By Dr. Yaqub Ibrahimi
Despite the United States’ exacerbation of pressures on Pakistan and the Taliban, and the National Unity Government (NUG)’s efforts for opening a negotiation gate with the Taliban, there is no sign of progress on the ground. President Donald Trump’s strategy in Afghanistan (released in August 2017) and the United States’ subsequent pressures on Pakistan and the Taliban created the notion that the conflict might end soon. Following this development, President Ashraf Ghani called upon the Taliban for a> bilateral negotiation to settle the conflict. The call was delivered at the Second Kabul Process Conference in February 2018. Ghani’s offer entailed unprecedented incentives including a promise for the Taliban’s immunity and the group’s recognition as a political party. While the offer is supported by all countries involved in Afghanistan, the Taliban have refused to respond to the call continuing their traditional strategy of coercion and violent attacks. As a result, the deadlock confronting a peace process in Afghanistan persists.
This deadlock is neither the immediate outcome of the Second Kabul Process Conference nor it is rooted in the Taliban’s believe in wining militarily (no evidence supports that the Taliban might win on the battlefield or the group believes so). Rather, the deadlock is the outcome of a long process started in the Bonn Conference in late 2001 and has strong links with a series of complex, interconnected and multi-level factors developed following the Bonn Conference. Thus, in order to understand the causes of the current deadlock and develop a feasible policy to break through the problem, it is important to learn from the post-Bonn strategic mistakes that seriously affected the nature of the conflict and will have impacts on any possible conflict resolution process in the future.
The Bonn Conference adopted a participatory approach in drafting a blueprint for the post-Taliban development of Afghanistan by inviting international and Afghan stakeholders involved and/or affected by the decades-long political and economic upheavals in the country. However, neither the negotiation process of the Conference nor the Bonn Agreement incorporated the presence and voice of the Taliban in its development roadmap for the country. Instead, the players adopted a policy of coercion toward the Taliban whom they initially labeled as a “terrorist group.” This approach led to the deployment of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) across the country and the equipment of the Afghan Security Forces to fight the remnants of the Taliban militarily.
The military approach yielded results initially. The country was mostly clear of the Taliban and the insurgency threat did not seem imminent. This condition created the notion that Afghanistan was on the right track for political stability and development. However, this belief was challenged by changes in international politics. With the US invasion of Iraq in April 2003, attention was swayed from consolidating the initial achievements in suppressing the Taliban to addressing counterterrorism in Iraq. The decrease of attention in the case of Afghanistan coupled with the resurgence of the Taliban placed the Afghan government in a vulnerable position to maintain and secure the post-Bonn achievements and to fight the Taliban. The resurgence of the Taliban in late 2004 marked the commencement of a second strategy in dealing with the group. In this phase, which lasted until President Obama’s exit plan and President Karzai’s re-election in 2009, the initial policy of coercion transformed into a policy of combined coercion and negotiation. While ISAF continued its counterterrorism campaign, the Afghan government adopted a new political negotiation position.
Following President Karzai’s re-election and his increasing skepticism concerning the international forces’ activities in Afghanistan, he commenced a bilateral negotiation plan with the Taliban marking the third phase of efforts to negotiate with the group. The implementation mechanism for negotiation, in this phase, was assigned to the High Peace Council of Afghanistan (HPC) established in 2010. HPC was initially led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan (1992-2001) who had been, ironically, ousted from power by the Taliban in 1996. Soon after its creation, the HPC lost its credibility due to a lack of coordination between HPC and the international forces. Foreign players dealt with the Taliban according to their own policies without consultation with the HPC. As a result, Karzai’s negotiation policy did not prove to assist the government in bringing the Taliban to a negotiation table. However, it led to the release of hundreds of the Taliban fighters from Kabul Pul-e-Charkhi prison as a result of Karzai and the HPC’s bargaining with elements of the insurgency who poorly represented the core Taliban. Unlike Karzai’s expectations, the released Taliban fighters returned to battlefields marking a bloodier period of insurgency and terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. Moreover, while Karzai and HPC did at times express interest in negotiating with the Taliban, the latter used to bring forward preconditions for negotiation which was unfeasible for the government to commit to (e.g. the absolute withdrawal of foreign forces and the restoration of the Islamic Emirate in Kabul). This gap between an ideal scenario and the status quo was not possible to be bridged with instruments that the two sides were using to leverage the other. Following the controversial Presidential Elections and the establishment of the National Unity Government in 2014, the Taliban were invited for peace talks once again. President Ghani’s initial strategy was similar to the phase two of peace talks – comprised of a combination of coercion and negotiation which is now changed to a policy of higher priority to negotiation.
With the election of President Donald Trump, the NUG regained the interest of the Washington administration. The United States foreign policy shift in the region exacerbated pressures on the Taliban and Pakistan that is often accused of providing support and safe haven to the Taliban. Moreover, the United States increased its support of the NUG for bringing the Taliban on negotiations table. The new administration in Kabul demonstrated its ability in counterinsurgency when the integration of Hezb-e-Islami materialized without major challenges in April 2017. Hezb-e-Islami was a former Mujahidin party whose leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was not invited to the Bonn Conference continuing his violent campaign against the government parallel to the Taliban. Thus, recent changes in the political scene of Afghanistan and its strategic ally, the United States, offer new opportunities to revisit options for peacemaking in the country. However, we have learnt from the history of conflict in Afghanistan that short-term policy changes will not result in a viable peace process if factors that failed every effort for ending the conflict in the past are not considered and addressed appropriately.
Since the violent resurgence of the Taliban in 2004, all efforts to end the war were affected by two main factors: the lack of a coherent conflict resolution policy, and the multiplicity of unilateral and poorly developed negotiation approaches by different players. To date, the government of Afghanistan has failed to develop either a coherent conflict resolution policy or a clear vision for dissolving the insurgency coercively. Instead, multiplicity of efforts for talking with the Taliban by different internal and international parties has produced a chaotic situation in which, more than anything else, the role of the government of Afghanistan is discredited. This situation highlights the multi-level dimensions of crisis in Afghanistan. The current deadlock confronting a meaningful negotiation process is the outcome of this complexity. The Taliban’s silence to President Ghani’s call for negotiations might be, in part, the outcome of the Taliban’s organizational segmentation or based on its conventional strategy which is maintaining the status quo until the situation turns in its favor (i.e., the complete withdrawal of international forces, changes in international and regional politics in favor of the insurgency, the erosion of the military forces of Afghanistan as a result of a decrease in international funds and an elite fragmentation). However, the silence has also roots in the foreign dimensions of the Afghanistan conflict. More specifically, the Taliban’s insistence on talking directly to the U.S. administration, indicates the enormous influence of Pakistan on the process. Talking directly to Americans on the “Afghanistan issue” has been a steady strategic objective of the Pakistani Army. Thus, neither the Taliban nor the conflict are independent phenomena and, therefore, cannot be addressed exclusively.
President Ghani’s call for bilateral negotiations with the Taliban, which afforded the United States’ strong support, shows that both Kabul and Washington D.C. are putting enormous effort to address the deadlock confronting a peace process in Afghanistan. The efforts, however, are fulfilled in the absence of a central policy agreed and followed uniformly by all parties involved in the conflict. Such a policy would reconcile the complex and multi-level causes and dimensions of the conflict and articulate options for dealing with the problem. It would also incorporate a blueprint of action for the negotiations, and clearly explain the role and limits of multiple parties in a likely negotiation process. In the absence of such a policy on table, unilateral efforts by a variety of players (e.g. HPC, tribal elements, the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Norway and many others) to influence war and peace in Afghanistan have been proven to be anything but a success. Moreover, investing exclusively on realizing how and when the Taliban will respond to President Ghani’s call will bring alternative efforts to a standstill. For the NUG and its allies, it is important to work at multiple levels of the conflict in order to break through the status quo in which both the Taliban and the conflict are dealt with as exclusive phenomena. The conflict bears internal, regional and international dimensions, and is rooted in the past seventeen-year failed counterinsurgency scenarios. Breaking the current deadlock confronting a meaningful peace process in Afghanistan requires these issues to be addressed as inseparable parts of the problem through a coherent conflict resolution policy that all parties agree to follow uniformly.
Dr. Yaqub Ibrahimi is a Research Fellow at the Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies
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The article does not reflect the official opinion of the AISS.