Much to be done before Afghan peace process yields results
While the participants at the recent Geneva Conference on Afghanistan called on all concerned to seize the opportunity for an Afghan-owned and led peace process as the only viable path to ending the long conflict — and President Ashraf Ghani announced the formation of a 12-member negotiating team — there is no indication yet of Taliban readiness to engage in talks with the Western-backed Afghan government.
Instead, the Taliban continues to insist on holding peace talks first with the US to decide a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. Since July, three rounds of Taliban-US talks have been held in Qatar, and US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has expressed a wish to seek a peace deal with the Taliban in the next six months, before the presidential election due in April.
Khalilzad’s optimism apparently isn’t shared by Ghani, who said at the Geneva meeting that Afghanistan’s next presidential election is the key to successful peace negotiations because the Afghans need an elected government with a mandate to ratify and implement any agreement with the Taliban, and also to lead the reconciliation process. He warned that the implementation of any peace deal would take at least five years. This may be too long a period for the long-suffering Afghans and Kabul’s international partners, who would like the peace process to move faster.
The Afghan president also highlighted several principles that must form the backbone of any peace agreement. These include respect for Afghanistan’s constitution and its provisions on women, and an end to foreign interference in his country’s affairs.
Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who has shared power with Ghani since the two bitterly contested the 2014 presidential election, spoke of the need for an exhaustive five-phase peace process. He said this should start with an intra-Afghan dialogue, followed by discussions with Pakistan and the US, then regional actors, the Arab Islamic world, and finally NATO and non-NATO countries. Abdullah didn’t elaborate on how much time his complex plan would take.
The Afghan government’s choice of the 12-person negotiating team — led by the president’s chief of staff Abdul Salam Rahimi — also faced criticism from certain opposition parties and civil society activists. They argued that that the team members are mostly part of the same government that the Taliban has for many years refused to negotiate with. They felt representatives of political parties and civil society, as well as tribal elders, should have been included in the negotiating team. At least one of the 12 named by Ghani, Abdul Hakim Munib, claimed a week after his nomination was announced that he wasn’t even consulted.
There is no doubt the Geneva Conference, co-hosted by Afghanistan and the UN last week, put renewed focus on the stalled Afghan peace process.
There is no doubt the Geneva Conference, co-hosted by Afghanistan and the UN last week, put renewed focus on the stalled Afghan peace process. As the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Tadamichi Yamamoto noted, this was the first international meeting where issues of peace in the country took up such weight. However, most speakers and participants acknowledged that the peace process cannot move forward unless the Taliban agrees to enter into talks with the Afghan government, as the two sides now roughly control or are contesting half of Afghanistan’s territory.
It was also pointed out that the ball was in the Taliban’s court, but there was a realization that the US had moved a step forward by finally accepting the long-standing Taliban demand to engage in direct talks to first settle the timetable of foreign troops’ withdrawal from the war-ravaged country.
The Geneva Conference, attended by delegations from 61 countries and 35 international organizations, was the 13th high-level conference on Afghanistan since 2001, when the US invaded the country in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks with the aim of destroying Al-Qaeda and ousting the Taliban from power. Some of the previous meetings were pledging conferences but, even at the non-pledging Geneva summit, the EU announced $535 million in financial aid.
The conference was meant to assess the progress made by the Afghan government in terms of steering democratic and electoral reforms, improving governance, fighting corruption, and reforming the security sector, and measure the results against the $15.2 billion committed by the international community at the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan in 2016. The Afghan government claimed to have made marked improvement in all sectors. Ghani listed his government’s achievements by pointing out that domestic revenue increased by 70 percent in the period 2014-2017; close to 390 laws were promulgated or amended since 2015; the number of women in the civil service rose from 5 to 16 percent; and the security forces had fought on, defying predictions of collapse, as the commando force was doubled in size and air force tripled.
However, the Geneva participants made it clear that much still needed to be done, including enhancing inclusive economic growth, reducing poverty, creating employment, fighting corruption, empowering women, and improving governance, the rule of law and human rights.
• Rahimullah Yusufzai is a senior political and security analyst in Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998. Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1