engage in pre-ordained ‘final’ talks with players who do not speak for ordinary Afghans. The West – and its partners – should not assume that current players, or their offspring, should automatically be granted the right to rule. This includes current government incumbents, the Taliban and former mujahed groups such as Hezb-e-Islami, which is astoundingly still being promoted by Pakistan’s powerful Interservices Intelligence (ISI) agency.
The Ghani regime and Taliban: seeking to impose themselves
The fact that Ashraf Ghani supposedly ‘won’ the disputed 28 September 2019 elections with 50.64 per cent of the ballots cast hardly legitimizes him as president. With so many Afghans disillusioned by the electoral process because of direct political manipulation, corruption, or outright threats, including assaults against the press, only 1.6 million amongst Afghanistan’s 9.7 million registered voters bothered to turn up. This is not even counting another 5-6 million Afghans of eligible voting age who never registered. According to final tallies, Ghani received 923,592 votes, which represent less than one-tenth of registered Afghans and can hardly be construed as a nationwide mandate. This proved of particular embarrassment to the international community.
While Ghani, who, for a long time, attracted western approval as a ‘technocrat’ and an expressive speaker but is now widely considered to be out of touch, he is not popular amongst Afghans. Those who have worked with him consider the man aloof and arrogant. In an attitude that developed under his predecessor Hamid Karzai, this partly explains why so many Afghans have lost trust. It also stands out in marked contrast to the exceptional enthusiasm that existed during the early stages of the US-led intervention when so many Afghan men and women felt that they were part of the process.
So the question remains as to why Ghani (or even Karzai) should be automatically included in deciding any future interim administration. The fact that the Constitution prohibits Ghani from running again means little in an age – as witnessed in the United States under ex-president Donald Trump – when democracy is not always taken seriously or is abused.
A key trait of the Kabul regime in recent years has been to allocate budgets to projects – as well as family and friends – but never really check whether the work has been completed or not. Politicians are aware of this and consider the government as a milch cow as long as the aid continues. This has encouraged massive corruption (eg. Karzai’s brother) and ordinary Afghans are aware of this. Some donors know that this is happening and have been careful about grant allocations, others not.
The same goes for the Taliban. As an Islamist tribal movement operating mainly in Pushtun parts of the country, the Taliban are probably the most powerful they have ever been since their ousting by the US-led invasion in October 2001. Most western military sources agree that they number between 70,000-80,000 fighters. They also command genuine support in many parts of the country. At the same time, the Taliban are not as powerful as they would have one believe. Their leadership remains dependent on support and safe haven provided by Pakistan. And they cannot claim to speak for the majority of Afghans.
The fact that the Taliban have undertaken an increasingly hazardous campaign of attacks, mainly IED bombings and armed assaults, against Afghan civilian and security force targets inflicting horrendous casualties, does not necessarily signify military strength. Such indiscriminate terror attacks alienate them from the civilian population; the Taliban are aware that this is not good for public relations and may be one reason why they do not always claim responsibility. Another is that some attacks may have been inflicted by other groups, such as ISIS or Hekmatyar’s Hezb.
A further possibility is that such discriminatory warfare may be the result of increasingly effective drone attacks by the Americans. The Taliban have suffered heavy losses from both Coalition and Afghan government security forces. In turn, the Kabul government has also taken major casualties. If the insurgents are unwilling to accept the appointment of an interim administration followed by the free and fair elections, then such outside military support should continue at least until a new government is elected – and probably for an unspecified duration beyond once proper job creation programmes kick in.
Another ignored aspect is that, much like the mujahidin of the 1980s, the Taliban are not a homogenous movement. They are split into numerous factions operating both inside and outside Afghanistan, notably Pakistan. Often, the loyalties of individual commanders are more linked to their own communities. The Taliban at the Doha talks do not necessarily represent these groups. If anything, there is emerging jealousy with the way such delegates have grown fat and comfortable from their salaries and per diems.
Without doubt, the Taliban influence significant swathes of Afghan countryside, including small towns. They would almost certainly fare well in these zones as part of any open elections, but not in Kabul and other cities, nor in the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara regions of northern, central and western Afghanistan. While the Taliban are unlikely to be defeated militarily, they do not have the means to take Kabul or to impose their will as during the 1990s. Hence, their most effective approach is to present a position of power designed to persuade the Americans and other NATO members that it is not worth remaining in Afghanistan.
A non-factional interim administration: how realistic?
Afghans urgently need to be reassured that the most effective way of doing this is to introduce a clean slate as far as representation goes. The international community missed numerous opportunities to achieve effective peace during the early 2000s, such as the creation of an interim administration under the possible figurehead ‘leadership’ of former king Zahir Shah, who only had three years left to live. Even if the ex-monarch was not keen on such a role, the Americans chose to ignore him and an opportunity was lost.
Both the United Nations and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) did the same by enabling the warlords to take part in the July 2002 Loya Jirgha, or Grand Assembly, which started the slow rot to disillusionment amongst so many Afghans who had wanted to engage in the process. Furthermore, the West failed to champion women, many of whom wanted more than a symbolic role in decision-making, (women represent more than half the population), but were intimidated or threatened not only by the Taliban but by members of the Kabul government.
Today, any form of power-sharing between the government and the Taliban is unlikely to work. The reality is that such an arrangement will probably collapse with power grabs, factional suspicions and bickering. One only need glance at past failed attempts starting with the mujahidin to establish any degree of factional unity.
Even more important, however, the Doha process does not have the trust of the people. This is not to say that a non-factional interim administration will fare any better. Even if not easy, the creation of such a transitional government involving 25-30 respected and diverse Afghans remains the only viable way forward. Its representatives should come from different parts of the country and different walks of life from teachers, religious leaders (Ulema) and entrepreneurs to lawyers, farmers and civil servants. At least one third (35 per cent) should consist of women (only one is participating in the Doha talks) to guarantee the gains of women in Afghanistan. There will almost certainly be hard resistance to this amongst traditionalists, but this is something that the international community needs to push. There is no shortage of highly competent Afghans – male or female – many of whom can be recommended by international organizations working throughout the country.
It is equally important not to include any officially designated government politicians or Talib representatives. The political factions will have their chance to demonstrate their commitment to Afghanistan once free and fair elections are able to be held.
To avoid political squabbling, such an interim administration should be appointed by a neutral outside group, perhaps highly experienced outsiders well respected by Afghans and who know the country well, such as former NGO coordinators and diplomats. At the UN’s behest, the overall process should be overseen by neutral Switzerland, which had a mediation role in the past during the Soviet-Afghan war. Bern could host such talks in the Swiss Alps rather than Geneva with all its distractions.
Even if as artificially idyllic as the Swiss mountain scenes from calendars one often finds in Afghan chaikhane (teahouses), the affinity many Afghans have for Swizterland should not be discounted. Talks over tea (tea drinking represents one of the most important aspects of any form of negotiation in Afghanistan) interspersed with mountain walks looking out onto spectacular lake or valley views can prove highly disarming as a means for encouraging agreement.
It would also help to appoint a well-known international personality along the lines of a Paddy Ashdown, who dealt with Bosnia-Herzogovina, or a Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the UN’s transitional administrator in East Timor, as the head of such a group. Given the broad respect that so many Afghans, including the Taliban, have for the International Committee of the Red Cross, a Swiss former ICRC delegate could prove suitable. Experienced current or former heads of Scandinavian or other NGOs well known to Afghans might also be worth considering. For obvious reasons, such a role should not be assumed by anyone perceived as representing the United States or a NATO country.
Only in this manner does Afghanistan have a chance for genuine peace and the development of a more sustainable and equitable economy not besieged by privilege, corruption, and abuse. If we are serious about giving ordinary Afghans a fair deal for peace, then let it be based on democracy and proper representation rather than expediently rigged artificial ‘leadership’.
During the proposed transitional period of 10-12 months, free and fair elections would be prepared. This would include ensuring that all Afghans of voting age are properly registered with access to valid electronic ID voting and paper ballots (to ensure credible recounts if needed) that cannot be manipulated. The process should include Pakistan’s nearly three million refugee population (many Afghans have family members on both sides of the border for reasons of security and because of businesses) as well as over two million living in Iran. Given that sizeable numbers are living in illegal exile they may prove reluctant to register; nevertheless both host countries should be encouraged to amnesty them and refrain from later refouling them by force.
Equally crucial is a credible public information campaign involving both local press and outside media groups such as BBC Media Action and Internews. The idea is to inspire ordinary Afghans into trusting the new electoral process through a constant public information campaign and to distrust any politicians seeking to buy votes (as happened during the Ghani election) by branding them as corrupt. Furthermore, the Independent Election Committee must be completely overhauled. Above all, it should not be appointed by the president. As ample evidence indicates, this has only led to fraud and other forms of voter manipulation under both Karzai and Ghani. The IEC should obviously be run by credible Afghans but perhaps appointed by the international community.
It would then be up to the new government to introduce constitutional reforms, such as perhaps a parallel judicial approach involving both republican and sharia courts enabling citizens to choose, or decentralising certain aspects of Kabul government by granting more powers to the provinces through direct regional elections. To impose reforms based on negotiations with the Kabul regime and Taliban without involving ordinary Afghans would be a mistake.
The Taliban, for example, talk of having their own school system but this would almost certainly discriminate against girls. This might have been possible in 2001, but not today. Far too many girls and women have tasted the benefits of primary, secondary and higher education to be traded away. Supported by UNICEF, UNESCO and various international donors, nation-wide education is something that should not be given up for grabs.
For such an approach to work, however, it would require the support of all key players from the United States, European Union, UK, Canada, Australia and Russia to Pakistan, Iran, India and the Gulf countries. Both the Ghani government and the Taliban would have to agree. Pakistan, for example, would finally have to make a genuine commitment to the development of a new Afghanistan, which, ultimately would prove in its best economic interests. Outside pressure should also convince both the Kabul regime and the Taliban to a ceasefire and eventually the creation of a new security force. However, as much as possible, outside economic backing should seek to “buy off” fighters by creating jobs in sectors, such as mineral extraction, farming, road and rail construction or basic infrastructure.
With an end to the fighting, a broad array of economic initiatives capable of generating massive employment opportunities, particularly for former combatants, would emerge. While some are already in the making, others can only proceed once peace and a new way forward are established. These would also encourage export-import opportunities with neighbouring countries, such as:
- The TAPI pipeline running from the gas fields of Galkynysh in Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. The pipeline will be constructed along the Kandahar-Herat Highway in western Afghanistan, and then via Quetta and Mutan in Pakistan to India.
- The tripartite Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan (TAP) power project consisting of a 500-KV line.
- The modernizing of transport networks connecting neighbouring countries such as Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, China, Tajikistan, and Pakistan.
- The CPAC Project: the planned 573 km trans-Afghan railway that will connect Central Asia with ports on the Arabian Sea.
International commitment: no military withdrawal deadlines
During this interim period as well as the post-election period, the international community needs to re-assert its commitment, including maintaining military support. Even more important is its willingness to engage in a far more cost-effective economic and long-term recovery plan, particularly private investment, designed to create jobs. Many young men have joined the Taliban because they offer the only jobs. Economic incentive should be used as a principal tool to help turn Afghanistan around and to disengage fighters from insurgent ranks. This could include guns-for-cash and social integration programmes with jobs held out as a prospect.
Such an approach does not mean slinging vast sums of donor grants into the mix, but rather resorting to more realistic aid initiatives while encouraging local investment by both Afghans and foreigners. Far too many Afghans, such as politicians, civil servants and contractors, have enriched themselves from the past 20 years of international reconstruction and invested their monies in places like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, London and even Washington. Why not encourage them to return these funds by investing in Afghanistan rather than act as if the country were a sinking ship?
The new government should appoint a special investigative team – with the support of the international community given that it is largely western taxpayer funding – aimed at bringing such individuals to justice, particularly politicians and civil servants who have abused their positions and made small fortunes by stealing government or donor funds. Some of these are now living abroad. This would send a serious signal to corrupt Afghans. The problem today is that many Afghans know that they can get away with it.
While numerous civil society and other programmes have made exceptional progress over the past decades, such as health care and education, there needs to be a far greater focus on infrastructure support involving local communities, including in Talib areas. Afghans need to grasp that the benefits of peace far outweigh continued war.
New opportunities: economic recovery with eco-resilience
This is also an opportunity to help the country develop with more eco-resilient and disaster risk reduction approaches, such as paying local villagers to reforest (and oversee) the mountains and hillsides or undertake conservation programmes, build and maintain roads, establish solar and other alternative sustainable energy installations, develop tourism infrastructure, undertake replenishable aquifer mapping for water as has been done in Iraq and northern Kenya (See article on Alain Gachet) or introduce drip-irrigation to make more land available to young, aspiring farmers, including in Talib zones.
One of the principal objectives would be to encourage people to remain in rural areas rather than migrate to the cities in search of non-existent jobs thus contributing to overcrowding and poverty. Many NGOs have already introduced such initiatives, but the international community now needs to excel with appropriate funding and investment. Afghans and outsiders now have the opportunity to do it right. Quick fixes, however, will not work. The overall approach needs to be long-term, imaginative, and in response to the needs of ordinary Afghans.
Both Edward Girardet and Peter Jouvenal, who have known each other since 1980, have reported at times together in Afghanistan, but also elsewhere in the world.
Global Insights Magazine editor (www.global-geneva.com), Edward Girardet is a Swiss-American foreign correspondent and author with over 40 years experience covering wars, humanitarian crises, and development worldwide. He first began reporting Afghanistan three months prior to the December 1979 Soviet invasion. He has written and edited over half a dozen books, including the Crosslines Essential Field Guides to Afghanistan and Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan considered a ‘classic’ by the New York Review of Books. He is currently based in France near the Geneva border.