Understanding Afghanistan’s peace process and what’s at stake?
Yash Arya | 30 Apr 2021
As anguish, despair, and fear again grasped the people around the globe with speculations and rumors making their way into the international circle about the future of Afghanistan, one wonders what has happened now, suicide attacks, car bombs, dying civilians, or something more. No, this time it was just a simple headline that flashed, “Turkey postpones Afghanistan peace summit over Taliban’s no-show,” was enough to cast the shadow of uncertainty again over the future of Afghani citizens marked by decades of continued violence and human rights violation.
To understand the implications of the postponement of Afghanistan’s peace summit in Turkey and what is at stake for the world, we need to understand the various underlying aspects of why Afghanistan is notoriously known as, “Graveyard of Empires.” And what is the present situation there?
“Where”, “What” and “Why”: background of Afghanistan
For those who don’t know, occupying and administering Afghanistan is a herculean task that few empires have ever had a little success with, from Mongols to Mughals and British to Russian, no one has been able to capture the territory completely or govern the “Tribal Afghanis”. American being no exception, despite spending more on Afghanistan than on rebuilding Europe after World War II, little progress has been made with thousands of lives lost and a stalemate with the Taliban.
Why is it that Afghanistan has been notoriously termed as “Graveyard of Empires”? Geographically the physical terrain of Afghanistan makes conquest and rule extremely difficult, exacerbating its tribal tendencies. Afghanistan is landlocked and dominated by the Hindu Kush running through the center, and the Pamir mountains in the east, which are some of the highest and most rugged mountains in the world, therefore, the people of Afghanistan have nowhere to go and can fight their whole lives. Sociologically being at the forefront of various trade and land routes between Iran, Central Asia, and India, Afghanistan has been invaded many times and settled by a plethora of tribes, many mutually hostile to each other and outsiders leading to the prevalence of tribalism in the area and its lawlessness lead to a situation where almost every village or house was built like a fortress. Thus, the society of Afghanistan is structured in such a way that seclusion from outsiders, homogeneity among themselves, and marked tribal skirmishes have been a part of their life that doesn’t tolerate outside intervention.
Going back, it was in 1973, that the monarchy was abolished in Afghanistan but the time of peace was short-lived and soon the country was engaged in civil wars with various Mujahidin factions fighting each other amid a state of anarchy widespread crimes, rapes, and murder. It was only in September 1994, that the Taliban emerged after making huge territorial gains and ultimately took power in Kabul in 1996, and established an emirate there, ruling till 2001. It was only after the 9/11 attack and Taliban refused to hand over Osama-Bin-Laden, that the group was ousted out of power in a military onslaught by American and Western forces and democracy was re-established, with Afghanistan Interim Administration under Hamid Karzai and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) under UN Security Council.
The present scenario: what’s at stake
On 29th February 2020, the US signed a historic peace agreement officially titled the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan with the Taliban to withdraw all foreign soldiers by the end of 2021. Now one may ask who are the Talibani’s and why do we need to reconcile with them? To answer your curiosity, Taliban is a predominantly Pashtun, Islamic fundamentalist group who are religious seminaries preaching a hardline form of Sunni Islam. Yes, you guessed it right they are the ones who shot Malala Yousafzai in 2012, caused destruction of the famous Bamiyan Buddha statues in central Afghanistan despite international outrage,banned television, music and cinema, women’s education and employment and even disapproved of girls aged ten and over going to school.
How Taliban emerged, is an another interesting fact while official records state they emerged in the early 1990s in northern Pakistan following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, this is just one side of the story, many observers and authors state that the movement started way before and also acknowledge Taliban’s dealing with US and European governments, granting them aid and weapons so as to counter to Soviet resistance promoting the cold war ideology of a bipolar world.
Thus this agreement is important because not only it signals an end to the 19-year-old Afghan war after several failed attempts at reconciliation, negotiation, and ending violence but also brings Taliban on the negotiation table, without their participation in the peace talks, civil unrest, waging of wars and loss of innocent lives will continue, further restricting the scope of achieving stability and peace in Afghanistan.
Yet despite the peace talks and negotiations the progress is slow and violence across Afghanistan has risen sharply in recent months since the agreement was signed. Officials estimate that for several months in 2018 as many as thirty to forty ANDSF( Afghan National Defense and Security Force) personnel were killed every day with UN documenting that the civilian casualties exceeded 10,000 for the sixth year in a row and brought the total UN-documented civilian casualties since 2010 to more than 100,000.
These estimates have worried the international community that a hasty withdrawal might trigger a civil war, similar to that after Soviet withdrawal in 1989and subsequent loss of many innocent lives. Many things are at stake, not only the regional and global stability but the future of Afghani citizens, especially the women who face the brunt of the Taliban’s strict enforcement of Sharia law depriving them of their most basic rights, ending of democracy, regress of modernization, radicalization and promoting terrorism.
Many countries are concerned, China believes hardened militant radicals like the Taliban may possess a danger to their Xinjiang province of Uyghur majority, promoting extremism there, while Russia has concerns relating to the Chechnya region, which was once recognized by the Taliban as an independent entity. Meanwhile, India has invested heavily into Afghanistan’s development in recent years, with Afghanistan being a part of its major policy coming back of hardliner Talabani’s may jeopardize all of this, along with promoting terrorism of which Indian is the worst victim. Iran on the other hand considers a rise of Sunni terrorism as a threat to its Shia population. Pakistan’s concerns are legitimate too, coming back of Taliban might start the Pashtun cession movement again and promote internal terrorism.
The road ahead
The United States long envisioned Bush Doctrine, which has defined American foreign policy for the last two decades, as, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” had Afghanistan at the center of this policy, this policy has resulted in US interventions, invasions, and engagement across the middle east ushering in an era of toppled governments, civil wars, political rivalry, and brutality. But with more than 1000$ billion spent and people’s sentiments against waging war in Afghanistan, the aggressive US policy of intervention experienced a modicum of revision under various future leaderships, any attempts at peace, and a reduction of violence in Afghanistan have failed.
There is no denying that The US has a vital interest in preserving the many political, economic, and security gains that have been achieved in Afghanistan since 2001. A resurgence of the insurgency By the Taliban could once again turn the nation into a haven for terrorists. Moreover, internal instability in Afghanistan could have larger regional ramifications with various regional actors like Pakistan, India, Iran, and Russia all competing for influence in Kabul and with the subnational actor.
While many observers believe that the Taliban is willing to inculcate changes and represent itself as a responsible government to preserve its relation in the existing international community along with gaining the popular support of citizens to ensure a peaceful transition, and it also acts as a deterrent to prevent the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan and nearby bordering nations like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Other popular opinions state that the Taliban is resistant to change and stuck to their moral underpinnings, they are not pressed for time unlike the USA, and will wait until their demands are fulfilled along with leveraging for international recognition after which a slow surrender of democracy and a return to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that the group installed and commandeered in Afghanistan from 1996 until losing it to the US invasion in 2001 is on their agenda as they have realized, if not on winning edge they are not on the losing side as well.
However, to ensure a long-lasting peace process and a successful transition from war towards establishing a stable government public participation is the key. In any country, it is the people of that country and the elected representatives of that country who should have the leading voice in deciding their future. One thing is clear, rushed peace which excludes the participation, interests, aspirations, and voice of its people are more likely to fail than those that build a solid foundation giving recognition and consideration to the will of its people, thus the quote, “go slow, to go fast” seems applicable in this scenario. Though one can understand the US government’s rushed decision to leave Afghanistan and find closure to this stalemate situation, even if it means brokering peace with the Taliban, these hasty decisions won’t be fruitful in the long term, It’s not the time for the US government to seem desperate, making Taliban feel privileged and in a position to drive the deal, any peace deal should be only considered after a consensus-based outcome involving all the international and national stakeholders including general public participation. Thus initially, to begin with, making the Taliban agree on a cease-fire agreement would be a good first as for 19 years war has ravaged Afghanistan, at the least, it deserves a considerable time for peacebuilding efforts too.