The United States overthrew end of 2001 the Taliban regime as a reaction to the 11 September terroristic attacks on New York and Washington – the starting point of the US-led War against Terror. Simultaneously to the fights on the ground, the UN-led process for the establishment of a new democratic government started in Bonn, Germany. Afghan delegates from four different groups, with the Northern Alliance as the most significant fraction, were present at the conference to lay the foundation for stable and peaceful Afghanistan. The Taliban were the only political group that was not on the negotiation table in Bonn. Declared as the supporters of US enemy number one- Osama Bin Laden- the United States rejected to involve the Taliban in the process.
At the end of the conference, the delegates of all four groups agreed on the formation of a new interim government, led by Hamid Karzai. Almost all involved national and international stakeholders believed the Taliban are now part of history and have been eliminated from Afghanistan’s political scene and the battlefield for good- a miscalculation with enormous consequences for Afghanistan and its international partners.
Two decades after the Bonn Conference
Eighteen years after the Bonn conference, the Taliban are controlling around 9 percent of the territory, and up to 40 percent the country’s areas are identified as contested. Today, not only the Eastern and Southern parts of the country but also the previously less contested North suffers from increased insecurity.
Moreover, there are today not only the Taliban but many other terroristic groups, such as ISIS active in Afghanistan, leading to a deterioration of the already volatile security situation of the country. Latest reports from the Afghan media indicate that the Afghan Security Forces, despite their extraordinary moral and will to combat, have more and more difficulties in coping with the situation on the battlefield, linked to increased casualties and loss of territory. Lately, President Ghani himself confirmed that 45,000 security forces had been killed since he had become President in 2014.
Disunity and rivalries within the Afghan government during the last four years, the formation of a strong political opposition and combat fatigue of the Afghan and international forces after almost two decades, are additional factors contributing to insecurity and leading to increased confidence on the insurgents’ side and decrease of the legitimacy of the government.
Besides challenges on the national level, Afghanistan still suffers from the interference of its neighbors, in particular, Pakistan and Iran.
Once an ally of the United States, Pakistan has obtained a more and more a counter-productive role with its active support to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
For an extended period, the international community did not want to accept Pakistan as the main spoiler of peace in Afghanistan and the region. In contrast, the US continued to provide military support to the Pakistan army to fight international terrorism. Pakistan’s establishment was very effective in playing the double role- being a partner that fights and, at the same time, supports international terrorism – and continued to proclaim itself not only as a supporter of the US-led war on terror but also a victim of the insecurity in Afghanistan. This was believed to be the reality, although the Afghan side continuously provided their international partners with evidence of Pakistan’s support to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and Pakistan’s denial of harboring him on Pakistani soil is the best example indicating the country’s real agenda for Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s policy of strategic depth linked to the country’s India-phobia on the one side and Afghanistan’s very productive and close ties with New Delhi are viewed as one of the main reasons for Pakistan’s violent interference in Afghanistan.
Moreover, the dispute over the Durand-Line and trans boundary waters’ issues are other important reasons for Islamabad’s support to the insurgents in Afghanistan. Pakistan wants Afghanistan to be a vassal state under the direct control of its establishment. Looking at the Afghan history, Pakistan should know that Afghans will never accept such a status, but instead will always be ready to maintain balanced and friendly political and economic relations with both- India and Pakistan. Although difficult to believe at the moment, but a change in the mindset and actions of Pakistan’s establishment- the Army and Intelligence Services- will not only increase the prospects of peace in Afghanistan but will also provide new opportunities in the political and economic arena for Pakistan in the region.
Iran is another country with specific interests in Afghanistan. The Islamic Republic has supported from the very beginning Shia political parties and interfered through religious and cultural agendas in the Afghan politics.
Transboundary waters’ issues are another issue between the two neighbors, bearing an enormous conflict potential if not dealt with rationally. Afghanistan, as an upstream country, has two shared basins with Iran- the Helmand and Harrirod river basins. For the Helmand river basin, the two countries have a binding agreement signed in 1973. Considering the power asymmetry between the two countries and the devastating war in Afghanistan over the last four decades hindering a healthy path of development, Iran is not only violating the existing conditions of the Helmand agreement but is also ready to contemplate other options to impose its conditions on Afghanistan. Last year, Farah province bordering Iran fell for a short period into the hands of the Taliban. Afghan officials blamed Iran and said that the Islamic Republic aims to obstruct major dam construction projects currently under implementation.
Afghanistan’s government indicate its readiness to come to an agreement with its western neighbor, where the interests of both countries are anticipated. Using Afghan refugees living in Iran, impeding the construction of water dam projects, as stated by the Afghan side, might be an efficient tool to weaken Afghanistan in the short term, but will not lead to any substantial results for Iran in the long-term. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that Iran pursues a sustainable and cooperative mechanism, contemplating the benefits for both countries.
Without ignoring the achievements in the field of education, health, and freedom of speech, facilitated through generous aid by the international community, Afghanistan is still far from economic self-reliance. According to the World Bank, 39 percent of Afghans are poor, and the poverty rate in rural areas increased within two years – from 2011/2012 to 2012/2013- by 14 percent. Male unemployment increased by three times since 2011/2012, as a result of deterioration of security and withdrawal of international troops. During the last three years, thousands of young Afghans left the country and claimed asylum in European countries. The main reason for them to leave their homeland was the lack of prospects, due to unemployment and insecurity.
Major infrastructure projects that are deemed to be the main pillar for sustainable economic development cannot be implemented due to the aforementioned security situation, combined with a lack of financial means and required transparency. Additional to that, the absence of qualified personnel within governmental institutions is another obstacle to plan and manage these programs effectively. Afghanistan’s Ministry Mines and Petroleum estimates the country’s mineral wealth at $ 3 trillion, but almost none of the resources could be utilized up to now. Moreover, although endowed with vast resources to generate electricity and establish a sustainable water management system, the country still imports more than 75 percent of the country’s available electricity is imported from Central Asia and Iran and has one of the lowest water storage capacities in the world.
The recent progress in the implementation of regional power projects such as CASA1000, TAPI, and TAP are positive steps towards the creation of interdependency through a benefit sharing approach; however, it is still a long path until completion. In specific in the case of the TAPI gas pipeline, there are still a bunch of financial and also political issues to be clarified, before this important regional project can be completed.
Despite an increase in revenue collection in the last four years, without a holistic policy and adequate development projects with a realistic and affordable approach, it will be challenging to achieve economic self-reliance. Air corridors might be an effective short-term, but experts doubt the sustainability of this costly approach. Without a realistic roadmap for the country’s economy, it will be challenging to achieve the proclaimed self-reliance- a status, which bears enormous risks, causing serious dissatisfaction within the society.
Achieving sustainable peace in Afghanistan- Challenges, Opportunities and the way forward
Eighteen years after Bonn conference on Afghanistan, the new US administration under the leadership of President Trump has (a) realized the real role Pakistan was playing during the last two decades and (b) the changing political climate in the region, with Russia and China as active actors in the political arena.
The recent pressure by the United States and the concerns of the two other giants- Russia and China- in regards to the expansion of terroristic groups close to their sphere of influence/ border, has forced Pakistan to bring at least some changes into their policy of supporting the insurgency in Afghanistan. Russia’s fear from ISIS infiltration into Central Asia has diversified the Taliban’s support chain, but also convinced Russia to take a more pro-active role in the region in order to avoid the deterioration of security in Central Asia. China worries the expansion of extremist groups, which can jeopardize the country’s national security in the Xinjiang province and also affect China’s ambitious economic agenda, in particular, the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
It is a matter of fact that without a change in US policy towards Pakistan and the geopolitical and geoeconomic interests of Russia and China, the current negotiations with the Taliban would not be possible. As a consequence of the mentioned change, Pakistan was forced to convince the Taliban to start negotiations with the US government. Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born US diplomat and influential critic of Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan, has been appointed as the US chief negotiator for the peace talks with the Taliban. Several rounds of talks between the US and the Taliban have been conducted in Doha until now, but no tangible results have been achieved up to now.
An attempt to organize the first direct Afghan talks between the Taliban and a joint delegation of Afghan government and politicians in Doha, failed last month. The subsequent “Loya Jirga” on peace proposed the formation of a new joint delegation consisting of members of the Afghan government, political leaders and parties. However, up to now, the government was acting very hesitant and did not indicate any signs in regards to its intention to form such a negotiation team.
After the first meeting with a delegation of Afghan politicians led by the former President Karzai, the Taliban met two weeks ago with almost the same delegation in Moscow. Russia facilitated the talks on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Afghan-Russian diplomatic relations. For the first time, Mullah Abdul Ghani Berader, the deputy leader of the Taliban who was held for a decade in custody by Pakistan, led the Taliban delegation in Moscow.
During the meeting in Moscow, the Taliban still insisted on the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, before even thinking about a ceasefire and direct peace talks with the Afghan government. Russia’s foreign minister, Lavrov, who requested the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, supported this demand.
Another reason for the Taliban’s denial to negotiate with the Afghan government is the fear to delegitimize their so-called “Jihad” by negotiating with a “puppet government.” Although the Afghan ambassador to Russia and the head of the peace council, former Vice-President Khalili, were present on the first the day in of the conference in Moscow, the Taliban rejected them to be part of the negotiation team during the upcoming talks with Afghan politicians.
Important topics, such as international troops’ withdrawal, ceasefire, women’s rights, and the implementation of the Islamic law, were discussed between the two delegations, without any significant results. The only positive aspect of these talks was that both sides agreed upon the continuation of the intra-Afghan negotiations in the future.
Looking at the outcome of this round of negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan delegation and also the US-Taliban negotiations, it can be assumed that a peace agreement with the Taliban will not be achieved soon. At the same time, continuous conferences and meetings between the parties are the only way to keep the hope of peace alive. However, it should be clear to all involved parties that meetings and talks without a clear roadmap and defined goals bear the risk of stalemate or even failure.
The Way Forward
The formation of a broad-based delegation, which includes government’s representatives, political leaders and parties, equipped with the required authority to make decisions, is the only option for conducting productive talks and achieving the set goals. Therefore, both sides – the Afghan government and political leaders and parties- have to agree on a clear mechanism and show the willingness that the national interests of Afghanistan prevail by putting all personal and political difference aside. Continuation of disunity weakens their position and jeopardizes the current opportunity for peace and security in the country. The Taliban are aware of the disunity among Afghan politicians in Kabul and are simply exploiting these weaknesses to strengthening their position.
On the other side, the Taliban must also understand that today’s Afghanistan is not that of 2001. Afghans will not accept a repressive government style and the exclusion of half of the population- the Afghan women. The people in Afghanistan are aware of the current difficulties within the society and shortcomings of the public institutions, thus, will be ready to make compromises in order to achieve a sustainable peace agreement. However, this is only possible if the Taliban also indicate their readiness for compromise and agree upon direct talks with the Afghan government.
A consequence of unnecessary prolongation of the peace talks would result in the continuation of violence and the killing of innocent Afghans.
Another critical aspect to be considered refers to the anxiety of the people. Afghans fear that the United States might agree upon withdrawal from Afghanistan, without the assurance that the achievements of the last two decades are protected. The people of Afghanistan are comparing the situation with that after the Soviet withdrawal and the subsequent civil war that caused the death of thousands of Afghans and destruction of the country’s entire infrastructure. A consequence of the international community’s negligence was that creation of a safe haven for terror groups such as Al-Qaida, resulting in horrible attacks of 11 September. Only terror groups will benefit from a hasty withdrawal, which will have enormous consequences for regional and global security. Besides the lessons from the Soviet withdrawal, the US and its partners should also learn from the devastating terror of the ISIS in Iraq and Syria that was among others a result of a too early and unstructured withdrawal from Iraq.
It can be concluded that peace with the Taliban is possible, but only if all involved Afghan and foreign stakeholders are willing to draft and implement a roadmap that is acceptable to both sides.
A roadmap that not only leads to an agreement but also (a) secures the achievements of the last two decades and (b) supports Afghanistan to pave the way towards political stability and sustainable economic development. The benefits of a peaceful and developed Afghanistan are apparent if we look into the vast potentials for economic cooperation in the region between Central and South Asia. This can be only achieved if all regional and global players see their interest in a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.
Besides the external factors, tensions within Afghanistan will serve the interests of spoilers and weakens the position of all Afghans. Therefore, the Afghan government and politicians should act united and in the interest of the country and realize that only a peaceful Afghanistan will protect their political interests. The Taliban should also accept the new Afghanistan and pursue a solution that is reflecting the interest of Afghans and not that of others. Peaceful co-existence and mutual respect among Afghans is the only way to assure peace and development of the country.
Afghanistan’s international partner have to commit their financial support, focusing on the development of the required infrastructure and human resources that can pave the way to economic self-reliance. Regional countries should also cooperate with Afghanistan and support the realization of important regional projects. The creation of interdependency is a useful tool to ensure peace and stability. Therefore, it is of importance that political consensus is combined with joint economic efforts in order to guarantee peace and stability in the broader region.
A failure of the talks with the Taliban would not have only devastating consequences for Afghanistan and the region, but also facilitate the infiltration of ISIS and other terror groups, a threat to global security with enormous consequences for democracy and human rights- a nightmare that should be avoided by all means.
Alias Wardak is a lecturer and PhD Candidate at the University of Siegen and worked for more than eight years in Afghanistan. He can be followed on Twitter: @AliasWardak