AAU Analysis Board
Efforts, including the discussions over prisoners’ exchange, for the possible resumption of the US-Taliban peace talks, are underway. This comes months after the nine-round process stalled by the US president in its final stages of reaching a peace deal. The direct talks between the US diplomats and Taliban representatives were referred to, by both negotiating teams, as an effort to bring the four decades-long war in Afghanistan to an end. These rounds of talks were a successful experience of initiating a peace process that took issues to a negotiation table that cost lives on the battlefield. But these talks, even before they were called off, appeared incapable of leading to a technically correct peacemaking process that could settle the decades-long war in Afghanistan. The process ignored the crucial role of local actors and did not lead to the inclusion of those going to live with the outcomes of such a process in Afghanistan. Local ownership of the process, positive peace in prospect and making opportunities for addressing the flaws of the post-Taliban peacebuilding era could rescue this much-desired peace talks from resulting in a standstill.
Both scholars and practitioners believe that a more meaningful peace process with ‘a modest objective of maintaining a ceasefire’ must address a broader range of activities and goals. Although Afghans are ambitiously supportive of any peace initiative, the majority of them were not hopeful that US-Taliban – minus Afghan government – process will produce the results they wanted. One main reason was that the process neglected the role of local ownership, demands of Afghans for more durable – positive – peace and the will to address the flaws in the peacebuilding process, especially in the first years of the longest peace and sate-building mission of international community in the post-Taliban era in Afghanistan.
The nine-round US-Taliban peace-talks failed to result in intra-Afghan dialogue at a stage it was needed, especially for the survival and success of these negotiations. Researchers argue that the degree of control of domestic actors over domestic political processes or ‘local ownership’ shows that peace processes “embraced by other than those who have to live with it are likely to fail”. However, the researcher argues that the lack of full commitment to peacebuilding could make local ownership inherently problematic in peacebuilding contexts. Both sides in the nine-rounds US-Taliban negotiations failed to engage a justified representation of Afghans. Taliban declined to talk to the Afghan government. The US diplomats, mainly because of the character of their chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, also failed to keep the Afghan government, especially the president interested and involved. Subsequently, the government and almost all elites and civil society lost interest in these negotiations and even encourage them to prefer keeping the status quo. Media reports suggested that they stayed focused on preserving and promoting the republican values, mainly the presidential election. This also persuaded authorities in Washington that not halting the process might lead to backtracking of the last two decades state-building developments in Afghanistan.
The US-Taliban negotiations did not reflect the main demands of Afghans, including the need for positive peace. Afghans need a process that can remove military violence but lead to more lasting and durable peace and prosperity. In Pashto and Dari the word ‘peace’ or ‘Sola or Solh’, as its Arabic equivalent ‘Salam’, means not only the absence of war but harmony, well-being, and wholeness. Violence not only physically hurts Afghans but the structural violence in Afghanistan including, hunger, psychological alienation, influenced the structures of social, cultural and economic institutions, mainly because of the direct violence in the country. Barash & Webel argue in their work ‘the promise of peace, the problem of war’ that “attention to negative peace, or simple absence of war, usually results in a diplomatic emphasis on peacekeeping or peace restoring… By contrast, positive peace focuses on peacebuilding…”. Afghanistan needs efforts for building institutions for positive peace after nearly two decades of peacekeeping or peace restoring missions.
Afghanistan needs a process that not only avoids mistakes of state-building and peace-building in the post-Taliban era but undoes most of those flaws. That can be only achieved with a more patient and strategic inclusive approach towards the process. The Taliban is the biggest challenge for the legitimacy of the government. The group has constantly expanded its activities since 2004, especially, when in 2005 Jalaluddin Haqqani’s armed men switched sides from the government to the Taliban. Taliban fighters are now openly active in 70% of Afghanistan, a BBC study has suggested in 2018. If Afghanistan wants to continue walking on the development path, peace with the Taliban and consensus on peace is vital because the current insecurity might weaken the government to an extent that it will give up the ability to claim republican representation.
American scholar Frederick Starr argued that the post-Taliban nation-building mission in Afghanistan, overwhelmingly supported by the international community, predominantly focused on territorial integrity and sovereignty of Afghanistan and neglected the importance of legitimacy. He argues that the international community feared the country might fall apart because they saw the country as a ‘patchwork of ethnicities’ and more vulnerable after decades of war. They believed that sovereignty and territorial integrity itself will be followed by identity and legitimacy. However, for Afghans the priority in the new era of nation-building was legitimacy. Starr argued that the Afghan elites wanted the population in different parts of Afghanistan to voluntarily accept that a unitary state in Kabul worth their support. But in reality, a major part of the society remained excluded from decisions on the fundamental state-building processes that led to the new constitutional order. Flaws in the state-building process led to today’s low level of legitimacy, and unless the mistakes are avoided and the flaws are addressed, its repetition will inflect further setbacks.
Recent diplomatic developments around peace talks suggest that all involved parties continually insist on a peaceful solution for the longest US war mission in Afghanistan. Moreover, the conditions on all involved parties show that peace negotiations are preeminent than any other time. Lessons learned from the nine-round direct US-Taliban talks will help the possible resumption be more inclusive and avoid the repetition of mistakes of the first rounds.
Neglecting local ownership that would lead to intra-Afghan dialogue and no prospect for positive peace were the main flaws of the nine-round direct talks between the US and the Taliban. Likewise, the inability of these talks raised fears of a repetition of post-Taliban state-building flaws. Both of these concerns were suggesting that insisting on any US-Taliban peace talks without the appropriate role for local actors, including the Government would not lead to durable peace in Afghanistan.
However, the Taliban lately showed more will towards further engagement with local actors. On the other hand, halting the direct peace talks before the Afghan election also showed that the US was considering the legitimacy problem in Kabul as a clear indication of local ownership importance. Now the indications of a resumption of negotiations seem more promising, and it is widely expected the resumption of these talks will create the opportunity for a durable and inclusive peace that Afghanistan needed for a long time.