- The gains made must not be lost
By R Maxwell Bone and Abas Alizada
Between May 28 and May 30, a delegation of Afghan opposition political leaders met with the Taliban leadership in Moscow. The series of talks were opened with remarks by both Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the President’s envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov. While no members of the current government in Kabul were present for the discussions because the Taliban has refused to recognise its legitimacy, all were under the oversight of the country’s High Peace Council. Yet, at the opening, both Council Chairman Karim Khalili and the Afghan Ambassador were present.
The discussions did result in some progress, as was noted by Afghan ex-Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal. Yet the discussions ended in a deadlock, not unexpected given inelastic positions on key policies. This deadlock was largely because of a disagreement on a proposed withdrawal of all non-Afghan (US or NATO) military personnel from Afghanistan.
This is because the Taliban view them as “occupying” forces supporting a “puppet government” in Kabul. Many in the Afghan government see them as a security guarantee preventing the country from being overrun by militant groups. Similarly, the year-long negotiations between the USA and the Taliban have reached a similar impasse. In short, the Taliban are insisting that a timeline be agreed to regarding the withdrawal of international forces from the country prior to any agreement to end the war. All support the eventual removal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan, as an eventual end-goal. However, significant portions believe such a withdrawal cannot happen until a peace agreement with the Taliban is fully implemented.
it is critical to remember that the war is in effect one over the soul of the country. How this can be sufficiently addressed in a peace agreement will ultimately be up to the two parties and the Afghan people
At the surface, a timetable regarding the withdrawal of foreign military forces could serve as a confidence-building measure. This would bode especially well if the Taliban also agreed. Similar strategies have been adopted around the globe in efforts ranging from the 1950s armistice agreement stopping the Korean War to the Oslo Accords. While previous agreements on troop withdrawals during the implementation of peace agreements have been both successes and failures, it is unlikely to work in Afghanistan. This is because the Taliban- government conflict is not over the secession of some territory as in Palestine and Kosovo, but over the ethos of Afghanistan.
Though the Taliban leadership appears eager for peace talks with both the Afghan government and the international community, the Taliban’s historical record must not be forgotten. Specifically, that at the beginning of the 21st century when the Taliban controlled nearly all Afghanistan, barbaric laws were imposed on the population. Women who broke the group’s strict law were publicly executed in soccer stadiums and there was no freedom of speech or assembly. Also, the Taliban provided sanctuary to Al-Qaeda which allowed it to carry out attacks in places ranging from the USA to Tanzania.
Further, in the territory the Taliban controls today the strictest legal codes are imposed on the population and those who express disagreement are publicly executed. It is also worthwhile to examine Taliban actions in government-controlled territory. For instance, in all presidential and parliamentary elections since democratic rule was restored, they have attacked polling stations. This was not due to disagreement with their conduct or from fear of rigging, but in opposition to citizens being able to choose their own leaders. The Taliban also regularly threatens NGOs and civil society leaders. They have also attacked diplomatic missions and news outlets.
These actions contrast the record of the Afghan government after democratic rule. Regarding elections, there have been five separate elections for both presidents and parliament. The elections have had issues of fraud, such as in the most recent parliamentary elections when the Independent Electoral Commission took nearly seven months to announce the final results, but have been ranked as both freer and fairer than in many neighbours. Further, all elections have turnouts dwarfing those in the USA and other established democracies, demonstrating the value that the Afghan populace places on a democratic culture. Further, the country is home to an array of civil society organisations, many led by women, youth, and ethnic minorities that the Taliban regularly attack. According to Freedom House (2019) the media environment in Afghanistan is ranked as freer than in some countries in the western hemisphere. Afghanistan is also ranked better in this than every country it shares a land border with. This is despite constant Taliban threats and attacks.
Examining the Taliban in comparison with the Afghan government it is clear that this ongoing war is about their very ethos. The Taliban seek to rule under a barbaric, extremist interpretation of Islamic law. On the other hand the Afghan government seeks to consolidate democratic gains. Further, this is not referring to the current Afghan government alone, but a broad range of societal actors.
It is imperative to re-examine the ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and political figures from the Afghan opposition, which is the closest that talks have gotten to including representatives of the Afghan government. This is not to say that a peace agreement between the two sides is not possible. Nearly every Afghan citizen from across the political spectrum longs for peace as does the international community. Yet, it is important to examine changes to the ongoing rounds of negations and dialogue that would be more appropriate. Modifications must be made to ensure that prior to any agreement on a withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan the improvements of the past decade are preserved.
This does not mean changing the format of the negotiations, but the composition of the teams negotiating. For instance, in the handful of direct Afghan-Taliban talks both delegations almost entirely comprised of men over 50. This flaw could be fatal, as women and youth are the ones who have the most to lose if any peace agreement was made that gave the Taliban concessions in areas such as women’s rights and democracy. Further, Afghanistan overwhelmingly comprises youth under 40 and therefore their buy-in is critical to any agreement succeeding. Further, the Taliban’s agreement to meet teams of women and younger individuals would show them as willing to do away with their hardline positions.
Further, all potential agreements discussed so far are based on models that would be extremely flawed in the context of Afghanistan. For instance, some have mentioned the Lebanon model that would see the Taliban being guaranteed seats in government and able to control such powerful ministries as interior and defence. Others have mentioned the possibility of a government resembling that in Iran where radical clerics are the real powerbrokers with an elected government just a façade. The most disturbing but most commonly mentioned model would be Afghanistan being renamed an Islamic Emirate that would resemble Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or other Gulf States.
In the ongoing process, it is critical to remember that the war is in effect one over the soul of the country. How this can be sufficiently addressed in a peace agreement will ultimately be up to the two parties and the Afghan people. Steps must be taken to protect women and children. This can be as simple as holding regular input sessions with peace negotiators or as complex as involving them directly. For a peace agreement socially and politically just, there is no other option.
R Maxwell Bone is Vice President for Political Affairs, Democracy, and Governance at the International Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development (IIPDD), Washington, DC, USA. Follow him on Twitter@maxbone55.
Abas Alizada is an Afghan youth activist based in Mazari Sharif. Follow him on Twitter@abbasalizada12