Several armed opposition groups launched attacks against the Taliban in multiple provinces over the last year. While these groups may be in their initial stages of formation, the number of casualties they have inflicted on the Taliban is enough to meet the definition of an active conflict according to Uppsala University’s Conflict Data Center. In other words, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan did not result in the settlement of a decades-long conflict in the country. Conflicts do not end simply by one party gaining the upper hand, nor by foreign parties opting out with a hasty exit.
Ending hostilities in Afghanistan requires active efforts on the part of Afghans and the international community. Local, regional, and global stakeholders in Afghanistan should launch a new political process to prevent a full-scale recurrence of violence and aim to build lasting peace.
Why should the Taliban take part in a political process?
During their two-decade-long military campaign, the Taliban anticipated their victory in returning to power through NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Their deal, signed with the United States in February 2020, affirmed their belief in the possibility of a forceful overthrow of the Islamic Republic government.
Now, however, the Taliban face a different set of challenges. They have failed to provide effective governance and revive the collapsed Afghan economy. They are also unable to protect the population against the deadly attacks of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-KP).
There is active and growing civil opposition within Afghanistan and fervent advocacy against the Taliban by Afghans living abroad. Under pressure for harboring al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri, who was eliminated by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul in July, the Taliban regime is far from being delisted from sanctions, let alone being recognized as a legitimate governing body by the international community.
Hard-pressed by several simultaneous pressures which will remain and perhaps intensify under current circumstances, the Taliban have two options: continue on their pathway of suppressing rivals and the general public, or enter into negotiations with other Afghan factions to settle the conflict and construct a sustainable and inclusive government.
But if there is not yet a particular group that can pose a serious military challenge to the Taliban regime, who could they negotiate with even if they chose a different path?
Mapping stakeholders for inclusion
The former army is disintegrated, and ex-government officials have lost the public’s trust. The mujahideen groups who are positioning themselves politically are considered warlords. The older generation has a history of escalating conflicts and corruption, and the new generation has no history that proves their leadership capability. Aside from no track record or a lack of credibility, these groups also have not united with each other.
Identifying stakeholders to participate in a political process at local and national levels is complicated but not impossible. Lack of credibility is not unique to non-Taliban factions. The Taliban regime faces a challenge that is worse than other known stakeholders. After all, if a regime that partners and provides safe houses for globally designated terrorists should be part of a political process, then it becomes hard to argue against the inclusion of other factions.
Perhaps the general rule should be to include all sides in such a process. An inclusive process, however, does not necessarily mean that each of the dozens of political parties in Afghanistan’s recent history will be physically present at the table. But every possible ideology should have representation. One way this process could work is for emerging and old political parties, civil society organizations, women, youth, and armed opposition groups to organize themselves around categories of shared visions and each category nominates representatives.
The regimes and governments of Afghanistan, and those who contested or backed them, can be grouped into four broad factions representing different
ideological visions for the country: modernists who constitute most of the new generation of Afghan leaders, fundamentalists such as the Taliban and their likes, conservatives like the jihadist groups, and moderates who have separated or never joined the other three groups but have not yet coalesced into their own group.
In summary, an important step to pave the way for a political process is for Afghan factions to organize around particular visions and develop a mechanism to identify their representatives. This will exert political pressure on the Taliban to consider peace talks. Additionally, the existence and persistence of organized groups will make it harder for the global community to shy away from supporting a path toward peaceful settlement of Afghanistan’s conflict.
Vision for peace
It is important that these groups develop a coherent vision for peace in the country and the steps to reach it. Two mutually reinforcing objectives include agreeing to improve the lives of Afghans so that everyone may live with dignity and peace and launching an inclusive process to prevent another cycle of a full-fledged armed conflict.
The Taliban are unrealistic to operate under the assumption that other forces will accommodate their exclusive hold on power and that the people of Afghanistan will tolerate violence carried out by the regime.
If there is one thing the highs and lows of cycles of armed conflict in Afghanistan teach us, it is that there is no such thing as lasting victory without compromise. The Taliban’s present claim to power is precisely the reason now is the best moment for them to reach out to all sides and actively seek to prevent another full-grown armed conflict.
This is the time to either launch and complete a coordinated and inclusive political process or allow the momentum toward recurrence of mass scale violence to determine the fate of Afghanistan—yet again.
Aref Dostyar is the Senior Advisor for the Afghan Peace and Development Research Program at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He was previously the Consul General of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in Los Angeles.