By Tamim Asey*
With each passing day attaining a sustainable, inclusive and broad based peace seems distant and farther away in Afghanistan primarily because of a divided political elite in Kabul, a deceptive Pakistan, an emboldened Taliban playing the long game and an impatient America in a hurry to declare victory and bring US service members back home. Nobody underestimated that the Afghan peace process will be a straight line and if history is any guide it shows that almost all of the Afghan peace negotiations have failed in the process whether it was the Geneva accords in the 1980s or the Jeddah peace deal between the warring mujahidin factions during the civil war in the 1990s.
President Trump’s patience is running thin towards the Afghan war – his State Department Special Envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, is under pressure to deliver a peace deal in months rather than years whereas the Taliban and their sponsors in Pakistan and the wider region are playing the long game. This has made the Afghan public wary to say the least and the Afghan elite to shift their loyalties to the powerbrokers in the region.
Meanwhile, there seems to be a growing frustration on the part of US special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, over the Afghan government’s inability to present a broad based nationwide inclusive negotiation team with a peace plan in hand coupled with a divided Afghan elite over peace. Ambassador Khalilzad, in a recent interview with ToloNews, termed division and lack of a united front on peace in Kabul as the “biggest enemy of peace” and “major obstacle” on the way of the Afghan peace process.
Furthermore, the United States is in a hurry to get Taliban to agree on a ceasefire before the next fighting season in summer in order to de-escalate the Afghan war and provide the enabling environment for further peace building measures in the country. In fact – the Afghan peace process is coming to its difficult phase. This phase will require patience, sacrifices and prudence from all sides.
The End of the Long Peace
Afghanistan enjoyed a relative long peace over the last eighteen years, enforced by the presence of US and NATO forces with the assistance of a nascent Afghan national security forces, which is in danger of breakdown upon the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from the country. While, the Afghan security forces are bearing the brunt of the Afghan war with an estimated 45k casualties over the last 4 years but it is holding its ground and fighting with valor and zeal against the Taliban and foreign terrorist fighters in the Afghan battlefields though not for long, if the current level of casualties are not curbed and these forces are not provided with the right intelligence capabilities and close air support services especially during the night.
Unfortunately, the factors which held this long peace together is eroding day by day such as an inclusive and broadbased government, US military and financial support and regional consensus over the Afghan war and peace. Furthermore, the economy has shrunk by several percentage points with the withdrawal of American forces and reduction of foreign aid and will shrunk further incase of further reduction in troop levels. This has led to flight of investments from Afghanistan and the increase in the level of poverty in the country. Thus, the deterioration of a combination of security and socio-economic indicators are threatening to breakdown the long peace in Afghanistan.
Taliban’s Bloody Nose Strategy
The Taliban movement under pressure from Pakistan and the Gulf countries has sat down with representatives of the United States to chalk out a roadmap for peace with a focus on: a. counter terrorism b. US troops withdrawal c. intra –Afghan dialogue; and d. peace settlement with the Afghan government. Thus far, the Taliban have only agreed on the counter terrorism and US withdrawal plans parts of this peace deal with the United States in the absence of the Afghan government representatives while the crucial elements of intra-afghan dialogue and a peace settlement remains unresolved.
While this is good progress but there is always this fear that the entire peace negotiations could unravel and fail. The ghosts of the past dead Afghan peace deals are looming large over the ongoing peace negotiations. The choice for the Taliban and their sponsors really comes down to two options:
i. agree on a comprehensive peace deal with the United States and the Afghan government guaranteed by the countries of the region especially Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Russia and Iran.
ii. drag on the peace negotiations and eventually fail it and give a bloody nose to the United States upon its withdrawal from Afghanistan. But it seems that the Taliban are pursuing a minimalistic approach of reaching an agreement with the United States and her allies only to address their concerns but refuse to recognize the authority and legitimacy of the Afghan government. The Taliban simply refuse to recognize the legitimacy and lead of the Afghan government in any peace process so far. The coming fighting season will show if the Taliban are serious about the Afghan peace process or simply buying time to give a bloody nose to the Americans in Afghanistan.
Our Last Chance
The US led peace negotiations with the Taliban is probably the last chance to a genuine peaceful settlement of the long and bloody Afghan conflict. The Afghans, region and the Taliban need to take advantage of this opportunity and carefully reflect on their moves and accept the realities of the new Afghanistan – any uncalculated, hasty and zero sum game approach – to the Afghan peace could derail this process. The failure of the current ongoing Afghan peace negotiations will have no winners – not the Taliban neither the Afghan government and nor the region will be winners here– in such case all of them will be losers since Afghanistan will once again plunge into a long, bloody and uncertain civil war with potential to destabilize the entire region and pave the way for the strong resurgence of Islamic terrorism.
*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.