In early October, the newly- appointed US Department of State’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad launched his shuttle diplomacy. He is not a new face on the scene.
Khalilzad was on the US team in Geneva in 1988, which negotiated the agreement on the Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan. He also led the American delegation in Bonn that established the post-Taliban government in 2001. Both deals failed to bring peace.
Now, questions rise again over whether he can offer a solution in 2018 that can bring sustainable peace to Afghanistan.
Last week, Khalilzad held the second round of meetings with Afghan government and opposition politicians, Pakistanis and Afghan Taliban representatives in Qatar.
Although he has not announced a peace plan, rumours left in the trail of his visits point to a scenario that envisions postponing presidential elections slated for April 2019; dissolution of the current elected Afghan government and establishment of an extra-constitutional interim government and a trial-based ceasefire agreement.
Meanwhile, the US would devise a military withdrawal plan from Afghanistan and finally, once the Taliban receives some territorial concessions, elections will be held.
Territorial concessions would involve granting the Taliban protection inside Afghanistan or even autonomy over a few districts they already control, but this remains a controversial idea.
While a Taliban spokesperson denied that the group has asked for an interim government, the US envoy was quoted in the Afghan media as saying that he is “cautiously optimistic or hopeful” that a peace deal can be reached before the April presidential poll.
Several fundamental flaws beset both scenarios. But let’s backtrack a little.
Deadlines and quick-fixes
The Afghanistan war had escalated considerably since 2014 when US President Barack Obama pulled most of the American military out of Afghanistan. The drawdown was a short-sighted quick-fix attempt to end America’s longest war.
The drawdown, however, was not the first time America had abandoned the Afghans.
In the 1980s, the US pumped millions of dollars of weapons and ammunition through Pakistan, to the Afghan mujahideen who were fighting the invading Soviet army. The intention was to bleed the Soviets in their own Vietnam.
The US and the USSR finally agreed in 1988 for a Red Army withdrawal, leaving the Afghan resistance out of the negotiations. Washington found no use in remaining engaged.
Regional powers were quick to step in arming their proxies among Afghanistan’s ethnic and sectarian groups. Neither the chaos and bloodshed of the early 1990s nor the subsequent coming to power of the Pakistani-backed Taliban alarmed the Americans. Neither did the existence and flourishing in Afghanistan of Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network.
Then, 9/11 happened.
America retaliated swiftly. A military campaign was followed by a new government made up of mostly former mujahideen, circumventing the Taliban. But, with the US military intervention came lofty promises of Marshall-Plan proportions for reconstruction, democratisation and eradication of terrorism.
US attention, however, quickly shifted to invading Iraq and the quagmire that followed. This provided a golden opportunity for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to resurrect the Taliban, and over time, sponsor a plethora of transnational terrorist organisations.
The Obama plan for a military drawdown was announced at the end of 2009 to be completed by the end of 2014.
“You have the watches, but we have the time,” a Taliban commander was quoted as telling a NATO general in 2011, referring to the disadvantage of a deadline.
Since 2015, Afghan casualties have skyrocketed with nearly 29,000 police and military personnel killed. Civilian casualties have risen too. From January through September this year, 1065 civilians have been killed and 2,569 injured. Women and children accounted for almost 25 percent of civilian casualties.
Since 2015, Americans have lost 58 military personnel in Afghanistan.
Where from here?
With such staggering casualties, Afghans are naturally the most eager stakeholders in peace. But, to achieve a comprehensive and sustainable peace, first and foremost, all Afghans must feel ownership of the process.
The old method of promising a piece of the power pie to the now mostly irrelevant old guard for their stamp of approval will not assure success for Khalilzad’s peace plan.
Afghans have moved on. A new generation of men and women with master’s degrees are governing the nation. Even the illiterate tribesman aspires for modern life.
Education, sports, arts and music, equal rights, life with dignity, justice, freedom of expression, ethnic and sectarian inclusion and room for prosperity are the values of the new Afghanistan. These values need to be a part of any realistic peace process.
Second, a peace process must not be handled between individuals as a business deal. It must not be negotiated secretly behind closed doors. It must be allowed to be a process. It must be negotiated nationwide and a national consensus must be reached on the red lines and compromises. This is especially crucial given the multitude of actors, diversity of objectives and newly defined values.
Equally important is the fact that the Taliban are no longer a homogenous group loyal to one supreme leader and having only one foreign backer. Past negotiations in Qatar have been rejected by disparate Taliban factions.
Furthermore, the current conflict environment in Afghanistan includes not only the Taliban but the Haqqani Network, the IS-K (Daesh), the resurgent Al Qaeda Arabs, Uzbek and Tajik insurgents, the Chechens, the Uyghur and various Pakistani militant groups.
Striking a deal with one branch of the Taliban would hardly stop the war in Afghanistan.
Oversimplification of issues
Third, reducing the solution to foreign troop withdrawal, a release of Taliban prisoners and accommodating the Taliban’s ideology in the Afghan constitution will not carry the country to peace.
The drivers of conflict are many, chief among them is the lucrative opium trade, from which the insurgents and their foreign supporters—in the region and beyond—benefit enormously.
Illegal mining is yet another driver of conflict. A simple exercise of superimposing the map of Afghan mines on the map of the country’s conflict zones would illustrate this point.
For example, insurgents gain an estimated $9 million per year from talc mining in the restive Nangarhar province, while lapis mining in Badakhshan province finances much of their fight in the north and perpetuates insecurity.
Finally, the regional dimension of the conflict in Afghanistan is arguably more difficult to tackle than internal grievances. Complexities of regional ambitions and fears must be addressed fundamentally.
At a time when most of Afghanistan’s neighbours near and far are supplying their proxy groups, withdrawal of US and NATO troops and release of Taliban prisoners will not achieve peace.
A genuine process with the intention to achieve a comprehensive and lasting peace could only begin with a firm US commitment to support an Afghan-led process with no deadlines. It would allow the Afghans to reach a national consensus on the terms and task their elected government to prepare the prerequisites, seek international support and negotiate with the insurgents.
Long-term US interests are better served if instead of acting like traders in peace, willing to mortgage Afghanistan’s achievements for a “dignified exit”, Washington assumes a supporting role to an Afghan-led process for peace with justice, freedoms and dignity for all sides.
It is a good time to remember Ronald Reagan’s words: “peace is more than just an absence of war. True peace is justice, true peace is freedom, and true peace dictates the recognition of human rights.”
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