The Twin Goals of Peace and Elections in Afghanistan
What will it take to reach a peace settlement? More than anything, Afghanistan needs national leadership.
The Taliban held its fourth round of direct talks with the United States in January of 2019. This month the group revealed it will participate in a fifth meeting with the aim of agreeing on a set of issues and to craft a framework for ending the war that began with the U.S. invasion in 2001. The widely-lauded meeting between more than fifty Taliban and Afghan political figures in Moscow this month was simply unprecedented, and an important step forward to ending years of stalemate and creating the conditions for direct inter-Afghan dialogue.
The significance of these meetings can be discerned from their venues, timing, participants, and the progressive nature of the discussions. The presence, involvement and engagement of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), as well as Saudi, Qatari, and Emirati representatives—countries with significant influence on the Taliban—have undoubtedly raised the stakes of the events.
The Afghan government, an essential factor in the process, has been left out of any meetings with Taliban on the latter’s insistence. However, if both the U.S. and Taliban proceed with good faith and achieve mutually-agreeable progress, the meetings could ultimately pave the way for direct talks between Taliban and Afghan officials—with increased engagement and support from Afghan political elites.
The U.S. and its coalition partners appear to believe they have exhausted almost all military options that would effectuate an end to the Afghan conflict and thus have come to the conclusion that to withdraw forces—something the Trump administration is seriously considering,—political and diplomatic options that would entail some combination of restraint, compromise, and incentives must be considered.
The United States’ demands of the Taliban are clear: the Taliban must abandon support for global terrorist groups, it must not use Afghanistan as a base from which to stage attacks against the United States or its interests, and it must cease using violence and enter into talks with the Afghan government. There is a greater realization on the part of the Taliban as well that it cannot achieve a decisive victory—let alone overtake the state—despite years of inflicting heavy losses on the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and expanding the territory it controls.
The Taliban has every reason to maximize its return from the talks. The resilience of its forces, a strict adherence to a battlefield chain of command, increasingly diversified foreign support, and—most importantly—its operational advantage in the harsh conditions of rural Afghanistan make it simply insurmountable. Yet, the Taliban also has its own calculations and realizes that no matter its leverage in peace talks, the return of the Islamic Emirate is beyond reach. Afghans, including Taliban sympathizers in most rural parts of the country, simply demand better lives than they had under the Taliban for the price they have paid to endure the last eighteen years of conflict and misery. However, the Taliban continues to hold onto its traditional demands which include withdrawal of foreign forces, release of prisoners, lifting of sanctions, changes to the constitution with greater provision for sharia law, and a practical roadmap for its inclusion in power sharing and governance. Furthermore, the Taliban recently asked for a permanent end to U.S./NATO air strikes targeting its fighters.
Then there is the matter of Pakistan, another essential element of the Afghan conflict. Some, including the U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, have stated that Kabul is where the subject of peace in Afghanistan will be decided. Others argue that Islamabad is the ultimate decider. The question isn’t so much about where the key to peace in Afghanistan is, but rather, it is fundamentally one of whether now is the time to use that key.
The reality is that peace in Afghanistan is intimately linked to Islamabad’s policy towards Afghanistan. If Pakistan has genuinely succumbed to U.S. pressure and is ready to end its rigorously institutionalized support for the Taliban insurgency, and is genuinely willing to cooperate in the peace and reconciliation process, the possibility of a negotiated end to the conflict is more real now than at anytime previously.
As it stands, as agreed in Doha, both the U.S. and the Taliban officials are expected to meet again this month. Assuming that the Taliban and U.S. reach an agreement that includes a timetable for the withdrawal of remaining U.S. forces— a non-negotiable precondition for the Taliban—the next step will be an effective inter-Afghan dialogue. Are the two sides ready and able to make peace? Will the Taliban agree to talk with the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG)? Is NUG prepared to reach and implement a settlement that would entail substantial concessions, including significant legislative amendments and political accommodation? More importantly, does President Ghani have the domestic political backing essential to enter into a durable peace treaty with the Taliban and honor certain demands? To consider this and other key questions, a review of the reality on the ground in Afghanistan is necessary.
Is Peace Within Reach?
The Taliban has thus far refused to directly negotiate with Ghani’s National Unity Government, which it views as a puppet of the West with no authority or legitimacy to make decisions or to represent the will of the nation. Instead, it has insisted on first talking only to the U.S. To date, the Taliban has had one meeting with Afghan political leaders, and it is likely they will meet again.
At a conference in Geneva in November of 2018, Ghani presented a five-phase approach for the negotiating process. First, the Afghan government will hold direct talks with the Taliban, followed by discussions with Pakistan and the United States. Then, regional actors and the Arab-Islamic world will be included, and finally, NATO and non-NATO countries. At the moment, what has been happening is precisely the opposite of what Ghani envisioned. The U.S. and the Taliban have had four direct meetings. In between which, U.S. Special Envoy Khalilzad visited Pakistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., India, and Qatar to consult with their officials. Ghani’s government is, so far, not even in the game despite the president’s recent attempts to soften his tone.
According to recent projections by military experts and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR)1 the Taliban controls nearly fifty percent of the territory in Afghanistan. While this figure is contested, the Taliban has an active presence in seventy percent of the country. Afghanistan remains a largely rural country with less than twenty eight percent of its population living in the cities.2
Even though the government predominantly controls the cities and urban areas, the rural territory is either under Taliban control or at best is contested.3 This leaves the Taliban at a distinct advantage as only a small proportion of the rural territory effectively remains in control of the government. In case of a peace settlement, it is highly unlikely the group would be willing to cede any control it has thus far gained and power to a government it ultimately considers to be illegitimate. Unsurprisingly, in response to Ghani’s offer of a Kabul office for the Taliban made during a recent visit to Nangarhar province, the Taliban restated its position that it will not, under any circumstances, talk with Ghani’s government.
It is an open secret that a significant portion of the Taliban’s income that used to run its war machine is generated from illegal taxation, opium, extortion, and ransoms, among other means. Drugs make up at least sixty percent of the Taliban’s income, a figure estimated at between $300 and $400 million each year.4 Furthermore, militia groups make more than $50 million annually from the mining industry, which is harvesting talc, chromite, marble and precious stones.
Foreign funding is another significant source of revenue for the Taliban. Although not easy to measure as these transactions are primarily carried out in unofficial and unregulated ways, including the hawala system, most experts estimate this funding to be between $200 to $300 million a year—coming mostly from the Gulf states. The fundamental question is what incentives will the NUG offer to the Taliban? Will the peace dividend for a local Taliban commander match what he currently makes each month as the result of the group’s drug trafficking and criminal activity, it’s myriad of other business ventures, and foreign funding?
Despite describing its direct talks with the United States as highly agenda-driven and articulate, the Taliban seems to lack a clear political objective. Unlike Hizbi Islami, which, at the time of its negotiations with the NUG5 had a clearer picture of how it might govern from Kabul, articulating what an end-state might look like and how some of its conditions could be feasibly implemented in a settlement has been a challenge for the Taliban. This is partly because the group realizes the limited degree of its acceptability within mainstream Afghan society.6
What is clear though is that the Taliban will demand a clear, comprehensive, and guaranteed plan from the Afghan government for its social, economic, and political needs—even if the group itself is lacking one. At almost every meeting, the Taliban has articulated its now-familiar demands, but beyond that, it struggles with how it sees itself back in the country. What form of a government will work? What specific laws would need to be changed? Will it respect the democratic processes and elections or will it only seek a share power with the existing government? In response to a question in Moscow related to power sharing, the Taliban’s chief envoy Sher Mohammad Abas Stanekzai said, “the Taliban has a clear roadmap for how to work with all political groups in the country to form a government based on the Sharia law.” Obviously, this isn’t enough even if the group had such a plan.
For its part, Ghani’s government is fraught with numerous problems. It might even be incorrect to call it a full and functioning government given that it has never had a full cabinet. For over fourteen months (May 2017 – July 2018), Ghani’s first Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum was in exile; currently, he is dispossessed of his authority and denied permission to attend cabinet and National Security Council meetings. More than half of the government’s twenty-five ministries and dozens of independent bodies have remained without legal heads since his presidency.
Ghani’s closest and top policy-making team is, at its best, made up of many junior, inexperienced individuals with no authority to make decisions. Despite Ghani’s obsession with bringing the country’s younger generation to the government, he has failed to find a practical balance in government recruitment. His administration has had a penchant for disregarding necessary qualifications for some of the most senior positions and has made hasty appointments. This is partly because he is deeply insecure and has a severe trust deficit. Moreover, a textbook micromanager, Ghani involves himself in every detail of the country’s business. This situation has caused serious problems for both the government and the state as a whole.
The security situation within Afghanistan continues to deteriorate. Since the NUG was formed in 2015, More than one million Afghans have fled the country due to a lack of jobs and increasing insecurity and uncertainty. According to UNAMA, from 2015 to 2018, civilian casualties caused by both Taliban attacks and ANDSF operations reached nearly 35,000—the highest number since the civil war in the 1990s—almost half of whom are women, children and elderly.7
In a recent interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Ghani admitted that the ANDSF had lost up to 45,000 personnel since he took power.8 a figure that still seems modest when one consider the average casualties on a daily basis. Despite massive support from the U.S. and other NATO nations to strengthen the ANDSF, its institutions remain weak, disorganized, corrupt, and void of morale. Most importantly, political stability, the most critical indicator of a nation’s prosperity, is seriously crumbling. Afghanistan’s history has shown that when any leader ignored this element of polity, his demise and destruction was certain.
King Amanullah Khan (1919-1929), President Mohammad Daud Khan (1973-1978), and Mullah Mohammad Omar Hotak (1994-1998) are only few examples of leaders whose individualistic, hasty, and poorly conceived approach to changing the country overnight put the country on the verge of destruction. To their credit, perhaps none of these leaders had any ill intent, rather it was their respective individual characters that led to their downfall. Regrettably, we are seeing similar trends today. While the mainstream political elites may be highly divided, when it comes to their relations with NUG, they have never been so united.9
The Afghan government’s foreign diplomacy is in shambles. Ghani’s day-to-day business with some of the most powerful and complicated countries in the region— Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia—appears to be guided by books he has read. It has become commonplace these days that when Ghani or his policy team makes a statement on any issue, they then change their minds shortly thereafter. This shows a lack of strategic thinking and experience in the presidential palace. At a time when the future of the country is being debated on the world stage, the NUG’s diplomacy is seriously faltering. The government needs to demonstrate creative diplomacy, statecraft, and political ingenuity now, more than ever.
Recommendations for Policymaking
In light of the above and assuming that the Taliban will ultimately enter into an inter-Afghan dialogue, the following six points may help to guide participants in the Afghan peace process toward a successful and lasting outcome:
- The government must go beyond a mere plan on paper and demonstrate its readiness to provide concessions based on the fundamental demands of the Taliban. President Ghani has spoken about roadmaps, plans or strategy, but has offered no details or evidence to indicate that a plan is in place. Any peace talks would require a plan that has immediate results and is based on, at a minimum, national consensus building, recognition of the Taliban as a political party, transitional confidence-building measures, a lifting of sanctions, release of prisoners, the reintegration of Taliban fighters and relocation of senior Taliban members along with their families. Ghani’s recent call for a possible Loya Jira (Grand Council) to discuss peace is a welcome step to engage in dialogues with Taliban, although that doesn’t seem to change the Taliban’s calculation about him.
- At the moment, the biggest challenge for Ghani is securing a strong national support base for peace with the Taliban in Kabul, let alone in the rest of the country. The current situation, beset by a highly fragile political environment and pervasive security threats, calls for thinking beyond daily business. It is time to begin a meaningful national dialogue. Ghani must reprioritize his time and demonstrate leadership by facing reality. Afghans are frustrated with empty promises and by a lack of measurable progress. Every peace has a price, and strong leadership is needed to convince the majority of the country that it is in their interest to shoulder this cost. As such, if the Taliban continue to deny talking with the NUG, but is willing to talk to other Afghans, Ghani must not block it, let the process begin and must instead help a council of prominent Afghan leaders and politicians who can advance the talks. The government can serve as a coordinator of the process and can gradually take a more substantive role as was the case in negotiations with Hizb Islami successfully led by former National Security Advisor, Haneef Atmar, who is now a contender for the country’s presidency.
- If the Taliban continues its rejection of talks with the Afghan government as a legitimate and trustworthy party with the authority to make a peace settlement work, the upcoming presidential elections may be a perfect opportunity for the group to talk to the new government. The current talks will take time and can be advanced by a future government. The period between now and the formation of the new government will be critical for both parties, however. It will also provide an opportunity for Taliban representatives to reach out to political leaders and, most importantly, potential presidential candidates to understand their visions and plans for peace. For its part, the Taliban can begin to explore its own future reconciliation and reintegration in Afghan society and the resolution of grievances. They must not forget that this war has affected millions of Afghans. Perhaps the biggest challenge for any future government will be to heal the wounds, pains, and suffering of the nation.
- While Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is unlikely to completely cease in the near future, recent developments give cause for cautious optimism. These developments include the death of Maulana Samiul Haq, known as the father of Taliban, the release of key Taliban leaders including Mullah Berader, former Deputy to the Taliban leader who was recently named by Taliban Supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhund as head of the Taliban political office in Doha; security reinforcement measures by Pakistani military along the Durand Line and the role Pakistan played in encouraging Taliban to meet with U.S. in Abu Dhabi and Doha. If Pakistan is truly committed to resolve the Afghan conflict, there is every reason to expect a settlement, even if talks take a longer amount of time. However, Pakistan needs to do much more in order to gain the confidence of the U.S. and the Afghans. For years, Pakistan has been playing a double game in which it does just enough on the surface to get incentives from the U.S., while still supporting the Taliban in the shadows.
- There have been talks about forming an interim government with the Taliban to facilitate its full participation in future political activities. The Taliban has, however, denied that it has made such a proposition as many Afghans reacted negatively to the idea calling it a return to the country’s dark times after enduring tremendous sacrifices for so long. While holding timely and successful elections planned for July this year may be a challenging task for the Afghan government and its current weak and incompetent electoral bodies, it still can be the best possible option to show the country is moving ahead. Given the urgency of peace, if the current talks between the U.S. and the Taliban produce results, many Afghans will most likely be ready to accept another delay in elections or continue the talks with a newly elected government rather than having an interim government. Given the country’s history and the widening fractures within the Afghan political elites, it will be a mistake to expect a smooth transition beyond an interim government just like early 1990s. However, if talks do not yield results beyond March, elections will be the only and best way to go in July, yet the current momentum for achieving peace must not be lost.
- Since President Ghani is running for a second term, he must respect the independence of the electoral bodies and avoid using state resources to manipulate the electoral timeline and process. The international community that supports and observes the Afghan elections must ensure that between now and July both the IEC and the NUG undertake the necessary measures to address the key technical and security concerns. Moreover, to increase confidence and public trust in the outcome of the election, Ghani and Abdullah’s term must officially end by April 20. During the period between April 20 to July 20, 2019, both the NUG and the international partners can focus on issues that can strengthen the capacity of the electoral bodies, in order to ensure they have sufficient technical resources and most importantly improve security and confidence in the country. Meanwhile, the most crucial issue will be to continue supporting peace initiatives—including aiming to achieve and maintain a ceasefire.
1 SIGAR, Quarterly Reports, October 30, 2018
2 World Population Review: https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/afghanistan-population/
3 There are areas in rural Afghanistan where no one has control. In some of these areas, the government operates for certain hours of the daylight and then Taliban emerge at night or vis versa.
4 Interview with Afghan Security Officials, September 2018.
5 Afghan government signed a peace accord with the Afghan insurgent group – Hizbi Islami leader
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in September 2016 after nearly 18 months of negotiations.
6 While Taliban will undoubtedly continue to enjoy support of local communities in rural areas, which can be significant in case it enters talks and competes in politics, it will be viewed as the least favourable in the mainstream political scene.
7 UNAMA civilian casualty Report, 2018
8 CNN Anchor, Fareed Zakaria’s Conversation With President Ghani during World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting (2019) In Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2019
9 Their recent rejection of Ghani’s call for joining the Peace Consultation Board was a clear sign of their distaste of the NUG. Following a presidential decree that formed a peace consultative board comprising of the majority of the influential political and Jehadi leaders, a majority of them rejected the offer or simply ignored it. The leaders who did not attend the board’s first meeting included former President Hamid Karzai, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, First Vice President Dustom, Professor Sayaf, Hazrat Mujaddadi, Mohammad Asif Muhsini, Mohamamd Younus Qanooni, Ismail Khan, Atta Noor, Sayed Mansoor Naderi and Sayed Hamed Gailani.