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How far is Afghanistan from peace with itself?

In a message marking Eid-ul-Adha, the United States’ Special Envoy for Reconciliation in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted, “Eid Mubarak. I hope this is the last Eid where #Afghanistan is at war” [i].

This wish, expressed on July 9 this year, marked the eighth round of talks between the US and the Taliban. Less than two months later, on September 5th a suicide bomb attack in Kabul killed a US serviceman along with ten civilians. Three days later, on September 8th, Khalilzad’s boss, President Trump declared the peace talks ‘dead’[ii].

The sense of optimism that a comprehensive peace deal in Afghanistan was possible has been replaced with dread. As Afghanistan prepares for a presidential election on September 28, continued violence and bloodshed is expected.

Afghans are uneasy and fearful rather than excited about their future. The Taliban have consistently rejected demands for a ceasefire. They continue to defy democratic values and the Afghan constitution.

Afghanistan might be moving closer to another civil war.

The Cruelty of Negotiating the Peace

Peace negotiations are always tough. They are a complex phase in the conflict life-cycle, as advocates for peace find themselves at odds with advocates for justice.

Human rights activists are appalled by the sheer injustice of a process that forces victims of violence to sit down and compromise with the very perpetrators of that violence. Negotiations that extend full diplomatic protocol to those perpetrators adds to the sense of indignity. Mediators and conflict resolution experts, favouring practicality over idealism, view the process through the cold lens of ‘real politick,’ and will negotiate power sharing agreements with those that have long been seen as adversaries of peace and democracy , as long as it guarantees a ceasefire and settlement.

Afghans contemplating peace with the Taliban today, eighteen years after they were ousted from power, have even more to reckon with than just mistrust.

The Brains Behind the Talks

Since September 11, 20o1, Khalilzad has been among the faces of US-Afghan engagement; in February 2019, he was appointed US Ambassador and Special Envoy for Afghan Reconciliation. Arguably one of the most trusted US diplomats, Khalilzad hoped to wrap up almost two decades of  war in six months of negotiations. At each round of talks, he argued passionately that the process was working, bringing Afghanistan a step closer to peace each time. Dr Marvin Weinbaum, an expert on South Asia, viewed Khalilzad’s stance as a job hazard: he must repeatedly proclaim ‘we can do it’ until it becomes apparent ‘we cannot’.

Khalilzad’s mission enjoyed the support of both the Taliban and the Trump administration–with both parties intent on achieving the goal of a withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. To that end, Khalilzad was hoping to deliver a delicately-balanced act of diplomacy: a peace agreement facilitating the withdrawal of US troops, that somehow did not jeopardize the advances Afghanistan has made since 2001.

Why, after eighteen years of war, were peace talks finally taking place anyway?

Peace Negotiations in Afghanistan: Why Now?

Peace agreements tend to be elusive until all protagonists realize that no single party can win it all. In Afghanistan, this realization coincided with war fatigue in America. The American public is no longer interested in Afghanistan; a 2018 Pentagon press briefing on Afghanistan was attended by just four journalists[iii].

On June 27, 2018, in a Pentagon Press briefing on Afghanistan, there were literally four journalists (including the one who took this photo).

Yet again, the fickleness of short attention spans is on display: a war launched in response to furious public outcry is slowly coming to an end due to the loss of the very same public’s interest.

Then there is the lack of clarity in the Afghanistan mission. If the mission was to remove the threat of attacks on the US homeland, this was achieved long ago[iv]. But, if the mission was to build a functioning democratic state in Afghanistan, that remains elusive. In the current political climate, the sustained American interest and long-term planning this requires simply does not exist. The absence of a model of peaceful democracy in Afghanistan only complicates the effort in this regard.

Towards the end of the Bush-era and throughout Obama’s presidency, US leadership has been frustrated by the Taliban’s resilience and the unrelenting pressure they have subjected US troops to. American politicians are increasingly convinced that theirs is an unwelcome foreign presence, and that the Taliban are an organic and natural force in Afghanistan.

The ground has continued to erode since Obama promised to ‘bring the boys home’, paving the path to President Trump’s withdrawal plan. The mini-surge in the US presence in Afghanistan during the Obama era, conducted as a compromise between hawks and doves in that administration, served only as a temporary blip. Today, all twenty Democratic candidates along with Republican President Trump appear united in their determination to exit Afghanistan.

Sensing that complete withdrawal is only a matter of time, the Taliban insisted on direct talks with the US forcing it to sideline Afghanistan’s ‘foreign puppet’ government, effectively making a mockery of any ‘peace agreement’[v]. A meeting between the Taliban and the US President, unthinkable even a few months ago, was very much on the cards. Until it was called off, following the death of yet another American soldier. For a time it seemed there might have been no shame in talking to the Taliban.

As Afghanistan stumbles towards a critical, but potentially chaotic election, the challenges of the-peace-agreement-that-might-have-been are still worth examining.

The sticking points

What did the stakeholders want?

The Taliban wanted a complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. The Americans wanted guarantees from the Taliban that it would not use Afghanistan to launch attacks on America or its assets abroad.

Afghans want an end to the fighting–a permanent ceasefire. And everyone but the Taliban wanted an intra-Afghan dialogue that could result in reconciliation, constitutional reform, and a decentralized political framework and roadmap that can be agreed among all Afghan factions.

The withdrawal of US and NATO troops had been mutually agreed despite the complexity of technical details. The Taliban wanted withdrawal to start as early as September and were pushing for a complete withdrawal as a condition for engaging with Afghan stakeholders. Senior experts, however, wanted the US to use the promise of withdrawal as a bargaining chip to secure a complete ceasefire and to force the Taliban to take Afghan stakeholders seriously.

Afghans meanwhile are tired of four decades of bombing, explosions, and fighting, are desperate for a ceasefire. But violence is the Taliban’s biggest bargaining chip and they have shown no signs they are ready to give it up. Persistent attacks on schools, politicians, police and military institutions make them a force, albeit a weakened one, that the US must contend with seriously. Secure in the knowledge that time was on their side they continued to claim major attacks in Kabul and interior Afghanistan in the midst of negotiating the peace plan–perhaps hoping to add a sense of urgency.

For now, their plans seem to have backfired but the cost will be borne by ordinary Afghans.

Finally, although the Taliban’s ability to unleash violence is beyond dispute, their ability to stop it, is questionable. A particularly discouraging feature of security in Afghanistan is that there are too many spoilers: too many parties with conflicting interests and far too much power. Though there is debate about its degree, Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban is not disputed. However, many Afghans suspect that over the years, the Taliban itself has fragmented into factions that have found patronage with other foreign powers, including Tehran and Moscow. There are also suspicions as to how much control the Taliban leadership really has on its foot soldiers. Those who have been resilient and kept the insurgency alive for nearly two decades will not necessarily be in a hurry to abandon their Kalashnikovs. Indeed, those motivated by ideological fervour, may well be attracted to other militant, extremist platforms such as ISIS.

A complete and durable ceasefire agreement may never have been in the Taliban’s power to agree–irrespective of any guarantees they may have provided.

This was one of the key reasons many experts wanted to delay full withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan.

Afghan Stakeholders

So far we have focused on what the US and the Taliban wanted out of these discussions.

Though a tiny minority, the Taliban have managed to create a perception of themselves as a united, disciplined, organized entity, while simultaneously painting their indigenous Afghan detractors as a disjointed, disorganized, chaotic and corrupt amalgam of quarreling actors; individuals shorn of their institutional authorities.

But this ignores important stakeholders such as Afghan politicians, anti-Taliban militia leaders in the rural areas, female NGO leaders, and wider Afghan civil society. The Taliban have consistently refused to talk to their Afghan sisters and brothers, as well as the institutions and the government. Under pressure from the US, they expressed a willingness to meet government officials and politicians, but only in their individual capacity.

Thus, the biggest gap in Afghanistan may actually be the one between the Taliban and their fellow countrymen.

A brief look at the deep divisions in Afghan society underlines the urgent need for nation-building and peace-building processes. Even if the Taliban were removed from any strategic calculations, these divisions are deep enough to weaken the very foundation of Afghanistan as an independent and viable state. With the Taliban in the equation, these questions only gain more prominence.

The Other: Afghan Women

One of the most important questions the Taliban will struggle to address is that of the status of women. Accounting for just under 50% of Afghanistan’s population, women suffered disproportionately under the Taliban and are likely to challenge the Taliban on diplomatic, moral, and humanitarian grounds. Despite their still low standing in Afghanistan’s political hierarchy, they have found their voice in the booming Afghan media, the international development sector, and Afghan diaspora communities in Europe and North America. While the Taliban have hitherto refused to meet Afghan women, there have been hints of improvement: the July 2019 US-Taliban negotiations were paused for a two-day, intra-Afghan dialogue which included ten women. Holding photographs of the women and children killed and injured in the latest Taliban attack on a school in Ghazni province, these brave women asked some of the toughest questions.

The Taliban seemed to be promising to facilitate women’s social participation albeit “within the framework of Islamic values”. Palwasha Kakar of the United States Institute of Peace has rightly demanded clarification of the term ‘Islamic values’[vi]. Given the gulf between the Taliban’s version of Islam and that of the opposition, such vague terms have the potential to become major sources of conflict in the future.

Ghizaal Harees, an expert on Afghanistan’s constitution, says there is no proof that the Taliban have softened their stance against women. A revised constitution issued by the Taliban 2005 revealed no solid improvement on the version it adhered to in the 1990s[vii]. A female participant of the Intra-Afghan dialogue speaking at Georgetown University (US) in July 2019, revealed that a Taliban diplomat had jokingly urged women not to give them a hard time before the talks were launched. The Taliban may be conscious of their weakness on this front but what they will choose to do about it remains to be seen.

A Question of Language: Dari vs Pushto

Linguistic tensions in the form of Dari vs Pushto pre-date the Taliban and continue to simmer. Afghanistan has historically kept them in check by wisely accommodating both Pushto and Dari as national and official languages. However, an increasingly fractious ethnic divide and the long-running cycle of war and violence, mean these tensions carry the potential to jeopardize the fragile state.

Dari, predominantly the language of the Tajiks and Hazaras, has historically been Afghanistan’s official language; however, the political dominance of Pashtuns in Kabul empowered Pushto as an equal if not alternative. Under the Taliban, Pushto was designated the sole official and national language thereby immediately exacerbating existing tensions.

This has political ramifications too.

Dari and Pushto versions of declarations following the dialogue, though legally non-binding, carried different clauses. Observers at the Free Europe Radio noted that the ‘unofficial [English] translation’, released on July 9 by Khalilzad declared that the Taliban and intra-Afghan delegates assured Afghan women their fundamental rights in ‘political, social, economic, educational, [and] cultural affairs … in accordance with the values of Islam.’

The Pushto, and therefore the Taliban version, referred to a withdrawal of foreign troops but did not include any references to guarantees for women’s rights; the Dari version referred to the latter making no mention of the former. [viii]

A Question of Faith: Religious and Ethnic Minorities

The Taliban’s stance on religious and ethnic minorities is equally ambiguous. The initial statement made no mention of them and only appeared in the final version due to the dogged determination of Anarkali Kaur Honoryar, a former female MP representing the Sikh (and Hindu) minority at the dialogue who insisted the Taliban clarify their stance on the future status of religious minorities.

While both the Taliban and the civil society representatives were inclined to defer this question to the next round of discussions, Honoryar ensured that the final statement included a clause on respecting and protecting religious and ethnic minorities. This impressive achievement still leaves unattended grey zones such as the status of non-Sunni, non-Hanafi sectarian minorities which include a sizable population of Shia Twelver Hazaras and Ismailis. Hazaras have historically been massacred and socially marginalized; since the Taliban’s ouster they have made full use of the breathing space this has opened up, voraciously educating themselves to emerge as important actors building a civil, democratic, and inclusive Afghanistan. Some estimates put female literacy rates amongst the Hazaras above the overall national average for boys. Given the massacres they have suffered at the hands of the Taliban in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Yakawlang, and Bamian as well as other rural districts, they are the most vocal opposition to the Taliban[ix].

The Afghan Youth: Changing Perceptions

Finally, it is not only ethnic, sectarian, and linguistic identities that are at odds with the Taliban. There is also a yawning generation gap. Half of all Afghans living today were born after 9/11.  Most of this Afghan youth, especially in the urban centers, is deeply opposed to the Taliban’s version of Islam and therefore represents a source of potential conflict in the days to come. Things have changed drastically since the 1990s, and one of the biggest challenges that the Taliban is at risk of miscalculating, is the strength and resilience of Afghan youth–especially in its largest cities.

Afghanistan is one of the youngest nations in the world. They have not lived through the violent civil war which convinced their parents’ generation to pin their hopes on the Taliban’s ability to end it. These fourteen million young Afghans have grown up with modern schooling and higher education opportunities; had access to games and entertainment; networked with relatives and friends from around the world; interacted with international civil society and been exposed to a relatively free Afghan media, as well as international media. They will not be so easy for the Taliban to control.

On the other side of the divide, those currently negotiating on behalf of the Taliban represent the third generation of the group’s leadership. After 2001, the families of many of Taliban fled to the Gulf region where they are now comfortably settled. Having paid the price for their political inflexibility and having been exposed to a wider array of cultural influences, seems to have made them more willing to strike a deal and make compromises.

The real test will come once the US troops have left. To what extent will the conciliatory overtures of the Taliban prove to be sincere will become apparent when the time comes to participate in a democratic system, and to abide by an agreed constitution. Considering the fact that they have previously regarded elections and the rules of democracy as being un-Islamic, there is real concern that camera-friendly events such as the intra-Afghan Dialogue are mere ploys to buy time and that the Taliban might revert to form, seeking to dictate the rules of the game as soon as the withdrawal is complete.

Elections Without Peace

Despite Khalilzad’s best efforts to persuade the Taliban to abandon violence and engage constructively with their Afghan counterparts, the peace process seems to be over, at least for now. All eyes are instead firmly on the elections scheduled for September 28, 2019 when Afghans will once again seek to walk a delicate path to peace. They have a long way to go as they struggle to sort out their differences and carve out ways to compromise and collaborate.

How will the Taliban react to these elections and the emerging winners? What if elections don’t go smoothly and fall short of a clear and convincing victor? What will the deadlock lead to? Is an interim government the only way forward? Would such a set up include the Taliban? Will US troops remain in place to ensure political stability? How will ethnic and sectarian minorities, students, and women collaborate to safeguard their liberties? How will Afghanistan’s neighbors define future rules of engagement?

These are crucially important questions and they are key to Afghanistan’s survival as a viable, democratic country.

Zalmay Khalilzad was attempting to put in place a future guarantor for stability in the form of a peace agreement. In the end, rather than serving as an indicator of progress, the intra-Afghan Dialogue served more as a measure of how far Afghans are from peace with themselves[x].




[i] Zalmay Khalilzad (@US4AfghanPeace), “Eid Mubarak. I hope this is the last Eid where Afghanistan is at war…” Twitter tweet August 11, 2019

[ii] Peter Baker, Mujib Mashal, Michael Crowley, “How Trump’s plan to secretly meet with the Taliban, came together and fell apart,” New York Times, September 8, 2019.

[iii] Idrees Ali (@idreesali114), Twitter, June 27, 2018,

[iv] Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus, Can Intervention Work? (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011), 28.

[v] Associated Press, “Taliban reject talk of direct negotiations with Afghanistan government”, Military Times, July 28, 2019.

[vi] Palwasha Kakar’s talk to the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security in Georgetown University on July 12, 2019

[vii] Ghizaal Harees’s talk to the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security in Georgetown University on July 12, 2019

[viii] RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan, “Taliban, Afghan Delegates Agree On Road Map To Peace — But Texts Differ”, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, July 09, 2019

[ix] Frud Bezhan, “Afghan Taliban Wants What It Hasn’t Been Able To Hold: Hazara Regions”, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, November 13, 2018

[x] Zarif Nazar, “U.S. Envoy Declares ‘A Lot Of Progress’ In Taliban Peace Talks” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, July 08, 2019

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