By Hamid Arsalan and Hodei Sultan –
While Washington phases out its combat mission and withdraws troops from Afghanistan this year, the Taliban continues to increase its use of violence and refuses to negotiate with the Afghan government towards a political settlement. With no military victory over the Taliban in sight, the White House needs to make peace talks with the Taliban a centerpiece of its exit strategy in order to ensure that Afghanistan will not lapse back into civil war after most of the US troops leave in 2014. It is a critical security imperative for Washington that Afghanistan does not once again revert into a safe haven for terrorist activities, anarchy and civil war. A resilient Taliban insurgency, widespread corruption within the Afghan government, and the inability of the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) to protect the Afghan nation on its own after foreign troops leave the country next year require Washington to reevaluate its strategy vis-à-vis peace negotiations with the Taliban. For the negotiations to succeed and a durable peace process to emerge, Afghans must lead the talks with the Taliban in an inclusive and transparent manner, with full support from their regional neighbors and Washington. Above all, the White House and Kabul must be on the same page and adopt a unified policy towards reconciliation. Moreover, Washington must provide strategic economic and political support for the Afghan government to lead the process and must adopt a firm stance with certain regional actors through constructive diplomacy.
Following the assassination of Professor Rabbani, Head of the High Peace Council, in September 2011, the reconciliation process became dormant. The talks gained a renewed momentum after the French think tank, Foundation for Strategic Research, organized a meeting between representatives of the Taliban, Afghan political parties and civil society groups last December. Senior members of the Taliban, Hizb-e-Islami, the High Peace Council, political opposition groups, civil society and the Afghan parliament attended the two-day talks, marking the significance and increased inclusiveness of the reconciliation process.
While some Afghan and foreign observers consider the Paris Talks as a positive catalyst for the overall peace process, others remain skeptical that the talks will result in a durable and inclusive peace agreement. A major concern is that the Taliban rejects the Afghan constitution, questioning its legitimacy. The Taliban further reiterated that they would not negotiate with the Afghan government, which they also view as illegitimate. Alternatively, Taliban representatives cooperated in negotiations with the opposition leaders representing the Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek ethnic groups, indicating a greater potential for movement towards increased factionalism and bringing the legitimacy and cohesiveness of the central government and the gains made during the past 11 years into jeopardy.
In May 2012, Washington and Kabul signed the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement in which the U.S. designated Afghanistan as a “Major Non-NATO Ally” and committed to protecting and remaining engaged into 2024 in an advisory capacity. Yet, certain regional actors still maintain the belief that the U.S. will once again abandon Afghanistan, and therefore, continue to support the Taliban and other extremist militant groups as a proxy to exert influence over Afghanistan’s future. This scenario will not only have security implications throughout the region, but will also affect global security overall. It would allow al Qaeda and its affiliates to reestablish themselves in parts of Afghanistan, from where they could plot against America and its allies.
The Peace Process Roadmap recently issued by the High Peace Council proposes a negotiated political settlement by 2015 with the Taliban and other insurgent groups including Hizb-e-Islami. The roadmap fails to address key issues including the disarmament of these groups. Moreover, the roadmap appears to be compromised by the influence of regional actors who do not regard the national security interests of Afghanistan as a priority. If there is a power-sharing deal within the government that includes the Taliban and other armed extremist groups without a provision for the disarmament of these groups and their acceptance of the legitimacy of the government, the outcome of the reconciliation could pave the way for a divided Afghanistan with a weak central government and would compromise the gains of the past 11 years. Additionally, such a politically negotiated settlement would face considerable backlash from the political opposition groups as well as civil society.
After three decades of war, Afghans are weary of war and desire peace. However, peace must not come at the cost of human rights and democracy. In the absence of a democratic government, Afghanistan could become a hotbed for terrorism once again. Washington invested heavily in Afghanistan over the past 11 years in order to combat extremism, therefore the U.S. government should have a vested interest in ensuring a stable peace beyond 2014 and deterring the emergence of terrorism hotbeds. A peaceful, democratic Afghanistan where human rights are protected should be a security imperative for Washington, necessitating that it put its full support behind an inclusive, transparent peace process led by Afghans and promoted by regional actors. While it remains unclear how a politically negotiated settlement will play out in the coming years and who the key stakeholders will be, it is clear that the Taliban does not wish to talk with the current Afghan government, leaving Washington to think outside the box and tap into other credible stakeholders in Afghanistan that could help lead the process. Afghan civil society leaders represent various ethnic and interest groups including religious minorities, women and youth and could be key players and stakeholders in the peace process.
Without a unified reconciliation policy between Kabul and the White House and regional countries’ sincere cooperation, achieving an acceptable peace agreement before the 2014 elections and troop drawdown would prove considerably more challenging and endanger the progress the country has made over the past decade.
Hamid Arsalan, a founding member of Afghan Analytica, is a Program Officer for the Middle East and North Africa Program at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Hodei Sultan, a founding member of Afghan Analytica, is a Program Officer for the Afghanistan and Pakistan Program at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). The views reflected here are those of the authors.