The longing for peace in Afghanistan is as old as its wars
As the Taliban and US prepare to sign a landmark peace agreement in Qatar, one is tempted to look back at the mostly unsuccessful past efforts at peacemaking in Afghanistan.
Though the conditions-based Taliban-US deal for withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan in return for Taliban security guarantees is different than previous agreements that were largely aimed at restoring peace and ensuring power-sharing among warring Afghan armed factions, the experiences of the past could make one wiser about what to expect from the latest peace initiative.
Making war and striving for peace are familiar terms and slogans in the context of Afghanistan, which has suffered conflict for over four decades.
Afghan warlords seeking power used the word ‘jihad’ to mobilize Afghans to fight in the name of Islam while politicians tried to win public support by promising to undertake a credible peace process. As the Afghans continued to suffer and became wary of the unending fighting, peace slogans gained popularity and peace jirgas, committees and organizations mushroomed, more so during the days of mujahideen infighting in the 1990s, following the Soviet forces’ withdrawal and fall of the last Afghan communist regime of President Najeebullah. Peace, however, remained elusive.
The longing for peace among Afghans is so widespread that all recent public opinion surveys showed a vast majority supporting peace talks with Taliban. In one survey, nine out of 10 Afghans wanted peace with Taliban.
The yearning for peace was also strong in the past, but warlords often backed by outside powers ensured that the fighting continued as they were benefiting from the war economy.
By not involving directly the main parties to the conflict in negotiations, there will always be the risk of failure and this principle ought to be kept in mind while negotiating fresh peace agreements.
Peacemaking in Afghanistan made world headlines when the Geneva Accords were signed in April 1998 after six years of exhaustive negotiations. The accords facilitated the orderly withdrawal of Soviet forces after failing over their nine year stay to defeat the Afghan mujahideen, backed by US-led Western powers, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries. The biggest flaw of these accords was the lack of a roadmap to establish the future government in Afghanistan. The talks were held in absence of the mujahideen, one of the main parties to the conflict. The accords were indirectly negotiated and signed by the Afghan government and Pakistan with the US and USSR acting largely symbolically as guarantors. By not involving directly the main parties to the conflict in negotiations, there will always be the risk of failure and this principle ought to be kept in mind while negotiating fresh peace agreements.
In Pakistan, the Geneva Accords caused discord between military ruler General Zia ul Haq and his hand-picked Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo when they vied with each other to take credit for the agreement that sealed victory for the Afghan mujahideen and defeat for Soviet Union.
I have vivid memories of the several peace accords made during the 1990s amid high hopes. There were the Peshawar Accord and the Islamabad Accord named after the Pakistani cities where various Afghan mujahideen groups held negotiations with support from Pakistani, Saudi and other officials. Islamabad’s clout in shaping the political set-up in Afghanistan was clearly visible at the time. I also remember referring to the mujahideen-led governments made as a result of these accords as “the Afghan governments made in Peshawar and Islamabad.” The Jalalabad Accord too was concluded around that time without achieving peace.
The Peshawar Accord was negotiated at the sprawling Governor House in Peshawar. As a reporter, I would wait there daily for the negotiators to arrive or leave to get details about the progress in the talks. Finally, on April 25, 1992, the Peshawar Accord was signed and its details shared with us at a press conference attended by the Afghan mujahideen leaders and Pakistan’s then Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. It was a strange, rather unworkable agreement as the weakest mujahideen leader, Sebghatullah Mojadeddi, was to head the interim government for just two months to be followed by a four-month term for Burhanuddin Rabbani. With the help of his powerful defense minister, Ahmad Shah Masood, Rabbani refused to step down on the expiry of his term and manipulated to stay in power for four years. A major shortcoming of the Peshawar Accord was the refusal of Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, an important mujahideen leader, to join the interim government and the absence of the eight Iran-based Afghan Shiite groups from the power-sharing talks.
The subsequent UN-brokered Islamabad Accord signed in March 1993 attempted to bring Hekmatyar into the mujahideen government to end the violent struggle for power by offering him the prime minister’s office. The agreement failed and the civil war intensified even though the signatories were flown to Saudi Arabia where they took oath to abide by it near the holy Ka’aba in Makkah.
The oath in Islam’s holiest city had raised hopes that the agreement would be abided by and peace restored. As this didn’t happen, skepticism continues to haunt any fresh attempt at peacemaking in Afghanistan.
- 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