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Peace in the Afghan Context
Afghanistan – the birthplace of Persian Sufi mystic Rumi, and the seat of great empires, unfortunately, has been in a quagmire for a long time. While it has always resisted foreign occupation and involvement, it has never truly stabilized post any of these occupations. It has remained unstable for such a long time that experts on Afghanistan have started redefining stability by stating, “stability in the Afghan context”.
The current Afghan imbroglio is the result of the US and allies’ intervention post 9/11. Without going into the reasons or lack thereof, for the US intervention, it is important now, after a lapse of two decades to read into the future of Afghanistan which is dependent on the current peace process. Will the process succeed? Will there be peace?
A few years into combat operations post 9/11, the Taliban were known to have famously said to the US; “You may have the watches, but we have the time”. Trillions of dollars, over a hundred thousand casualties, and 20 years later, with the US stuck into what can best be called a stalemate, that Taliban statement stands eerily true.
The US and its allies have virtually fought themselves to a stalemate, a condition which in any insurgency is considered a victory for the insurgents or “Freedom Fighters”.
Finding a Negotiated Solution
The US and its allies, seized with realism and with defeat staring them down, have over the last several years tried to negotiate out of this impasse. This involvement in Afghanistan has been the longest war in US history – longer than that of Vietnam.
The US and allies – despite all efforts – were never really in control of major portions of Afghanistan. Without this control, successive US administrations were thwarted in their “utopian” efforts to advance democracy and development. There were times during the past two decades when this control was painfully limited to Kabul alone.
The Afghan situation, in some ways like the erstwhile Soviet Union’s involvement in the late seventies and early eighties, galvanized anti-occupation militancy throughout the Middle East and even beyond. When historians analyze the Afghan occupation, they will undoubtedly hold the US responsible not just for the failures in Afghanistan, but also for the deterioration of peace in the larger Middle East as well.
The Obama and Trump administrations tried to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban but failed. The current Biden administration has been handed down a process initiated during Trump’s presidency which, it seems, President Biden and his team are also willing to adopt, albeit with certain modifications.
The current negotiations may be termed as the third serious attempt over the last several years for the elusive Afghan peace process. While each attempt has to some extent benefited from the previous, it is safe to say that the previous efforts failed. Will the current one be any different?
The Current Peace Process
It is different at least with regards to the progress it has made so far. In the earlier cycles, the US administrations refused to take the lead or negotiate directly with the Taliban. The reason for this stance was because the US wanted the peace process to be “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned”. The Taliban, on the other hand, viewed the Afghan government as illegitimate and American puppets – and were never serious in talking to them.
They had always insisted on direct negotiations with the US interlocutors. The current peace cycle is therefore different because the US has agreed to talk directly and visibly with the Taliban which has fetched results – and the two sides (the US and Taliban) have signed an agreement in February 2020 which is now to be substantiated through an Intra-Afghan dialogue.
The agreement, though achievement in itself, needs a lot more work. Laurel Miller (the US former acting Special Representative on Afghanistan) has done a great service by writing and explaining what the Afghan peace agreement between various parties may actually look like – rather than just talking about peace in an abstract manner which most Afghan watchers have been doing.
Any successful peace agreement has to encompass cessation of hostilities, political and security power-sharing, troops’ withdrawal, constitutional reform, transition methodology, and implementation mechanism.
The agreement signed in February 2020 states that US and NATO allies would withdraw all troops within 14 months i.e. by May 01, 2021 – provided the Taliban fulfill all their promises and commitments including not allowing Al-Qaeda or other militants to operate in areas it controls.
Reduction in hostilities has taken place in view of the agreement which calls for a ceasefire. Although the Taliban stopped attacks on international forces, they have continued to fight the Afghan government.
Where Is It Going?
Where will the Afghan peace process go from here? There remain significant challenges, one, or a combination of which, could easily scuttle the whole process. The Biden administration has done well by allowing Zalmay Khalilzad to continue as its special envoy on Afganistan which will ensure a degree of continuation despite some policy or implementation modifications.
The agreed-upon date for withdrawal of the US troops has already been scrapped by President Biden, and therefore the agreement could very soon be termed as infructuous. President Biden has given a new date of September 11, 2021, for the US troops to leave Afghanistan. This change of date has caused concern in the Taliban circles.
In addition to this change of withdrawal date, there are other issues. One of which is the intra-Afghan dialogue which would be much more difficult than the US-Taliban one. Despite the call for a ceasefire, in line with the February 2020 agreement, the Taliban have chosen to continue to attack the Afghan government.
Simultaneous fighting and talking are seldom productive. Moreover, the Taliban consider the current Afghan government as illegitimate resulting from a constitution, which to them is unacceptable. A third party, that is, the US, and perhaps Pakistan, may have to remain actively involved for the intra-Afghan dialogue to succeed.
While the US may be more willing, Pakistan will be reluctant so as to not be scapegoated later. Then again, the sincerity of Afghan sides towards finding a peaceful settlement remains suspect because of the benefits of the war economy.
The Afghan government as well as some of the other Afghan players have, and continue to benefit from the war economy, from which money is siphoned off. There is fear amongst these players that if the US were to walk away, the inflow of money would stop, and their ‘‘livelihood’’ would be potentially compromised.
The Regional States
The regional players like Russia, China, and Pakistan have repeatedly emphasized to the US that their withdrawal should be ‘‘responsible’’, one based on ground reality/conditions and not dictated merely by time. In other words, these countries want for the US to have a conditions-based withdrawal, in the absence of which Afghanistan could slide into a civil war with undesirable implications for these and other neighboring countries.
The Biden administration (unlike Trump’s) is considering the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed during President Obama’s tenure with Iran. Failure to do so may encourage Iran to be more “revengeful” by being a spoiler to the US peace efforts in its neighboring Afghanistan. Russia may have a vested interest to do the same.
It would be extremely difficult for the Taliban leadership to convince their “rank and file” to a negotiated settlement with the US when the “rank and file” sense a clear victory. This eventually may cause a splintering of the Taliban, which could further complicate the entire Afghan peace process.
Even if the intra-Afghan dialogue were to succeed, the implementation of the peace deal would almost be impossible. With the Taliban controlling some areas, the US some others, and certain other warlords having influence in yet others, it would be very difficult to ensure agreed upon implementation – leaving Afghanistan susceptible to slide further into disarray leading to a possible geographical split.
In any future democratic dispensation, the Taliban would have to be accepted as the largest party, and would therefore exert maximum influence. Their policies, therefore, as in the past, may not be aligned with the much-trumpeted western principles. Education for girls, women’s emancipation, minority rights, capital punishments, and physical amputations for lawbreakers, are areas that may draw criticism from western and other countries.
What Is Likely to Happen?
There are still miles to go for the Afghan peace process to be agreed upon, let alone be implemented. Within the peace process, a successful intra-Afghan dialogue will be extremely difficult considering the history of the protagonists and the seemingly entrenched position of the Taliban vis-a-vis the illegitimacy of the Afghan government and its constitution.
Even if the dialogue were to succeed and a detailed agreement was to be formalized, the implementation will be nearly impossible. Any peace agreement sans implementation will bring anything but peace. If there is no peace post the peace agreement, the misery of the Afghan people will unfortunately continue.
Afghanistan will remain unstable and in disarray, and Afghanistan’s neighboring countries would either remain exposed to the fall-out of that instability, or would be unable to resist the temptation to interfere in that country to safeguard their respective national interests. This would complicate matters to no end.
As we sit today, at the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, I am reminded of what I read a few years back about the Taliban’s response to the pressures exerted on them by various quarters to agree to negotiations with the Americans. The Taliban leadership’s response was telling: “What you are asking us to do is like fasting all day and then breaking the fast prematurely only a few hours shy of the actual end”.
Since the Taliban consider that they are winning, their hearts may not be in a negotiated settlement – a settlement that may spoil their sense of victory. They would not want to spoil that victory by sitting down for a negotiated settlement. The big question therefore is: Are the Taliban serious in finding a negotiated settlement, or are they thinking “why to break the fast prematurely when the end is so close?”.
An even bigger question is: Is the stability of Afghanistan and the region more important to the US, or achieving an “artificial closure” regardless? Only time will tell. Peace in Afghanistan remains as elusive as it was two decades ago.
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