In the 2015 and 2016 fighting seasons, the Taliban, as the largest and umbrella insurgency group in Afghanistan, showed that they are capable of conventional warfare and significant territory seizure. They have changed their fighting strategy from blowing up roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to targeting strategic government assets. They were able to capture the city of Kunduz in 2015 and 2016, and severely threaten the main cities of Helmand, Uruzgan and Farah (Ali, 2015; Aljazeera, 2017). The Taliban have been able to secure themselves some respect by steady advances in capturing territory and in attacking Afghanistan’s major cities.
The intensity of fighting in Afghanistan gives critical indications about the current situation facing the nation. The continuous trend of incidents like the March 8, 2017 attack on the military hospital in Kabul, the April 27, 2017 attack on the 209 corps in Balkh, and the recent bomb blast on May 31, 2017 in the well-secured diplomatic quarter of Kabul may demoralize the Afghan security forces, increase discord among the people, and create more barriers to peace in the country (Nabikhel, 2017; 1tvnews, 2017; Aljazeera, 2017). Increase in similar incidents can also intensify ethnic tensions, further deteriorating the stability of the National Unity Government.
All sides involved in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan need to understand that peace will not come by continuing the fight. Warring parties have regional and international support, which makes a conclusive military victory unlikely for either side. Additionally, the Afghan government, the Taliban, other countries in the region, and the international community—in particular the United States—will have to accept a compromise and make sacrifices in order for peace to be restored. With the exception of Pakistan (which controls the Taliban), the sides involved in the conflict have shown some orientation towards peace talks; however, they need to become more active in pursuing a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Moscow talks in December 2016, February 2017, and April 2017, and the recent Kabul Process Conference in June 2017 aimed to bring stakeholders of the Afghan conflict around the same table in order to create momentum and to come to some common agreement on how to work together for a peaceful Afghanistan (Tolonews, 2016; Amiri, 2017; 1tvnews, 2017; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2017). The remainder of this article will discuss what each party needs to consider for compromise.
The Government of Afghanistan
Striking a peace deal with the Taliban will come at a cost to the government and the people of Afghanistan. The Taliban, given their recent successes in the fight, will not surrender and easily accept the unilateral terms set by the government of Afghanistan.
Instead the Afghan government needs to be prepared to share power with the Taliban. This is an important strategy for incentivizing the group to come to the negotiating table. This is the time for the government to hold critical internal discussions on exactly what a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban would look like.
The Afghan government is limited by the mindset it has created in striking a peace deal with Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan (HIA), in which HIA was not offered a power-sharing deal. The Taliban are a far greater threat to the government’s authority than the HIA used to be. The Taliban claims to control more than 50% of the country’s territory, and are able to penetrate areas very tightly secured by the government (Roggio, 2017). Thus, the deal offered to Taliban should be compelling enough for the Taliban to stop fighting and join the political process.
Similarly, the Taliban will have to make compromises and radically change their behavior in order to become part of a peace process. Firstly, the Taliban will have to agree to some form of a ceasefire as an initial step for talks. As a third party, the United Nations could guarantee that the ceasefire will be mutual. It will not be considered as a weakness of the Taliban, but merely the confidence-building necessary for entering into peace talks. The Taliban will have to agree to the constitution of Afghanistan and commit to sustain and build upon the government’s achievements over the last sixteen years, specifically in areas such as education, human rights, and women’s rights. While the withdrawal of foreign troops is a priority condition that the Taliban may put on the table, they will have to show flexibility to negotiate a timeline. The United States and the international community need to assure that they will withdraw their forces, as they have promised, after a peace deal is signed between the Afghan government and the Taliban and terrorists are denied safe haven in the country (Dostyar, 2017).
While the international community and the United States play a crucial role in the peace process, the roles of regional countries such as Pakistan, Iran, China, and Russia are equally important. An unstable Afghanistan is a threat to the region, specifically to China and Russia, with their growing military and economic powers. Pakistan and Iran, although hesitant, have realized that instability in Afghanistan is a growing threat to their own national security. Thus, the cost of living without peace in Afghanistan is exponentially higher for those regional countries. Regional countries have to realize that there is a need for a regional consensus both on including the Taliban in the peace talks and on restoring peace by any means possible.
China’s interest in assisting the peace process is of significant importance. China has the ability to take serious steps towards pressuring Pakistan, its close ally, to be fully transparent during the peace process and bring the Taliban to the talks. The same holds true for Russia. Although no concrete evidence is available, Russia should by no means support the Taliban with arms and finances and should use their relations with Pakistan and the Taliban instead to encourage cooperation in future peace talks.
Pakistan’s role is of the utmost importance to the peace process. There seems to be a realization in Pakistan that the continuation of the insurgency is not in the country’s best interest. However, the government of Pakistan seems to also imply that any end to the insurgency and terms of a peace agreement should result in a good deal for Pakistan. Pakistan thinks it deserves this role because it has the ability to disrupt things if not heard.
The attitude of Pakistan’s government is a significant barrier towards peace talks. The people of Afghanistan should be the ones concerned with the results of a peace process. No external stakeholder should impose terms that violate the sovereignty of the Afghan people. The ultimate decision makers ought to be the people of Afghanistan. In the same vein, the people know what price they have been paying and what level of sacrifice is necessary for restoring peace in their country.
While the stakes have become high for all stakeholders, Pakistan must change its behavior for the good of its own country, the region, and the world at large. Although some of Pakistan’s fears, such as the growing influence of India in Afghanistan, are valid and need to be addressed, Pakistan must not dictate the terms of an Afghan peace deal and must allow the Taliban to participate independently in peace talks. Pakistan will also have to abandon its “strategic depth” vision of turning Afghanistan into a client state and accept Afghanistan’s absolute sovereignty (Institute for the Study of War).
It is of great importance that the international community, particularly the United States supports an Afghan-owned and an Afghan-led peace process. The fact that they provide a great deal of funding to the Afghan government should not give them the right to dictate terms in the potential peace deal with the Taliban.
Additionally, Afghanistan’s Western allies need to accept that democracy in Afghanistan will not mirror Jeffersonian democracy, and it will always have its context specific improvisations. The international community and the United States need to realize the fact that Afghanistan will have to follow its own path in restoring peace and interpreting democratic principles.
Furthermore, the international community, particularly the United States, needs to exert pressure on Pakistan to ensure they allow some degree of independence to the Taliban during the potential talks. This can be done through releasing regular statements in support of an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process; regular official calls upon Pakistan to close terrorist sanctuaries; isolating Pakistan; cutting military aides to Pakistan; and if need be, imposing targeted sanctions against Pakistani military, intelligence agencies, and specific individuals.
In summary, it is in the benefit of all concerned parties in the Afghan conflict—internal and external—to advocate, cooperate, and actively contribute in making a peace deal possible between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In order to work on this goal, all concerned parties will need to make sacrifices and compromises. Now is the time for all stakeholders of the Afghan conflict to have internal, bilateral, and multilateral discussions and to prepare for a deal that will ensure a sustainable peace for the people of Afghanistan.
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