By Réjeanne Lacroix
Afghanistan is a country saddled with political and national security issues due to forty years of constant war, often shaped by foreign intervention. Afghan affairs are typically analyzed through the lens of international security and terrorism as a result of these circumstances. Nonetheless, recent events, such as the bungled September 2019 presidential elections in which incumbent Ashraf Ghani was announced as the victor only weeks ago, and the historic agreement between the United States and Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar are particularly relevant to domestic affairs as well as future development in the country. Afghan citizens and diaspora hope for a peaceful and prosperous land; therefore, it is worth investigating how this deal could potentially impact their collective optimism.
Basics of the Deal
The US war in Afghanistan will be remembered not only as it longest, but as one that offered few off-ramps or perceptible means of peaceful exit. Further, it emerged as a public relations debacle as the Afghanistan Papers released on December 9, 2019 by the Washington Post revealed that US officials constantly twisted the truth to present a scenario in which victory was achievable. It slowly became apparent that neither the United States nor Taliban forces would ultimately emerge victorious on the tattered battlefield of Afghanistan, thus negotiation was the sole avenue toward the goals of each party. A political agreement — rather than continuance of military operations — was the obvious solution. The US wanted to end its longest war and its foe would not rest until any and all foreign troops left Afghan territory.
A political solution had often been discussed, but the parties involved did not have the political will to prioritize it. After all, agreeing to ceasefires and assurances of security are immensely difficult tasks in comparison to planned tactical operations. Since 2007, discussions over possible negotiations occurred during the Obama and Karzai administrations. Meetings between affected parties were sporadic as counter-insurgency operations that targeted Taliban leadership as well as debate between the Afghan government and the insurgent group complicated matters. They subsequently reached their climax under the Trump presidency as he touted an end to “endless wars” as a key objective of his time in office and election strategy. Amongst all these political events, the Afghan people suffered tremendously in violent attacks, such as car and suicide bombings, as well as assaults on Afghan troops and police.
Consequently, it was continued violence that shifted the power dynamics and placed the proverbial ball in the court of the Taliban. Use of violent tactics requires appropriate political actors to seek avenues to mitigate further proliferation of attacks and securitize territory under their jurisdiction, However, in Afghanistan, the Taliban control large swaths of land — primarily rural — and thus cannot be ignored or simply managed through arrests or counter-terror operations. Ideally, they want to be a political actor and shape Afghanistan towards their desired Islamic Emirate. Continued application of violent tactics meant that power brokers had to shift their approach to one rooted in politics as the Taliban already demonstrated they had the means — and influence — to continue their proven attention-grabbing, yet ghastly, tactics, if not offered another pathway.
An especially bloody February 2018 compelled President Ashraf Ghani to offer the insurgency an especially attractive deal: recognition as a legitimate political party and the release of Taliban prisoners. It is apparent in politics that timing is everything. Afghan officials had already engaged in months of consensus-building and a peace movement had emerged in the country, such as the much publicized Helmand Peace Convoy. From this point, talks with the US developed as it was an opportune time to explore possible peace and the Taliban could potentially achieve a better outcome than in prior instances. To summarize a whirlwind of diplomatic efforts since 2018, ceasefires were breached, high-level talks occurred in different cities, dialogue collapsed in the wake of the death of an American soldier and eleven civilians in a Taliban attack, a resumption of negotiations and finally, the deal reached in Doha on February 29.
Let it be clear: this is not a peace deal, but rather, the first step towards possible peace. In the most simplistic terms, this is not a binding treaty between states, but rather, an agreement to complete some actions with a non-state actor (NSA) in the circumstance that the NSA remains compliant. Participants have had measured reactions as the provisions are substantial, further talks are ahead, and any realist recognizes the potential stumbling blocks. In line with Taliban demands, the United States and NATO forces will withdraw all of their forces over a period of fourteen months, as well as close five US military bases within 135 days, on the condition that the other party remains a consistent participant in the deal. The US intends to lift sanctions on Taliban membership and engage with the United Nations to amend their sanctions list also. Further, a prison swap between Taliban fighters and Afghan security forces must be arranged by March 10 — the day intra-Afghan dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban representatives should commence. And in a peculiar case, the Taliban must not provide aid or material resources to terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, but language calling for a renouncement of ideological support was absent.
International organizations cautiously praised the deal as a step toward Afghan citizens’ realization of a reduction of violence and a pathway toward prosperity. Indeed, cautious is the key word. During the lengthy talks, the Taliban did not express any sort of political platform or vision of a prosperous Afghanistan in a contemporary context. While they may have been legitimized as a political actor, they do not have a track record of keeping their word, and this is just one complication in implementing the current agreement. The US-Afghan deal may be a significant move in ending an eighteen-year war, but Afghan citizens continue to be concerned about what an Afghanistan with the Taliban as a legitimate political actor might look like.
Intra-Afghan Dialogue and the Concerns of Afghan Citizens
The next step toward any pathway for peace remains productive intra-Afghan dialogue to end the civil war that was concurrent with the US intervention. This could be the most complex stage as all parties must come to acceptable terms in regard to the renouncement of violence in favor of an enduring ceasefire, even though a democratically-focused Afghan government in Kabul is anathema to the Islamic Emirate ideal proposed by the Taliban. Within the country, individual political agendas and power networks encroach on any efforts to construct a unified state and as a result, induce ethno-nationalism between ethnic groups. Significant political will is required to overcome these obstacles.
As it currently stands, this layer of hypothetical peacemaking is already under pressure as the Ghani government shot down the timeline for a prisoner swap inherent in the US-Taliban deal. Detainees are a domestic matter thus the Afghan government has the right to reject such a proposal. A prisoner swap was meant to act as a confidence-building exercise and it is already apparent that confidence is lacking due to strict timelines.
Circumstances are different now than they were following the toppling of the Islamic Emirate in 2001, so one must remain hopeful for identifiable progress. Firstly, although fragile, the security situation in Afghanistan has improved, as the Afghan National Army has slowly emerged as a cohesive force across the country. The Afghan police force has been highly militarized due to the environment in which it matured, and while that is beneficial for national security issues, it leaves domestic problems, such as crime management, something that is left to be desired. However, this nexus provides Afghan authorities with the means to demonstrate that they will defend the country and hopefully not succumb to a hypothetical Taliban-led upheaval of the established — though problematic and young — political framework. Though Afghan forces take the lead in their operations, analysts often contend that a total foreign troop withdrawal is ill-advised as Afghan forces still require additional training and resources to ensure the basics of national security. Afghan citizens fear the repercussions as well.
Many Afghans raise women’s rights and the rights of children as key concerns in any forthcoming dialogue with the Taliban. Since the NATO invasion in 2001, many benighted features of a Taliban regime, such as women banned from studying or working in public places, have become a thing of the past in urban areas. Afghan women and girls not only study at the highest levels now, but engage in the workforce as well. Such cases are not at optimal levels and women still face gender bias, but the lives they have experienced must not be sacrificed for the sake of making a deal with the Taliban. To state it simply, in the words of a young Afghan woman: “We as women need to tell the Taliban that this Afghanistan is not the Afghanistan from 17 years ago. This is a new Afghanistan.” And yes, the country has changed significantly. It has media resources that connect it to the world and thus its younger generations are exposed to new ideas.
Prospects for peace are reliant on the creation of a non-violent space on Afghan territory so that the provinces and federal government can resolve entrenched generational problems linked to socio-economic issues. Therefore, compliance by the Taliban to lay down their arms and respect ceasefire agreements are an important factor in this regard. The majority of Afghans live in poverty without access to gainful employment opportunities. And further, potential opportunities available to Afghan citizens must take resources, social context, and economics into consideration. Afghan people must be consulted about finding the best ways for them to create beneficial scenarios in their lives so that those most vulnerable to joining insurgent organizations turn away from even the darkest financial activities.
In the context of intra-Afghan dialogue, the Taliban are faced with the difficult task of redefining their image to the Afghan people. Generations of Afghans — especially those who lived through the Taliban’s rise to power and the violence of the two past decades — are understandably skeptical of their motives. If they hope to be considered a legitimate political party, they must stick to their promise to become engaged in the prosperous future of Afghanistan, rather than continue their past actions. Further, not only the Taliban’s image must be rehabilitated, but additionally, the lives of fighters that will — hopefully and eventually — lay down their arms in favor of peace and national success.
There is no doubt that the agreement between the United States and the Taliban is a noteworthy event in the saga of America’s longest war. For the US military and its NATO allies, it closes a chapter marked by significant loss of blood and treasure. It should be celebrated in the sense that it denotes a game changer — or at the very least — the transition to a political solution that can be embraced by all touched by endless war. At the same time, it relies upon the Taliban to keep their word and not push boundaries by additional violence to broaden any political power. This remains an important unknown. In the most pragmatic view, peace is distant, but peace is built upon hope, and that should be celebrated. Adherence to the agreement by the Taliban and the outcome of intra-Afghan dialogue will reveal pathways toward stability that can only be fostered within Afghanistan itself.
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