The Biden administration’s bid to internationalize Afghanistan’s hamstrung peace process seeks to shift the rival sides’ focus from the battlefield to the negotiation table after months of stalled talks and escalating on-the-ground violence.
The proposals, presented to President Ashraf Ghani’s government in a recent letter from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, underscore Washington’s growing frustration with Kabul’s reluctance to enter into any peace agreement that accepts the rebel Taliban’s political ascendency.
Blinken’s letter proposes a power-sharing deal, to be fortified with a full-blown ceasefire, Taliban withdrawal from seized territories, creation of a caretaker transitional government and the eventual establishment of a new national government via elections.
The letter also includes an invitation for President Ghani’s government and Taliban representatives to travel to Turkey to discuss the US-made proposals.
“The United States has not ruled out any option. We are considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1st…,” Blinken’s letter said, adding, “I am making this clear to you so that you understand the urgency of my tone regarding the collective work outlined in this letter.”
Biden’s letter not only reveals how the US views “disunity on the part of the Afghan leaders” as a stumbling block towards peace, but also indicates the US is likely to counter any Ghani administration opposition to its proposed “transitional government” until new elections can be held.
While the Ghani government continues to see its presence in Kabul as key to its bargaining position vis-à-vis the Taliban, it has so far resulted in a peace process stalemate that does not serve US interests with respect to ending what is referred to in Washington as the “forever war.”
Kabul continues to see the existing constitution as the only viable institutional arrangement, while the Biden administration’s eight-page proposal appended to Blinken’s letter contains ideas about amending or even writing a new national charter.
The so far stalled peace process shows these proposals cannot be left to Afghan government and Taliban leaders to negotiate and implement, and that international community participation is likely necessary to broker a deal.
Such international mediation could help to alleviate fears in Kabul about a Taliban walkover if and when US forces withdraw. The US agreed to withdrawal all of its remaining troops, now estimated at around 2,500 soldiers, by May this year in a separate deal with the Taliban clinched in February 2020.
The US has effectively floated two different ways to internationalize Afghanistan’s peace process.
Blinken’s letter says that the US would ask the United Nations to “convene foreign ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India, and the United States to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan.”
While all of these countries except India have already established their own direct channels of communication with the Taliban, some including Pakistan and Russia have repeatedly hosted Afghan officials and Taliban delegations to discuss peace.
In fact, Russia has only recently announced yet another roundtable conference involving delegations from the US, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Taliban to discuss peace.
At the same time, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, recently said that a new Bonn Conference, or “Bonn 2.0”, could be held involving multiple international and regional actors.
Such a conference, Khalilzad said, could cancel or render the largely infertile “intra-Afghan” talks now underway at Doha, Qatar, completely irrelevant.
There are good reasons to make Afghanistan’s peace process into a multilateral effort.
For one, an internationally mediated agreement involving countries like the US, Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan would have more force behind it. It would also invite stronger reactions to any violations by Kabul, the Taliban or even the US from both regional and international signatories.
Since the start of the Afghan peace process 30 months ago, negotiations have been strictly bilateral, starting with talks and a subsequent agreement between the US and the Taliban and followed by the so-called intra-Afghan talks now underway between Kabul and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.
The bilateral track has born little fruit. Whereas Kabul and the Taliban talks have hit a wall, the US-Taliban agreement, too, is riddled with controversy, with both sides repeatedly accusing the other of violations and failure of full implementation.
By internationalizing both the US-Taliban deal and by involving regional and international actors in talks between Taliban and Kabul to establish an agreed political framework under a new constitution, such discrepancies could more easily be managed and resolved.
Recognizing the firm tone of Blinken’s letter and sensing that they could leverage the presence of the international community to their advantage, Afghan elites have already started to assemble a high-profile delegation to represent their side in Turkey at the proposed conference.
Afghan media reports indicate that high-profile leaders, including President Ghani, his two deputies Amrullah Saleh and Sarwar Danish, former president Hamid Karzai and several others are already on board.
The fact that Kabul is assembling a large, high-profile and multi-ethnic delegation demonstrates a will to bring a maximum number of issues and questions to the negotiating table at the Ankara conference.
This dovetails with broader US objectives. The presence of a broad Afghan delegation combined with international and regional players could play a key role in allowing the US to limit the extent to which the Taliban can establish their dominance under an amended or new constitution.
This remains the key for both the US and Kabul, which despite their growing differences on the peace process are both averse to the prospect of total Taliban domination.
At the same time, the US proposals accept many of the Taliban’s long-sought demands. Apart from agreeing to refer to Afghanistan as an “Islamic Republic”, the US proposal also vows to protect “Islamic values” and establish a high council for Islamic jurisprudence to advise on the implementation and interpretation of Islamic laws.
By appearing to accept some of the Taliban’s core demands, the US appears poised “to move”, as Blinken wrote in his letter, “matters more fundamentally and quickly toward a settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.”
This is due largely to the fact that there is very limited appetite in the US for continuing the two-decades-old war. The fact that high-level US military officials have recently met Taliban representatives speaks to the rising reluctance for further fighting even in the US military.
While Kabul may not share Blinken’s urgency, the US’ willingness to internationalizethe peace process shows that the winds may have already fundamentally shifted in Afghanistan.
While a return to stable peace will inevitably take time, an internationally-negotiated ceasefire and subsequent internationally-mediated talks over a new constitution and inclusive political framework could lay a strong foundation for stability and an end to fighting in the war-ravaged nation.