After more than a year of negotiations between US and Taliban representatives in Qatar, talks have now reached a critical point. The two sides are reportedly close to signing an agreement that will pave the way for intra-Afghan dialogue and the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.
However, it is not yet clear who will have the mandate negotiate with the Taliban in the intra-Afghan peace talks. The Taliban had for a long time refused to talk with the Afghan government. The National Unity Government (NUG) is divided. President Ashraf Ghani is still waiting for the results of the September election — marred with low turnout and widespread fraud — to be announced. The country’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, and his deputy, Mohammad Mohaqiq, are preparing to bypass Ghani to negotiate with the Taliban.
So who has the qualifications to be an effective actor to agree a peace deal with the Taliban? The answer is, the Afghan government. But there are severe challenges against the NUG as the primary actor in this equation. First, the current election crisis in the country is a turning point, meaning that now the Taliban — and Pakistan — will not take the government seriously as a legitimate actor in the peace process. Ashraf Ghani’s administration is diminished to his small network, which will be unable to lead the anti-Taliban factions in the intra-Afghan negotiations.
Second, Ghani has failed to create a broader political consensus in the country to unify those who oppose the Taliban’s role in the peace process around a single agenda to make a stronger political front.
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If the government is sidelined in the peace process, who else could be the Taliban’s counterpart to negotiate the future political order of the country? The answer is not straightforward. There is a possibility that parties outside the government, such as Jamiat-e Islamic, Junbish-e Milli Islamic and Hezb-e Wahdat Islami, could come together with other politicians from the Pashtun community, like former President Hamid Karzai.
The Taliban has shown interest in talking with Jamiat, Junhish and Wahdat, which have fought against the Taliban in the late 1990s and are still influential in the Afghan politics. At the moment, these parties are weak and diminished to a network of individual leaders and their families. They also lack the military power to counter the Taliban during the negations to avoid a takeover by the group in case no government structure is agreed.
The Post-Conflict Order
One of the main problems facing Afghanistan is that those who oppose the Taliban do not have a unified agenda. In recent years, Jamiat has been advocating for a parliamentary system in order to decentralize power in Kabul, while Junbish and Wahdat have historically called for a much broader decentralization agenda and administrative reforms to give more power to local governments when it comes to policymaking and implementation.
At the same time, decentralization, in theory, makes local government more accountable to the local population through elections, which can increase the engagement between society and both state at local levels. The intra-Afghan dialogue is an opportunity for these parties to pursue this agenda.
However, other actors like Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin — the party of former warlord and Afghanistan’s prime minister, Hekmatyar Gulbuddin — and Hamid Karzai are supporting a centralized political system. But a highly centralized and personality-based political system has proven largely dysfunctional in the past two decades. It has undermined local governance and the relationship between the state and the people.
For example, Afghans play no role in electing their governors at provincial and district levels — governors are Kabul appointees only responsible to the president. This has increased the gap between the state and society on the one hand, and multiplied pressures on Kabul on the other.
In the past, the centralized system worked through clientelism and patron-based networks. By supporting tribal leaders against each other, the government has been trying to monopolize social relations at the expense of creating conflict and isolating segments of society at local level. This method of governance resulted in high levels of corruption and nepotism.
However, the decentralization agenda of the above-mentioned parties has never been articulated as a unified proposal. Having different ideas about decentralization of power and administrative structure of government, they seem unlikely to appear as a united front to enforce this agenda in negotiations with the Taliban. Particularly, decentralization has been labeled as foreign conspiracy and betrayal in the past by both the government and those who supported a centralized system.
While Ghani, the Taliban and Hezb-e Islami Gilbuddin emphasize a centralized political system, they have disagreements on values and norms such as human rights, democracy, free elections and political equality in the country, which are all enshrined in the current constitution. Ghani will support these values in negotiations with the Taliban, while he doesn’t see a problem with a highly centralized political structure.
Ghani missed opportunities in the past to strengthen the role of his government in the peace process. For instance, he failed to reform the election commission in order to hold transparent elections and restore credibility after the 2014 election crisis. Even today, much of Ghani’s cabinet is run by acting ministers, including the ministry of foreign affairs.
Now, if the Taliban and other political actors push for an interim government or a caretaker administration, the role of the NUG will be sidelined. If there is not a clear role for the government in the peace process or in enforcing order during the peace talks, Afghanistan will balance on the verge of collapse of its political system and even civil war.
Other actors such as youth, women, civil society and the media have not been taken seriously during the peace process. From the Taliban’s and Pakistan’s point of view, Afghanistan is an ethnic and tribal society, and politically one must deal with the heads of tribes, ethnic groups and ethnic-based parties of the Cold War era. Therefore, both Pakistan and the Taliban prefer those old leaders as a counterpart in the intra-Afghan dialogue to either the government or civil society representatives.
The next question is about the role of the US and the international community during the intra-Afghan dialogue. It is likely that after signing an agreement with the Taliban to draw down its troops in Afghanistan, the United States will not be in the position to support any anti-Taliban actors. Especially if the negotiations take longer, it would be difficult for the US to force the Taliban or other sides to reach an agreement.
If the US wants to put pressure on the Taliban during the talks, it might be interpreted as going against the agreement. Also, the Taliban can draw out the negotiation period, while the US will be obliged to withdraw its forces according to an agreed schedule. Once the US leaves the country, the Taliban could use violence to press the government or anti-Taliban factions for its favored political settlement, the Islamic Emirate.
US negotiations with the Taliban and Pakistan bring back the specter of the Geneva Accords of 1988 between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which paved the way for the Soviet withdrawal and subsequently the collapse of the Afghan government. The agreement failed to bring peace, plunging the country into a bloody civil war in the 1990s.
When the opposition to the Taliban, the government included, is weak and divided, three possible scenarios arise. First, the Taliban will play a bigger role in designing the peace deal and its implementation procedures. In this process, the current political order will be mostly, if not entirely, compromised. As a result, there will not be a power-sharing mechanism or decentralization of the political makeup. Instead, a highly centralized and undemocratic political system will be imposed, perhaps under a different name than the Islamic Emirate.
Second, if the government lacks broader political support both internally and externally, there is a high risk of the collapse of the system during the intra-Afghan dialogue, particularly if the talks take longer and disagreements arise among different parties. The Taliban will not hesitate to use violence in the course of the talks. If that happens, a new civil war would become a possibility.
Third, proposing an undemocratic system for the post-conflict order will set the stage for the next crisis. As far as the anti-Taliban factions are divided and the role of the government is unclear, the Taliban will not compromise its position in the peace process. The Taliban rejects elections and insists on the Islamic Emirate, which is a religious totalitarian model based on restricted interpretation of Islamic law. If it succeeds in getting its wish, there will not be space for dissenting voices and human rights. This welcomes a new conflict.
Changing the situation in favor of the Taliban makes a durable peace difficult. Even if the current system does not collapse during the chaos of the US withdrawal, and peace talks are stalled for the time being, a highly centralized undemocratic system is dangerous in a country as diverse and divided as Afghanistan. At this point, this type of anticipation seems unreasonable given war fatigue, but 40 years of conflict show that this scenario is not unconceivable.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.