Post American presence, how to rescue the Afghan peace process
By Jawed Ludin and Janan Mosazai
After two decades, the United States and its allies have finally withdrawn militarily from Afghanistan. As a result, the Afghan government has lost its key international backer on the ground, and the symmetry of power in the war has shifted in the Taliban’s favour. The Afghan government, fragile and divided as ever, is struggling to find a new equilibrium in the post-American period. Peace talks in Doha are stuck in mud, practically relegated to a sideshow as the Taliban appear to have turned their back on the talks to ramp up their military operations. At the regional level, apathy prevails among Afghanistan’s neighbours and beyond, even though it is clear that the cost of a potential collapse in Afghanistan will be almost as steep for the region as for Afghanistan itself.
Amidst these unsettling conditions, the Afghan people feel trapped in a purgatory – an uncertain place between the looming reality of a prolonged war and a lapsing opportunity for peace. We believe a way out of this quagmire may still be available, but, as cliché as it sounds, time is of the essence and only an extraordinary effort by Afghans, regional countries and international actors stands a chance of securing Afghanistan’s future.
The current war in Afghanistan is unwinnable so it is time the dangerous, irresponsible clamour for war on both sides stopped. Those Afghans or foreigners who may be seeing an opportunity in a Taliban military victory are taking a wanton gamble. A Taliban takeover of power by force, even if it were possible, would not end the war. As a military machine throughout its existence, the Taliban movement remains woefully unprepared to govern. They will not be able to unite the country, deliver on the country’s dire needs or even oppose the spread of violent extremism within and beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Indeed, the most likely outcome of a Taliban pyrrhic military victory would be the collapse of the Afghan state and a catastrophic civil war that will, most certainly, draw in Afghanistan’s neighbours and other regional powers.
Therefore, moving forward, we believe a revamped peace process remains the right path to end the war and secure a lasting peace in Afghanistan provided that the Afghan sides to the conflict recommit themselves fully and genuinely to a negotiated settlement. Despite bitter divisions and disagreements, the Republican camp has so far shown greater consistency in its commitment to the negotiation process. The Taliban must also climb down from their belligerent posture and show that they have the will to reach peace with their fellow Afghans.
The two sides’ negotiating teams in Doha will continue to have a critical role in crafting a framework peace agreement including a ceasefire and the outlines of the country’s future political dispensation. However, given the urgency of the situation, a fast-tracked initiative is required to produce an agreement between the parties on power-sharing arrangements and an interim peace plan to focus on the immediate steps in the months ahead. The interim peace plan must be agreed through intensive negotiations and aim to secure a ceasefire and stave off a full-blown war scenario, ensure the integrity of Afghan security and other state institutions, and oversee a peaceful and orderly transition to a new, power-sharing government.
Under the circumstances, especially when there is no active peace process to speak of, getting to regalvanised negotiations to discuss critical issues, such as power sharing and ceasefire would not be easy. Critically, it would require a new initiative and concerted efforts by the international community. The good offices of the State of Qatar as host of Afghan peace negotiations over the past several years and other countries that have so far supported the process, will remain crucial to this new effort, particularly in facilitating the peace talks and coming up with a workable mediation role. The unique convening role of the United Nations and its good offices is another opportunity which must be harnessed, especially with a focus on assuring the appropriate regional and international guarantees for any political settlement.
More broadly, to secure and support a process of intensified intra-Afghan talks, we see the need for an extraordinary regional and international diplomatic initiative. Under the auspices of the United Nations and augmented by the efforts of a regional champion, a high-level sustained dialogue must be initiated, bringing together Afghanistan’s neighbours, regional powers and all the major stakeholders globally. The aim will be to foster regional and international consensus on the future of a peaceful and stable Afghanistan and leveraging such consensus in support of an expedited peace settlement in the intra-Afghan talks in Doha. To ensure sufficient momentum is maintained in what is a short window of opportunity available, the dialogue mechanism will be formed at the level of senior officials or special representatives and will hold weekly deliberations hosted by the UN or the regional champion country. From among Afghanistan’s near and extended neighbours, Turkey or Uzbekistan can champion this diplomatic effort, alone or together, alongside the UN.
Furthermore, a high-level, international conference, along the lines of the US-proposed conference in Istanbul last April, may be an inevitable part of this two-pronged diplomatic process, involving Afghan sides and the international community. However, like happens so often, conferences must not be seen as the goal but rather as the culmination of all the diplomatic efforts which must take place before the parties are invited to formalize a final deal.
Having learned the available lessons from past experiences of botched initiatives, the importance of prior consultations and dialogue, getting buy-in from Afghan, regional and international actors in advance, and anticipating, thinking through and strategizing against the challenging issues involved, cannot be emphasised enough. In this context, if necessary, a series of track 2 dialogues may also be conducted in support of this extraordinary diplomatic effort.
In a nutshell, what we are proposing is a two-pronged initiative that involves a regalvanised, intensified intra-Afghan negotiation process augmented by a parallel international diplomatic undertaking to bring regional and international pressure and support to bear on securing a negotiated settlement. Realistically speaking, the aims of reversing the negative momentum toward all-out war, safeguarding Afghanistan’s state institutions and crafting a power-sharing dispensation are a tall order to achieve. But we believe, beyond the dichotomy of war and peace, often floated so lightly as possible scenarios just around the corner for Afghanistan, there is the future of over 30 million Afghans and the stability of the region around it that must be secured at any cost while the opportunity lasts.
From a historical perspective, these are delicate moments in Afghanistan and, as has happened so often in similar junctures before, we run the risk of taking the wrong turn once again. Afghan leaders on the Republic and Taliban sides must remember that unless they act speedily to get out of the current downward spiral, we may soon be overwhelmed by the unstoppable momentum of events and developments beyond our control with potentially calamitous consequences for Afghanistan’s future. Therefore, it is out of experience and considered opinion that we put the onus not just on Afghans but on Afghanistan’s neighbours and international partners to step up to the plate. We believe the region can play a key role in avoiding a prolonged war and achieving a peace settlement today, but to do so it must shake off apathy, come together in shared concern and throw its weight fully and genuinely behind peace.