Last Friday, a week-long “reduction in violence” took effect across Afghanistan as a result of extensive negotiations between the United States and the Taliban. This “reduction in violence”, if successful, will be followed by the signing of an agreement between the two parties on February 29, in which the US will announce a withdrawal schedule for its troops in exchange for guarantees from the Taliban that it will no longer allow Afghan territory to be used as a launchpad for attacks that threaten global security.
If and when such an agreement is reached, Afghanistan can finally enter the crucial phase of intra-Afghan negotiations and take steps towards agreeing on a political settlement that would end the country’s decades-long conflict for good.
This process, however, is not going to be easy.
Thorny issues on the road to peace
After signing a deal with the US, the Taliban will be facing the mammoth task of convincing their constituents and supporters, who are the source of the group’s power, to support intra-Afghan talks, which will necessitate direct negotiations with a government they do not recognise as legitimate. In particular, they have to convince their commanders and fighters, who may defect to the ISIL (ISIS) group as a result of this deal.
Meanwhile, the US will be tasked with convincing a reluctant Afghan government to give peace a chance and negotiate with the enemy. In order for that to happen, the government in Kabul will first need to resolve the election crisis in which it is currently engulfed.
Last week, Afghanistan’s incumbent President Ashraf Ghani was declared the winner of the September 28 presidential election. His rival and Afghanistan’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, however, contested the much-delayed results and announced that he would be setting up a rival government. The government in Kabul cannot negotiate with the Taliban while its legitimacy is disputed. So, the rivalry between Abdullah and Ghani needs to be resolved and a government perceived as legitimate by all Afghan citizens needs to be formed before any intra-Afghan talks can go forward. Today’s news that both have agreed to enter talks is promising.
All this makes it hard to estimate how long it will take for the warring parties to take their seats at the negotiating table. However, both the government and the Taliban, as well as Afghan civil society, can turn any delay in the start of the negotiations to their advantage by using this time to begin the process to foster an array of substantive ideas and alternatives for Afghanistan’s post-settlement future, which has been a missing element in current security-focused negotiations.
International community must move intra-Afghan talks forward
Despite multiple obstacles and issues, the start of intra-Afghan talks is more likely now than ever before. The international community needs to swiftly agree on a plan to help the negotiations move forward.
In the past 18 months, we witnessed a race between several governments to host US-Taliban negotiations. While it was in Qatar that the talks eventually reached a successful conclusion, the UAE and Saudi Arabia tried to stage and facilitate negotiations. This rivalry wasted time and resources, complicated the issues at hand and led to more polarised negotiating positions.
History is now being repeated as several states are already competing with each other to host future intra-Afghan talks.
Third-party governments have the capacity to help peace talks significantly and play a constructive role in resolving complex conflicts like the one in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, they sometimes try to use such negotiations to score political points at home, harming the peace process.
Today, most governments appear to be obsessed with the intra-Afghan dialogue taking the form of yet another grand conference that will provide immediate results and allow them to tell voters at home that they helped resolve the Afghan crisis. Such a conference, however, cannot provide solutions to Afghanistan’s myriad problems. What is needed to help the country move forward is a multitude of intra-Afghan talks – meetings between key political players, local and provincial figures and civil society leaders of all levels. This can help build trust among local communities across Afghanistan and deliver a political settlement that can ensure sustainable peace.
States that are genuinely interested in supporting the Afghan peace process should, therefore, give up on their dreams of hosting yet another glossy “peace conference” that would allow them to be under the spotlight and instead help the Afghan people to hold talks that would incrementally build trust and maximise the probability of a durable political settlement.
They should stop competing with each other and, instead, work together. They can either form a partnership to move the talks forward in unison or allow the party that can contribute the most to the process to take the lead. Currently, the strongest and most obvious candidates for hosting the intra-Afghan talks are Germany, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Norway and Qatar.
Germany is a strong candidate for hosting intra-Afghan talks. The 2001 Bonn Agreement laid the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as we know it today. Due to it being the second-largest aid donor and troop contributor to the country after the US, it can convince the Kabul government to take a seat at the negotiating table and be constructive. Yet that very strength is also Germany’s weakness as, in the eyes of the Taliban, it is seen as a partial actor aligned with the Afghan government.
Uzbekistan, meanwhile, would be the first choice of some of the former members and supporters of the Northern Alliance, a collective of armed groups that fought against the Taliban government in the late 1990s, for hosting the talks. Other parties are unlikely to choose the country as host, however, as it is too close to the conflict and can easily get drawn in.
Indonesia is another strong candidate for hosting intra-Afghan talks. The country has no geostrategic interest in the region and has much to offer to the process, given its diverse experience in sub-national conflict management in Banda Aceh, East Timor and elsewhere.
Although it may not be the first choice for either side, Norway has a longer history of engagement with the Taliban than any other country and it has maintained its support for the Afghan government. In addition, Norway has substantial experience and expertise in complex, multi-party peace facilitation; it has recently helped the Colombian government make peace with the FARC and has been acting as a third-party facilitator in negotiations between the Philippine government and the NDFP.
Qatar has no geo-strategic interests in Afghanistan. It has already proven that it can facilitate successful peace talks with utmost discretion by hosting the negotiations between the US and the Taliban. It also successfully brought the Taliban to the negotiating table by agreeing to host the armed group’s political commission in Doha. In the eyes of the Taliban, Qatar would be an ideal host for intra-Afghan talks. Kabul, however, will still need some persuasion that the Taliban presence in Doha does not equate to it being their home turf.
Another option would be to form a genuine, coordinated partnership between multiple nations to allow them to facilitate the talks through a single, independent and impartial body. While the talks can take place in any location, in order to circumvent the restrictions placed on the Taliban, this body can base itself in Doha and have another office in Kabul.
Clearly, for any of these scenarios to come to fruition, the international community should immediately decide on a game plan and start building on the momentum generated by the planned signing ceremony this Saturday.