In the midst of an evidently declining international interest in Afghanistan, achievement of peace in this war-fatigued nation appears to be an elusive, yet a crucial goal. Where re-commitments towards Afghanistan (European Council, 2016) were recently announced at the Brussels Conference, the international military (and financial) withdrawals that are being witnessed ever since the American drawdown (of troops) in 2014 have certainly shaken national and trans-national faith in bringing peace to Afghanistan. But, peace in Afghanistan continues to be sought not only for its sake. It is understood that the achievement of peace in Afghanistan is critical for ensuring security in the regions at whose ‘cross-roads’ it lies as well as that of those nations and peoples that are far away from it.
This realization was echoed when a concerted military effort (NATO, 2015) – International Security Assessment Force (ISAF) – was constituted to rid Afghanistan of the presence of Al Qaeda and its supporter, Taliban. It was also reiterated in the mandate with which United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) was set, which went beyond the narrow definition of peace – which is the cessation of violence – to include nation-building and economic re-development as factors critical for the achievement of sustained, comprehensive peace. (Margesson, 2010)
Ever since the US-led efforts began in Afghanistan, many attempts have been made to negotiate peace for the country. These efforts have differed in their nature, swinging between decisions to not to talk and decisions to talk. Attempts to restore order have come a full circle in Afghanistan, but peace, at large, continues to be out of sight. What could have gone wrong?
This paper argues that peace in Afghanistan, which is critically related to reconciliation between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan, can be achieved only when the ideologies and interests of the former group are not considered ‘immoral and evil.’ (Boyd-Judson, 2005) In giving them their due space, these interests when accommodated and not adjusted to can create room for negotiations. In doing so, we shall begin by highlighting the two most prominent developments that have taken place on Afghanistan’s peace front – Quadrilateral Coordination Group and Peace Deal with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, underlining in turn, that same principle of negotiations in different circumstances can result in different outcomes. It was to be followed by an assessment of how peace talks in Afghanistan have worked on the faulty and simplistic distinction between self-interests and ethical concerns (Boyd-Judson, 2005) and an incorrect episteme, which in turn have resulted in a little breakthrough, making peace in Afghanistan appear as a desirable but elusive golden goose.
Negotiating peace in Afghanistan post-2014: Hit yet miss
An interested international process for negotiating peace in Afghanistan began with the US action against the Taliban in 2001. No stranger to internal conflicts, regional and international rivalries, the Bonn Process of 2001 (United Nations, 2001) was certainly not the first time that peace was being negotiated for this war-torn nation; it had been done many times over in the past and continued to date.
Where the Bonn Process was geared at more than just restoring peace between the warring factions in Afghanistan – what was termed as ‘nation-building’ – in the last two years, attempts have been witnessed in unique to bring the militant groups that are still in conflict with Afghanistan to the table of talks. Taking place at all the possible levels – domestic, regional and international – two of the most prominent developments to have occurred on this front include the efforts made by the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) to get the Taliban to talk to the government of Afghanistan and the signing of the peace deal between the National Unity Government (NUG) and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami (HIG). These two instances, as it would be indicated, are representative of how negotiations, when conducted on the same principles, succeed in one case while falter in another.
With the change of guard in Afghanistan following the behavior of (a rather dubious) Presidential Elections in 2014 (Gall, 2014), the different priorities of the country also underwent a significant transformation. While the country has retraced its steps since then, but Afghanistan’s initial attempts to position itself as an ‘Asian roundabout’ (Ahmed, 2014) and thereby making peace there imperative for the prosperity of the Central and South Asian regions, motivated and informed the creation of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG).
Composed of four countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and USA – the QCG was a direct fit in Afghanistan’s revised scheme of international policies and priorities. The new Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani introduced a ‘five-circle policy’ (Office of the President, 2014) to determine the country’s engagements with the rest of the world. Placing peace at the center of all its trans-national initiatives, this policy put the immediate neighbors of Afghanistan – which include China and Pakistan – in the innermost and thus, high-priority circle. Since the USA, which has been the largest benefactor to Afghanistan continued to hold priority, particularly after the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) (NATO, 2014) it was inevitable to be a part of any arrangement that sought to negotiate peace for this country. And thus, from a combination of these three nations, backed with the intent to initiate talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, the QCG came into existence.
Holding its first meeting in the Pakistani town of Murree in July 2015 (Johnson & Zahra-Malik, 2015) the QCG was hailed as a strategic success. It was reported that leaders from the Taliban were ‘delivered’ to the table of talks and it was also believed that sustained efforts under the QCG could finally give peace a chance in Afghanistan. But, the jubilation and hope did not last long. The first in what was to be a series of setbacks came to the QCG with the confirmation of the death of the Amin-ul-Momineen (leader of the faithful) of the Taliban, Mullah Omar. Both, the authorities in USA and Afghanistan attested to the fact that Mullah Omar had died in the Pakistani town of Karachi in 2013 itself. (Osman, 2015)
Where the QCG-led negotiations were hit in the absence of ‘legitimate’ leadership within the Taliban, the turbulence that was unleashed within this militant group further frittered away the remaining chances of peace. The new leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour – who was later killed in a drone attack in the Pakistani province of Balochistan earlier this year (Al Jazeera, 2016) – was steadfast in his opposition to participating in the peace process. In fact, it was reported that in the midst of all the pressure that was being put by Pakistan – whose Foreign Secretary had acknowledged that they did have an ‘influence’ on the Taliban and that they were present in Pakistan – Mullah Mansour was making efforts to migrate their operational headquarters from Quetta to Helmand in Afghanistan.
Ever since then, the QCG has attempted to bring the elusive Taliban into the folds of the peace process but with little or no success. While Afghanistan is looking for alternatives to get the Taliban on board, the QCG is far from being an aborted mission. In fact, the rationale behind the creation of this group and the posturing it has assumed so far become significant to make a note of for they speak of Afghanistan’s understanding of how it needs to pursue its interest in peace both domestically and with the help (or without) of regional partners.
Having addressed the state of Pakistan as Afghanistan’s ‘brother’ (Scrutton & Roychoudhury, 2011), the message sent by the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai was clear: that Pakistan is the necessary evil needed for ensuring peace in Afghanistan. However, his obvious tilt towards India in the form of Strategic Partnership Agreement (Gupta, 2011) made strategic conversations with Pakistan look improbable if not impossible as such. The current Afghan President upturned these equations by placing Pakistan in the inner-most circle of his five-circle policy while relegating India the outer rings. Akin to Kautilya’s Mandala System (Modelski, 1964) these concentric circles were indicative of Afghanistan’s priorities. It also needs to be noted that while Pakistan’s yearning for greater importance in the Afghan peace process was met as it was included in the group; an increasing interest in Pakistan to push out a rather unyielding Taliban was one of the underlying factors that animated the country’s position on this whole issue. Also, its actions against ‘home-grown’ terrorists under the National Action Plan and its intent to seal its porous border with Afghanistan were the possible other reasons behind Pakistan’s joint involvement. This clearly indicated that negotiations are contingent upon many moods and that Afghanistan changing its track alone was not what made negotiations with Taliban a reality.
Afghanistan’s approach towards the Taliban as (indirectly) highlighted in the QCG negotiations has been to bring them to the table of talks without accepting their pre-conditions. Since the Taliban does not recognize the government of Afghanistan in its current form as legitimate, it is quite unlikely that they would agree to talk on the latter’s term. As a result, it is becoming known that the Afghan government is trying to exploit the leadership crisis and divides within the Taliban to its advantage. By installing categories of ‘reconcilable’ and ‘irreconcilable’ (MoFA, 2016) Taliban, the government of Afghanistan has been deepening the rifts within the militant organization and has created an incentive-punishment policy to drive the peace process.
Where the government of Afghanistan might not have succeeded in baiting the Taliban, it has managed to get another militant organization on the side of peace – Hezb-e-Islami (Gulbuddin). After rounds of negotiations that had faltered in the past, the NUG managed to get what had once been a very notorious, violent organization to give up arms and talk peace. Concluded and ratified the last month, while this deal has been criticized for the amnesty it grants to HIG and its leader Hekmatyar – who is also known as the ‘butcher of Kabul’ – this agreement comes to show that similar principles of negotiations (incentive-punishment), when applied in different circumstances (various national and trans-national moods), could create divergent results. (Saxena, 2016)
It is worth noting that negotiations with the HIG were spoken of even in the QCG proceedings and that they too had similar pre-conditions as those maintained by the Taliban. Where HIG was already a splinter group of the larger Hezb-e-Islami party that had once existed and was violent and militant in the lot of two, what made it possible for it to come on board was the lack of effective trans-national support and diminishing operational capacity. (ibid.)
Afghanistan had already urged HIG to talk or be prepared to face action. In the absence of adequate organizational strength, lack of material and moral support from Pakistan that had once been its biggest benefactor, it made more sense for HIG to talk peace. And, it did without a lot of pre-conditions.
Getting it wrong: Imperial episteme, sovereign decisions, and no solution
The French critical historian Michel Foucault after witnessing public dissent against Shah and subsequent revolution venerated the novelty of the collective “political will” fueled by Islam as an event of great importance, and cautioned that West must deal it with respect.(Foucault, 2005) Later developments and the current turmoil in the region that stretches from Tribal areas of Pakistan on its western front to the streets of Tripoli indicate the failure of the West, especially the United States, to understand the ground reality of possibilities of alternative progressive discourses of history rather than enlightenment rationality. The same has been the case in the context of Afghanistan.
To begin understanding the things those have gone wrong for Afghanistan, at least as far as the internationally ‘supported’ peace process is concerned, it needs to be recognized that the epistemology involved in understanding this nation has been colored by imperial perceptions.(Hopkins, 2008) Here, we are not just talking about the British or Tsarist impressions of Afghanistan dating back to the 18th-19th centuries, but about the current episteme as well that sees this country through the lenses of its choosing.(ibid.) The dominant narratives have all but seen Afghanistan as a land of warring tribes, making peace look unattainable. Furthermore, it is these narratives that have not only determined the acceptable forms of peace in Afghanistan (like Unitary, Republic, Presidential Democracy) but also who this ‘desirable’ peace has to be negotiated with (Reinl, 2008).
And, thus while, historically, Afghanistan has been a feudal and multi-ethnic nation, these social cleavages are not unique to it; they exist just about in the whole of South Asia. These have rather been deepened by the ‘great games.’ (Misdaq, 2006)
The Soviet intervention and subsequent rampant arming of “Mujahedeen,” the holy warriors of Islam, by the West through its regional allies produced a cluster of warlords. In the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, the same warlords fought with each other for power and territory that resulted in a Civil War. Under these circumstances, Taliban emerged from the bottom as an alternative force and established their emirate in 1996 by pushing the warlords to northern Afghanistan. As the name suggests, Taliban were the students that studied Islamic theology in Madrassas throughout Pakistan and Pashtun belt of Afghanistan and most of them were ex-fighters that resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. (Rashid, 2010). After the establishment of the emirate, the Taliban enforced a unique type of Sharia, Islamic legal code, influenced by Pashtun tribal code. The emirate survived till 2001 when after 9/11 United States invaded Afghanistan.
The rationale for the invasion that we usually hear is that Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the ex-anti-Soviet holy warrior funded by the CIA that later started jihad- holy war- against the United States after the deployment of American troops in the holy land of Arabia during first Gulf War and perpetrated the terrorist attacks of 9/11. However, certain facts are either buried or purposely ignored under the mighty propaganda discourses. (ibid.)
Many sources reveal that during the early phase of American-led invasion Taliban regime agreed to hand over Osama to some other Muslim country for trial according to Islamic law as they doubted and despised American legal system as much as America distrusted and disliked legal system established by the Taliban.( McCarthy, R. & Borger, J., 2011) However, as sources further disclose that US official declined any such offer and demanded a “real trial,” and hoped that a moderate Taliban faction would take over. (ibid) Thus, it was the US that created this binary of good Taliban and bad Taliban.
The moderate faction, if there was any, never emerged and later developments indicate that the whole purpose of the invasion changed from hunt for Osama to humanitarian and development program based on the principles of liberal internationalism, or dare we say an inherently neo-conservative agenda fueled by self-deception of civilizational superiority.(Muppidi, 2005) Later, the coalition installed a seemingly democratic government headed and run by most of the warlords and declared Taliban leadership terrorists. Ironically, after many years of war and much bloodshed US forces on the order of US President killed Osama in an air raid in 2011 without a “real trial.”
After all this charade, Afghanistan has a government headed by a weak president, and a divided government sustained on foreign aid and assistance, and as legitimate as earlier pro-Soviet governments and Vichy France, but which still lacks control over much of Afghanistan especially in the Pashtun tribal belt. Even within the streets of fortified Kabul, peace is maintained through iron and blood. Interestingly, the warlords hiding behind and proclaim Western notions of nationalism and democracy allow the practice of similar tribal codes in their respective areas of influence and have been violating human rights, but it is only the Taliban which is in the wrong for they openly challenge the Enlightenment rationality and other ‘moral’ ideas that the West holds dear. (Boyd-Judson, 2005)
After all the misadventures the US has learned one thing that without Taliban no peace in Afghanistan is possible, but the recent killing of the Mullah Mansour have caused a massive setback to the peace process. To be able to solve the crisis of peace in Afghanistan, the US must learn the importance of respect and acceptance. If not from its 15-year long experience in Afghanistan, the West led by the US can learn from the management of the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars which too had witnessed massacres and bloodshed. It would not have been possible for the multi-national crises to end if the at the West has not accepted, embraced and heard all the parties and reached an accord in Dayton which served the interests of all the parties involved, thereby bringing a sustainable closure to a bloody conflict. And as history tells us, the Dayton was not a bad deal.