Afghanistan: Unprecedented opportunity for peace is under high pressure
Afghanistan, war-torn for more than 40 years, now has a chance of progressing towards peace. An agreement between the US and the Taliban finally paved the way for negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Despite this new hope, there is currently no ceasefire in place and the Taliban’s weak commitment to the peace process has been demonstrated by increasing violence in 2020, resulting in the death of 3,378 security-forces and 1,468 civilians.
However, in light of the ongoing developments, a permanent peace deal seems to be moving further away.
On 29 February 2020, the US government and the Taliban (for the Taliban administered Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) signed the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan. The US committed to withdrawing all military forces within 14 months and in exchange, the Taliban are obliged to prevent any terrorist group, especially Al-Qaeda, from operating on the territory and they have to enter intra-Afghan peace negotiations.
These intra-Afghan peace talks are the crux for achieving peace in the country, as the US-Taliban deal had completely excluded the Afghan government. The two major aspects of comprehensive peace are the extent of a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban, and the structure of inter-ethnic peace relations. However, the government of Afghanistan has been tormented by disputes about the Presidential elections in September 2019, which could only be resolved in May 2020.
Peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban eventually started on 12 September 2020, after being delayed by half a year due to a prisoner exchange disagreement. This marked the first peace talks between the two conflict parties in over 19 years. However, during months of negotiating merely the basic procedure for the peace talks, the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated significantly. After a three-week break, the talks resumed on 5 January 2021 in Doha. From now on, more substantive issues need to be discussed, such as a comprehensive ceasefire, the formation of a new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government, the protection of minorities and women’s rights, and the role of Sharia law in the state. In particular, negotiations on the post-settlement government poses difficult challenges: The Taliban warned that President Ghani’s plans to remain in office for his elected five-year-period are detrimental to the peace dialogue. On the other hand, the incorporation of the current Taliban leadership into state structures would be highly detrimental to all the human rights advancements Afghanistan has achieved in the last twenty years.
Although many global players, including Iran, Russia and China, have been involved in Afghan politics over time, the two most important stakeholders in the Afghan peace process are by far the US and Pakistan.
The peace talks were slowed down by the recent US elections for an obvious reason: No side to the conflict is willing to make concessions when the future US policies are uncertain. According to current disengagement plans, the number of US troops in Afghanistan will be down to 2,500 by 15 January 2021. Despite a new law requiring troop reductions to be approved by Congress, the withdrawal is currently ongoing. At the same time, with Joe Biden taking office at the end of January 2021, US military engagement could take a different route. Biden might deviate from the implementation of the February agreement, concluding that the Taliban have not made enough progress in the intra-Afghan peace talks or their counter-terrorism efforts. This could either result in a simple delay of the withdrawal or in the continuous presence of at least a few US military bases in Afghanistan.
Like the US, Pakistan has been involved in the peace process for a long time. The government in Islamabad always had good relations with the Taliban and promoted the Taliban authority. It was this unique communication channel the country utilized to facilitate the peace process. Pakistan played a major role in bringing the US and the Taliban together for talks, and it continues to be the main facilitator for the intra-Afghan negotiations. Pakistan used to be unsupportive of the India-friendly governments in Kabul, but now it seems like the neighboring country has seized the opportunity to partake in shaping future Afghanistan. A government including the Taliban is consequently close to Pakistan, which in turn means that India’s influence is reduced. But Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan are manifold: Besides maintaining significant impact, Islamabad is especially interested in establishing a strong regional partnership and proving its ability to restrict terrorism to the international community, which is linked to important international financial aid.
With the departure of US troops, other countries are now joining the playing field to avert instability and terrorism and to enhance their influence over Afghanistan. One of them is India, which has supported the democratic governments in Kabul through financial aid and training for the security forces for many years. But so far, India has refused to engage with the Taliban and thus has stayed out of the Afghan peace process. Considering the possibility of the Taliban forming a part of the future Afghan leadership and Pakistan’s good relationship with the Taliban, India now wants to preserve its influence over Afghanistan, especially through offering military assistance to Afghanistan.
The EU also has a long history of supporting the Afghan administration and this commitment was reiterated by the Council of the EU, as well as in the Afghanistan Conference in November 2020, which both linked further political and financial support to the adherence of democracy and human rights. While some ask the EU for a more proactive role in ensuring peace and human rights, this approach may well end up achieving the opposite. Making funds dependent on human rights enables the fundamentalist Taliban to use them as a bargaining chip, while vulnerable people are prevented from accessing aid they are in dire need of.
According to the Global Peace Index, Afghanistan remains to be the least peaceful country in the world. Hence, there is a lot of pressure on all involved stakeholders to finally achieve a comprehensive peace agreement. The Intra-Afghan dialogue urgently needs to achieve tangible outcomes to end the ongoing attacks. Since the Taliban’s fundamental condition for any negotiations is the withdrawal of all US troops, Joe Biden’s inclination to keep a small intelligence-based presence in Afghanistan even after May 2021 might well be the end of it. If not, the withdrawal of international forces creates the opportunity for other countries, especially Pakistan and India, to take more control. Pakistan is eager for a more prominent role in Afghanistan, preventing further Indian or European influence, and thus has to ensure that the Taliban end their hostilities. But as the last twenty years have shown, both India and the EU can play stabilizing roles by virtue of the aid they have provided in the post 9/11 reconstructions. The most burning issue is what form the political settlement with the Taliban will take. If the Afghan government makes too many concessions, the value of precious human rights like gender equality or freedom of expression will be at stake.
Afghanistan is on a long and complex path, requiring sustained and combined efforts by many actors, but this fragile peace process is currently the only solution for achieving peace and security.