In the complexity that has arisen from decades of conflict, with the multitude of actors aligning themselves on ethnic lines and the lack of national Afghan unity, reaching a consensus is proving to be nearly impossible. However, it seems that the future of Afghanistan will be played out by two main internal actors; the Taliban and the Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani, an independent politician. And yet, there is little to no interaction between the Taliban and the government as the Taliban does not recognize the government as a legitimate entity, and the government does not appreciate the Taliban’s political momentum with other States. By engaging in talks with foreign governments and Afghan elites, the Taliban is gaining political credibility that is undermining Ghani’s government.
Taliban leaders have attended several rounds of talks with the US in Doha, Qatar. While both sides seem eager to end this war of 18 years, there is one major point of discord which is the timeframe of US troops withdrawal. The Trump administration is willing to start withdrawing troops, as long as the Taliban holds up to its side of the bargain which is to prevent jihadist organizations from operating in the country. The US has also made demands that the Taliban start a dialogue with the Afghan government before they withdraw their troops, something which the Taliban is reluctant to do while only hinting at a potential political discussion with the Afghan government once the US leaves.
If Donald Trump’s eagerness to withdraw from Afghanistan precipitates a rash deal with the Taliban, with no sustainable plan for the country and no guarantee that the Taliban will hold up to its end of the bargain, the results could be disastrous. The US presence, as resented as it is by Afghans, does maintain a form of control over the regional status of Afghanistan. Should the US leave Afghanistan in the state that it is today, the country would be up for grabs as regional powers and internal actors would attempt to defend their strategic and regional interests in the country. Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours would gain from reconstructing Afghanistan, and lose if another conflict were to erupt from lack of internal political stability. Some of the countries, especially Pakistan and Iran, alongside their dubious role, have also had to manage the spillovers of Afghan wars in the past, in terms of mass refugee influx and the proliferation of terrorist groups aligning themselves on ethnic lines, which do not stop at the established borders. Pashtuns are present in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while Baloch are present in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. If Afghan political powers are unable to suppress terrorist and insurgent groups following the withdrawal of US troops, these groups could draw on ethnic oriented discourses to rally citizens, and Afghan refugees, in neighbouring countries to join their cause, as it has been done in the past.
Afghan Government sidelined
Third party States that are engaged in the peace talks hold the responsibility to include the Afghan government, as leaving it out is an impediment to the peace process. Aside from meeting US envoys in Doha, the Taliban also met with prominent Afghan politicians – including the former president Hamid Karzai – in Moscow in February. The Kremlin was not directly involved in organizing the talks, since this was done by the Afghan diaspora in Russia, yet the country did play a role in facilitating logistics. The talks were held at the President Hotel, owned by the Kremlin, and the ten-member Taliban delegation was authorized to enter the country, despite the Taliban being a designated terrorist organization by the Russian government since 2003. Once again, the legitimate, democratically elected and internationally recognized government was sidelined, meaning that the agreements that may arise from discussions at the table in Moscow cannot be implemented, unless they are brought to Ghani’s government.
The position of the Afghan government regarding the peace process is that it should be “Afghan-owned, Afghan-led”. Hence, as the US establishes more political talks with the Taliban, while it continues to conduct military operations against it in Taliban occupied territory, Kabul sees this as a betrayal on behalf of their strategic ally, as the US’ alienation from the Afghan government contributes to the erosion of Ghani’s political presence and undermines his government’s legitimacy.
However, Ghani refuses to let his government be pushed aside. And yet, with security and economic conditions having worsened since Ghani’s election, the Afghan president and his government are losing ground with the Afghan population and international actors. With the – twice postponed – presidential elections coming up in September this year, if Ghani hopes to be re-elected, he needs to be able to engage in the US-Taliban talks. As direct discussion with the Taliban is a route supported by other nations such as Russia and China, one would argue that it makes little sense for the Afghan government to try and diverge from this path. However, by engaging directly with the Taliban, or at least accommodating them, third party States have now given the Taliban enough confidence in their political momentum, which only reinforces their adamant refusal to accept Ghani’s government as a legitimate actor. While the attempts by the US and other international powers to sit across the table with the Taliban in search of the long-elusive peace in Afghanistan, are welcome developments, the absence of insistence that the terrorist outfit eschew violence prior to ushering it onto the table does raise serious concerns, and therefore there should be efforts to bring the Afghan government to the negotiating table. While everyone demands a slice of the Afghan cake, Ghani’s government feeds on crumbs and Afghan civilians are once again left to starve.
The glimmer of hope for the Afghan peace process has caught the attention of other regional actors. As mentioned above, these actors stand to gain from a stable Afghanistan, but only if the government in charge is sympathetic to their interests. One of the regional scenarios that should be taken into account during this peace process is the fact that countries such as Pakistan, China, India, Iran and Russia will compete for influence in Afghanistan.
In addition, Pakistan’s close ties with the Taliban cannot be neglected. Hypothetically speaking, if the Taliban was to reach an agreement with the Ghani’s government, and potentially become a legitimate political party, where would the Taliban fighters go? Would there be a place for them in the Afghan Army or security forces? Could they be reintegrated into society after all the horrors they have committed? Or would they simply be recruited by terrorist organizations based in Pakistan in order to continue Pakistan’s proxy war in Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir as was done with former Mujahideen fighters at the end of the 80s when the Soviets left? There remains a major concern of the risk of thousands of experienced fighters suddenly being unemployed and seeking to join other terrorist factions, moving east into Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir, west into the Middle East and north into Central Asia.
Aside from the military ties between Pakistan and the Taliban, there are economic routes at stake. In theory, Pakistan could provide Afghanistan with access to the Indian market, as Afghanistan provides Pakistan with an access to the Central Asian market. Yet in order to come to an economic agreement, the two governments have to be on good terms, which is not always the case as the neighbours share a strained relationship due to Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Taliban.
As for India, its aim is to limit the influence of Pakistan in Afghanistan, as it has preached that the peace process must be “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned”, but New Delhi remains weary of the influence the Pakistani military establishment holds over the Taliban and other jihadist groups. India also has economic interests in Afghanistan as it provides the country with an access to Central Asian energy reserves, and the Indian government has been funding aid and infrastructure developments in the country. India’s position is that it advocates for a strong central government, which would be able to counter Pakistani influence. New Delhi has also expressed discontent vis-à-vis the US-Taliban talks, agreeing with the Afghan government’s stance that this undermines the position of the legitimate government in Kabul.
China is keeping an eye on the situation as well as one of its main concerns is the risk of Islamic extremism spilling over into its Muslim majority Xinjiang province where Beijing has been preoccupied in brutally crushing dissent among the Uyghur population. Furthermore, China’s global economic plan known as the Belt and Road Initiative requires stable Central- and South Asian regions. So far, Beijing has agreed that the US must withdraw its troops, and the country has also expressed the sentiment that the peace process must be inclusive and Afghan-led. Beijing is well aware that a rapid pull out of American troops could precipitate yet another civil war in Afghanistan which would lead to concerns regarding the stability of South Asia, especially when the future of its Belt and Road Initiative is at stake. China’s solution to this is to push forward its objectives at diplomatic platforms such as its own Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
Rebuilding Afghanistan will require an unprecedented amount of cooperation, from a multitude of actors which are not known for their negotiation abilities. A rash peace deal, seen as the complete removal of foreign presence without a transition plan, must not be promulgated by the US and the Taliban, since such precipitative actions could again lead to internal conflict.
Nevertheless, it is of paramount importance that foreign actors do not impose their interpretation of a solution on the country; Afghans must decide what type of governance works best for them. Any government set in place must be decided for by all parties to the conflict as the act of marginalizing one could be the catalyst that could precede another civil war.
The reconstruction of the Afghan State should not come at the detriment of its population. Afghan civilians have held the status of collateral damage for 40 years; in a region where an abundancy of insurgent and terrorist groups draw on the misery of civilians, the common people’s pain and justifiable grievances must be addressed to truly commence the peace process and recovery of the country.