The Afghanistan of Today is Not Yet Ready for Peace

There is one big difference between the two major international peace efforts in Afghanistan: on whose terms they would like the conflict to end.

This must be the umpteenth time that a peace process has been initiated to restore peace and stability in Afghanistan. However, much like the past, this time too we have too many cooks stirring the broth, and well, spoiling it too.

There are two major international peace efforts that are currently underway – the American push for peace led by Zalmay Khalilzad and the Moscow-led consultations. In each case, the aim is to end the conflict in Afghanistan, but what drives them apart is on whose terms they would like the conflict to end.

Making America exit. Again.

The US is aware of just how unwinnable this war is. And now that the presence of the US is becoming an eyesore, the Trump administration is seeking an exit. The exit is imminent, it is only to make it ‘honourable’ that the American administration is interested in giving peace (process) another chance. It is for this that a Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Khalilzad, has been appointed to make the US exit. Again.

Khailzad’s special appointment looks like an attempt to fill the vacuum that was created after the office of the US Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan was wrapped up last year. His official induction was announced in a memo issued by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in September with the objective to “get the job done”. Or, more clearly put, ‘get the hell out of Afghanistan’.

Since then, Khalilzad has held talks with different stakeholders – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Taliban with the intention to deliver a (peace) deal in six months, i.e. by April/May next year. Interestingly, even the Taliban thinks this is too short a period of time for a peace deal to be worked out.

It has described its talks with Khalilzad as “preliminary” and denied reaching an agreement on “interim government, future president or elections”. The Taliban has also rejected Khalilzad’s call for a ceasefire as it realises that its increasing control of Afghanistan’s territory combined with the American urgency to leave would tilt the eventual peace deal in its favour.

Also read: Why Is Pakistan So Paranoid About India’s Role in Afghanistan?

Khalilzad’s efforts have been backed by some supporting developments. For instance, Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban movement, was released from prison in Pakistan just before Khalilzad’s talks with the Taliban. The Afghan government too has put together a team of 12 members to negotiate a peace deal on its behalf.

US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, Credit: Reuters

However, not everything has been as facilitative. The assassinations of Abdul Raziq (Kandahar’s police chief) and Maulana Sami-ul Haq (the ‘father’ of Taliban), and the fall of different towns and regional centres in Afghanistan to the Taliban have shown that not much has changed on the ground. In fact, things have become worse, particularly for the government of Afghanistan that is not only bypassed by international efforts but is also completely avoided by the Taliban for the talks.

Russia’s bear hug

Officially described as the “Moscow-format consultations on Afghanistan”, this peace initiative by Russia intends to “coordinate the development of an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue towards promoting the process of national reconciliation and the restoration of peace”. However, behind this veneer of altruism lies a larger geo-political game in which Russia, buoyed by its upper-hand in Syria, is trying to make a bigger comeback. 

Interestingly, the Moscow consultation is one of the few peace processes which have managed to get the Taliban and Afghanistan at the same table of talks notwithstanding its inconclusiveness. And thus, while the Moscow-led process might not have managed to deliver anything concrete, it is not entirely insignificant for the geo-political weight it carries.

Also read: Pakistan’s Two-Pronged Game in Kabul

The most recent round of discussions was conducted on November 9. Coming after some delays and setbacks caused by Afghanistan’s initial refusal to participate in the talks, the latest edition went ahead with ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ participations.

The High Peace Council of Afghanistan (HPC), led by the vice-chair Haji Din Mohammad, was present at the consultation as the country’s “national non-government” institution. The Taliban delegation of five was led by the head of the group’s political office in Doha, Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai. India too had participated ‘unofficially’ in the process while the Americans were there as observers.

The absence of a collective joint statement was obvious. However, the individual statement by the Taliban was telling both for the breadth of issues it covered. The Taliban listed the “causes of the ongoing miseries and conflicts in Afghanistan in the past four decades,” “obstacles to peace”, its status regarding some key issues like the Eid-ul Fitr ceasefire and women’s rights and “the practical measures for the prevention of civilian casualties”. It also reiterated the key “prerequisites” that have to be met before the Taliban can be expected to walk the talk.

Head of Afghanistan delegation and Deputy Chairman of High Peace Council, Hajji Din Mohammad, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, head of the Taliban’s political council in Qatar. Credit: Reuters

The HPC, on the other hand, is yet to provide the English version of its speech. Moreover, since the constitution of the peace committee, the HPC has stepped back and resumed its prescriptive, advisory role and is most likely to stay away from future talks.

The Kabuli way of doing things?

Convening in Geneva on November 27-28, the international donors heard Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani describe the roadmap for peace. His emphasis on a phased transition towards peace – one that would require another “five years” – was interpreted variously. Where it was read as a couched way of seeking another term as the president of Afghanistan, it was also seen as a veiled attack at Khalilzad’s hasty attempt at brokering peace.

An extension of the Kabul Process that was initiated a year ago, Ghani’s “Peace Road Map” stressed on the need to ensure that the peace efforts are owned and led by Afghans in order to attain “enduring and inclusive peace”. He distinguished between false and genuine urgency to make his point. He claimed “hurried actions without direction, often organised around political timelines, boxes ticked without coherence”, will lead the country nowhere. Instead, “a laser-focused approach” that draws on “our past and the experiences of other societies” can help achieve “lasting peace”.

Also read: Why Ashraf Ghani’s Peace Offer to the Taliban Is Doomed to Fail

In many ways, the road map looked like a point-by-point response to the speech made by the Taliban in Moscow. It needs to be noted that the Taliban has steadfastly refused to talk to the successive governments of Afghanistan as it sees the present constitution and those put in power by it as ‘illegitimate’.

Responding to the Geneva address, the Taliban stated that for them, talking to “powerless and foreign imposed entities” is “a waste of time”. It went further and called the president “impotent” for “forwarding proposals about negotiations that were beyond his capabilities” and rejected the call for talks once again.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Credit: Reuters/Omar Sobhani

Time is not ripe

The Afghanistan of today, unfortunately, still does not look ‘ready’ for peace so to speak. The announcement of the Peace Road Map by the Ghani government was met with a series of bombings in different parts of Afghanistan. This also included an attack by the Taliban on the compound of the British security company, G4S.

Buoyed by its recent ‘successes’, the Taliban has claimed that the world understands that “more than half of Afghanistan” is “under their control”. It continues to refuse to recognise the administration in Kabul as ‘government’ and states that it is “fighting and negotiating with the American invaders for the success of Jihad”.

Much to the disappointment of Ghani who has often claimed that the peace process is now a matter of ‘when’, no one really knows when this ‘when’ will arrive. It seems that the time is not yet ‘ripe’ for peace.

Chayanika Saxena is a President Graduate Fellow and PhD Candidate at the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore. She works on the Afghan diaspora in India.