Can the Afghan Peace Process Succeed?
Talks with the Taliban must include long-term, patient efforts to negotiate and resolve the disagreements between the Afghans on the issue of peace.
In 2018, Afghanistan witnessed rapid changes in the ongoing peace process. In early February, President Ashraf Ghani extended an unconditional peace offer to the Taliban. The war on terror in Afghanistan has continued for the past 17 years, at a cost of an estimated 38,480 civilian lives, with some 28,000 Afghan military personnel killed between 2015 and 2018 alone, and, by 2018, a $45-billion bill for the United States. In June 2018, a three-day ceasefire has been announced across the country for the first time since 2001, when the Taliban was toppled by the US-led invasion.
The United States brought in Zalmay Khalilzad, former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the UN, as a special envoy for peace in Afghanistan to end America’s longest war. On November 9, 2018, Russia hosted a peace conference, with representatives from both the Afghan government and the Taliban attending a meeting at a luxury hotel in Moscow.
Dr. Omar Sadr, senior researcher at the Afghanistan Institute for Strategic Studies, has conducted a study of the people’s perceptions and attitudes toward the peace efforts. The study used both qualitative and quantitative research methods and analyzed the peace efforts historically post 2001. In order to investigate the level of awareness, opinions about the current peace process and the attitudes toward the Taliban’s tactics, policies and popularity, a nationwide survey was conducted, with 2,026 respondents interviewed.
Lack of Consensus
Based on Sadr’s findings, there seems to be a lack of consensus among Afghans when it comes to the peace process. The author believes that in order to achieve enduring peace, in addition to a high-level political settlement, mid-level and community-level consultations are needed to end complex conflicts such as Afghanistan’s. He adds that although there is consensus on the necessity of political process to end the conflict, disagreement remains regarding approaches. Opinions differ when it comes to the multiple peace models proposed by Afghan politicians and the sentiments on the nature and character of the Taliban. The author provides four peace models proposed by Afghan politicians to highlight this lack of a unified approach.
The first model proposes a power-sharing arrangement between the Afghan government and the Taliban., attempted by Afghanistan’s former president, Hamid Karzai, when he offered central government positions to the Taliban. The second model, peace in exchange for territory, has been proposed by different Afghan political leaders — including the former warlord-turned-politician who served as prime minister of Afghanistan twice in the 1990s, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the federalist Abdul Latif Pedram. According to this model, local autonomy should be granted to the Taliban in certain regions and provinces designated as secure regions.
The third model, peace in exchange for recognition of rights and democracy, is proposed by Tajik (one of major ethnic groups in the country) political figures. Based on this model, a program of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration should be applied to the Taliban. As a result, if the group accepts democracy and human rights and recognizes the 2004 constitution, then the Taliban would be identified as a legitimate political party. The fourth model of reconfiguration of democratic political order is offered by the Taliban and consists of two steps. First, negotiations with international forces, mainly the United States, need to take place. Second, reconfiguration of the post-2001 political order and the current constitution, and establishing an Islamic-based government, are a requirement.
These differences showcase the need for long-term, patient efforts to negotiate and resolve the disagreements between the Afghans themselves. But disagreement and lack of consensus when it comes to the peace efforts can be seen in how international players, Afghan political leaders and ethnic groups refer to the Taliban. The study mentions the disparity between a 2002 US executive order that addressed the group as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist Entity,” while Afghanistan’s ex-president Hamid Karzai referred to the Taliban “dissatisfied brothers.” Among the local population, 6.4% of Pashtuns call the Taliban terrorists, while over half of non-Pashtun (27% Hazaras, 16% Uzbeks and 15% Tajiks) respondents refer to the group as terrorists. The author suggests that understanding public opinion of the Taliban can help gage the level of legitimacy the group enjoys in the eyes of ordinary Afghans.
Moreover, Sadr’s findings reveal that Afghans are not sufficiently knowledgeable of the ongoing peace process, with just 33.9% of respondents indicating awareness of it, 51.6% reporting little awareness, and 14.5% saying they have no awareness at all. Significant gender differences are present, with women less likely to say they know about the peace process. According to research from the Council on Foreign Relations, when women participate in the peace process, the resulting agreement is 35% more likely to last. A 2018 study by the Asia Foundation shows that women have more fear of the Taliban and are pessimistic of peace talks with the group.
The fear and pessimism no doubt reflect fear of returning to the dark days of Taliban rule, when women lacked even the most basic freedom and rights — executed and stoned in public, beaten if seen without a burqa, not allowed to leave the house without a male companion or attend school. The author concludes that a lack of awareness on political issues like the peace efforts means the current political culture in Afghanistan is parochial one. It hints that the peace talks aren’t inclusive, and when this is the case in countries undergoing conflict like Afghanistan, the chances of a return to conflict are high.
Who Do You Talk To?
The research also discusses two different perspectives regarding the structure of the Taliban. According to the first perspective, the Taliban’s government-in-waiting is defined as a well-organized structure with its own provincial and district governors, and military and civilian commissions. The second perspective introduces the Taliban, post-2001, as a fragmented, mainly decentralized and network-based terrorist organization. The study provides evidence of the power struggle following the death of its leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in a 2016 US drone strike, between the group’s senior figures — Haibatullah Akhunzada, Mullah Mansour’s cousin Obaidullah Ishaqzai, and his deputy Sirajuddin Haqqani.
If the second perspective is more reflective of reality on the ground, then it makes the peace talks more complex and conveys two messages. First, it is unclear which faction within the fragmented Taliban would represent the group during peace negotiations. Second, the Taliban itself would face difficulty in coming to a unified decision regarding the peace settlement due to a lack of consensus within the group. These disagreements would mean that the peace effort should be inclusive and not rushed, if it were to endure.
In addition, the study suggests that over 63% of Afghans believe that past peace efforts have failed. According to the respondents, the reasons for past failures are attributed to the government’s weakness, destructive interventions by neighboring countries (such as, Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia and China), a lack of transparency during negotiations and the High Peace Council’s ineffectiveness. At the same time, only 7% of respondents think that the Taliban has a chance of winning in this conflict.
A Possibility of Peace
Sadr draws an ambiguous conclusion regarding the possibility of peace in Afghanistan. Ordinary Afghans think that the chances of a Taliban victory are low, and the public is suspicious of not only the Taliban, but the Afghan government’s and international players’ motives in peacemaking. The doubt and mistrust may have different origins. There is lack of an agreement on a peace road map between the Afghan government and the US special envoy for peace. Reports indicate that Zalmay Khalilzad has given the peace negotiations a six-month timeframe, while the Afghan government, at a conference in Geneva in late 2018, declared peace talks to be a long-term effort that needs at least five years. Also, Afghans see the Taliban as unchanged, not ready to accept the democratic gains achieved after its fall in 2001, such as freedom of speech, a right to vote and respect for women’s rights.
However, President Ghani presented the peace 2016 agreement with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s party, the Hezb-e Islami, as a success and allocated a lot of financial resources for it. Hekmatyar was one of the most influential leaders in the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s and was accused of war crimes during the civil war in the 1990s. The peace deal resulted in his return from a 20-year-long self-imposed exile, granting him amnesty for past offenses as well as future political rights. According to Sadr, 50% of Afghans believe that the peace deal didn’t have a positive impact on their local area’s security.
— U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (@US4AfghanPeace) January 28, 2019
The study found that a majority of respondents were in favor of peaceful approaches such as negotiation (37.6%), mediation (17.0%) and reconciliation (56.3%) toward conflict resolution, and only a quarter (24.5%) of the respondents were in favor of military confrontation with the Taliban. However, 60% of respondents supported increasing pressure on the Taliban in case it rejects the peace offer. Another important finding is that despite public support for peace with the Taliban, Afghans also support preconditions such as respect for human rights, women’s rights, relinquishing violence, respect for the constitution and the enforcement of a ceasefire.
The author very smartly gives evidence to point out that reintegrating the Taliban, with its fundamentalist understanding of religion, would be another challenge to be considered. As the conflict in Afghanistan has international stakeholders, respondents believe direct talks should be conducted between Pakistan and Afghanistan to resolve the dispute over Afghanistan’s southern border. Respondents think pressure should be intensified on the Taliban through international organizations, and majority of those interviewed think the US has a great deal of influence on the peace process. The study findings reveal, however, that 56.5% of Afghans are in favor of Afghanistan as a location to host the peace talks, and from the author’s point of view Afghans prefer to avoid the influence foreign countries. But the peace talks are hosted in different locations, such as Moscow and Doha.
The research is valuable and unique in its kind. First, it is one of the very few published on the history of the peace process with the Taliban. Secondly, most of the earlier literature and research on the subject had been undertaken by foreign scholars, making this study one of a kind.
Recently, interest in the peace negotiations and demands for peace among regional and international has been steadily growing. But a rushed deal that lacks inclusivity will not endure for long. Peace talks are usually long-term endeavors that need patience. The Afghan and US governments, and even the Taliban, should consider the findings of this study when it comes to policy and negotiations. Moreover, the role of women — who suffered the most under Taliban rule — in a lasting peace agreement is crucial, and they should be granted a place at the talks.
Finally, given the momentous divisions within the country itself, peace can’t be achieved by any outside party, but through a long-term, Afghan-led and Afghan-owned inclusive process.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.