In a recent interview with the BBC, President Ashraf Ghani insisted that the condition for peace in Afghanistan depends on the condition of the war. First, according to him, Afghan security forces need international support due to intensifying violence by armed groups, including the Taliban. Second, without addressing Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, the situation with the conflict will not change. “My message is those who provide sanctuaries to the Taliban should be talked very straight,” he said. “There’s so many fears of collapse into civil war.”
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His message is for the Biden administration to have serious talks with officials in Pakistan, the Taliban’s main supporter. Ghani added that the only way he would leave the office to compromise for peace is via an election, while the Taliban does not yet recognize elections as a legitimate political mechanism. The Taliban want Ghani to resign and for Afghanistan’s political system to change back to their Islamic emirate of the 1990s or something similar to it.
The Doha Deal
Since the first round of the intra-Afghan peace talks in September 2020, violence in Afghanistan has intensified, while the negotiations resumed just last week after a two-month delay. The Doha deal, signed by the Taliban and the Trump administration early last year in Qatar, has failed to stop the violence in the country. Shortly after his inauguration in January 2021, US President Joe Biden launched a review of the Doha deal to determine whether the Taliban have upheld their commitments to cut ties with other militant groups and engage in meaningful peace talks with the Afghan government.
Pakistan has urged the Biden administration to “persevere” with the Doha agreement and not attempt to amend it. The deal gave the Taliban the upper hand and undermined the Afghan government. The agreement excluded the Afghan government and allowed the Taliban to gain legitimacy, while also mandating that US and NATO troops leave the country within 14 months if militants uphold their end of the bargain. For Pakistan, while this is a step in the “right direction” for peace talks, as per Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, it also enhanced the Taliban’s position and made regime change in Kabul a real possibility.
Although the war has a complicated domestic dimension, it is effectively a proxy conflict that Pakistan has waged against the Afghan government amidst perceived Indian influence in Afghanistan. From Pakistan’s point of view, Afghanistan has changed into an Indian playground and the Taliban are the only force that can secure Pakistani interests. As a result, the Afghan peace process also has a complicated regional dimension.
At the same time, the Taliban’s ideological system has proved to be inflexible for a democratic process that upholds citizens’ rights, leading to concerns about the Taliban seeking to build a new regime based on discrimination. Considering the strategic nature of proxy war, the history of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Taliban’s ideology, the following four scenarios are conceivable if the Biden administration underestimates the situation.
Scenario 1: A Civil War Without the Government
The Taliban insurgency has reduced the government’s territorial control, limiting it to urban cities and district centers. This has increased the likelihood of Taliban attacks on large cities.
In the first scenario, the Taliban would seek to conquer and control through violence, leading to the collapse of the government and a descent into all-out civil war. In such a situation, the ground is prepared for mass atrocities due to ethnic tension, poverty and the presence of other militias, such as the Islamic State-Khorasan, an affiliate of ISIS. Just imagine the war affecting cities like the capital Kabul with millions of people. Political crises are rife in Afghanistan, which would be exacerbated by the early withdrawal of NATO forces. Therefore, the pullout of foreign troops according to the Doha agreement’s timetable is a cause for alarm. Under the deal, all US and NATO troops are scheduled to leave the country by May 1.
This scenario is more likely to happen if the government is dismantled in the absence of a comprehensive peace agreement between the Afghan officials and the Taliban. There are growing calls for Ghani to step down to pave the way for an interim government that includes the Taliban. However, an interim administration without the presence of a peace deal — one that includes mechanisms to ensure it is upheld — is risky. Such a scenario makes it hard to keep the Afghan security forces united if another round of violence erupts under an interim administration. This would be especially the case if the international community does not have a strategy for securing such a fragile peace arrangement.
Scenario 2: A Civil War Despite the Government
Another danger is that the withdrawal of US and NATO forces will take place without a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In this scenario, the government would not completely collapse if it mobilizes anti-Taliban forces and receives foreign support, but violence would spread from rural areas to populated cities.
As a result, government officials would retreat to an area outside Kabul and continue their fight against militants as long as they have international recognition and receive support from foreign powers — possibly India, Russia and Iran. This situation is similar to what President Burhanuddin Rabbani’s government faced in the 1990s amidst an insurgency by Taliban militants. That administration withdrew from Kabul but continued its role in the conflict and retained international backing.
In the second scenario, the war takes on a local context, with violence in pockets around the country. In order to survive, the government would ally with local forces. The government would not have the ability to mount a viable challenge against the Taliban and other armed groups, and its role would largely be reduced to a symbolic one. At the same time, it would be extremely hard for the Taliban to conquer the whole country. Anti-Taliban forces — from the constituency of the old Northern Alliance — would still fight them.
Scenario 3: Parallel Balance With the Government
In the third scenario, the Taliban challenge the government through greater territorial control and contestation, but the government would not completely collapse. Instead, it would retain control of large cities and many other areas.
An example of a parallel balance is Hezbollah in Lebanon, where the Shia organization has both political and military wings. In practice, however, the Taliban have already achieved this by controlling 75 of 405 districts in Afghanistan and contested another 189. As soon as a ceasefire is reached, as per this scenario, the political landscape of some districts under Taliban control and others under government authority would be officially recognized.
Interestingly, both the government and the Taliban are not in favor of such a situation. The Taliban want complete control of Afghanistan, while the government wants the Taliban to be integrated into the current political system. Under this scenario, international assistance to the Afghan government could continue, but without Pakistan’s cooperation, nothing would change and the Taliban would push on with their insurgency. This scenario is likely if the US and other NATO members continue their support for the government.
Scenario 4: Maximum Balance From Within, But Without the Government
In the final scenario, military and political pressure is exerted on the government to accept a fragile peace agreement that meets the Taliban’s demands. The Taliban impose their type of political system, which gives them religious legitimacy and allows them to influence other political and social forces. A peace deal under the Taliban’s terms would enable them to eventually take over — or have the upper hand in — the legislature and the judiciary system. Besides, the Taliban are estimated to have tens of thousands of fighters and, under such a peace deal, they would either join the security forces or remain armed as parallel forces ready to take action, if necessary.
This scenario may seem like a soft conquest, but it could easily turn violent. The international community’s departure from Afghanistan and the unrealistic optimism about the Taliban’s ideological position and proxy relations may contribute to such a situation. Pakistan supports this version of a peace agreement to place the Taliban in Afghanistan’s polity to have a dominating position. This scenario is not acceptable for many people in Afghanistan and could create a fragile situation that would likely lead to violence at some point.
Moving Forward for a Durable Peace
A durable peace arrangement is only likely when both sides consider several key factors. These include what a possible peace agreement would look like, its implementation, what the future political system would involve and how citizens’ rights are ensured.
First, there is a need to put pressure on Pakistan to take action against Taliban sanctuaries inside that country. At the very least, Pakistan must ensure there is a reduction in violence and that the Taliban are flexible when it negotiates with the Afghan government. Otherwise, it is hard to imagine a sustainable peace in the context of a proxy war. At the same time, Afghanistan should be neutral when it comes to regional politics, and its future should not depend on the rivalry between India and Pakistan.
Second, a power-sharing process with the Taliban should be based on transparency. A peace agreement must be mutually agreed and include multiple stages of implementation and international monitoring. However, a power-sharing arrangement should be part of the peace agreement, not the other way around. The implementation of power-sharing before a peace agreement is highly risky and could lead to the collapse of the political order.
Third, citizens’ and women’s rights and democratic legitimacy should be the basis of the future political system. Otherwise, in a country as diverse as Afghanistan, sustainable peace is not possible.
Fourth, a political system that focuses on the separation of powers is necessary. Ensuring that political power is not concentrated in one party’s hands, such as the Taliban’s, would protect Afghanistan from the misuse of power.
Therefore, to ensure peace in Afghanistan and the responsible withdrawal of foreign troops, it is crucial for the Biden administration to consider the implication of the war’s proxy dynamics on peacemaking efforts. When it comes to the domestic context, without considering the country’s sociopolitical diversity and citizens’ rights, it would be extremely hard to think about lasting peace.
*[Correction: This article previously stated that the Afghan peace talks had been delayed by six months instead of two. Last updated on March 3, 2021.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.