Intra-Afghan Talks Reveal the Long Road Ahead to Peace

“For the first time in 40 years, Afghans will sit together, the government delegation that includes people who are not part of the government as well as four very distinguished women, civil society, political groups will be sitting with an authoritative Taliban delegation to discuss and hopefully come to an agreement on a political roadmap to end the protracted war that Afghanistan has had”.  — Zalmay Khalilzad, US Special Representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, in a special briefing.

After delays since March, intra-Afghan peace talks finally began on September 12 in Doha, Qatar. Though the key actors are the Afghan government and the Taliban, several representatives from important states, including the United States, are also taking part. Events in Doha are some of the most anticipated as they serve as a breakthrough in the stagnancy of decades of conflict in Afghanistan.

After over four decades of war, these intra-Afghan talks are a major turning point. However, it seems like the influential states present have limited interests in this negotiation process. The US wants to relieve itself from the 19-years of engagement that have cost them significant resources. Further, Russia is keen to keep track of extremist influences that can spread regionally while China has support from Pakistan in terms of security and networking. These limited interests have made these states content with their roles of being facilitators while they could have exerted more influence to conduct a more effective negotiation process.

The outcome of these talks will determine the future of Afghanistan as they signify hope for possible peace in the country. It is for this reason that there should be a greater focus on facilitating sustainable peace so that Afghan citizens can pursue and secure their basic rights like freedom of expression; equality for women; educational rights; employment and liveable wages.

These are some of the most basic yet important examples. International non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the Afghan government, Taliban representatives, and other stakeholders to facilitate the peace process through their politico-economic resources and ensure such mechanisms so that Afghan citizens can access their rights.

A peace process can only be effective if it is recognized as valid by the affected people in the concerned region. Lack of grassroots validity not only lessens the effectiveness, but it also jeopardizes the endurance of the agreement. Sooner or later, peace will be threatened and conflict will start again in such a context.

The process of validation allows broader participation and also provides space so that the oppressed and the marginalized groups can be heard. Citizens feel that they are a part of and contribute to the peace process — as well as shaping the future of their country — when their experiences are acknowledged. This proportionately increases their faith in government systems and thus healthy relationships between governance and society can be formed. These relations are also necessary for peace processes as they synthesize harmony.

However, little information has been disseminated to the media and Afghan citizens about the peace talks ongoing in Doha. According to a source, there are also instances of informal meetings happening behind closed doors. This is unfavorable for sustainable peace in general. Information on every step of progress at the negotiations should be shared with the media so that it can reach the citizens in Afghanistan so that they can know how the future of their country is shaping up.

Peace is a process, but it is also a state. The quest to achieve it has still a long way to go, but that does not deny the momentum it has achieved. In order to realize the smoothest road ahead, a transparent policy must be adopted that will facilitate the process of creating trust and the removal of hostilities. This can only lead to mutual understanding between actors once in conflict.

The process of negotiations will then not only be a matter of who wins or loses, but of equal victory for all.

–Nelofer Laskar

US soldier in Afghanistan

What’s Next for the United States in Afghanistan?

On September 12, a day after the 19th anniversary of 9/11, talks between the Taliban and Afghan government began in Doha, Qatar. The historic talks mark the first time that the two parties have engaged in direct conversations with each other in hopes of ending forty years of war in Afghanistan.

It took over a decade for such a diplomatic shift to occur. On February 29, the United States signed an agreement with the Taliban that committed to the withdrawal of its troops within a 14-month deadline. Given that the US toppled the Taliban in 2001 and helped establish a Western-backed government, the role of the US as a third-party mediator is vital for Afghanistan as they act as a mediator between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Concerns of Afghan citizens loom in the background in the case that a political deal for a power-sharing form of government is achieved. More than half of the population lives below the poverty line, leaving more Afghan civilians vulnerable to falling victim to extremist recruitment. A long-term strategy is needed for Afghans to counter the numerous terrorist organizations in the country.

Negotiations have come at a big cost for Afghans, but they are still hopeful that peace is possible.

The War on Terror has cost over 100,000 civilian casualties and stunted the growth of Afghanistan’s economy, leaving millions in poverty and uncertain about the future of their state. On daily basis, an estimated 54 Afghan security forces and 19 civilians have lost their lives, even while engaged in talks with the Taliban. Additionally, over $2 trillion USD has been spent fighting, which has resulted in the deaths of 24,000 American soldiers.

It is important to mention that this is not the Taliban’s first time at the negotiation table nor their first attempt at engaging in peace talks with Afghan authorities. In early attempts to talk with the Taliban in 2011, the former president of Afghanistan Burhanuddin Rabbani (head of the Afghan Peace Council) was assassinated by the Taliban. Two years later, the Taliban and the Afghan government tried again to engage in direct peace talks and even so far as agreeing to meet in Qatar. However, the scheduled meeting was canceled when the Afghan government was angered by the Taliban establishing an office in Doha.

After the US-Taliban agreement reached, 5,000 Taliban prisoners convicted of terrorism, kidnapping, and drug-trafficking offenses were released. Most returned to combat on the frontlines after their release. In addition to the total withdrawal of its troops, the United States agreed to reduce the number of soldiers from 13,000 to 8,600 in 135 days.

Takeaways from the Initial Round of Talks

The Taliban are after power, not any higher purpose. This became clear as they continued to target and attack their fellow Afghan citizens even after they signed an agreement with the US. However, the US military expressed their satisfaction that Taliban attacks in Afghanistan decreased by eighty percent following the agreement made in February. Furthermore, the Taliban’s appointment of Abdul Haqqani as their chief envoy, an influential imam and proponent of the fundamentalist movement, perhaps shows the importance of these discussions to Taliban leadership.

Alternatively, if the Taliban agrees to a ceasefire or any other formal compromises, the structure of the group has already been altered drastically over the past two decades. The argument that the Taliban has become too ‘decentralized’ is invalid as a more accurate way to describe the movement’s modus operandi is that it has broken up into splinter factions that have spread throughout the country. In fact, last year the US conducted the most airstrikes in Afghanistan since 2010 and still the Taliban hold more territory than they did shortly after 9/11. It is uncertain whether the splinter factors or their non-state actor allies will abide by any deal reached in Doha.

Although Taliban attacks have ebbed drastically following the settlement made last spring, the four-month phase of American troop reduction has already been moving ahead of schedule. This has left a power vacuum that has been detrimental for the Afghan National Police Force and the National Security Forces as they are ill-equipped to spearhead counterterrorism operations and manage border security responsibilities to stop fighters crossing over from Pakistan. Moreover, it is noteworthy to mention that deal between the US and the Taliban did not mandate that the insurgent group respect the human rights of Afghan citizens nor did they loosen regulations regarding their treatment of women.

Policy Recommendations for the United States

 Recommended policies going forward are rooted in basic realities learned from previous US foreign policy blunders made in Afghanistan as well as the wider Middle East. They include:

  1. The United States should act as a third-party negotiator to advance Afghan peace settlements. In January, the Brookings Institute published the conclusions of a survey that concluded 72% of the 1,260 people polled favored maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan rather than withdrawing or reducing the number of troops. Despite past American sentiments of not wanting to be involved in intra-state conflicts abroad, the survey shows not only how much ordinary Americans care about the safety of Afghan civilians, but that they recognize the importance of US CVE initiatives in Afghanistan.
  2. Pressure the state-sponsors of terrorism and the regional actors to support the Afghan peace process. Lashkar-e-Taibi and Jaish Muhammed, two of the strongest Islamist groups based in Pakistan, are aligned with the Taliban. Both groups combined have over a thousand members operating with the Taliban in Afghanistan. They also both share a close relationship with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency. It is essential that both state and non-state actors facilitating the Taliban’s improved combat capabilities as well as their sources of financial income be obstructed.
  3. Keep a small presence of forces (as low as 4,000) to monitor post-peace developments while focusing on the East. The presence of the US military should be limited to approximately 4,000 troops to aid Afghanistan post peace settlement. Troop strength can be increased at military bases in North Africa or European countries close to the Mediterranean for logistical ease of military operations in Afghanistan, but this still abandons Afghan military and law enforcement institutions.
  4. Deliver and monitor aid in areas of sustainable development and government reformation post-peace settlement as Afghanistan will continue to rely on foreign aid with proper allocation and evaluations of resources.
  5. Supporting reintegration and de-radicalization programs for the Taliban ex-combatants. Already radicalized individuals possess the capabilities needed to learn a new worldview; this is evident in the several cases of former members of extremist groups successfully de-radicalized across the globe. While this worldview juxtaposes with the Taliban’s stance on Western liberalism, the process of deradicalization can potentially occur in established state-sponsored negotiations and peacefully discussing ideological differences.
  6. Promotion of citizens’ self-agency, improvement of conflict resolution skills, or fostering cooperation within a society does not replace nor nullify the importance of strengthening/bolstering government institutions to achieve good governance. These courses of action should be implemented simultaneously. The US State Department should strengthen its visibility in Afghanistan by increasing the number of Foreign Service Officers. Additionally, the US government should also increase funding to grassroots organizations and international aid agencies.

A long-term strategy balanced with short-term objectives is needed for Afghanistan to be able to counter the numerous terrorist organizations in the country. The significance of this theme is recognized as it is interwoven into our policy analysis and recommendations. Moreover, assisting Afghanistan in achieving political stability and economic prosperity is paramount to both Americans and Afghans.

Ahmad Shah Mohibi is the Founder of Rise to Peace

Ariel Merin is a Research Intern at Rise to Peace

How Will the Intra-Afghan Talks Influence Inclusivity in Afghanistan?

On September 12, representatives from the Afghan government together with Taliban members gathered in Doha, Qatar for intra-Afghan peace talks. These talks were expected to begin in March but were delayed due to a disagreement over a prisoner exchange. At this point in time, it is impossible to say what the outcome of these peace talks will be, neither is that the aim of this piece. Instead, it will focus on a potentially important mechanism and more specifically, inclusivity through civil society.

The Afghan peace process has throughout the years received criticism for not being inclusive. In particular, Afghan women have a history of being excluded from peace talks and political processes, despite their significant involvement in bringing peace and development to Afghanistan. Currently, the Afghan Republic negotiating team includes five women, however, these women cannot be expected to represent all women in Afghanistan, demonstrating why it is important to ensure comprehensive inclusivity throughout the entire process.

Research shows that a mediation process with broad buy-in from society creates better opportunities for a successful implementation phase after a peace agreement has been reached. Civil society builds peace from the bottom up and may serve as a bridge between the population and the stakeholders around the negotiation table. The civil society contributes to building legitimacy for the peace agreement and for the process as a whole.

In Syria, civil society has made important contributions to the intra-Syrian peace talks through the Civil Society Support Room which is a platform where Syrian civil society actors can come together to influence the political process. In Cyprus, civil society plays an important role in resolving problems between the two Cypriot communities, through initiatives such as the Cyprus Dialogue Forum. Moreover, civil society works with local peace committees in Zimbabwe, trauma healing in Bosnia, and peace education in the school curriculum in Côte d’Ivoire; demonstrating the focus on ‘everyday peace’ which is crucial as society moves beyond the peace talks.

The Afghanistan Mechanism for Inclusive Peace (AMIP)

The AMIP came about on the request from the Afghan civil society, who wanted a structured and sustainable mechanism for inclusion, complementing the existing peace process. The mechanism is currently implemented in partnership with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the Folke Bernadotte Academy and it is funded by the European Union through the EU Afghanistan Peace Support Mechanism.

The idea of the AMIP was to provide a pathway from local, cultural and religious leaders, women, youth, and victims across the country, to the negotiation table. In addition, one objective was to protect the gains that the country has made over the past 20 years, including the challenges with regard to women’s rights. The AMIP was formally established in March 2020, after the publication of the “Living Principles”. They were written using key documents from the past three years on peace in Afghanistan and from consultations with over 150 civil society representatives, including 17 Afghan diaspora representatives. They are supposed to serve as a guide for the negotiations teams as well as third parties with regards to essential issues, showing one example of how the AMIP works to feed into the peace talks.

The work of the AMIP includes collecting and analyzing data on public perceptions such as surveys and polling and they work actively with engaging members of marginalized and minority communities. Moreover, they offer several ways of connecting with the mechanism, including consultations, direct contact, a multilingual digital platform, texting and voicemail service and directly through the regional offices with a country-wide reach and a presence in provinces and districts across the country. To ensure inclusivity and that the work is not “Kabul-centric”, the mechanism has seven regional nodes/hubs that connect to 34 provincial networks which in turn connect to the district level.

Is the AMIP the solution?

There is an awareness of the correlation between inclusivity and sustainable peace, and reverting back to civil society’s role in a peace process, one could argue that the AMIP could have a vital impact if implemented in a comprehensive and effective manner. Nevertheless, it is important to note that if the conflict parties are unable to resolve their issues, “civil society inclusion cannot substitute for a process in disarray”.

As a final note, regardless of what happens with the current peace talks, this mechanism could still fill an important function of bringing together and raising the voices of the Afghan people in their quest and preparation for peace.


This 9/11 Anniversary Brings Afghan War to the Forefront

9/11 is undoubtedly a tragic and disturbing act of terrorism on US soil, but it acted as a wake-up call for American policymakers at the same time. It is a logical conclusion that the horrible events of that day would not have happened had the US not walked away from the region once their interests were victorious after a prolonged proxy war against the Soviet Union (1979-1989).

After 19 years of conflict, Afghan negotiators headed to Doha for the intra-Afghan dialogues, an initiative started by the United States as they act as the catalyst between the two warring parties- the Taliban and the Afghan government being the most prominent third-party mediator.

Two days before 9/11, the National Hero of Afghanistan Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda in Takhar-Afghanistan. The legendary fighter who battled the Soviets and later the Taliban, warned months before his death, that a large-scale attack is underway on the US and Europe soil by al-Qaida. Either the US neglected to grasp the full picture of the attack or did not get enough intel to act and prevent the catastrophe.

Since the commencement of the 19-year long War on Terror, the US has played a pivotal role in ending the Afghan conflict, having as many as 100,000 troops stationed there as part of the 2009 surge. Over $2 trillion USD has been spent on infrastructure, counter-terrorism operations, and building the Afghan National Defense Security Forces to reach a 360,000-strong force, as originally envisioned. This combination of nation-building and counterterrorism has cost the US heavily — financially as well as the 2400 American troops who have lost their lives.

Despite the failures to form strong Afghan institutions and violence of the past nearly two decades, tremendous progress has taken place. Today, an estimated 3.5 million Afghan girls are enrolled in school, a stark contrast to the 50,000 that were enrolled during the Taliban’s reign.

The Taliban governed for five years (1996-2001) and instituted barbaric Islamist policies, such as banning girls from school and stoning women to death. In the 1990s, they provided sanctuary to al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network, turning Afghanistan into a safe haven for terrorist groups, seeking ‘an entry to heaven.’ Infamous leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the founder and leader of the Islamic State) used Afghanistan as a strategic transit point. Terror groups used Afghanistan as the logistic headquarters for deadly attacks in Kenya and Tanzania as well as the orchestration of 9/11.

The push from the Trump administration to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, with the latest US-Taliban deal reached earlier this year may result in further destabilization. An exit strategy is not always the best strategy. Important questions arise: Will the Taliban remain loyal to their promises? Will there be a guaranteed agreement that the Taliban will no longer harbor terrorism and plan attacks on US soil?

An exit from Afghanistan would result in the creation of another battleground for terrorism. Similar to the vacuum of power created by a lack of American interest in the early 1990s, parallel circumstances would emerge now. The Taliban were enabled to usurp power and consequently turn the country into a safe haven for Islamist extremism back then and thus it remains imperative that the US understands what is at stake if they decide to completely leave Afghanistan now. The Taliban is estimated to have 60,000 active fighters and control roughly 50-70 percent of Afghan territory. They maintain a feared presence across the entire country, and international support for law and order against them is starting to dwindle.

Additionally, the current global political atmosphere commands that the United States adapt its commitments within Afghanistan and focus greater attention towards the East. China continues its ascendance and an ever-stronger India are taking their places on the world stage. Given that the US rivals in the region, primarily Russia, China, and Iran also compete in the region, another regional power may quickly supplant their former position and advance to this strategic location.

The Taliban are not going to cut ties with al-Qaeda and the Afghan peace process is unexpected to reach a conclusion soon. Both require time and commitment. It is vital that the next US presidential administration retains a small presence of US troops (as low as 4000) in combination with intelligence operators and diplomats to ensure promises are kept over the next few years. As well, these factors are important in the elimination of terror cells. A new US strategy may also focus on the proper allocation of resources to further avoid wasting US taxpayer money and systematic corruption in Afghanistan.

Finally, as the Taliban are making peace, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (ISK, ISP, or Daesh-Khorasan) — continues to gain strength through deadly attacks just as the Taliban remain engaged with the Afghan government. It is imperative to devote attention to their rise and activities in this general analysis. Further IS-K has been regrouping and the radical Taliban fighters who opposed the US-Taliban agreement can create a combination of “Islamic Emirate, Caliphate” as their objective.

Given that the Taliban’s main supply route for both personnel and weapons is through Pakistan, the insurgency group can and will continue to fight as long as they have support and safe-havens in Pakistan. They can do so by blocking foreign fighters and state-sponsors of terrorism in interfering in the Afghan peace talks. Further, they can use their diplomatic expertise to ensure that foreign actors, push the Taliban to join the negotiation table.

A stable Afghanistan benefits the region and protects the United States from any potential 9/11 style attacks in the future.

Ahmad Shah Mohibi is the Founder of Rise to Peace, a Washington-based counter-terrorism organization. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi

NeverForget 9/11

Intra-Afghan Talks: What Does Pakistan Want?

Among the prevalent foreign actors involved in Afghanistan’s peace process, few have as a large of stake as Pakistan. The ascension of General Zia Ul-Haq, who served as Pakistan’s President from 1978-1988, was followed by an assertive foreign policy that sought to protect, and enlarge, Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. Long-standing issues, ranging from territorial disputes across the Durand Line, to Afghanistan’s historically friendly ties with India, had come to define what was, and remains, a testy relationship between Kabul and Islamabad.

Yet, in the backdrop of the Cold War, the opportunity for Pakistan to redefine its interests coincided with the arrival of Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Buttressed by political support from the United States, coupled with financial support from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan served as the primary conduit with the Mujahedin throughout its war with the Soviets.

Through the flow of aid and provisions of training and supplies, Pakistan’s relationship with the Mujahedin evolved beyond the original mission to oust the Afghan government and defeat the Soviets. Instead, Pakistan’s influence increasingly took on an ideological nature, with the political stylings of General Zia’s religious nationalism serving as inspiration for the Taliban and its fundamentalist movement.

The emergence of a Taliban government in Afghanistan represented a rare and significant victory for Pakistan’s sphere of influence, much of which had gradually eroded within South Asia throughout the Cold War. Among other objectives, a pro-Pakistani government in Afghanistan created opportunities to curb India’s influence and even use Afghan territory to provide training, logistical support, and safe haven to militants from Indian Kashmir.

While pressure from the international community may have forced Pakistan into a far more muted relationship with the Taliban, its strategic objectives and interests in Afghanistan has not undergone much change from its original position. For Pakistan, the intra-Afghan talks present an opportunity to shape the post-peace trajectory of Afghanistan. Within this stage of negotiation, Pakistan’s core aims are as follows: Political legitimacy for the Taliban, tempered Indian influence, US approval for a peace agreement, subsequently followed by a very gradual US troop withdrawal.

Having earned plaudits for its efforts to mediate and bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, Pakistan’s next moves will increasingly focus on integrating the Taliban into Afghanistan’s political fabric. Doing so, under a peace agreement, would legitimize the Taliban as a political entity and give Pakistan more flexibility in openly lending its support to pro-Pakistani elements across Afghanistan.

If the Taliban is to accede to a genuine DDR (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration) process, it will likely demand the opportunity to participate politically as a formalized party in all levels of Afghan elections. An alternative route to sustaining the Taliban’s political influence may come in the form of a power-sharing arrangement, where the Taliban embeds itself more deeply into the Afghan state, through the presence of its members in the civil service and key ministries. In either case, such a scenario would be a boon for Pakistan, providing an avenue for which elements of the Taliban would be able to legitimately obtain power, and represent Pakistani interests.

In addition to transitioning the Taliban into a legitimate political entity, Pakistan’s foreign policy objectives remain heavily driven by its animosity with India. Since the Partition of India in 1947, Afghanistan has been a staunch ally of the Indian government, with the Taliban’s brief tenure serving as an anomaly. While it is unlikely to rid Afghanistan of pro-Indian influence, the integration of the Taliban would at the very minimum, modulate India’s influence. Thus, ensuring Afghanistan’s neutrality in any future Indo-Pakistani conflicts would represent a win for Pakistan.

Finally, the principal objective of any forthcoming peace agreement will necessitate the approval of the United States. The US approval would grant Pakistan peace of mind to pursue its interests in Afghanistan openly without fears of punitive sanctions by the US, or additional scrutiny from intergovernmental organizations like the Financial Action Task Force, which is charged with curbing terrorism funding and helps inform the policies of state actors. Having brokered the US-Taliban peace deal in February, Pakistan remains cognizant of America’s fatigue with the war in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, halting a hasty withdrawal by the Americans is critical to Pakistan’s own security concerns across the Durand Line. Fears of resurgent Pashtun nationalism seeping into Pakistan’s borders would pose an endemic threat in its restive northernmost provinces.

The past two years have featured some of the most momentous events in Afghanistan’s peacebuilding process. Having long been beholden to direct and indirect influence by foreign actors, Afghanistan will not only have to balance the interests of its internal parties, but also the interests of external players, like Pakistan’s military and security establishment. In the absence of a peace deal that meets its criteria, Pakistan may instead find itself in favor of the status quo, an outcome that would represent a devastating blow to the prospect of peace in Afghanistan.

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