Afghanistan’s fledgling peace process faces some tough early tests
Michael Kugelman
In a previous column, I wrote that with a US-Taliban agreement now in hand, the hard work has just begun in the quest for peace in Afghanistan.
Indeed, recent developments demonstrate just how tough it will be to pivot from that deal with the insurgents to the intra-Afghan dialogue needed for a formal Afghan peace process designed to end the US-led war in the country.
The intra-Afghan dialogue process was supposed to begin during the week of March 9. It did not. It has been bogged down by a major crisis, and two additional obstacles are lying in wait.
The initial crisis relates to a Taliban prisoner-release arrangement. The US-Taliban deal stipulates that 5,000 insurgents are to be freed before the first day of intra-Afghan dialogue. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whose government was excluded from the bilateral negotiations that produced the agreement, balked at this. The Taliban said it will not open talks with Kabul until Ghani frees all the captives. Now Ghani says he will free them, but incrementally instead of all at once.
One can understand Ghani’s thinking. Releasing all 5,000 insurgents at the same time would deprive Kabul of its core tool of leverage going into the talks. Releasing them gradually makes more sense and is a good compromise. However, the Taliban has rejected Ghani’s proposal. In effect, the intra-Afghan dialogue is paralyzed — and it has not even begun yet.
There are more problems ahead. One is a nasty political crisis. Ghani’s leading political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, rejected the country’s 2019 presidential election results, which declared Ghani the winner, and carried out his threat to set up a parallel government. He declared himself, not Ghani, president of Afghanistan and held his own inauguration ceremony on the same day as Ghani’s.
Why, one might ask, would Abdullah take such a dramatic and provocative step at such a sensitive moment, with the country on the cusp of launching peace talks? Ultimately it comes down to politics: Abdullah is a deeply aggrieved man who believes he was robbed of victory in the past three presidential elections.
There are now very tough questions to be asked about whether and how to attempt to shoehorn two governments into the complex negotiations with the Taliban.
In particular, who will be on the government’s negotiating team? What role will Abdullah play? No one outside of Abdullah’s support base in Afghanistan has recognized his government (meanwhile, top US officials attended Ghani’s inauguration) but he has given little indication that he intends to back down.
Then there is the issue of violence. The US-Taliban deal was completed after the two sides agreed to reduce violence for seven days — it said nothing about maintaining that reduction going into the intra-Afghan talks.
Predictably, the Taliban has resumed its attacks on Afghan forces.
The Trump administration has expressed its unhappiness with this development, rightly suggesting that the upsurge in Taliban-led unrest goes against the spirit of peace. But surely Washington knows that violence is leverage to the Taliban, and that the insurgents will not hesitate to escalate attacks to strengthen their bargaining position in potential talks with Kabul.
And yet, ratcheting up the violence is not conducive to productive talks. The Taliban’s willingness to agree to another violence-reduction period would serve as a useful confidence-building measure and telegraph a readiness to be a good-faith negotiating partner.
Such a concession does not appear to be on the cards, however, and it is easy to understand why: The Taliban has the upper hand. It is performing well on the battlefield, it believes it is winning the war, and it would be perfectly happy to walk out of talks — or refuse to begin them altogether — if it does not like the concessions it is being asked to make. This includes agreeing to another violence-reduction period.
The pressure is on Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghan reconciliation. Even though the so-near-yet-so-far peace process is meant to be a strictly Afghan affair, US mediation will be essential to get the process off the ground. Khalilzad will work with Afghan political leaders and the Taliban to try to find a compromise, or other workaround, that enables peace talks to begin, even with all the crises.
The first order of business should be the Afghan political crisis.
Let us be clear: You cannot launch complex negotiations with the Taliban when there are two governments. You cannot tackle the challenges associated with those complex negotiations until there is a common, united front on the part of the state.
Complicating these challenges is a time crunch. Khalilzad — likely due to President Donald Trump’s growing impatience — said he hopes the intra-Afghan talks can be concluded in 100 days. That is a wildly optimistic time frame, given that complex negotiations like these are typically measured in years, not days.
Nothing comes easy — especially when you are in a rush.