The withdrawal of US troops and immediate takeover by the Taliban in August 2021 marked a radical transition from Afghanistan’s status as a republic to an Islamic Emirate system. With this transition, the Taliban maintains the perception that peace has replaced their ongoing war. While radical transitions did not bring positive peace, a temporary reduction of violence has occurred despite unresolved political and social conflicts. The presence of authoritative and religious hardliners has ushered in a new era of human rights violations, including marginalization, widespread discrimination, and atrocities against women and ethnic groups.
The types of insecurities faced by people in Afghanistan provide a context for and are crucial in defining national and local peace. Different groups of people, including the privileged and political classes, often have different narratives of peace. These differing perspectives represent disparate constituencies throughout the country.
In reflecting on the past year and the years that led up to the Taliban takeover, one thing is clear: there was an overarching flaw in the nature of the Doha process and its agreement. At the same time, bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table and accepting their demands at the early stages of negotiations exponentially empowered one party of the armed conflict and allowed the Taliban to gain momentum on the battlefield. The Doha process collapsed without political settlement and failed to create consensus among Afghans through Intra-Afghan negotiations. This failure, along with other political factors, resulted in the Taliban’s forceful takeover.
Now that Afghanistan is an Islamic Emirate ruled by the Taliban void of domestic and international legitimacy, a new phase of resistance, armed conflict, and social and economic crisis has arisen. This has caused political instability, exacerbated ethnic tensions and economic crises, and raised the level of concern among Afghanistan’s neighbors due to the spillover across borders of violence and insurgency and the influx of refugees. Under these circumstances, the country needs a new political process to reignite an intra- and interstate dialogue and negotiations leading to political settlement and reconciliation
For the political process to demonstrate inclusivity, create consensus, and produce outcomes that lead to stability, there must be conditions for social and economic development in place. This process needs to give voice and agency to every community and enable all interested groups to engage and participate in the discourse about how their society should be ruled. The platform for such a process can also address contentious issues among various factions of Afghan society and reduce the magnitude of political uncertainty. The people of Afghanistan want peace and stability. Still, there has not been a political process to deliver it. It is deeply concerning that Afghanistan does not have an effective political process to address people’s grievances and create conditions for reconciliation.
International partners of Afghanistan assume that development aid is the solution to the current economic crisis. While Afghanistan undoubtedly needs money and resources, it is important to remember that social, economic, and political development are strongly interlinked. Development aid will not produce desirable outcomes without a consistent plan for addressing all these issues and when implemented under the shadow of an unstable political system and weak institutions.
To attain peace and stability, the new political process should be based on the principle of inclusivity, which in Afghanistan involves two fundamental issues: domestic and regional processes of inclusion. A domestic process contextualized for Afghanistan could enable conditions that address the grievances of people from different parts of society and instigate dialogue about a political system, governance, and institutions favorable to all Afghans. The second fundamental issue, initiating a new regional negotiations process that requires inclusion of countries in the region with economic and security interests.
Internal Process for Intrastate Negotiations
In Afghanistan, ethnicity is often the basis for political polarization and mobilization. Utilizing a policy that isolates specific groups is likely to divide the population along ethnic lines and create a narrative of “the other” as the enemy. Afghanistan’s ethnic identities and groups are fundamental to the country, and each has clear interests and a strong agency. The common interests of these groups cause collective mobilization, which could lead to unarmed or armed resistance. The current de facto government’s lack of representation has marginalized non-Pashtun ethnic groups, fueled ethnic tensions, and widened the gap between Pashtun and non-Pashtun citizens. Ethnic groups seek national-level political representation, and instability inevitably grows if that representation is denied. The inability to address ethnic crises causes political instability, insurgency, and widespread resistance.
Therefore, an intra-state political process should include dialogue about an appropriate political system for the country based on the principle of inclusion. There has been an ongoing debate among Afghans around the nature of governance in Afghanistan and determining a path towards a political settlement. For instance, some believe that a centralized system of governance would best hold the country together and prevent factions and outside interference. Others have argued that a centralized political system was attempted and failed to bring the nation together or address economic disparities and provinces’ economic and political needs. This approach to governance has caused grievances as basic needs have gone unmet and specific populations experience isolation and marginalization. However, there is growing recognition that a decentralized system can create a balance of power across regions and address each group’s needs and grievances.
Moreover, the ongoing ban on women’s political participation and the denial of the agency of half of the population has raised serious concerns, both nationally and internationally, about the Taliban and their de facto authorities. A political process must also include women’s meaningful participation to address the concerns of women in Afghanistan.
Afghans have been debating the country’s political process for years. More than ever, it is urgent that this process is based on consensus and results in an inclusive government and political system that consists of people from across provinces and ethnic groups who can see themselves represented in all levels of participation. Any ongoing dialogue must be time sensitive and result in a comprehensive agreement. It is possible that such a process could enable conditions for reconciliation. A political process should not only be a place for deal making between parties but also provide open space for people to have in-depth discourse about the type of state and system in which they want to live.
A domestic political process should create the level of discourse needed to settle significant differences about the nature and approach needed to establish good governance and address Afghan’s fundamental differences. Ideally, it would lead to a nationally representative administration, with political positions distributed among different parties, and it would address the political imbalances among different groups in Afghanistan.
External Process for Interstate Negotiations
The next crucial step to engage is an effective political process is to establish external, interstate negotiations and utilize a consistent regional diplomatic platform to provide countries in the region a place to engage in dialogue and address their economic and security concerns and interests. Historically, countries in the region have used proxies inside Afghanistan to address their own security concerns and compete with one another for their interests. Regional processes have been attempted, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Heart of Asia, Troika Plus, and one-time forums organized by countries in the region, particularly Dushanbe, Moscow, Delhi, Tehran, and Islamabad. However, none of these processes produced effective outcomes because they failed to address the core political and economic issues of the regional actors. In some instances, countries have been altogether excluded, as was the case for India and Iran during Troika Plus.
Excluding any regional country from the negotiation and dialogue process will likely result in an agreement that the excluded party will sabotage. An inclusive process is necessary to address regional parties’ interests, discuss core
political concerns, and negotiate economic and security issues. If regional actors’ interests are taken care of, they will not need to involve Afghan actors and proxies inside Afghanistan. A consistent regional platform that includes all concerned actors, results in clear agreements, and removes proxies from the equation could lead to real political settlement among Afghans.
Afghanistan’s international allies and partners should commit to a comprehensive political process and identify a country or the United Nations to facilitate the external process by initiating a regional negotiation for peace and security involving the United States, Pakistan, China, Iran, India, Russia, and Central Asian states. Meanwhile, an internal political process must commence with a new generation of Afghans, representatives of political parties, ethnic groups, religious minorities, civil society and community representatives who demand consistency, continuity, investment, and an outcome based on consensus. Acknowledging that the process could be time-consuming and that past attempts at political processes have failed should not undermine the urgency of commencing this essential process.
Dr. Nilofar Sakhi is a Professorial Lecturer of International Affairs, Elliott School of George Washington University. Sakhi is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Kroc Institute for the Fall 2022 semester.