Afghanistan's Long Road to Peace
THE FIRST significant round of negotiations between the Afghan state and the Taliban essentially came to an end on May 21, with the killing by an American drone strike of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour on the Pakistani border with Afghanistan. The Obama administration, it appeared, had abandoned hopes of successful talks with the Taliban in favor of a military-led strategy of decapitating the movement and provoking its fragmentation as a result. Leading figures in the Afghan government and security forces have urged Washington to adopt this strategy.
The death of Mullah Mansour did not fracture the Taliban, as hoped. Its leadership has come together to choose a new titular head, Maulavi Haibatullah Akhunzada, a respected religious figure, with an enhanced role for his deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, successor to his father Jalaluddin as effective leader of the formidable Haqqani network. This leadership would seem to be, if anything, even less pragmatic than that of Mullah Mansour. Meanwhile, Washington has emphasized the Haqqani network’s links to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Afghanistan will likely endure years more of conflict, and the United States will have to retain air power and special-operations forces to prop up the faltering Afghan National Army and to prevent the country from succumbing to its fissiparous tendencies. America will also almost certainly have to intervene repeatedly in Afghan politics in order to prevent political and ethnic rivalries from tearing the state apart, as they have done so often in the past, and—judging by what I saw and heard during recent visits to Afghanistan—as they are quite capable of doing again, even without the Taliban’s help.
The collapse of the peace process has led to further deterioration of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and between Pakistan and the United States. The Afghan government, and most U.S. officials, are convinced that Pakistan was never sincere about the peace process, and that its strategy is based on supporting the Taliban. The Pakistani establishment is convinced that Washington and Kabul were never sincere about the peace process, and that their strategy was to use peace talks to dismember the Taliban and provoke Pakistan into launching a new war against those remnants on its own soil. There is a good deal of truth to both propositions—but not the whole truth. Enough nuances remain in all sides’ positions to accommodate a renewed peace process, though probably not for several years.
Before peace talks can resume, the basic negotiating positions of the Taliban and the Afghan government will have to move a great deal closer together. Given the distance between them at present, there was never a chance of an early agreement; President Ashraf Ghani was foolish to give an impression otherwise. His mismanagement of expectations has led to increased disillusionment and bitterness on the Afghan side. Almost all peace processes have lasted a very long time and have been accompanied by continued fighting as even the more pragmatic elements on both sides seek to improve their bargaining positions.
This does not, however, make such initial talks (and the “track two” informal discussions between nonofficial elements that often run in parallel) pointless. Without them, it is impossible to establish the credibility of the negotiating partners, build basic mutual trust and learn the irreducible “red lines” of both sides. Without this, one cannot know whether there is anything to talk about, or whether the basic aims of the two sides are so utterly opposed that the only outcome can be complete victory for one, or—in deeply ethnically divided societies—partition and the exchange of ethnic populations.
In the case of the Afghan peace process over the past two years, unrealistic expectations of early progress were closely linked to unrealistic expectations in the United States and Pakistan that the other country is willing and able to push its respective clients towards a settlement, and will abandon them or (in the case of Pakistan) turn on them if they fail to obey. In the case of U.S. and Afghan government approaches to Pakistan, these hopes were not accompanied by either pressure or incentives on anything like the scale that would have been necessary to get Islamabad to reverse its long-term strategy and to adopt a position that most Pakistanis would see as acutely unfavorable for Pakistan.
WHAT ARE the basic positions of the Afghan government and the Taliban when it comes to peace? It is not possible to speak with certainty in either case, for the simple reason that neither side has set out its peace terms. The Taliban is also, of course, extremely opaque and not in the habit of giving press conferences in which one can interact with its leaders. Nonetheless, from public statements and private meetings that I have conducted over the past three years with Afghan officials and with figures close to the Taliban, the following would seem to be a reasonably accurate representation of the present positions of President Ghani’s followers and of the more pragmatic elements in the Taliban.