Frank Islam (Washington): On September 12, representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban met in Doha to start the Afghan Peace Process negotiations. U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo referred to these negotiations as a “truly momentous breakthrough.”
Max Boot, an expert for the Council of Foreign Relations disagreed. He advises “…no one should expect a breakthrough quickly – or at all. The two sides are too far apart and the conditions are not propitious to end the civil conflict that has been raging in one form or another since 1978.”
Are the negotiations themselves a breakthrough? I think not. They are simply a beginning.
The United States and the Taliban signed a peace agreement on February 29. Among other things, that agreement: Stipulated that the US would withdraw its 13,000+ troops in phases over a span of 14 months. Barred the Taliban from engaging with any extremist group to work against the US and its allies worldwide. Called for an exchange of 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 Afghan security personnel. Proposed initiating a comprehensive intra-Afghan dialogue during the first week of March.
In an earlier column, shortly after the peace agreement was signed, I wrote that there was much that needed to be done to convert the uncertainty created by that peace agreement into an opportunity. There is a chance now to seize the opportunity.
Because the fact remains that, even though the parties are at the negotiating table, there is still much uncertainty. The extent of that uncertainty is demonstrated by the harsh reality that it took more than one half a year to get there.
This delay was caused by a number of factors including The Afghan government not participating in structuring the peace agreement. The Taliban violating the truce required by the agreement by engaging in considerable violence in early March.
The violence lessened after that. And, the major stumbling blocks to moving forward became the prisoner exchange and other critical unsettled issues such as the future political roadmap for Afghanistan, human rights, and the Taliban’s connection with Al-Qaeda and other affiliated groups.
In early August, the Afghan government approved the release of the final 400 Taliban fighters. This was followed by a round of talks between Taliban leaders, led by political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in the last week of August which helped set the stage for the peace negotiations
There are some current conditions that could contribute to their being consummated successfully. They include the economic needs of Afghanistan; Afghanistan’s collaboration with other regional allies; the desire of the U.S. public to see the “endless war” in Afghanistan brought to a halt; and, the U.S. presidential elections.
The continuing war has devastated trade and commerce in Afghanistan. In 2020 the situation has worsened. According to a July report from the World Bank, “Afghanistan’s economy is set to contract by between 5.5 percent and 7.4 percent in 2020 because of COVID-19, exacerbating poverty, and leading to a sharp decline in government revenues.”
That is bad news. The good news is that Afghanistan has been working with regional allies China and Pakistan to reduce the violence in Afghanistan which could help increase future trade and development. It has a trilateral MOU in place on cooperation in counterterrorism. If peace could be reached, this relationship could facilitate Afghanistan’s participation in the multi-billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to connect the whole region economically.
India, has already invested $2 billion in aid and reconstruction activities in Afghanistan. Peace in Afghanistan could lead to the development of other initiatives in the form of projects such as the Central Asia-South Asia power project (CASA-1000), an electricity-transmission line in the region, and the China-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Iran railway.
The Afghan peace process is also linked to U.S. public opinion. A recent report of the Eurasia Group Foundation (ERF), a US-based nonprofit, revealed a significant surge in public support of the planned withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. The ERF found “strong public support among both Republicans and Democrats for the planned withdrawal of all remaining troops over the next 14 months.”
Both U.S. presidential candidates want to reduce America’s footprint in Afghanistan. President Donald Trump would eliminate it entirely. Democratic candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, who was a strong opponent of the Afghanistan troop increase by the Obama administration, would retain a small contingent of 1,500 to 2,000 for special operations against ISIS and other insurgent groups.
Importantly, as the Washington Post noted in a September 14 editorial, “The chance for an Afghan peace will depend on the willingness of the U.S. president to maintain U.S. forces in place until the Taliban show a genuine will to settle. “
The conditions described provide the context for peace but will be totally insufficient for accomplishing it. That will require authenticity, compromising, and collaboration at the negotiating table. It will require respecting the existing Afghanistan constitution and protecting progress that has been made in Afghanistan on key issues such as women’s rights, civil liberties, and the democratic process.
The Taliban and the Afghan start these negotiations light-years apart philosophically and decades apart experientially. Time will tell whether they can cross those distances and use this beginning to give the Afghan citizens the happy ending they deserve
(Frank F. Islam is an Entrepreneur, Civic Leader, and Thought Leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal)