It ain’t necessarily over in Afghanistan

This rupture gives all stakeholders a chance to come together and build a revised peace process around a new structure, writes William Milam

by William Milam September 20, 2019

I wrote a fortnight ago about the dangers of negotiating with the Afghan Taliban, in the context of the news that the US and the Taliban were about to sign an agreement designed to bring peace to Afghanistan, inter alia, by setting out a schedule of withdrawal of US/NATO forces. Two days after that article was published, President Trump disavowed the agreement and set the peace process back to square one. Some readers may wonder whether our Afghan foes and allies might not want to ask about the dangers of negotiating with the US. The only thing I know for sure is that the article enjoyed the shortest shelf life of relevancy of any I have ever written.

And I am fairly sure, also, that one certainty we can take from this sudden and surprising U-turn (even, evidently, to Trump’s closest advisors) is that the everyday practitioners of US diplomacy—those in the trenches fighting and at the tables negotiating as well as those doing the analysis and planning that should support our diplomacy—get up every morning unsure of whether what seemed fundamental US foreign policy yesterday has been reversed in some early morning Tweet, and that they have to start all over again.

Yes, I did not believe we were on the right path to an honourable troop withdrawal, and that signing the agreement would be a mistake, but the abrupt cancellation was the wrong way to go about getting to the right path. President Trump has said often that his approach to diplomacy, as to almost everything else, is to create uncertainty, and he has clearly now created immense uncertainty among our foes, friends, allies as to whether we care about an honourable exit from Afghanistan or may just pick up our marbles and go home leaving the Afghans to fight it out and the region to suffer even more than it has with this eternal civil war.

But first a confession. I erred in one thing I wrote in that article two weeks ago, and I want to come clean although the error did not weaken the point I was trying to make in the article: that the Taliban are not to be trusted in the sort of negotiation that had been undertaken. The error was in my writing that my main objective in my early meetings with the Taliban was to convince them to give up Osama bin Laden for prosecution of the 9/11 crime. That was a careless slip of the pen that most readers, perhaps all, might not have picked up. The words should have been that I met with the Taliban to convince them to give up Osama bin Laden for his pre-9/11 crime, meaning of course for Al Qaeda’s bomb attacks on two US embassies in Africa in 1998. A number of Americans and Africans were killed in those attacks, and bin Laden had been indicted for the crime by the Federal Court in New York. We had sufficient evidence for an indictment.

The structure of the peace process that was derailed by Trump’s abrupt dismissal almost two weeks ago was flawed and therefore dangerous to pursue in the way we did. But the negotiation could have been reworked to build in the necessary protections that most Afghan experts advised. However, this rupture now gives all stakeholders the chance to come together and build a revised peace process around a new structure.

The process we had adopted was not the one we first envisioned. Instead of a process in which the main stakeholders—the Taliban, the Afghan government, the other, engaged and important segments of Afghan civil society, and the US/NATO forces—were somehow all engaged with each other at more or less the same time. In the event, we took on a peace process which seemed to me to almost start backwards. The US negotiated first with the Taliban on a withdrawal schedule in return for guarantees that transnational extremist groups, such as Al Qaeda, extremist organizations that are pledged to attack the West, would not be allowed to return to Afghanistan and some assurance that the Taliban would negotiate the political issue of power sharing with the Afghan government and provide some assurance for the safety of the many vulnerable minorities. We started at this wrong end because the Taliban refused to negotiate with the Afghans until we had agreed to leave. This refusal alone, in my view, threw great doubt on the sincerity of the Taliban promises to carry out their end of the bargain. I saw it, however cynically, as an excuse for the Trump administration to get a negotiation of some sort going and to begin a withdrawal that would enhance its election prospects in November 2020.

I believe that our effort to speed up negotiations and end-run the Taliban’s refusal to parlay with other Afghans signalled to them that the administration was determined to exit the war, and that by negotiating they could move us onto the slippery slope of withdrawal. Despite many expressions that they had changed their strategy, the Taliban never to my knowledge abandoned their publicly expressed objective of “An Islamic Emirate,” one which I suspect strongly they see as looking a good deal like the one they lost through their refusal to deal with Al Qaeda. While the US concluded some time ago that the Afghan civil war could not be won militarily and the solution would have to be found through negotiation, I never saw any proof that the Taliban had come to the same conclusion. Though there was speculation by some involved in seeking to begin a peace process of a “new generation”” of Taliban with a different strategic vision, which involved a negotiated solution and a willingness to share power, when push came to shove, the Taliban refused to join a process that would have led them to accept the legitimacy of the other Afghan stake holders in a process that would lead to sharing power and recognizing basic human rights.

Richard Olson, former US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, published a comprehensive peace plan after he retired 2016 which would consist of three tracks: 1) one in which Afghans, including the Taliban and the government, but not limited to them, would negotiate  the intra-Afghan issues including power sharing, government structure, rights and protections of minorities, etc.; 2) one in which Afghanistan’s neighbours deal with regional issues, because over the past 30 years the Afghan civil war has drawn in and suffered from the interventions of many of them; and 3) one which the US/NATO negotiate their withdrawal with the Taliban and the Afghan government. This was a broad outline that made sense and looked to protect the interests of all the stakeholders.

It is very close, in form, to the concept that emerged from the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the 30 Years War—bringing all stakeholders under the tent to work out their differences and guarantee peace. The Westphalian peace involved hundreds of stakeholders and took five years to complete. Though Afghanistan has far fewer stakeholders, it will be equally complicated. Sooner or later, however, the US will exit, one way or another. The hope has always been to leave an Afghanistan in which there is a good chance of sustainable peace and stability. A peace that emerges from a regional solution, one in which the regional stakeholders have a vested interest in securing, is surely the best way to achieve that.

Here is an opportunity for the regional stakeholders to push for inclusion in the search for a better peace process. For Pakistan, with its large vested interest in a peaceful, stable Afghanistan that holds no threats to its interests, this seems like an opportunity that should not be passed up.

The writer is a diplomat, and is senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

The article appeared in the Friday Times on 20 September 2019

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