While a local peace proposal is ideal, realities on the ground demand that the parties avoid further bloodshed and meet halfway through a political settlement.
The Afghan Republic and the Taliban, though engaged in an armed conflict of unprecedented intensity, will have to make certain decisions before the US’ planned September 11 withdrawal.
Though the future would inevitably be dictated by the calculations and choices of the parties to the conflict, there are three major scenarios that the future might hold.
These scenarios include the Taliban reaching an understanding with the Afghan political elite to oust the current regime and hand over Kabul; the United States and its allies producing a roadmap for the peace and incentivising the government and the Taliban to agree to it; and the Afghan Republic managing to resist the current Taliban advances and a stalemate eventually settling in.
A case of surrender
The Taliban has stated that capturing cities would be part of the second phase of its offensive, with no plans to capture Kabul. It has been capturing provincial capitals, cutting off population centres by blocking trade routes and capturing border crossings, which all show that the Taliban is hoping to choke the current government out of Kabul.
Afghanistan’s history is littered with shifting alliances by political parties based on mutual benefits. Once major trade and transportation routes are cut off by the Taliban, the Afghan political elite may wager on the Taliban and attempt to negotiate a power-sharing deal.
In such a case, the Taliban would require the High Peace and Reconciliation Council to sign a surrender of Kabul under the guise of a political settlement, giving the movement a legitimate means to seize power.
This would be the best possible outcome for the Taliban as they would avoid international scrutiny caused by bloodshed in the capital and have a legitimate path to governance.
For the political parties of Afghanistan, the lack of clear incentives for siding with the Ghani administration and the absence of a unified vision will push them to side with the winning horse when the time comes.
The Taliban’s recent military success paired with their willingness to negotiate, the tendency of the Afghan political elite to shift alliances and the current mismanagement of the war by the Afghan sides suggest that the most likely outcome would be not peace, but the Taliban negotiating a surrender of the Afghan government.
Forced to settle
The Intra-Afghan peace talks, including the recent round of talks led by the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah have been inconclusive due to the absence of a peace plan.
Despite the lack of trust and intense fighting between the Afghan Republic and the Taliban, mediators such as Qatar, the US and Britain have managed to compel the parties to the negotiations table in vain.
The absence of a roadmap for peace has meant that meetings have resulted in general joint statements with no practical aspects that could result in a settlement. The Afghan Republic is yet to produce a unified peace proposal with individual proposals by parties seeking to maximise their own interests and the interest of their sponsors.
The initial US Special Envoy Khalilzad proposal and an alleged Taliban proposal for a settlement are yet to be discussed as well. It appears that waiting for a political consensus or roadmap for peace to emerge from within Afghanistan or the Taliban movement would be futile.
The current conflict, by virtue of being a proxy conflict between regional players, means that only a proposal that guarantees their interests would have any hope of being accepted. The mediators would have to facilitate a process of negotiations among regional powers to produce a conclusive proposal that balances out interests and prevent any country from serving as a spoiler in the process.
The spillover effects of a civil war should incentivise international stakeholders in the current Afghan conflict to seek such a path. This path is the second likeliest and would be best for the Afghan Republic and the Taliban relative to the cost it would incur.
Last man standing
In his recent address at the Special Operations Command Corps on 22nd July, President Ashraf Ghani rallied the Afghan troops to resist the Taliban advances for six months. The current military gains by the Taliban, per President Ghani, were due to mismanagement, and not lack of resources.
It appears that the Afghan government hopes for a stalemate to come into being, after which the government can lobby to force sanctions on the Taliban and their sponsor states. This would be contingent on President Ghani finding a good team to manage the conflict - something he has failed to do to date, as seen in his constant shifting of ministers, and producing political capital in favour of such a path. Such political capital will require making alliances and appeasing the political elites.
Since the President has not been able to produce a consensus for the peace talks, it is unlikely that he will produce a consensus for the fighting. The Taliban, per their current strategy, have chosen to not advance in major cities. Yet their fighters have managed to make significant gains into Herat, Kandahar and other major cities.
The military stalemate would be the best possible outcome for the Afghan Republic, but it seems to be the least likely one, judging by the current trajectory of the war.
Choosing the common good
In an ideal situation, a peace proposal should be produced within Afghanistan, one that reflects the will of the people. However, the reality of the war demands that the parties attempt to avoid further bloodshed and meet halfway through a political settlement.
The United States and allies would have to play a more active role in producing a regional consensus regarding the future political order of Afghanistan and would then have to pressure the Afghan Republic and the Taliban to accept it.
Taking over Kabul for the Taliban and a stalemate for the current Afghan regime might be attractive options, but their cost and likelihood should drive them towards the safer option of honest negotiations and ending the fighting.
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