The so-called Afghan peace process has reached an interesting phase with the opening of the Doha talks between warring Afghan factions. Participated by the concerned stakeholders including the United States, Pakistan, China as well as representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government, Doha talks focused on issues which, for decades, have been a cause of war, violence, terrorism and political polarisation in Afghanistan.
What is the Afghan-owned peace process and to what extent is it a myth or reality? How can the four-point peace proposal presented by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister help the process of peace and stability in Afghanistan? Why do the Taliban still insist on introducing their version of sharia and how is their non-compliance with democracy and political pluralism a non-starter of the peace process? These are questions which are raised in the context of the prevailing peace talks on Afghanistan.
The four-point peace plan presented by Pakistan addresses the core of conflicts in that unfortunate country which has been mired in violence, terrorism and political and socio-economic predicament since 1973. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has suggested that one should learn lessons from the bitterness of the past faced by Afghanistan. His last three points focused on economic engagement, reconstruction and a time-bound return of refugees. Taliban political office director Mullah Baradar called for an Islamic system in Afghanistan and assured the world of a peaceful and prosperous life for the Afghans while Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan Peace Council chief, called for adhering to democracy, the Constitution, freedom of speech, rights of women and minorities, rule of law, and civil and political rights. He asserted, “We call for a humanitarian ceasefire. The declaration of humanitarian ceasefire will enable humanitarian aid and development programmes to reach all parts of Afghanistan and benefit our people.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose country has a key role in the Afghan peace process, is confident that following the February 29 agreement with the Taliban, the US will scale down its forces to 4,500 by October this year. Such a reduction will be in sharp contrast with the surge of American forces in Afghanistan which had totalled 100,000 in 2011. Yet, the US intends to maintain its strategic presence in Afghanistan despite considerable withdrawal of its forces unlike abandoning the country after the signing of the Geneva Accords on April 14, 1988.
The Doha talks on Afghanistan which were to commence in March were derailed because of a deadlock between the Afghan government and the Taliban on the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners. It was only after a breakthrough between the Taliban and the Kabul regime on that contentious issue that the intra-Afghan talks began on September 12. Since the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in February 1989, and the outbreak of civil war leading to the seizure of power by the Taliban in September 1996, the absence of an Afghan-owned peace process galvanised violence and bloodshed in the country.
The occupation of Afghanistan by US-led coalition forces in October 2001 and the transformation of the Afghan conflict reflected the failure of Afghan stakeholders to start the process of dialogue. Given the complicated geographical location of Afghanistan and the lack of ownership by Afghans, violence and terrorism continued which not only deepened conflict fatigue but also compelled the Taliban and the Afghan regime to unleash the process of dialogue.
There are three major requirements to bridge the gap in myth and reality of the Afghan-owned peace process.
First, despite assurances by the Afghan government and the Taliban about establishing peace in Afghanistan through dialogue, there still exists a huge trust deficit between the two major stakeholders. It is for the first time that there are direct talks engaging the Taliban and Afghan government representatives in Doha as since the induction of Hamid Karzai as Afghan president in December 2001 and the formation of the Kabul regime with the support of US-led coalition forces, the Taliban had refused to accept the Afghan regime’s legitimacy and had demanded its dismantling as a precondition for peace talks. Now, the Taliban have, after reaching a deal with the US in February, agreed to initiate dialogue with what they called the illegitimate Afghan regime. Unless the trust deficit is bridged between the Taliban and their Afghan counterparts, including the Afghan government, there cannot be any breakthrough in the Afghan peace process.
Second, the Afghan-owned peace process is still a myth because local stakeholders lack political will, determination, commitment and clarity to pull their country out of decades of civil war, violence and terrorism. Unless, those engaged in the intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha and elsewhere are professional in their approach in terms of reaching a durable ceasefire, demilitarisation, deweaponisation, rule of law, good governance and upholding democratic process, one cannot expect peace in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Taliban are unable to understand that their country cannot revert to the past, and governance based on a ruthless and suppressive order in which women and minorities live as sub-human creatures cannot work. The Taliban’s interpretation of sharia is a major problem in pulling Afghanistan from the web of social and economic backwardness.
Post-Taliban Afghanistan cannot impose a political order based on an orthodox and ultra-conservative way of life. A major requirement in the Afghan-owned peace process is tolerance, adherence to political pluralism, rule of law, good governance and justice. If the Taliban reject democracy as a mode of governance, it would prolong stagnation in the so-called peace process. Furthermore, if the Taliban want peace, stability and well-being of their people, they should cease violence and attacks on Afghan forces. There cannot be meaningful dialogue in Doha unless the Taliban agree to a permanent ceasefire and the Afghan government accept the Taliban as a major stakeholder for peace in their country.
Third, unless civil society groups, political parties and vulnerable segments of Afghan society are included in the peace process, one cannot expect any smooth sailing of Doha talks. An inclusive approach, instead of an exclusive one, needs to be pursued for accomplishing the goal of a comprehensive peace in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, like other conflict zones, is at crossroads. In this scenario, Pakistan’s stakes are obvious because unless violence ceases in Afghanistan and the Afghan-owned peace process reaches its logical conclusion, refugees will not go back to their country and the security of Pakistan’s western border would remain an issue. Yet, Pakistan has, unlike three decades ago, marginal influence over the Taliban who are still a cause of violence and terrorism in Afghanistan.
Unless, the Afghan majority who resent the Taliban’s use of violence as a weapon for seeking power are united and isolate them, the situation in Afghanistan would remain chaotic. Ownership of the peace process by the Taliban and other Afghan stakeholders is the only way to give the people of Afghanistan a break from decades of bloodshed in their war-torn country.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th, 2020.