The future of Afghanistan hangs in the balance as opposing Afghan sides began the Afghan peace process in Doha on September 12, 2020. While this dialogue offers the best opportunity to end over four decades of fighting, there remain several daunting internal and external challenges to be overcome.
Recognizing from the beginning that there can be no military solution in Afghanistan, Pakistan has consistently advocated a negotiated settlement. It has, therefore, facilitated the U.S. – Taliban talks and fully endorsed the U.S.-Taliban deal as well as the start of the Afghan peace process. To help the process forward, it has repeatedly engaged with the U.S., Taliban, and the Afghan government, advocating compromise and accommodation by all sides. It has also clearly stated that Pakistan will accept any outcome of the intra-Afghan dialogue.
Burden of the Past
The Afghans fought the last great battle of the Cold War against the Soviet occupation of their country. But, while the Afghan victory in 1989 triggered the end of the Cold War, enabling the Americans to cripple the Soviet Union, Washington abandoned Afghanistan to the legacy of this war a profusion of weapons, drugs, extremism, terrorism, and civil war. This internecine conflict was compounded by the ethnic and sectarian confrontation between the majority Pashtuns and minorities such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. There was also the disruptive role of various “warlords” and the “Arab-Afghans”, recruited by the CIA to fight against the Soviets, who eventually became Al-Qaeda under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, using terrorism to target the U.S. and its allies.
In this chaotic environment, the Pashtun Taliban emerged under Mullah Omar, quickly establishing their control over most of Afghanistan by 1996. At first, the Taliban were seen as a stabilizing force but with their harsh policies as well as the continuing clashes with the mainly Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, peace could not be restored. Mullah Omar also allowed Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda to remain in the country.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. were a further devastating blow. The Americans blamed Afghanistan based Al-Qaeda for the attacks but after Mullah Omar refused to destroy the Al-Qaeda infrastructure and take action against Bin Laden, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. While the U.S. and its allies were able to prop-up an Afghan government, fatal American mistakes, especially diverting forces from Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and indiscriminate use of airpower which killed innocent people, undermined their objectives in Afghanistan.
Consequently, the Taliban were able to regroup and reassert their campaign for the expulsion of American and allied forces from their country.
Meanwhile, an even greater terrorist threat emerged from ISIS which took control over ungoverned areas of Afghanistan’s east and south. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which had escaped from Pakistan’s counter-terrorism operations, also established its presence in southern Afghanistan with support from Indian and Afghan intelligence.
U.S. Taliban Agreement and Implementation
After fighting America’s longest war in its history for 19 years for an elusive military victory, eventually President Trump, who had campaigned for American withdrawal from “wasteful foreign wars” during the 2016 elections, decided to initiate a dialogue with the Taliban that would enable American forces to be withdrawn. The dialogue, led by Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, finally concluded an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020.
Under the U.S.-Taliban agreement, American and allied forces would be withdrawn in a phased manner to be completed by May 2021. In return, the Taliban agreed to cease all cooperation with Al-Qaeda and ensure that no terrorist organization could operate from Afghanistan against the U.S. or its allies. The two sides also agreed to cease military operations against each other, though the Taliban refused to extend such a ceasefire to include Afghan government troops. A key element of the deal was to start an intra-Afghan peace process involving all Afghan parties. As a pre-condition, the Taliban insisted that the U.S. should use its influence to have 5000 Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government to be released in exchange for 1000 government troops in the Taliban’s custody.
At first Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani refused to accept the U.S.-Taliban agreement, arguing that his government was not a party to the deal. He also insisted that only a government that emerged from the elections at the time could decide upon the issue. After these controversial elections in early 2020, when Ghani was re-elected President, he gave his tentative consent under American pressure. Then the prisoner exchange issue became a stumbling block. Under U.S. pressure again, Ghani relented but insisted that the release should be in installments and that 400 of the Taliban prisoners who were “most dangerous” and responsible for “heinous crimes”, could only be released with the approval of a Loya Jirga, which was held in August 2020 and agreed to the release.
Thereafter, an unforeseen development was the objection by France and Australia to the release of seven Taliban prisoners who, as part of Afghan forces being trained by them, had killed their trainers. As of now, the solution is for these seven prisoners to be kept under house arrest and close supervision in Doha. The intra-Afghan dialogue finally commenced on September 12 with the Afghan government represented by Abdullah Abdullah and the Taliban by Sheikh Abdul Hakeem.
Prospects of the Afghan Peace Process
The Afghan peace process faces both opportunities and challenges at the internal and external levels. The outcome is, therefore, uncertain.
The present environment within and beyond the country provides the best opportunity to bring peace and stability. For the first time all Afghans, irrespective of ethnic and sectarian differences, are united in their desire for peace. This is a major factor in the calculations of all Afghan political groups. A key indicator is that Abdullah Abdullah, whose Northern Alliance had been a major opponent of the Taliban, is now ready to negotiate with them. The Taliban have also realized that they can no longer seek their maximalist position and accept that compromise with the opposition would be necessary. The Loya Jirga’s decision to release 400 Taliban prisoners despite reservations by some forces, clearly underscores the change in favour of peace.
While Pakistan and other stakeholders have done their best to help bring peace to Afghanistan, ultimately it is up to the Afghans themselves to make use of the present unprecedented opportunity to end forty years of fighting. It is the responsibility of all Afghan leaders to seize this opportunity and overcome the challenges confronting them.
The principle external factor has been the change in American policy to give up the pursuit of a military solution, leading to their agreement with the Taliban and facilitating an intra-Afghan dialogue.
Other key countries, Russia, China, Iran, and especially Pakistan have also played a positive role, advocating an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace process. Contacts between these countries and the Afghan government as well as the Taliban have encouraged both sides towards this dialogue.
Along with these opportunities, however, there are several challenges. A major internal obstacle will be the nature of the power-sharing agreement as each party will try to maximize its role and power in a future government. Then there is the issue of the mechanism through which a power-sharing agreement would be achieved. The Taliban and other opposition groups may insist upon a transition government in place of the Ashraf Ghani administration.
Another option could be new elections to bring change. A further key question is whether Ghani would agree to step down as President since that may mean an end to his political future. These differences were underscored when Abdullah, in his opening statement, recognized that “we do not have to agree hundred percent. we can come up with different options” but the Taliban insisted that Afghanistan should be governed in accordance with Islamic law. The Afghan government and other “moderate” forces have also insisted that the “gains” of the last twenty years, such as women’s rights and civil liberties will not be compromised. This has been widely supported at the opening session by the U.S., the UN, and NATO, which have linked their future assistance to this issue. So far, it is uncertain as to what would be acceptable to the Taliban.
The deep-rooted ethnic and sectarian differences could also surface in the negotiations. The Shiite Hazaras, for instance, could demand a larger role in a future government. The majority claim of the Pashtuns in a new set-up could also prove to be divisive. This issue of respect for ethnic and religious minorities was also stressed by the UN and western countries.
But the most urgent issue would be a ceasefire between the Taliban and government forces. Ghani’s government had demanded a ceasefire before the commencement of the intra-Afghan dialogue but the Taliban had refused, stating that this would be a subject of the negotiations. Whether the two sides will agree to a ceasefire once the talks commence is uncertain. Abdullah stressed this point, calling for at least a “humanitarian” ceasefire that would enable international humanitarian assistance to reach war victims which were endorsed by the UN and several countries. But the Taliban did not respond. Consequently, the fighting continues despite the beginning of the peace process. The talks would definitely collapse if this issue is not resolved.
The most significant external factor affecting the Afghan peace process would be the outcome of the American elections in November this year. If Trump is re-elected, the U.S. is likely to continue implementing the deal. However, so far, it is uncertain what a Biden administration would do if he became victorious in the election. It may well be influenced by the American military establishment to renege on the deal. But in contrast to the Pentagon, popular American opinion is to end involvement in foreign wars which could persuade Biden to follow through with the pull-out.
A major factor that would influence the new American administration’s decision would progress in the Afghan peace process. If it fails, the U.S. could again abandon Afghanistan. Another consideration would be the Taliban’s actual severance of links with Al-Qaeda. There is also a lingering threat from ISIS, which affects all stakeholders. If the terrorism threat continues, the next U.S. government may well retain some troops for counter-terrorism operations. Alternatively, there is continuing skepticism about a complete U.S. withdrawal on the grounds that it wants to maintain a military presence in close proximity to Iran, Pakistan, China, and Russia’s southern periphery for strategic reasons. This could prove to be a stumbling block unless, of course, a limited presence is accepted by the Taliban.
India’s negative role could also derail the peace process. Since New Delhi views the Taliban as Islamabad’s proxy, it has strongly opposed any Taliban role in a future government in order to negate any perceived gains by Pakistan. It also seeks an enhanced Indian military role in Afghanistan after the American withdrawal. In this regard, India has key allies in the Afghan government, such as Vice-President and former Intelligence Chief, Amrullah Saleh. Consequently, Indian covert interference could lead to continued instability in Afghanistan so as to undermine Pakistan’s interests. However, under American pressure, India has, at least overtly, supported the intra-Afghan dialogue, stating that it should be “Afghan controlled”, implying opposition to any Pakistani role.
Implications for Pakistan Peace Process
War and instability in Afghanistan have had far reaching adverse effects on Pakistan – spread of militancy and terrorism, profusion of weapons and drugs and the presence of over two million Afghan refugees. At the strategic level, a volatile western border with Afghanistan while tensions have increased on the eastern border with India, has confronted Pakistan with simultaneous challenges on two fronts. An unstable Afghanistan has also undermined Pakistan’s objective of creating regional connectivity with Central Asia and emerge as a hub for intra-regional cooperation. For all these reasons, peace and stability in Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s strategic interest.
Recognizing from the beginning that there can be no military solution in Afghanistan, Pakistan has consistently advocated a negotiated settlement. It has, therefore, facilitated the U.S. -Taliban talks and fully endorsed the U.S.-Taliban deal as well as the start of the Afghan peace process. To help the process forward, it has repeatedly engaged with the U.S., Taliban and the Afghan government, advocating compromise and accommodation by all sides. It has also clearly stated that Pakistan will accept any outcome of the intra-Afghan dialogue.
At the opening of the dialogue process, Pakistan presented its four-point approach: i) to continue supporting the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process and respect the emerging consensus; ii) ensure against re-emergence of violence in Afghanistan and threats to others; iii) increase in sustained economic support for reconstruction and development; and iv) ensure well-resourced time-bound return of Afghan refugees.
In talks prior to the start of the Afghan dialogue with the Taliban and the Afghan government, Pakistan called upon them to seize the historic opportunity for peace by demonstrating compromise and accommodation. It also advised the Taliban to accept a ceasefire since fighting and dialogue could not take place at the same time.
While Pakistan and other stakeholders have done their best to help bring peace to Afghanistan, ultimately it is up to the Afghans themselves to make use of the present unprecedented opportunity to end forty years of fighting. It is the responsibility of all Afghan leaders to seize this opportunity and overcome the challenges confronting them. This would require compromise and accommodation by all sides. The alternative is continued warfare and misery for the Afghans. Since this would also prolong regional instability, external actors should continue to support the peace process and not abandon Afghanistan at this crucial stage. Moreover, spoilers such as India need to be prevented from undermining this process.