By Tamim Asey*
These days in Afghanistan and the region everybody is talking about a ‘peace’ which ‘doesn’t exist’. Just over the last week, 24 Afghan security forces lost their lives in battles in northwestern and western region of Afghanistan and the week before a Taliban group attack took the lives of over 45 civil servants and contractors who worked for the Afghan Ministry of Public Works in downtown Kabul. Meanwhile – President Ghani reshuffled his security ministers with prominent anti- Taliban figures in the hope to send a strong message to the Taliban that come next summer his government will be ready for another fighting season.
Meanwhile – US State Department especial envoy for the Afghan peace, veteran diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been shuttling around the region in the hope to forge a regional consensus on peace and translate that into diplomatic, financial and military pressure on the Afghan Taliban to come to the negotiation table with the Afghan government but to no avail yet.
Former President Karzai during the recent Raisina 2019 dialogue, India’s landmark foreign policy annual conference, accused the US of talking to the Taliban about its bases and not peace in the country. In addition – President Trump in a gross misrepresentation of the Afghan and cold war history, blamed the disintegration of former Soviet Union on Afghanistan and claimed it came to fight terrorists in the country but affirmed that his administration is talking to all sides in the country to wrap up America’s longest war. All of these indicators point to yet another grand game in the name of peace with an uncertain future and in the absence of Afghan leadership and ownership.
Furthermore – a marathon is underway by countries in the region including Iran, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Uzbekistan among others for hosting the Taliban to maintain leverage and influence over the group. Taliban representatives have gone to every regional capital except the Afghan capital Kabul to talk about a post US peace settlement with the Afghan government.
In fact – Taliban representatives refused to meet the Afghan negotiation team in Abu Dhabi which left the Afghan team members stuck in their hotel rooms. Afghans can not afford yet another peace adventure, they have seen such episodes before during President Karzai’s era wherein every new initiative with Pakistan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia with facilitation of the United States on any potential peace process made the Afghan public and political leaders excited and hopeful only to vanish in the next fighting season. Within the Afghan security circles there is a famous saying, ‘every winter Taliban and their sponsors come up with peace initiatives and every summer those initiatives vanish. Summers are for fighting and winters are for empty peace talks.’
Too many Roadmaps without a Road
The Afghan peace process suffers from a multiplicity of peace roadmaps,work plans and programs.During President Karzai era at least three different roadmaps and work plans were developed for the Afghan peace process. Almost two months ago President Ashraf Ghani unveiled his peace roadmap to the Afghan public and the region. He clearly laid out his government’s vision and conditions for any potential peace talks with the Taliban.
Local TV station, TOLONEWS, leaked a peace roadmap developed by RAND Corp, a US security think tank, for the US government in which the Americans proposed an interim administration plus an Ulema Council for the Afghan Taliban in exchange for a ceasefire and negotiations with the Afghan government among other offers including a partial or full US troop withdrawal from the country. The Afghan government together with US, Pakistan and China developed a quadrilateral peace workplan and road in the early days of the formation of the National Unity Government and the list goes on without any tangible result or a genuine peace process.The truth of the matter is that both the Afghan government and its US allies have been developing too many roadmaps in the absence of a road to peace.
Talks for the sake of Talks
President Karzai traveled to Pakistan over twenty times, President Ghani twice and officials of both administrations held over hundreds of meetings on the Afghan peace process with the Taliban but with no tangible results. Meetings and talks in luxurious hotels in the region and Gulf countries in the absence of genuine intentions for peace is a waste of time.
The problem is not lack of meetings and shuttle diplomacy; the problem is a lack of will and genuine follow up mechanism.Peace talks have only worsened the battle field intensity and casualties. Talks not back up with clear demonstrable actions are only empty words.
The Battle of Envoys
President Ghani recently appointed former Interior Minister, Umar Daudzai, a veteran politician and diplomat as his special envoy for peace and regional consensus building for peace. This move served him well both in the domestic politics but also highlighted his differences with the American special envoy for peace, Zalmay Khalilzad, both of whom have known each other from their days in the American University of Beirut that he is not happy with his peace talks in the absence of Afghan government representatives.
Furthermore, there are speculations of a rift between the US position on peace and President Ghani’s views on peace and the American presence in the country. In the midst, the Russian President envoy, Zamir Kabulov, has been hosting Taliban representatives in Moscow on Afghan peace. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sayed Abbas Iraqchi, has also held talks with Taliban representatives over a week ago in Tehran on the future of Afghanistan and the necessity for intr-Afghan dialogue. Unfortunately – none of these envoys share a common language, common program or pursue common objectives. This only shows that ‘peace’ and ‘peace making’ in Afghanistan has turned into a geopolitical tournament and marathon for leverage and influence.
A Divided Region
Russians and Iranians pursue one set of goals and objectives when it comes to the Afghan peace while the Americans, Pakistanis and Arab states ie UAE and Saudi Arabia pursue another set of goals and objectives whereas countries such as India and Turkey have only been active in the background without a clearly formulated view for the Afghan peace process.
The region lacks a consensus on ‘peace’ and ‘peace making’ just like the lack one for ‘war’ and ‘war waging’ in the country. Peace should not be viewed as means to achieving geopolitical goals but rather an end by itself.
What is Different this time?
Some diplomats, policy makers and politicians argue that since President Trump has an election to win in 2020 he wants to wrap up the Afghan war and/or at least show to the American people that US has started withdrawing from Afghanistan therefore there is a genuine desire by the Americans to use all of its political, military and diplomatic might to forge a consensus on peace in the region and within Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, countries in the region especially Pakistan and Iran can no longer afford long term support to the Taliban given their new geopolitical and security priorities. More so, if US withdraws from Afghanistan in the absence of any peace deal then a choatic and unstable Afghanistan at the door steps of Islamabad, Tehran and Moscow will only endanger their national security.Therefore a combination of an unusual US President and the real possibility of the collapse of the Afghan state post US withdrawal with security and economic spill over effects to its neighbors makes both the threats and opportunities for a peace deal in Afghanistan all the more genuine this time.
An uncertain Future
There is a fear within the Washington security and military circles that President Trump who never owned up to the Afghan war will pull the plug and call for a complete drawdown from Afghanistan.
Meanwhile – the Afghan people are also tired of a liberating force whose continued presence has only intensified the war and deteriorated the security situation in the country. Any political settlement in the country made in a rush and under political deadlines will be temporary and push the country towards yet another war only this time it would be a destructive and bloody civil war. Afghans are very cognizant of Red Army withdrawal from the country and the Geneva peace accords which pushed the country to a civil war.
Any hasty peace deal will be fragile, unsustainble and a long term recipe for another war.
*Tamim Asey is the former Afghan Deputy Minister of Defense and Director General at the Afghan National Security Council. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Security studies in London. He can be reached via twitter @tamimasey and Facebook @Tamim Asey.