The War Rages On: after forty years of conflict, why can’t Afghanistan achieve peace?

Omid Farooq

Since the establishment of the High Peace Council nearly a decade ago, Afghanistan’s government, while continuing to fight the Taliban, has also been offering peace talks to the group. With the election of Afghanistan’s new President, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, the government is putting even more emphasis on the peace process. In recent months, especially after the Second Kabul Process Conference on February 28, 2018, he has made serious efforts to start peace negotiations with the Taliban. His strides toward this end are exceptional.

In February of this year, President Ashraf Ghani offered peace talks “without preconditions” at the Second Kabul Process conference session. He offered to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate group. He also pledged to release the Taliban’s prisoners, to remove their name from the international blacklist, and promised a constitutional review. For President Ashraf Ghani, all of this could happen through a peace accord if the Taliban recognized the government and Afghanistan’s constitution as the sole and legitimate final authority, and promised to respect rule of law. The Taliban was not interested.

On June 7, President Ghani announced a one-week ceasefire with the Taliban, which started during Ramadan and lasted only through the three days of Eid-al-Fitr, an Islamic religious holiday celebrated at the end of Ramadan. The Taliban embraced the ceasefire, but only for three days.

For the first time, the Taliban complied with a truce requested by the Afghan government. In a remarkable exchange, Afghan security forces and Taliban militants greeted and hugged each other on the first day of Eid and celebrated the rest of it together. The ceasefire was not only a breakthrough for the government, but it was a reprieve for Afghani citizens. Those who stuck around long enough to see a truce were finally able to see a peaceful Eid. People poured into the streets everywhere, exhilarated by the prospect of peace. Some took selfies with the Taliban and welcomed them with flowers. Hence, President Ghani extended the ceasefire for another 10 days. But, the Taliban rejected it and resumed fighting immediately following the end of the holiday. After Ghani’s unilateral ceasefire extension came to the end, the Afghan National Security Forces also returned to military operations.

Despite the ultimate failure of the Eid ceasefire, President Ghani has not desisted. On July 11, 2018, Afghanistan’s held a two-day international conference in Saudi Arabi on Afghanistan’s peace process meant to encourage the Taliban to participate in the peace process. In August 2018, president Ghani once again, during the Muslim festival of Eid-al- Adha, proposed a three-month conditional ceasefire with the group, but the Taliban did not accept it. Additionally, the US has also stepped up to start negotiation with the group. There are many reports that indicate the US officials had secret and unofficial meetings with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.

The only issue which all Afghans have consensus upon is peace talks. They are keen to secure a lasting peace in the country because they are war weary and don’t want to lose more sons and daughters on the battleground or in suicide attacks. Thus, many peace movements have arisen such as the Helmand Peace Convoy, whose participants walked from Lashkargah all the way to the Kabul. They have also been walking across Northern provinces chanting for and asking the Taliban to join in the peace process. Instead of joining the peace process, recently the Taliban have exacerbated their attacks in different parts of Afghanistan. Why have these efforts to secure peace failed?

First, the Taliban understand that the war has reached a stalemate that they cannot win. At the same time, they believe that the war isn’t hurting them as badly as it hurts the Afghan government. Instead, the Taliban believes that the Afghan government has been enduring higher costs of war. The militants are on the offensive, conducting suicide attacks and waging a guerrilla war, tactics that are difficult to counter. In other words, from the theoretical perspective of conflict resolution, the war has not reached a Mutually Hurting Stalemate (MHS) or the appropriate ripeness level. According to empirical findings, a high MHS level often compels warring parties to reach a peace deal.

Second, Peace talks are influenced by actors external to the conflict and they can put pressure on the disputants to settle (or not). External actors, who try to derail a peace process, are called spoilers. Spoilers can impact a peace process by seeking to prevent one of the disputants from reaching a settlement and peace agreement.

In Afghanistan’s case, Pakistan, by providing safe haven to the Taliban leaders and supporting the group financially and military, is vividly acting as a spoiler. Despite having jurisdiction over the Taliban’s leadership, Pakistan has always balked at supporting Afghanistan’s peace initiatives. Afghanistan’s government seeks to persuade Pakistan to support the peace process, in the hope that the Taliban’s leaders will also come to the negotiation table. But Pakistan has, thus far, abstained from doing so because the country sees some benefit in an insecure and unstable Afghanistan. Keep in mind that it is not only Pakistan but also Iran and Russia that are currently backing the Taliban, according to some media reports.

In civil wars, neighboring countries have often served as critical mediators in peace talks between warring sides. To some extent, neighbors perform this role because, as conflicts grow, they increasingly feel the spillover effects, for example, in the form of refugee crises. This is not the case in Afghanistan. When pressure mounts on Pakistan to cooperate with Afghanistan’s peace process and security Pakistan often responds by persecuting and deporting Afghan refugees. On the other hand, Iran recruits Afghan refugees through the Fatemiyoun Division to fight on the side of Assad’s regime in Syria. Nevertheless, Afghanistan’s neighbors are using refugee issues either for their own benefit or to gain leverage over the Afghan government. With respect to the hurdles in the way of the peace process, is it still possible to break the logjams and establish peace in Afghanistan? It is hard to be optimistic because the war in Afghanistan is a multi-dimensional and complex struggle. The following actions, if taken, could be effective.

To curb suicide attacks and to prevent the Taliban’s guerrilla incursions, Afghanistan’s government needs to bolster its intelligence abilities. The Resolute Support Mission, led by the US, providing training, advice and technical support should also improve upon their military and air support for Afghan forces on the battleground. This will enable the Afghan forces to put more pressures on the Taliban causing the militants to pay a higher cost during the conflict. In other words, the Afghan government and the US should steer the war towards a higher ripeness or MHS level.

Finally, there are numerous ways to deal with peace spoilers. Major Powers, by using their leverage, can apply their resources to mount pressure on external actors in the conflict. For example, the US could use its power as a “mediator with muscle”, as it did in the Dayton and the Camp David Peace Accords.

Therefore, the onus is on the US to play hardball with Pakistan. The US should escalate economic and diplomatic pressures on Pakistan and should squeeze the country to compel the Taliban to start peace talks with Afghanistan’s government.

Recently, after president Trump announced the “South Asia Strategy” in August 2017, the US has started applying pressure on Pakistan. The US has, so far, withheld $800 million in military aid to Pakistan. Furthermore, Pakistan has been placed on the grey list of the Financial Actions Task Force (FATF) for terror financing and money laundering, at the urging of the US, France, Britain, and Germany. Still, the US needs to consider stronger and more effective options, including sanctioning Pakistani military officials who are supporting terrorism and the insurgency and supporting Pakistan’s civilian government to become strong, The US should also seek support from regional allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as it ramps up pressure on Pakistan.

The US should even consider placing Pakistan in the list of State Sponsors Terrorism. Even if Pakistan consented to help Afghanistan in the peace process, there is no guarantee that peace talks will start with the Taliban. As mentioned earlier, a multi-dimensional war is ongoing in Afghanistan, and now there are other external actors like Russia and Iran involved in the conflict and possibly providing covert support for the Taliban. For instance, Russian officials concede that they have been maintaining contacts with the group. According to some reports, Iran also supports the Taliban and provides them with arms. Thus, with respect to the rivalry these two countries have with the US, it would be credulous to believe that they are going to support US priorities in Afghanistan rather than trying to bog down the US in Afghanistan. The more external actors involved in the conflict, the harder it will be to achieve peace.

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