Assessing present negotiations in Afghanistan – A Western Perspective

By David Vestenskov 

The Eid-ceasefire of June last year between the Afghan government and the Taliban was undoubtedly an important new development for Afghanistan, and especially for the Afghan civilian population. The ceasefire served as an indication of the Afghan population’s willingness to support initiatives of peace. It further acted as a sign of the Afghan Government’s willingness to agree on compromises with armed insurgent groups, and finally it served as a hint that part of the Taliban – including elements of the higher echelons – likewise at least considers a negotiated peace in Afghanistan. It was difficult not to be thrilled about this positive development, something the sudden surge in interest by the media underlined. The caveat – and in the case of Afghanistan there is always a caveat – was that the ceasefire did not act as the beginning of a new wave of positive interactions between the Afghan Government and the Taliban as hoped for, and as such, the conflict continued.

At present, the Taliban refuses to join the negotiation table, the primary cause being the fact that the Taliban neither trust nor recognizes the Afghan Government as a credible negotiation partner. Efforts by the Afghan Government to prolong the initial ceasefire failed. Furthermore, the Taliban rejected new lines of communication in conjuncture with the following Muslim holiday Eid ul-Adha in September 2018. In addition, it turned out that the ceasefire – where pictures displaying Taliban soldiers and Afghan forces side by side flourished in the media – prompted more rapid and more extensive developments than the Taliban leadership had intended.

The sparse information coming from Taliban channels of communication indicated that the agreement of a ceasefire did not include Taliban fighters mingling with government forces. That initiative was undertaken by the lower echelons of the Taliban movement. From the perspective of the Taliban leadership, the danger was that some of its fighters would not be willing to pick up their arms following the interaction with government forces, where a war-weary civilian population for the first time in decades were able to breathe the scent of peace. A prolonged ceasefire or an entirely new agreement for a ceasefire would thus increase the risk of individuals or even entire groups of the Taliban refusing to remobilize. It furthermore generated doubt of the Taliban’s core argument: any negotiation with an illegitimate puppet government was out of the question.

The continuous demands for the initial negotiations with the United States did continue, notwithstanding those acts of hedging. This in turn led back to the deadlock scenario underlined repeatedly by the United States, that peace negotiations were to be Afghan owned and Afghan led, meaning that negotiations had to be with the Afghan Government in a leading position.

A solution for this deadlock arrived quickly, if not to the satisfaction of all parties. The Americans agreed to initiate the preliminary negotiations with the Taliban by circumventing the Afghan Government, causing great frustration for the latter. These negotiations are now taking place in Doha, Qatar, and at time of writing are currently in their third round.

So far so good, However, the ongoing negotiations are not without hazards, and not entirely positive either. There is no doubt that President Donald Trump has maximized pressure on the American chief negotiator, Zalmay Khalidzad, with the intention of securing a withdrawal of American troops within the current presidential term. The starting point for America’s willingness to initiate the preliminary talks without the Afghan Government was, and still is, to include the Afghan Government as soon as possible, thereby allowing the United States to step back and assume the role of a facilitator that will guarantee and stand behind the subsequent agreement.

The question now is how steadfast Khalidzad stands in terms of this starting point, or if the price of an agreement with the Taliban no longer requires the inclusion of the Afghan Government. The announcement in January 2019 from Khalidzad indicated that such an agreement was not entirely off the table. This is not just bad news for the Afghan Government, but also for the civilian population of Afghanistan that has spent almost two decades integrating themselves into the new system, educating themselves and participating in elections, all while firmly believing in a brighter future.

The official declaration after the first meeting in Doha, vaguely described as a draft framework for future talks, contained two main points:

The first point – in case of a deal – required the Taliban to guarantee that neither Islamic State nor al-Qaeda would be allowed to establish training camps in Afghanistan. If one possesses the slightest knowledge of about Taliban communication as well as the whole development in Afghanistan for the past five years, one would quickly realise that such an agreement would serve as a costless concession from the Taliban. Contrary to Islamic State and al-Qaeda, the Taliban has a clear national vision and often fights the former two. Grey zones exist, especially in the case of al-Qaeda, although that does not change the official policy from the Taliban leadership that considers both movements as adversaries – this is both due to the international focus of these two movements and especially because they compete over the same resources and the same channels of recruitments. In other words, the Taliban does not need to do anything in order to abide by this demand of denying Islamic State and al-Qaeda real estate in Afghanistan.

The second point of the declaration consisted of a plan for a complete withdrawal of American troops, and this is where the negotiations become hazardous. If a withdrawal is negotiated bilaterally with the Taliban before including the Afghan Government in the peace negotiations, the Afghan Government will be left without any significant strength in the forthcoming peace process.

Not only will this leave the Afghan Government in the weakest position possible, but other internal political groups as well as Afghanistan’s two major neighbours, Iran and Pakistan, will lose any reason for concluding future political deals of any size with the Afghan Government. Instead, they will increasingly secure their individual borders and seek influence in Afghanistan through short-sighted alliances with various groups working outside Afghan Government control. This regional aspect has seen little priority throughout the entire conflict in Afghanistan. Sustainable security solutions for Afghanistan demands that support is secured (or at the very least not counteracted) from those two key nations (Iran and Pakistan). A solution that does not consider Iranian and Pakistani security political red lines will never be sustainable and any international pressure with the goal of getting Iran and Pakistan to accept a solution that directly violates their self-defined regional security interest will be counterproductive at best.

The interesting part is where this mixture of internal and external conflicts of interest will leave Afghanistan. It is tempting to claim that the presence of the West in itself has caused all the problems currently facing the nation, and that no solution for Afghanistan exist. This is an argument I often hear among analysts who already gave up on Afghanistan a long time ago. I do not consider myself a part of this choir of disillusionment. Afghanistan, for the past two decades, has seen change, often for the better. First and foremost, the presence of the International Community has secured the younger generation’s access to a steady stream of communication in and out of the country, opening the door for education as well as knowledge of how the outside world works and looks like. Above all else, members of this younger generation have regained their freedom of thought. Despite of the fact that the international presence has resulted in greater insecurity for the Afghan people, I have still yet to meet a young Afghan who wishes himself back to the era of the 1990s. This is an attitude that even elements of the Taliban share.

The major problem now is naturally the impending road ahead. The West bears a considerable responsibility in terms of the political system that has been constructed in Afghanistan. Large faults in the construction and widespread corruption remains, a situation still far from the intended goal of the entire commitment, and far from what is considered ideal in terms of leading the country towards future stability. Unfortunately, this is the current status quo. The Afghan Government remains the only anchor for the West as well as regional nations to use in the short run. The risk of a total system-breakdown will only increase if the Afghan government continues to be excluded from the negotiation table. Such a breakdown has a great chance of paving the way for a new civil war in Afghanistan. A civil war would undoubtedly result in catastrophic consequences for the civilian population of Afghanistan, especially for the younger generations, so many of whom firmly believe in the vision promised by the West. Furthermore, a civil war would create instability in an already fragile region as well as creating fertile ground for the establishment of new terror organisations armed with the argument of how the West abandoned Afghanistan, and it would result in a new stream of refugees coming from Afghanistan to Iran, Pakistan, and Europe.

DAVID VESTENSKOV is a consultant at the Royal Danish Defense College and project coordinator on the Danish Peace and Stabilization Programme for Afghanistan and Pakistan. His current work comprises international security issues, counterinsurgency and counter terrorism, as well as regional peace building. He is a frequent visitor of Pakistan and since 2014 he has cooperated with Pakistan’s National Defense University on several joint seminars and research projects.

He can be reached at Twitter: @DavidVestenskov

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