The Afghan peace process has, so far, demonstrated just about everything peace talks should not be: exclusionary, unrepresentative, short sighted and based on little common agreement and shared understanding of core issues. As the people of Afghanistan prepare for the polls this Sunday 28 September, only a more inclusive and holistic approach can secure any future peace.
US President Donald Trump’s recent public cancellation of a secretly planned peace summit at Camp David created engaging headlines and set a worrying tone in the continued search for peace in Afghanistan. In truth, the event may have always been unlikely to go the way the President hoped. The intervention creates a delay but may ultimately not represent a significant change in how the process has been going for some time now.
For much of 2019, a lot has been said about prospects for peace in Afghanistan. With events, meetings and decisions from Doha to Kabul, Washington, Moscow and Islamabad, commentators have been keen to analyse various hypothetical situations. Details emerged earlier this month of an apparent agreement struck “in principle” between the US and the Taliban. Unfortunately, even if this agreement is returned to, there is little cause for optimism.
The recent US-Taliban talks are arguably far less focussed on peace than about each side’s short-term ambitions regarding US troop withdrawal.
The recent US-Taliban talks in Doha haven’t included any elected representatives of the Afghan people affected by violent conflict and are arguably far less focussed on peace than about each side’s short-term ambitions regarding US troop withdrawal from the country.
2019 – Violence while talks continue
The months of negotiations have been set against a backdrop of increasing violence in the country between the Taliban, Afghan national security forces backed by the US, and other armed groups, including IS-K - the regional chapter of ISIS that holds a significant chunk of territory in Nanagarhar province and attracts increasing numbers of fighters. The US administration has made little secret of its desire to withdraw from its mission, nor of its intention to do so in almost any context before the 2020 US election.
The Taliban controls or contests over 50% of the territory in the country and launches attacks with impunity, which often result in civilian deaths.
The outline of the US-Taliban deal was as follows: The US will begin to withdraw its troops – an initial 5,400 will depart in the coming months with the rest of the current 14,000 strong presence likely to follow soon after. The Taliban will offer assurances that no transnational armed groups will be able to use Afghanistan as a base from which to plan attacks against the US, addressing one of the fundamental reasons the US invaded in the wake of 9/11 almost 18 years ago. The Taliban will agree to intra-Afghan talks, though the details of this are unclear as they still regard the Ghani-led administration as illegitimate. Finally, the US seemed to have relented from their initial position of demanding a ceasefire and the rhetoric moved to a “reduction” in violence.
The most topical issue now becomes the national Presidential election, currently scheduled for 28 September. Already postponed from earlier this year, there were mixed views about whether this should go ahead with most major candidates suspending their campaigns in the run up, in juxtaposition to incumbent Ghani seeking to press ahead with a view to boosting his own legitimacy as a national leader with a victory.
Much of the international community, previously strong advocates of holding regular, free, and fair elections, are displaying little more than lip service to the necessity of this election. Trump’s public diplomacy means this election will almost certainly take place though the chances of them being peaceful or even producing a clear result are questionable.
An inclusive peace
However the elections turn out, the bigger issue for peace is more structural. Talks between the Taliban and Afghan representatives had been touted to take place in Oslo, though no timeline or detail was revealed for this. The danger seems to be that both the Doha talks and any intra-Afghan negotiations are designed for short-term high-level political goals and pay little attention to the deeper prospects for a sustainable and positive peace. While that is the case, you can forgive many Afghan people’s pessimism towards what might happen next.
Afghanistan remains a complex, multi-ethnic and divided context with nothing approaching a national consensus on issues such as future governance models and protection of marginalised groups. For a process to stand the best chance of succeeding and delivering peace for Afghan people, it must be geared more towards accountability, inclusivity and a deeper understanding of what peace might look like.
For a process to stand the best chance of succeeding, it must be geared more towards accountability, inclusivity and a deeper understanding of what peace might look like.
There is, of course, a need for working “behind the scenes” during the most sensitive parts of any Track 1 (official) peace negotiation. Parties will never feel free to explore every possibility if they feel their words and actions are under real-time scrutiny, or they feel the need to play to their own side while speaking to the other. Difficult decisions and uncomfortable compromises will be necessary on both sides and these are almost impossible to achieve whilst under the microscope.
But a clarity of purpose, a recognition of the role of the media to facilitate a wider national discourse, and an open approach of accountability on the part of those that claim to represent the national interest are vital components. Through any process participants should be mindful of the need to maintain a dialogue with the Afghan people and consider their responsibilities in that direction.
The media serve a vital role in this regard. Afghanistan currently represents some of the most open spaces for a free media in the region, but there have been complaints that government officials often avoid interaction and disproportionately advantage foreign media firms. Afghans often wait for news of events in their country to reach them from London or New York. Viewing the Afghan media as an asset and key part of the country’s democracy could serve to benefit the peace process, especially the parts that extend beyond direct negotiations.
Women and girls have made notable progress since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. However, these gains have not always translated into opportunities for women to participate in the formal peace process. And yet we know that peace negotiations that meaningfully involve women are more likely to succeed and stick. This involvement must go beyond just sitting women at the negotiating table, but also bringing the perspectives, concerns and insights of more than half of the population into the process.
In Afghanistan the issue of women’s rights both evokes the oppression under the Taliban’s previous regime and the progress made since 2001, and it is important women’s voices are present moving forward. The Taliban has gone to great lengths to represent progressive rhetorical shifts in their attitudes towards women’s rights over the last 18 years. Though many are understandably sceptical of how far this shift realistically extends, or whether it exists at all, it at least offers an opportunity to support the centrality of the women of Afghanistan, their interests and perspectives in any peace process.
To safeguard women’s gains, negotiators from all sides must take seriously the red lines set down by Afghan women and firmly reject any backsliding on rights enshrined within Afghanistan’s constitution and legal code.
Inclusion should not be read as solely synonymous with women’s involvement, however. In a country with a young population as in Afghanistan, young people deserve representation in the discussions shaping their future. The nuanced religious and ethnic composition of the country should also be considered and the process should engage directly with the diverse and articulate civil society that has emerged in country, from grassroots peace movements to Afghan NGOs and activists.
Simply trading at the elite level of political and military power will not bring peace to Afghanistan.
Finally, any agreement must be based on a holistic vision of what peace means and how it might take shape. Simply trading at the elite level of political and military power will not bring peace to Afghanistan. Crucial issues such as reconciliation, DDR (demobilisation, disarmament, reintegration), transitional justice and community-led peace initiatives must be part of the conversation. After 40 years of conflict, threats to any deal from a range of potential spoilers with interests contrary to a lasting peace will be numerous and difficult to navigate. It is important the process itself does not create any more by being short-termist in its approach or seeking to fudge or ignore vital components.
Delaying difficult topics until further into talks while trust is built and easier agreements reached is a legitimate approach, failing to genuinely tackle the most sensitive topics in favour of claiming immediate progress is a recipe for a return to violence. This is an accusation that might be reasonably levelled at the US-Taliban agreement and one that must be avoided in intra-Afghan talks if they are to have any hope of being productive.
Agreements are being made but peace in Afghanistan does not appear to be on the horizon. In fact, as the US prepares to withdraw, many forecast the precise opposite with a return to total, all-encompassing civil war. A continuation or escalation of violence is not a foregone conclusion, though, and if sufficient pressure was placed on the parties to peace talks to adopt a difficult but necessary inclusive approach to the next phase of the peace process, there might be cause for optimism once more.