Is Peace Actually on the Horizon in Afghanistan?

The momentum for peace in Afghanistan is growing. The progress over the last year is far more than many “Afghan hands” imagined.

At present, U.S.-Taliban talks are apparently making progress on addressing U.S. counterterrorism concerns and on U.S. military withdrawal plans and timetables. Though the Taliban have so far refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, a well-publicized informal meeting in Doha, Qatar between Taliban members and representatives from Kabul, including women and government officials in a non-official capacity, is widely seen as a hopeful sign.

After Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent U.S. visit and the resetting of U.S.-Pakistan relations, Islamabad should be expected to use its substantial influence with the Taliban to bring about direct negotiations between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan (though some remain skeptical Pakistan will deliver).

Secretary of State Pompeo called Afghan President Ghani on July 24, and they agreed to accelerate efforts to reach a negotiated end to the war. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dunford and U.S. Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad will explore next steps in Kabul. Khalilzad is discussing with Afghan government officials and civil society representatives the formation of a negotiating team to engage with the Taliban in the reasonable expectation that the latter will agree to talks. Khalilzad plans to meet again with Taliban negotiators in Doha. Still ahead is defining the terms of a potential ceasefire.

There is no question that getting to a peace agreement will be a complex process. The Taliban and Kabul-based Afghan players in and out of government have yet to work through many of the sensitive issues surrounding a peace accord, which include governance, security, and the economy during any transition and in an end state. It will take time to work toward agreed positions within both camps, let alone to hammer out agreements between the Taliban and others. Meanwhile, the fighting and terrorist attacks continue unabated as does the political process in Afghanistan, where presidential elections are slated for the end of September.

The United States has signaled its hope for a framework peace agreement by early September, but that is very optimistic given the sensitivity of the issues to be negotiated and the tensions between holding national elections and proceeding with peace negotiations. Even if a framework were to be agreed upon by early September, fleshing out a fuller peace accord will likely need much more time. The issues to be agreed upon include political transitions, monitoring of compliance, handling of security forces, containment of rejectionist and extremist elements, staffing of official posts, maintenance of basic services, transformation of institutions, and assurance of continued international donor support, among others.

Considering the challenges of maintaining security, containing outbreaks of violence, and dealing with the existence of multiple armed elements under a peace agreement, there will likely be a period during which the government, military, police, and intelligence forces will coexist with Taliban forces. There could well be a residual U.S. military/intelligence presence for some time, and there may need to be an international monitoring force to help manage and keep the transition process on track. Plus, agreements and implementation must include contingencies for handling the local affiliates of ISIS (ISIS-K), Al Qaida, and others who reject a peace agreement. There will also be issues associated with handling the massive illicit criminal networks, where Taliban and non-Taliban elements are trafficking in and profiting from the massive opium and heroin trade.

Connected to security challenges will be how to gradually demobilize and reintegrate fighters, militias, police, and soldiers into non-wartime lives after decades of conflict. How can Afghans best be encouraged to put down their arms and not take them up again? There will be a need for specialized, targeted programs for certain armed individuals, as a recent paper by Creative Associates discusses superbly. Simultaneously, any Afghan government will need to find jobs and alternative activities, such as education and vocational training, for the half million or more young people entering the job market each year in Afghanistan, not to mention the likely millions of refugees and displaced persons returning to parts of Afghanistan. Experts point out that programs to help former fighters and their families need to be crafted in ways that do not generate feelings of resentment and burden among other Afghans in ways that can rekindle conflict. This is not an easy program mix to manage, especially in a very poor country with strong ethnic and political divisions. Patient engagement by the United States and other international players and donors will be needed to nurture and sustain the process.

To maintain its negotiating leverage the United States needs to signal that, while committed to a political settlement, it is not in a rush to withdraw forces and that it has an alternative to a bad peace deal: maintaining a modest military presence indefinitely. The Taliban must not think they can wait the United States out rather than negotiate seriously.

Conducting negotiations on a strict timeline is potentially as problematic as deploying, or removing, troops on a rigid timeline. It is quite possible that Afghan-Afghan talks will break down at key points and will be protracted, as has been the case in many other conflict negotiations around the world.

International participation, including by neighboring countries, and especially Pakistan, will be key to success, helping to fund and guide this process, especially as economic growth will be vital for creating new jobs. Economists believe an end to fighting may spur an economic upturn, but policies and programs that encourage private-sector investment and support transitional job creation will be essential. However, it is not currently clear how much the Taliban understand the need for good programs and policies to support job creation, but some areas look promising. The agriculture sector and related food processing activities are seen by experts as a leading area for growth and job creation. Building infrastructure after so many years of conflict is another prime area for job creation, especially with agreement among the Afghan parties on prioritizing projects. Afghan and international experts agree that it will be vital to mobilize Afghan private capital in an environment that encourages a market-based economy as well as to sustain substantial international support.

The World Bank and other donors are preparing a framework paper on the kind of post-peace agreement aid that will be needed to help peace succeed. These programs will need to be “baked into” the broader understandings around a peace agreement, and donors, including the United States, will need to commit substantial funds to support such programs, especially for the early years after a peace accord.

Any peace agreement will include details on governance, rights, and institutions at the national and local levels. This will require serious negotiations, including in regard to the rights of women, a key issue for donors and many in Afghan civil society. The conduct of local government will be critical, with many arguing that greater local autonomy would help encourage and maintain peace. Judicial reforms and processes are also vital and complicated. One of the greatest weaknesses of the Kabul government has been its inability to deal effectively with corruption and justice, while others fear strict Islamic justice from the Taliban.

Similarly, in any peace accord, how services like education and health are managed and funded will be critical for the perceived legitimacy of the emerging system, as well as for providing jobs and training for Afghanistan’s youthful population.

Assuring reconciliation and reintegration will likely require the use of “transitional justice” mechanisms. After decades of killing and conflict, there are deep wounds that need healing to avoid future fighting. Other countries have used a variety of tools, including truth commissions, peace and justice tribunals, amnesties, reparations, and institutional reforms to alleviate perceived injustices. Afghans will have to sort through such options, ideally with support from international actors who have helped design and implement such arrangements elsewhere. Such programs will be hard to agree on and challenging to implement.

Many Afghans from both sides want peace, but translating that strong desire into a workable agreement which preserves key gains of the last 15 years will be tremendously difficult, and implementing an agreement will take time, patience, problem solving, and resources. As the United States works to encourage an agreement, it also needs to be clear-eyed in its assessment of the costs of war and peace. An accord may well take longer than desired to craft. There may well be unreasonable positions offered and unforeseen actions that delay success.

The United States needs to press toward a peace accord that can be agreed upon by the Afghan parties but the United States must remain flexible enough as to allow for the use of all U.S. tools, including the military, and to accept delays in order to avoid a bad peace agreement or no agreement. The United States also must fully recognize the type of extended engagement required with a peace agreement, especially as substantial U.S. and international disengagement could easily end up being very costly for all parties, including for America’s security. The United States and its international partners, including Afghanistan’s neighbors, will need to sustain their commitment to and investment in peace in Afghanistan with sufficient funds and personnel to nurture an agreement. We should be hopeful, but the United States needs clear thinking, patience, and stern resolve to achieve a good outcome.

Earl Anthony Wayne is a senior adviser (non-resident) with the Project on Prosperity and Development (PPD) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. He served as deputy ambassador in Afghanistan among other posts before leaving the U.S. diplomatic service as a career ambassador.

Richard Olson is a senior associate (non-resident) at CSIS. Previously, he served as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as ambassador to Pakistan before concluding a 34-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Earl Anthony Wayne
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development

Richard Olson

Senior Associate (Non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development