After almost 50 years of violent conflict, is Afghanistan heading for a sustainable peace?by Gabrielle Rifkind / February 15, 2019 / Leave a comment
Afghan men sell heart-shaped balloons on Valentine’s Day in Kabul. Photo: PA Afghanistan is at a critical juncture. In recent days, a fragile framework has been arrived at that seeks to end almost 50 years of violent conflict. Most Afghans are tired of war and yearn for peace—but caution needs to be exercised. Any hastily ushered-in agreement could once again leave the country in chaos and repeat the mistakes of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. 50 per cent of peace deals breakdown, often when small elite groups make agreements that exclude the hopes and dreams of the majority of the population. Can the recent talks learn from some of the lessons of peacebuilding and put an end to the current bloody chapter in Afghanistan’s history? The 2001 Bonn Agreement was intended to re-create the state of Afghanistan following the US’s invasion in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At the time of these negotiations, a senior Afghan politician identified the dangers of foreigners making a peace deal between the four per cent thugs and the one per cent of extremists over the head of 95 per cent of the people. There could be a danger of repeating this today. The political culture in Afghanistan is one of shifting alliances and back-room deals where warlords and extremists are the main beneficiaries of the spoils of war—and peace. While the nature of peacebuilding may involve in the early stages an “ugly peace,” where elite bargains are made with the men of violence, this is ultimately unsustainable: the other 95 per cent of the people must feel that their voices are heard. Of course, the men of violence do need to be brought around the table. Exclusion of the Taliban contributed to the long-term failure of the Bonn Agreement. Today, the Taliban are actively being courted by the international community as part of ending the civil war. A preliminary framework is a product of six days of talks in Doha, Qatar, principally between Taliban officials and the US American envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad. The contours of the deal being hammered out trades a US departure from Afghanistan for a more pragmatic, but still hardline, Taliban that promises not to collaborate with Al-Qaeda and Islamic State—but has so far refused to engage with the Afghan government, which they see as a puppet of the US. The framework is the biggest tangible step yet toward ending the war, and it will be critical to bring the government into the next phase of any process. Ghani is clear that any peace agreement will ultimately lie in Kabul and involve Afghan to Afghan dialogue. He is passionately committed to delivering peace and has already reached out to the Taliban, who as yet refuse to engage. Ghani has suggested that the Taliban should be offered the possibility of legitimacy as a political party, prisoner releases, and a constitutional review. In return, the Taliban would need to recognise the legitimacy of the government and respect the rule of law and the rights of women. Any sustainable peace will require the disarmament of the Taliban and over time the integration of their fighters into the state’s defence and security forces and supported by a programme of transitional justice and reconciliation. The sequencing of US withdrawal will be critical: if the US troops leave Afganistan too quickly, this could lead to the Taliban refusing to adhere to the terms of any agreement and have the capacity to over-run the country and return to power. In 2017, President Trump himself highlighted that a hasty US withdrawal would likely create a power vacuum and fertile ground for the re-emergence of more extreme groups such as Al Quaeda and Islamic State. But Trump can be an impatient man and the cost of the war is unpopular with the American people. What matters is whether the framework that the US put in place is motivated by a desire for a speedy withdrawal or a commitment to an inclusive and sustainable peace. US troops will need to remain and act both as leverage and safety net for the terms of a more comprehensive agreement. Any such agreement will need to affirm the principle that both the government and the Taliban support withdrawal of foreign military forces. Rumours abound of the US imposing an interim government as part of a transitional phase; it can only be hoped that these remain hearsay, as a political backroom deal between the warlords and the Taliban would undermine progress made in the last two decades. Peace is not only about the end of fighting but about how people can peaceably live together. Similarly, a new social contract cannot be achieved through talks between the power holders alone. Digital technology can amplify the necessary public outreach, with conversations extended using WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. Facebook initiatives such as Time4RealPeace are aiming to reach out to a plurality of voices. This will need to include a range of voices, including religiously conservative and progressive ones, reflecting the changes in Afghanistan society. Indeed, research shows that peace processes in which women participate are more likely to succeed, and dialogue between Taliban women and the more progressive women’s voices could be one of the keys to future stability. Afghanistan has advanced its political systems and institutions and these tentative gains need to be protected. While Washington mulls over what a “fleshed out deal” could look like, it will be important to remember that peacebuilding is paradoxical, and whilst it may require some unsavoury political figures, it will also require an inclusive and incremental approach that plants the seeds for an enduring peace in Afghanistan.