The Afghan Peace Process: Negotiating amongst smoke as a country burns
By Rory Andrews
The violence that tears apart Afghanistan was not born from a simple conflict between two parties, yet the West believes that bi-lateral negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan National Government can bring some level of meaningful and lasting peace.
This piece argues that the West has entirely mishandled the peace process because of a fundamental misunderstanding of Afghan politics, history and society, which has led to a binary view of the war and an overly simplistic view of Afghanistan as a nation. Utilising extensive primary and secondary research from a number of experts in the field, this essay will help demystify the illusion of the war in Afghanistan and the peace process which has come subsequently in order to offer tentative insight into the people, tribes, groups and states which all have a stake in peace in Afghanistan and who should be included in the process.
Drawing together a wide array of perspectives, it is hoped this piece will highlight some of the major stumbling-blocks to peace, and their historical or military lineage, with the hopes that it may help broaden our understanding of why peace has eluded us for so long.
Regardless of the limited progress made during the intra-Afghan peace negotiations, which began on 12th September 2020, and previous dealings between the USA and the Taliban, a bi-lateral peace agreement between the Afghan National Government (ANG) and the Taliban would have limited impact on the lives of Afghanis, and may act only to give credence to those in the West wishing to withdraw troops, NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations), and foreign aid investment (Cordesman, A.H. Oct 2020).
This paper seeks to offer some limited insight to the process and raise concerns over various problems with the current Afghan peace process, ranging from participation, negative outcomes and format. The remit of this paper is intentionally small and omits a great deal which is better discussed by scholars and practitioners far more knowledgeable, experienced and skilled. With this in mind, it is my earnest hope that this paper brings together and explains some of the highest priority stumbling blocks to the peace deal in Afghanistan. The paper will also allude to some of the unforeseen negative impacts that these problems have caused, as well as potential impacts for the future, and in turn offer some tentative pre-emptive action to resolve them.
A word on etymology:
Afghanistan is an incredibly diverse country, with a very troubled history. Authors, politicians, soldiers and theorists have expended reams of paper and millions of words in explanation and discussion. For expediency and simplicity, and for strategic reasons, much of the complexity has been simplified for Western domestic audiences, and thus I feel it important to make note of some key definitions and concepts which shall be used to help navigate the current situation.
Throughout this paper the word ‘Taliban’ (in inverted commas) will be used, similar to the usage by Mike Martin in An Intimate War (Martin, M. 2017 pXXII), to illustrate usage of the term by individuals for personal gain or expediency when describing themselves or others.
Taliban (without inverted commas) will be used when discussing those with official links to the Taliban entity negotiating in Doha, such Hibatullah Akhundzada, the current leader of the Taliban, and Mullah Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar and the acting Taliban leader, to name but a couple.
This distinction, as we shall see, is crucial for understanding the human make-up of Afghanistan, and has indeed been key to the fighting of the war, but may be a more essential consideration during the peace. The distinction of who people are or claim to be, the identities we assign people, their allegiances, intentions and objectives comprise the ‘smoke’, the almost impervious swirling social landscape of Afghanistan.
The Smoke Part I: The Taliban
Negotiating peace with the Taliban has proven to be a complicated and complex arrangement, relying upon good-will and mutual assurances of trust between a myriad of stakeholders, from the warring parties, to neighbouring states and organisations. This is no surprise, peace deals are by their nature complicated, and indeed fraught with dangers, including the risk of a total relapse into violent conflict, and even the possibility of heating up, rather than cooling down the situation.
As with all peace deals, it is only through careful consideration, dialogue, reconciliation, inclusion and compromise that peace can truly be achieved. It is therefore essential that the groups privy to the dialogue are legitimate, and have the authority and ability to truly represent those which they claim to, and have the power and control to abide by and institute the terms of the agreement.
The Taliban do not (and neither does the ANG).
One of the most fatal flaws of the Afghan peace process is that it is founded upon an assumption that isn’t just untrue, but is the mirror image of reality – namely that the Taliban has the power and authority to act like a state actor in bi-lateral negotiations and implement any resultant agreements. The reality stems from the environment in which the Taliban were formed, and how that environment has changed, encouraging their evolution along with it. The fiction is a continuation of the mistaken assessment of the Taliban, a delusionary construction, fabricated by Western military planners in 2001 (Ledwidge, F. 2017)
Although Afghan history, and the formation of the Taliban is well known to many, a brief historical account of their formation and development is helpful to logically address the problems revolving around the peace negotiations.
The Taliban were born out of the oppression and conflict in the religious schools and Madrassas, with the aim of destroying the corrupt, violent and destructive rule of warlords and foreign supported governments (That of Najibullah), and institute Sharia Law across the country (Abdul Hai Mutma’in. 2019).
Throughout the first years of existence, and their rise to power, the leadership managed to astutely recruit powerful tribal figures and militia leaders to the cause or co-opt embattled warlords to align themselves with the Taliban in order to survive (Martin, M. 2014). Swelling the ranks with locals willing to fight for money or security. By September 1996 the Taliban had captured Kabul, and organisationally reflected an unstable patchwork consisting of the Taliban at the centre, led by Mullah Omar and the Military Commission, but with militias, tribal groups, allies and forced accomplices interwoven around the periphery (Giustozzi, A. 2019).
The Taliban’s period in Government did little to solidify or institutionalise a concrete hierarchy which would be recognisable to Western governance scholars, save for replacing many civil servants and government ministers with unqualified Taliban Mullahs or military commanders. They rather relied on relatively fluid and frequently changing personal and tribal agreements alongside and within somewhat institutionalised systems, such as the Military Commission and the Sharia clerics which helped form elements of the judiciary (Strick Van Linschoten, A. and Kuehn, F. (Eds). 2018). The period of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (1996-2001) was also mired by civil war and ethnic conflict, and thus it could be argued that the Taliban played to their diplomatic strength. Rather than fighting they were able to bring the vast majority of the country under their control, albeit sometimes only on paper, through traditional Afghan/Pashtun diplomacy, and with the great help of commanders changing sides. One such example is Rais Baghrani, former ‘Commander of the 93rd Division’ of the Afghan army, who went on to swap sides as the Taliban drew near, becoming one of their star commanders, later reconciling with the Karzai Government in 2005 (Martin, M. 2014).
In the post-9/11 era of Afghanistan the Taliban moved from a civil war era militia-come-government to an insurgency and were forced to evolve rapidly in an increasingly more technologically advanced battle space. With each Counterinsurgency advancement, the Taliban has adapted: be it methods, such as IED (improvised Explosive Devices), to communications, each set-back or casualty has acted as a harsh lesson, forcing the Taliban to adapt. On an organisational level, and the adaption which is most important to us, the structure of the Taliban has evolved in the violent (as David Kilcullen would say) ‘fitness environment’ of post-2001 Afghanistan to reflect and deny the capabilities of the enemy – most notably the West (Kilcullen, D. 2020). Communication interceptions, drone strikes, night raids and the killing of high level commanders have resulted in a very flat and broad structure with various, and often competing, peaks of leadership stemming from various Shuras such as Quetta and Peshawar, or groups such as Hezb-i Islami, which each sources it’s own funding, advisors and international and internal supporters (Farrell, T. 2018). Any form of political organisation working alongside the military ambitions of the Taliban were also shed in favour of military objectives, a factor which many also consider to have hampered the prospects of political reconciliation (Semple, M. 2009).
To conclude this section, the flat and broad Taliban structure, focusing primarily on military and local judicial ambitions, with varying centres of control; fluid and fractious group relations; patronage links and co-opted tribal militias means that although peace negotiations between the Taliban and US and ANG representatives take place, the extent to which the Taliban representatives have control over the loose network of amenable fighting ‘Taliban’ is highly questionable. As Theo Farrell states, despite increasing professionalisation and coordination the situation ‘did not foster state-like command and control’ within the Taliban (Farrell, T.2018). This is further confounded by the splintering of ‘Taliban’ groups, the formation of Jihadi cells, the rise of rival political organisations, and the emergence of groups who have no desire to negotiate with the ‘illegitimate’ Kabul Government and have acted as spoilers to the process. We can thus see that despite, or perhaps even in spite, of a peace deal, violence would ensue, and the lives for many Afghanis would remain largely unchanged.
The Smoke Part II: The Government, The Winners and The Losers
As mentioned above, the ANG also lacks the fundamental aspects necessary to engage in bi-lateral peace negotiations, namely that it too resembles a rudimentary patchwork of groups and individuals, using patronage links, wealth and arms to maintain power, and that in the eyes of many Afghanis, it is merely another corrupt, illegitimate and violent organisation, albeit with Western political and military backing (Fairweather, J. 2014).
The Afghan National Government was created by the in Bonn, Germany, following the ousting the Taliban as a method of handing over control and authority to the Afghan people, as part of the wider state-building operation that took place in the post-invasion years that continues today. It went through several iterations and evolutions under the influence of Western partners, before arriving at the structure and system we have today.
Afghanistan at the time of the invasion however was undergoing immense social and political upheaval and was the setting for a brutal civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance predominantly, but also a wider array of smaller tribal, ethnic and narcotics-based groups. This milieu absorbed and distorted ISAF’s (International Security Assistance Force) intentions, twisting them and abusing them for local needs, much like the Soviets before them (Farrell, T. 2017). Afghanis have for centuries dealt with foreign invaders, and keenly use them to settle disputes over land, livestock, income and tribe. Selling your neighbour out to ISAF as ‘Taliban’ because you desired a segment of his field, or wanted to put up a checkpoint to rob passers-by became common place – making ISAF even more unpopular than it already was (Martin, M. 2014) and severely hampered societal relations.
For expediency and ease, and in a desperate attempt to become acquainted with the human terrain in which they landed, the coalition found regional and provincial power holders whom they could build rapport and entrust with development and security in certain areas of the country. Regrettably this action legitimised certain warlords over others, giving them access to national funding and foreign aid to raise ANP (Afghan National Police) units and local defence militias, which roamed the roads and countryside abusing their position by robbing, raping and destroying the livelihoods of the local population (Abdul Hai Mutma’in. 2019). These factors also increased and encouraged competition for Western support and funding between individuals and their respective backers, causing conflict which often erupted into open warfare, such as the feuding over Sangin Bazaar.
The central government was little better. Elections marred by corruption scandals and militant attacks to decide government positions considered entirely alien to the average Afghan were constantly touted as a benchmark for Western success in the country (Callen, M., Long, J., Berman, E., and Gibson, C. (2010). Those standing in the elections were the old warlords and power brokers of days gone (Mukhopadhyay, D. 2009), with chequered pasts ranging from drug smuggling to militia and Mujahideen fighters and thus represented little physical change, but amounted to successful democratic box ticking exercise for the international community. The syphoning of foreign aid and government assets also became a huge concern, with many ‘ministries’ operating largely in name only. These ministries were unable to implement or engage with anyone outside of the Kabul bubble as ministers and their confidents built lavish villas and funnelled money into foreign bank accounts (McLeod, G. 2016). This intervention into the Afghan political space, and imposition of Western style governance and infrastructure unsurprisingly failed catastrophically as a trust building measure between the Afghan people and those who felt obliged to better them. The lack of trust coupled with severe abuses by what the Afghans saw as a puppet government in Kabul led to many considering the peace talks to be nothing more than theatrics, with the government unable or unwilling to undertake the reforms it had committed to (Cordesman, A.H. Nov 2020).
As Col (Ret) Robert C. Jones states, ‘No group owns the legitimacy high ground’ (Jones, R.C. 2020) and this is incredibly apt. If the West are to be engaged in peace building in Afghanistan, then it must be from a neutral standpoint, assisting in promoting dialogue between as wide a range of actors as possible and encouraging civil participation. Rather than financially propping-up and morally supporting one group, legitimising their actions and turning a blind eye to their infractions, while fighting, chastising or punishing another, the West must simply encourage discourse amongst peoples to help find common ground and encourage compromise.
The reason for this broad-church approach is that aside from the governmental concerns, the very act of creating peace negotiations, and inviting certain representatives or groups, is performative. Peace negotiations produce winners and losers before they even begin (Syed Fazl-e-Haider. 2020), those who are invited to participate, and thus considered legitimate in the eyes of the convenors, can in some cases be considered winners in that they may achieve part of their wider strategic aims (ie. to be recognised on the world stage). This is not necessarily a bad thing, as we have mentioned above, no group can lay sole claim to legitimacy in many cases, and thus bringing them to the table is a good step in the right direction. The problems can arise when we look to the losers, those who are purposely excluded from the negotiations but who consider themselves natural and local power brokers, or at the very least regional stakeholders. In the case of Afghanistan this is a fluid mix of regional, national, provincial and local actors, including neighbouring states, national politicians, provincial ‘strong-men’ and military commanders. Without wide participation and a real desire for peace and prosperity there is a very real risk that tension and conflict could erupt between parties left out of deals, each vying for recognition, power or prestige. The peace negotiations must not just consider the implications of victory or defeat on the battlefield, but also consider the embarrassment, shame and defiance or pride and righteousness caused by the negotiations themselves.
So where do these (somewhat depressing) considerations leave us? They certainly seem to imply that the peace negotiations as they stand will fail, or at the very least that the proposed positive outcomes from such negotiations will either be short lived, localised successes, or were designed with more sinister and short-term intentions in mind.
Firstly, we should be cautious of celebrating the current peace negotiations. Media outlets have gone to great lengths to narrate the negotiations and hail them as a successful conclusion to a dogged and drawn out conflict. However, it may have been complicated and bold to arrange, yet actually merely facilitate a relatively rapid clime down and withdrawal of Western financial and military support in which the West can save face by illustrating that ‘peace’ was negotiated, potentially having disastrous and lethal effects.
As Colonel (Retired) Robert C. Jones states that ‘The terms ending the current insurgency will set the conditions for the insurgency that immediately follows.’ (Jones, R.C. 2020). A fatalistic, but nevertheless resonant statement about the history and trajectory of Afghanistan. Disenfranchised groups, those still reeling from losing out during negotiations, or simply those for whom the Western created political structures and Kabul Government can never be legitimate, may well continue the struggle utilising violence as their means. We must pre-empt this by being inclusive in design of future peace talks, utilising bottom up, provincial, national and international structures to allow participation by partners on all levels who have a stake in Afghan peace – while being cautious of spoilers.
A more inclusive approach, however, may falter against the machinations of the ANG in its current form and composition. Afghanistan deserves peace, and perhaps for negotiations to be successful, the first and foremost priority should be a partial or even wholesale reappraisal of the Afghan Government, and what it and the peace should look like. This would begin with more open and local initiatives, utilising traditional tribal and patronage networks coupled with civil society and political organisations, and the inclusion of a wider range of actors to build a more legitimate, Afghan form of governance, leading to a more sustainable and acceptable peace for Afghanistan and Afghan people.
This may sound optimistic, and indeed and idealistic approach to peace, yet peace negotiations always are idealistic and very rarely end violence outright or indefinitely, however laying the foundations for sustainable and amenable peace, with Afghan led and organised initiatives will be the only road to peace in Afghanistan.
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 By legitimate we mean that they are recognised on some level within Afghan society on an objective level.