A hasty peace deal that undermined the Afghan government and rewarded the Taliban's arrogant zero-sum game was always doomed for failure. All that can be changed moving forward.
Following the prisoner swap between the Afghan government and the Taliban – a deal facilitated by the United States, Qatar and Pakistan – it appears that the Afghan peace talks may soon resume.
US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was reportedly in Qatar holding informal talks with the Taliban last month. While the year-long marathon talks failed for several reasons, a new round of negotiations may present an opportunity to redress the mistakes.
The US-Taliban peace talks were problematic from the outset as they excluded a key player in the Afghan conflict—the democratically elected Afghan government.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani raised objections over a process that appeared to undermine – even delegitimise – the elected government’s position and legitimacy at the national, regional and international levels. And when Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib’s comments stirred controversy in Washington last March, his words merely reflected the frustration of the Afghan government as well as large segments of the Afghan public.
Similarly, Washington appeared divided on the issue, with widespread scepticism over whether or not the talks would yield the desired outcome. With signs now that US negotiations with the Taliban may soon resume, once the Afghan presidential election results are announced, the US and other international partners must acknowledge the elected government as the only legitimate representative of the Afghan people at the negotiation table.
The Taliban viewed the upcoming election and Trump's need for a foreign policy win as an opportunity to pressure the Americans. The strategy to dismiss the Afghan government and seek their complete surrender is evidence that the Taliban may have an undisclosed arrangement with the Afghan political opposition – but those individuals do not hold any executive authority and cannot legitimately take any decision on behalf of the Afghan nation.
In miscalculating the role and legitimacy of the Afghan state, the Taliban strategy demonstrably backfired.
For its part, the Afghan government’s failure to form a consensus among the established and un-established political elites did not help its cause. These differences emerged when the Afghan government wanted to form a unified Afghan delegation to meet the Taliban in Qatar. The Taliban exploited these divisions and differences.
The inclusion of Afghan government officials and the removal of names from the list provided by opposition politicians led by former President Hamid Karzai who met the Taliban in Moscow proved problematic.
Those Afghan politicians who were in constant contact with the Taliban saw this as a window of opportunity to return to power by throwing the government under the bus and establishing direct contacts with the Taliban.
So the question is: who represents the Afghan people? Are we referring to an Afghanistan that was once ruled by the Taliban or a new Afghanistan that has been transformed in so many ways?
Today, Afghanistan is made up of a vibrant civil society where young people make up almost 75 percent of the country’s population. You cannot claim to talk for the youth, women, civil society or other minorities groups without their due representation. Their exclusion will cast a shadow over any negotiations.
Rifts and a zero-sum game
Since the very start of the peace talks, the Taliban were rigid, uncompromising and arrogant. Their attitude stemmed from the belief that they had the upper hand because they had bested the Americans in the drawn-out war, and as such, the Americans would consent to any conditions.
The Afghan government showed a lot of flexibility but the Taliban's language, and approach, lacked mutual respect and their persistence to impose the Islamic Emirate and continue knocking on the doors of Moscow, Islamabad, Tehran and other countries other than Kabul for a successful peace agreement, led to the failure of the peace talks.
As the US and Taliban were on the brink of clinching the peace deal, an attack in Kabul proved that the Taliban leadership based in Qatar and Pakistan are not on the same page.
When one side felt sidelined and neglected, they opted to sabotage the peace talks by killing a US service member which led to the cancellation of peace talks. This happened days before the Taliban were set to meet President Trump in Camp David.
Divisions within Taliban ranks further adds to the confusion among the international community and the Afghan government. Even if the US and the Afghan government were to reach a deal with the Taliban, it would not bring a lasting peace if they are not on the same page with their Pakistan-based faction.
A way out
At this critical juncture, the success of the Afghan peace talks now solely depends on the formation of an inclusive team of negotiators that represents all strata of Afghanistan and safeguards the republic.
On the national front, the Afghan government should form internal consensus by speaking to the Afghan political opposition and including their representatives in the negotiation team.
Similarly, the Afghan opposition led by former President Hamid Karzai should view this process as a road to peace, an opportunity to return to power.
Peace is a process, not a short-term project. It is about developing trust between people, between the population and their authorities.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has repeatedly stated that he supports and will pursue a peace deal that is durable and not just a quick fix like the hasty deal that Trump was seeking as a campaign promise to his voters ahead of elections.
Ghani knows that the 40-year Afghan conflict cannot be resolved on terms that nullify the sacrifices of the Afghan people and go against their interests for the sake of short-term gains.
As part of confidence-building measures, the Afghan government released Anas Haqqani and three other Taliban leaders as its last bargaining chip to show that it is committed to sustainable peace in the country.
The Taliban have to reciprocate similarly, display unity, flexibility, and show mutual respect by changing their arrogant tone and approach towards the Afghan government. The Taliban needs to understand that no matter which door they knock on, the road to peace inevitably goes through Kabul.
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