The meeting of Alice Wells, the top US diplomat for South and Central Asia, with Taliban representatives in Doha in late July was regarded as the start of intense and laborious negotiations with the insurgents over the future of Afghanistan. However, the biggest hurdle for the United States is a government in disarray in Kabul, which has been losing the trust of people and major political forces.
The Taliban, like the mujahideen who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1980s, have been effective as ragtag fighters in the difficult Afghan terrain against a high-tech modern military. But they had proved worse at governing a post-conflict country and providing basic services to an impoverished population.
In fact the Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, despite relative security, was a miserable experience for most Afghans. Government institutions were paralyzed, economic output was below the subsistence level, and people were denied basic public services including health and education. In addition, revenue from narcotics constituted the bulk of the national income.
However, Afghanistan of 2018 is different from the 1990s, and despite daily violence there is no alternative to the current constitutional political process. In the past 17 years tremendous achievements in political, economic, and social conditions have changed the face of the country and its people. For instance, democracy, free media, human rights, and particularly women’s rights are achievements that could not be quantified or monetized in terms of US dollars but will have lasting impacts in Afghanistan and beyond in South and Central Asia.
Most of us Afghans crave to preserve the social and political gains of the past 17 years, uphold the constitution, and defend newly adopted democratic values. Nevertheless, in order to accommodate some of the Taliban’s demands, we are resigned to accept painful compromises on some of the gains, including amendment of the Afghan constitution.
Most of us Afghans crave to preserve the social and political gains of the past 17 years … Nevertheless, in order to accommodate some of the Taliban’s demands, we are resigned to accept painful compromises
However, the Taliban, beside their primary goal of opposing the US and NATO military presence in the country, have not offered a meaningful political and economic agenda as an alternative governing force.
In a number of districts where they are in full control, they have established their own courts, maintained security, and collected taxes from farmers and traders. In fact in times of conflict security and justice are some of the basic services that people desire the most. But in times of peace, people also demand jobs and better economic opportunities.
In fact a halt in conflict through a ceasefire or a short-lived political deal will not ultimately lead to a lasting peace. There are many unresolved political challenges in this multiethnic society that have fueled the conflict over the past 40 years and that ought to be addressed.
For instance, the Bonn Agreement in the aftermath of the US and NATO military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, when representatives of various political forces gathered in Germany, laid the foundation of the current constitutional political process. However, the absence of the Taliban from the big meeting and their subsequent decision to oppose the foreign military presence in the country has undermined the international stabilization efforts in Afghanistan.
In addition, grudges among the Afghan political elite over greater control of political power have seriously undermined state-building efforts, deepened ethnic tensions, and weakened the authority of the central government. In fact the Taliban’s strength and military successes could only be explained by utter failures of the successive governments in Kabul.
Also, a fast-growing population and a gloomy economic outlook will further increase the financial burden of the United States and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the foreseeable future. Therefore, a political settlement without financial support from the international community will be a short-lived endeavor.
The United States has insisted that the ultimate peace settlement must be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led because Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional powers such as Russia, China and India must endorse the US peace initiative in Afghanistan. In addition, the Taliban have been able to build new relationships with a number of countries, particularly with Russia and Iran, and improve relations with China.
In addition, the three-day ceasefire during Eid al-Fitr proved that the Taliban, despite their internal differences, are united under a single unified command. However, internal political feuds within the National Unity Government, and profound ethnic and political crises in the context of the upcoming presidential election in April 2019, have already shattered the internal political consensus.
Furthermore, serious allegations of extensive fraud in the voter registration indicate that next year’s election will result in a much weaker and less legitimate government in Kabul.
Therefore, the difficulty for the United States is to find the right and legitimate representative of the Afghan people, who could sit opposite the Taliban at a negotiation table. One plausible option that could make the peace negotiations transparent and inclusive is to call for another big gathering of relevant Afghan political forces under the auspices of the United Nations similar to the Bonn meeting on December 5, 2001.