The need for a negotiated withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan has increased in urgency after the Washington Post this week published an explosive article outlining the “Afghanistan Papers”, which documents that the US government long has concluded its efforts in Afghanistan were futile and that the war was unwinnable. The article’s revelations will provide ready arguments to those in Washington already pushing for US troop withdrawals – and will thus indirectly bolster the position of the Taliban.
Talks between the US and the Taliban had only just resumed on 8 December, three months after US President Donald Trump had put an abrupt end to earlier negotiations, following the killing of a US solider in Afghanistan. A negotiated exit of US troops from Afghanistan would pave the way for intra-Afghan peace talks to resolve Afghanistan’s longstanding conflict and US engagement.
The 19 November release of two kidnapped academics (Australian and US), held by the Taliban for three years, was a promising sign ahead of the talks. The prisoner-hostage exchange came after intense negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, assisted by Pakistan. The deal was widely interpreted as a sign that the Taliban would consider further direct negotiations with the Afghan government, which it has previously refused on the contention that the Afghan government is illegitimate.
Given the urgency of peace talks, it is striking that the Afghan political establishment – and chiefly two political elites – cannot come to a speedy and amicable agreement when there are more pressing issues to tend to.
If intra-Afghan talks were to take place, how could the prospects for a reasonably successful process be improved? A number of main points have crystallised in discussions within the “new” Afghan civil society, which has developed since 2001 to become a well-informed, influential political voice. The focus here is primarily on procedural issues, as the content of the final agreements should be decided by those who have to live with the consequences of a peace deal – Afghan citizens.
First, Afghanistan needs peace. The country is bleeding, with record record-high civilian casualties – the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan recorded 2,563 killed and 5,676 injured in the first nine month of 2019 alone. The humanitarian costs are high, with roughly one in six Afghans in need of humanitarian assistance and 237,000 displaced alone this year. With still about 2.7 million Afghan refugees, mostly in Pakistan and Iran, the second highest number of refugees after Syrians, and Afghans still lodging among the highest number of asylum claims in Europe, the costs to neighbouring and other refugee destinations countries will continue to rise if the conflict is not resolved peacefully. For any serious peace negotiations to happen, the Taliban must agree to some kind of cease-fire.
Second, the idea that peace can come cheaply is a false assumption, as a recent World Bank Report has outlined. A sustainable peace means that funds saved from military engagement will have to go towards reconstruction to help the country get back on its feet and provide for health, education, employment and other services. With billions of dollars already spent in Afghanistan since 2001, this might be a hard pill to swallow for some donor countries.
Third, there is the question whether intra-Afghan peace negotiations can happen before the results of the presidential elections are finalised. Presently, the situation looks like a repeat of the 2015 election impasse, with the two main contenders, the incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his CEO Abdullah Abdullah, once again struggling over who gets to rule the country. Whatever happens, the new government will have even less legitimacy than the current one, which will weaken its negotiating stance.
Given the urgency of peace talks, it is striking that the Afghan political establishment – and chiefly two political elites – cannot come to a speedy and amicable agreement when there are more pressing issues to tend to. It also does not present a promising picture of their ability to negotiate anything successfully or peacefully.
Fourth, the elites within (and outside) the Afghan government – election squabbles aside – need to agree on what they are bringing to the negotiating table. At the moment, there is no clear sense what the Afghan government wants to negotiate over. The backstabbing, undermining, and secret talks must stop, or else any peace negotiations will be imbalanced, stacking the cards further in favour of the Taliban. If the Afghan government wants to negotiate from a position of strength, it needs a minimal level of unity at home.
This means no more discussions about an interim government or constitutional changes unless they are squarely on the table. Neither should be an option until a ceasefire and a peace agreement have been signed. There needs to be clear stance on human rights, especially the rights of women and minorities, so they don’t become concessions in a poorly negotiated peace deal.
Fifth, any peace talks will need a high level of inclusiveness and allow a very active and vocal civil society to present their terms to the Taliban personally. The Taliban need to understand that Afghanistan has changed and that the population they might one day rule is not the same as in 2001. It is important that women can speak to the Taliban about their views on women’s rights from a perspective that does not allow them to be cast aside as a Western-influenced folly.
It is equally important to include youth leaders. More than two thirds of the Afghan population are estimated to be under age 24, and 42% under 14. They like their smart phones, music, and progress. They seek future prospects in education and jobs. It is the youth who will have to bear the burden of a new phase of reconstruction, and it is them the country needs for its future survival. Young Afghans are the ones increasingly fleeing to make a better life abroad, and if they feel voiceless and excluded from the peace process, this trend will only continue.
Sixth, settlements at the elite level need time to trickle down. Talks are needed at the village and district level on what peace would look like post-settlement. This means collaborating with civil society, traditional elites, religious leaders, and customary structures (e.g., jirgas, shuras) that are critical to forging and maintaining peace at a grassroots level. But grassroot activities will also need direction and resources from the government.
In the end, there is a distinct danger of rushing into a peace deal that might eventually fail again. If we are to learn from the 2001 Bonn Agreement, the future of a country cannot be rushed, nor can decisions on a post-peace order. The lessons of what went wrong after Bonn need to be heeded. Principal among these is that any future peace deal needs to be much more inclusive in recognising and responding to the diversity of the Afghan people.