As we inch closer to commemorating the twenty year anniversary of the United States’ engagement in Afghanistan, the most recent round of peace talks in Qatar represent only the latest in a decades-long string of American attempts to end the conflict. Over the weekend of the 6th and 7th of March, two communications from American diplomats on the peace process in Afghanistan were leaked to the public and published by Afghanistan’s TOLONews.
These leaks are unusual in the typically opaque process of closed-door meetings, and offer a rare glimpse into the Biden administration’s attempts to steer and accelerate the ongoing peace process. These documents are one of the first concrete signs of the Biden administration’s policy goals in Afghanistan after the unpredictable manoeuvring under Trump’s administration.
Foot on the gas
Both President Trump and President Biden’s approaches signal a desperate sense of urgency to reach a deal which would allow the United States to scale back their military and financial commitment to Afghanistan. The achievement of a deal also comes with a much-desired prize; being the president who was able to end the war and pull the United States out of Afghanistan.
Under President Trump, this desire was manifest in his administration’s superficial attempts at negotiations with the Taliban and the Afghan government. Eventually, when the Taliban refused to include the Afghan government in discussions, the U.S. side did not insist. The administration seemed to hold the view that “Afghans are never going to make peace anyway. Besides, who cares whether they agree or not?”. President Trump’s announcements of troop withdrawals during the discussions also denied American negotiators substantial leverage in the discussions.
Under President Biden, we could expect his approach to be more robust, and the leaked documents indicate this is the case. Nonetheless, they are underscored by much of the same urgency as President Trump’s attempts. The first document leaked exemplifies this; sent from Antony Blinken, the American Secretary of State, to Ashraf Ghani, the President of Afghanistan, it emphasises the importance of accelerated peace talks.
The letter informs President Ghani that the U.S. are immediately pursing high-level diplomatic efforts to speed up peace talks. This includes convening foreign ministers and envoys from key regional and international players in Afghanistan to discuss a unified approach, the rapid scheduling of senior-level meetings of both parties in Turkey to finalise a peace agreement, and proposed roadmap for the peace process. Blinken also notifies Ghani that a full withdrawal of U.S. forces by 1st May is still very much on the table.
Incidentally, the roadmap referred to by Blinken was also leaked during the same weekend. Intended to be a discussion draft of a peace agreement, it includes three sections: the first is on the guiding principles for Afghanistan’s constitution and the future of the Afghan state, the second section is the terms for governing the country during a transitional period and a roadmap for making constitutional changes and addressing security and governance matters; and the third includes terms for a permanent ceasefire.
Peace at the expense of democracy
A few key issues stand out, including the replacing of President Ghani and his government by a transitional peace government represented by a president chosen by both parties, until a new Constitution is adopted and national elections are held.
This is the most obvious sticking point for several reasons. President Ghani is strongly opposed to the formation of a provisional government. He vowed to block its formation and claimed he would only transfer power to his successor at the end of his second term, in 2025. President Ghani insists that after being chosen by the Afghan people through free and fair elections, his power rests on his legitimacy; “the moment that legitimacy is gone, the whole thing implodes”. This raises a common contradiction when working on peace processes; what if peace can only be achieved at the expense of democracy?
The Taliban’s stance also makes it exceedingly difficult to reconcile democratic principles and peace in a roadmap to peace. Whilst under the American roadmap the Taliban could be included in the national parliament or in the interim government, they maintain they are not interested in joining a transitional government, although they claim they would not be opposed to the formation of one. Another sticking point for the Taliban are the elections scheduled to be held after a new Constitution is adopted, which they label as “western interference”.
Nonetheless, the idea of an interim government is also one with difficult associations for many Afghans as they painfully remember the chaos and bloodiness during the interim government of 1992-1996, and fear that the establishment of a new transitional peace government would lead to this scenario repeating.
Long wars take a long time to end
After the Trump administration asked President Ghani to appoint a negotiating team in 2018, two years passed before President Ghani completed the task. His biggest message to his appointed negotiators was that long wars take a long time to end. He drove this home with presentations on persistent conflicts, such as Colombia’s fifty-two-year civil war, as well as Nepal’s ten-year one, and Sri Lanka’s twenty-five-year one. He told them to resist pressure from the Americans or the Taliban, instructing them to not “bring home a bad deal”.
As the Afghan government were rapidly side-lined in talks with the U.S., Afghan government negotiators did not have to worry about bringing home a bad deal. Nonetheless, the Taliban and the United States signed the Doha Agreement in February 2020. It stipulated that all U.S. and other international forces would leave Afghanistan by 1st May 2021. This agreement, still in force, gives the Biden administration a solid deadline; the 1st May, when, in theory, the last 2,500 American troops remaining in Afghanistan must leave.
This explains much of the urgency in Blinken’s letter, as many questions about whether the Afghan state can survive without the presence of Western troops on the ground remain unanswered. This question is also complicated by the relentless increase in assassinations, attacks, and civilian casualties observed since the beginning of peace talks in 2020. The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) noted that civilian casualties increased by 45% in the last months of 2020, as compared to the same period in 2019. In November 2020, Afghanistan saw the highest number of civilian killed and injured since UNAMA began documenting Afghan casualties in 2009.
This strict timeline, and the American domestic pressure of ending the war in Afghanistan, leaves a lot to be done in a very short amount of time. It does certainly not, as President Ghani emphasised, leave much time for Afghanistan’s long war to take a long time to end. With such opposed views and strong grievances in the negotiating parties, a quick and lasting peace agreement is a very hard ask.
Clash of generations
This hard ask was most visible in the intra-Afghan peace talks in 2020; both sides at the negotiating table had lost loved ones or been injured by the other, and a number of Taliban negotiators had been imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay. Khairullah Khairkhwa, a Taliban negotiator, for example, was captured in Pakistan, bound and blindfolded, and flown to Guantánamo Bay prison. He claims he was subject to months of interrogation during which he was handcuffed to chairs for hours, and denied sleep and prompt medical treatment. He was then transferred to house arrest in Qatar in 2014 in a prisoner swap with American soldiers. American observers at the talks noted than the Taliban negotiators that had spent time in Guantánamo often struggled to stay focused.
Another negotiator, on the Afghan government side, was herself attacked weeks before representing the government in negotiations. Fawzia Koofi, the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly and a prominent women’s rights activist, had her right arm shattered in an attack on the car she was travelling in when returning from a funeral. A month later she went on to represent the government in peace talks in Qatar with her arm in a cast.
Her representation as one of the only women in the team of negotiators is significant in illustrating Afghanistan’s new generation of highly educated, committed, and capable women that have emerged since 2001, enjoying democratic elections, free press and expanded rights for women. Koofi, and many other women in this generation, believe that Taliban leaders, especially those imprisoned in Guantánamo, do not understand how much Afghanistan has changed in twenty years.
Women’s rights are a big, and possibly the greatest, point of contention between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Taliban’s track record on women’s rights appear to speak for itself. However, the Taliban now promise greater respect for human rights and women’s rights. It remains to be seen whether this is the Taliban’s genuine position or simply a negotiating tactic.
Koofi’s own account of the negotiations in Doha, as one of the only women amid male negotiators, is not a promising indication of authentic change in the Taliban’s view of women. She recounted how initially Taliban negotiators refused to speak to her. Later, two Taliban seated across from her at lunch asked her to move to another table while refusing to look at her. However, as the negotiations progressed, negotiators on both sides began befriending one another, sometimes walking together through the gardens of the negotiating location in Qatar. Although this could indicate some flexibility in the Taliban’s actual stance, many observers are wary of the Taliban’s true motives and point to a video surfaced in November depicting a Taliban negotiator being welcomed by a group of masked men in a presumed military training camp. Many observers believe they are simply using the talks to stall until U.S. troops depart Afghanistan.
Matter of time
Of course, President Ghani’s assertion that long wars take a long time to end should not necessarily be taken at face value either. By encouraging a long peace process, President Ghani would be prolonging the time he spends in power before definitive constitutional and governance changes are made, and deter the inevitable transfer of power.
The issue is not necessarily time, although it can help, but the establishment of essential principles for negotiations and the future of the Afghan State. President Trump demonstrated that bullying, division, and superficial approaches do not produce results. The Biden administration’s tactic of putting their foot on the gas for an accelerated peace process without knowing the destination is not the answer either. Instead, the principles for negotiations in the peace process should centre on inclusion, building trust, and dialogue between the two parties, and most importantly with the Afghan people, through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process.
Inclusion is absolutely crucial in such a diverse country. Without the inclusion of all Afghans across different ethnic groups, generations, genders, languages, and religions, divisions will continue to fracture the Afghan State. A fully functioning Afghan State within its current boundaries does not and cannot exist without this inclusivity. An invaluable tool to work towards this is dialogue, transparent, honest, and constructive communication between and within groups in Afghanistan. Without this dialogue between and amongst people, Afghans will not be able to rebuild trust in their government. This trust is desperately needed for the rebuilding of Afghanistan as a functioning state.
Inclusion, dialogue, and trust are essential ingredients to lasting, comprehensive, and sustainable peace. They are not the only ingredients, but ones that centre on creating a stable foundation through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process for a future Afghan State to rest upon.