Professor Michael Semple
George Mitchell Institute for Global Peace Justice and Security, Queen’s University, Belfast.
The Taliban publicised the arrival of the movement’s delegation at this week’s Moscow talks. Their on-line postings juxtaposed a photo of Mullah Baradar and his comrades, captioned “the victors”, with a file photo of a worried-looking Hamid Karzai, captioned “the collaborators of the occupiers”. The fact of the Taliban’s attendance of the Moscow conference indicates that the Taliban leadership has indeed embraced dialogue. But it is important to consult the evidence as to whether the movement has also, in any meaningful way, embraced peace. Given that the Taliban are still articulating a narrative based on the ideas of victors, collaborators and occupation, how much progress has the “peace process” actually made?
Any discussion of the peace process should start from an acknowledgement that the war is a grim and daily reality. A steady toll of violent incidents occur around the country, which taken together, constitute the war. For example, in the last week of Ramazan, Daesh was attacking the Taliban in Achin, both the Taliban and Daesh were launching suicide attacks in Kabul, the Taliban were again pushing the government out of the administrative centre of Bala Morghab and the government was reclaiming Deyak district centre in Ghazni and liberating a Taliban jail in Helmand.
All the warring parties – the Taliban, Daesh, the Government of Afghanistan and the United States – have their way of telling the story of this fighting and explaining how it serves their war objectives. The Taliban claim that their violence is helping end a US occupation. The government claims that it is restoring security and protecting sovereignty. The US claims that it is helping a friendly government and defeating international terrorism. And Daesh, somewhat more implausibly, claims that it is fighting to establish a Caliphate. Whatever the progress towards the parties’ declared objectives may be, their resort to violence in pursuit of these objectives has real effects on the lives of combatants and non-combatants alike. This reality of war comprises casualties, displacement, road insecurity, destruction of property, disruption of livelihoods and immiserisation of much of the population. Through these effects, war profoundly shapes life in Afghanistan.
Much has been written about the Afghan peace process over the past year or more. The Taliban’s leadership and Political Commission, the Government of Afghanistan, the US and its Special Envoy Khalilzad, the Afghan High Peace Council, the national politicians and former mujahideen leaders have all declared themselves in favour of peace. In terms of actions, 2018 started with President Ghani’s public offer of peace with the Taliban, followed by the series of ulema conferences and the Eid ceasefire. These actions have since been followed by the multiple rounds of US-Taliban negotiations and attempts at an intra-Afghan dialogue. But, so far, the collective peace effort has had almost no effect on the fighting and reality of life in Afghanistan.
Last year’s ceasefire was of course the exception. Briefly the generals of both sides lost control and Afghans were able to say their Eid prayers and celebrate together. Apart from that, all sides have talked peace, while actually prosecuting the war with renewed vigour. We know that the sight of the different sides talking has stirred hope that the war might end. But the tangible benefits have yet to be seen. Global experience suggests that a peace process must deliver some dividends along the way, if it is to maintain popular confidence and legitimacy.
I have listened carefully to many officials arguing in favour of the current peace process. They typically assert that progress has been made but that more time is required to proceed through dialogue to negotiations and a peace settlement. Even now, governments, development institutions, civil society and experts are thinking ahead to how they will be able to help once a peace settlement has been signed. They acknowledge the lack of tangible benefits so far, but hold out hope that the current peace process will eventually help to transform Afghanistan.
The latest dialogue round in Moscow provides an opportunity for a reality check. Both the Taliban and Kabul delegations included top level political figures, who command immense personal authority. After two days, the only common ground they could find was that everyone wants peace and there is a need to continue dialogue. But it is important to be honest about the differences between the parties on the substantives.
The Kabul delegation, rightly, argued for a ceasefire. The Taliban refused. It seems that the Taliban leadership calculates they can grab more territory and weaken the government by continuing the fighting. But they also worry that their army and its jihadi spirit could rapidly disintegrate if they embraced a ceasefire like that of last year.
As repeatedly flagged up on their website, the Taliban still insist that the US presence in Afghanistan is an occupation. They use this as the basis of their claim that the current fight is a jihad. The Taliban delegation in Moscow inter-acted civilly with their counter-parts from Kabul. However, the implication of the Taliban stand is that they want to purge as a collaborator anyone who has served in government over the past twenty years.
The Taliban delegation also avoided giving any indication of willingness to contemplate participation in a broad-based or power-sharing government. Instead, they returned to the familiar formula that Afghans can work out political arrangements after the completion of US withdrawal. The Taliban delegation’s unwillingness to contemplate a shared political future has rung alarm bells for the senior Kabul politicians participating. By adopting this stance, Mullah Baradar and his team have conveyed the message that the Taliban still believe that they can achieve the restoration of their Emirate. All the effort into signalling openness to dialogue and desire for peace is offset by this fundamental point. The Taliban position in Moscow implied that they seek capitulation rather than a peace settlement.
The current peace process is meant to deliver by achieving a negotiated settlement, signed off by the Taliban leadership. But, in international peace-making, agreement on future government arrangements is generally a fundamental part of any peace settlement. In Afghanistan’s history, the Geneva Accords provided for Soviet troop withdrawal without an agreement on the future of government. In that era, what the mujahideen hoped would be victory instead turned into a civil war. The same risk applies today. Even after months of dialogue and negotiation, the engagement in Moscow suggests that there is still not enough common ground between the leaderships to deliver a settlement strong enough to end the war.
The lack of either short term tangible benefits or a convincing road map towards a national peace settlement does not mean that the Afghan peace process is bound to fail or that the issue can only be settled on the battlefield. Instead, the gulf between the Afghan parties on the issues of national level power and government should be an invitation to innovative thinking. Are there practical ways to progress by harnessing the common ground that does exist between Afghans? There is accumulating research evidence, from the provinces, of war fatigue on all sides, despite Taliban protestations to the contrary. Many of the Taliban’s supporters also doubt the legitimacy of the current stage of the fighting and the claim to be fighting against occupation while almost exclusively killing Afghans. Mounting civilian casualties pose a similar dilemma for the Afghan government.
There are at least three possible areas in which there is scope for a rethink on Afghan peace-making. Firstly, it is time to look at ways of making it difficult for the conflicting parties to sustain their war effort, so that they embrace the idea of political compromise more seriously. Secondly, it is worth asking which of the tasks currently pencilled in for after a peace settlement could usefully be started before. How can the conflict be transformed to improve people’s lives as tangibly as the many ways in which the violence has harmed them? Thirdly, it is worth looking at ways in which local agreements might build peace bottom-up, while a national settlement remains elusive. Whatever the results of such alternative thinking, the key point is that a viable peace strategy must be based on evidence rather than hope.
Professor Michael Semple, George Mitchell Institute for Global Peace Justice and Security, Queen’s University, Belfast. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org