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Afghanistan: Peace in Our Time?

February 28, 2018

Afghanistan: Peace in Our Time?

Summary: Several uncoordinated but interesting peace overtures coming from Taliban, the US, an academic expert and the Afghan government.  It doesn’t necessarily mean anything will happen: January’s spike in terror attacks are still fresh in the mind.  But Barnett Rubin’s calm, clear and intelligent open letter response to the Taliban sets a good example and could help guide the Taliban towards engagement and options for dialogue.  That the Taliban responded almost immediately to Rubin is unprecedented and cause for some encouragement.  Confidence building measures could be sought.  Low-level ceasefires monitored by, for example a joint Taliban/UN/Afghan government and US group, could contribute to this. UPDATE: A different Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, also replied to Barnett Rubin, slightly less positively…. text below 

There has been a flurry of peace-related writings from major parties to the protracted Afghan conflict, including the Afghan Presidency, the US, the Taliban and legendary Afghanistan expert, Barnett Rubin.

On 14 February, the Taliban released a “Letter to the American People”, seemingly an attempt to bypass the US government and appeal directly to the American people in the hope that they will sway US policy.  The letter highlights all the problems the US have created in Afghanistan and the cost in lives and money.

In brief, insisting on prolonging the war in Afghanistan and maintaining American troop presence is neither beneficial for America nor for anyone else, rather it endangers the stability of the entire world. This is irrefutable reality which is only rejected by your arrogant authorities. If you want peaceful dialogue with the Afghans specifically and with the world generally, then make your president and the war-mongering congressmen and Pentagon officials understand this reality and compel them to adopt a rational policy towards Afghanistan!

On 23 February, world-famous Afghanistan expert and former US government negotiator and advisor, Barnett Rubin, recently published a short paper “Theses on peacemaking in Afghanistan: a manifesto”.  It offered a highly articulate tour around the historic and current reasons for Afghanistan remaining beset by intractable conflict.

Given the dependence of all Afghan actors on external assistance, it is impossible for them to reach agreement if their patrons oppose it. Therefore, the starting point must be to build a sufficient international consensus as a basis for any negotiation and devise a mechanism to make a credible commitment to sustain the state into the future.

The difficulty of defining or even imagining an end state that would meet the minimal needs and demands of such a large number of actors (United States, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, India, Afghan urban westernized elites, Pashtun nationalists, Afghan Islamists, and non-Pashtun ethnic leaders, for starters) undermines the credibility of any negotiation. Each actor tends to believe that its adversaries have no feasible proposal and are using talks to buy time.

It was slightly disappointing to read only in the sense that it offered little more than “hope” that economic progress offered by the TAPI pipeline and Chinese and Indian investment in and around the region might bring about national and international cooperation.

On 26 February, the Taliban have stated that they are prepared to enter into talks with the United States

The Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan calls on American officials to talk directly to the Political Office of Islamic Emirate regarding a peaceful solution to the Afghan quandary.

It would help in finding a solution if America accepts the legitimate demands of the Afghan people and forward its own concerns and requests for discussion to the Islamic Emirate through a peaceful channel.

The Islamic Emirate made it clear to the American people and congressmen through an open letter that war is not our choice, rather it has been imposed upon us. For ending the occupation, we want a peaceful resolution to the Afghan issue.

But far more interesting and potentially valuable has been Rubin’s direct response to the Taliban’s “open letter”.

I had been pondering the question: “Why doesn’t anyone respected and credible reply to Taliban open letters?” ever since the Taliban started this process of communication via their website roughly ten years.

Rubin expertly ticks all the right boxes in his response and is very good at acknowledging mistakes on the US side and the missed opportunities.  He is also firm and clear in pointing out Taliban errors without bias.

The flaw in your call for dialogue is that it is addressed only to Americans, not your fellow Afghans. You accuse Afghans opposing you of “committing treason against our nation,” but the government of Afghanistan, corrupt and divided as it may be, is recognized by every nation in the world—not just Washington and its allies. Your dialogue with the U.S. government cannot replace dialogue with that government and the millions of other Afghans who fear your attacks and your return. Trying to exclude them repeats the mistake the U.S. made by excluding you….

Your call for the United States to end the fighting would be more persuasive if you offered to abandon it yourselves. You need not alter your entire position: just change the order of events by challenging the U.S. and Afghan government to agree to a temporary ceasefire before the office formally reopens, regardless of who controls how many districts this week or the next.

 

Surprisingly and encouragingly, the Taliban have responded directly and promptly to Rubin, giving Rubin some credit for the reach out – this from the Twitter account of Abdulqahar Balkhi, one of the accounts generally seen as an official Taliban spokesman:

Great piece by @BRRubin however I would personally like to respond to some (intentional/unintentional) misconceptions. Foremost, I appreciate your recognition that Taliban are not what Kabul propagates, and the deaths & imprisonment as well as policies of leaders are proof

Assertion in early paragraph that peace through dialogue is impossible is flawed b/c #Taliban have asked for dialogue from beginning yet it is US that will not come down from high horse & let go of false pride (colonial mentality).

Wrongly interpreted that #Taliban exclusively seek talks with US rather Taliban demand direct talks with US first due to main source of conflict being occupation. If we agree on ending occupation, talks b/w Afghans with or without international mediation will bear fruit.

US insistence on killing/imprisoning all Taliban cemented fact that supposed Afghan gov has no decision making authority as admitted by Gul Agha/Karzai/others to Taliban seeking amnesty, contradicting own assertion that Taliban underestimate Kabul ability & authority.

Qatar Political Office opening delayed precisely due to contentious issue of naming office & only opened once US agreed it could be called ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ so assertion otherwise is false (we have signed documents for proof)

Closure of Political Office by US again proved that US do not care about treaties or promises (sequence began with mass killing of surrendered #Taliban prisoners in 2001) & only used office for domestic popularity contest (prisoner exchange), not for advancing peace

Closure of Political Office by US again proved that US do not care about treaties or promises (sequence began with mass killing of surrendered #Taliban prisoners in 2001) & only used office for domestic popularity contest (prisoner exchange), not for advancing peace

Conclusion – your proposal is well-intentioned but until & unless US talks directly to #Taliban about ending occupation, no meaningful ceasefires or dialogue b/w Afghans can take place b/c US is calling all the shots (puppets cant even remove own governors)!!!

The response shows at least that the Taliban are listening, absorbing and considering engagement. It would be helpful if the dialogue could continue.

It occasionally feels that a peace deal could actually be reached almost unexpectedly.  There is one recurrent and circular argument between the Taliban and the US which runs like this:

Taliban: to achieve peace in Afghanistan the US needs to withdraw

US: The fighting needs to stop before we can withdraw

Although the Taliban appear to resist the idea of ceasefires in this response, local ceasefires or other forms of local collaborative initiatives – initially small scale and temporary – could be offered as confidence building measures.  Create a joint body that includes Taliban/Afghan Govt/UN and US representatives to monitor the ceasefire.  The aim would be in part to monitor a ceasefire but also to develop lines of communication and build confidence in the good intentions of the other party.  Both sides need to save face, both sides need to avoid unhelpful talk of “winning and losing”.

Adding to the sense of “stuff happening”, on 28 February, Ashraf Ghani offered a peace deal to the Taliban that would give them recognition as a political movement and reintegration and protection for Taliban members.  Pahjwok reports today that:

In an expected overture, the national unity government asserted its desire to strike a “truthful and sustainable peace deal” with the Taliban who are ready for reconciliation.

President Ashraf Ghani spoke of his administration’s desire for peace negotiations with the insurgent movement in his remarks to the second meeting of the Kabul process. For their part, the Taliban have offered to launch talks with the United States

A political framework for peace dialogue should be created with a ceasefire and the Taliban recognised as a political group with an official political office, the president suggested. The militant outfit would have to respect the rule of law, he said.

If they promise shunning the insurgency, Taliban prisoners may be freed and their names struck off from international blacklists. Former fighters and refugees could be reintegrated and provided with job opportunities.

Ghani promised his government would ensure facilities and security for the Taliban who joined the peace process.

What does it all mean, if anything?  We have had many false dawns where it comes to talks, or “talks about talks”.  It would be a brave analyst to proclaim this series of dialogues a prologue to peace: recent Taliban terror attacks in January have hardened even more hearts against them and Afghans are increasingly interested in registering and addressing war crimes.  Regrettably, the current US administration appears spectacularly under-resourced for any form of political initiatives in relation to Afghanistan.  The Taliban should be encouraged to engage in any manner of political activities and dialogue.  However, sooner or later, the Taliban will have to be confronted with the notion that, for all their propaganda and claims of controlling a nationwide “jihad”, they are not actually that popular or relevant to a young and forward-looking Afghan populace.  See also the Afghanistan Analyst’s Network’s “manifesto” addressing the need for essential institutional reform needed to improve the chances for dialogue.

Sorry, I appear to have ended on some pessimistic points…

————————————————————————————-

UPDATE:  This additional response from the other Taliban lead spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid is significantly less optimistic – interesting there are two separate and differing responses…

From: Zabihullah Mujahid <zabihullahmujahid@gmail.com>
Subject: Re: My Open Letter to the Taliban
Date: February 28, 2018 at 7:33:30 AM EST
To: Barnett Rubin <brrubin@me.com>
Dear Barnett R. Rubin

Thank you for reaching out to us. We have read your reply however would like to point towards a few crucial points you missed.

– If your country (United States of America) were occupied by us, its land and airspace were usurped and many American citizens were killed in their sleep by our forces every day, it is entirely plausible that you would not have the same views as you hold today, therefore it is hoped you will remain pragmatic.

– Our country has been occupied which has led to an American style supposed Afghan government being imposed upon us. And your view that we talk to them and accept their legitimacy is the same formula adopted by America to win the war.

– You have said that we supposedly killed civilians in our martyrdom attacks. This should give us a pause because a war is raging, most of the civilians are being killed by the operations and bombardments of your forces and even if we were to accept that our operations also cause civilian casualties, then answer us, what has compelled us carry out such attacks? Perhaps you also remember that we lost one and a half million Afghans in our war for independence against the Soviet Union, however we endured all these hardships for the greater cause of attaining freedom from invasion.

– You ask us not miss opportunities. We have not lost opportunities but cannot frame plots as opportunities either. The Kabul Process and other such efforts seek surrender from the Islamic Emirate at a time when the Islamic Emirate is without a doubt a force that has defeated an international arrogant power like America with all its allies and tools at disposal. So do you believe such a proposal is logical?

– You state that the Kabul government should be recognized because it is also recognized by the entire world!!!?

In 2001, the entire world also agreed with, supported and accepted the American invasion of our country, so should we also have accepted the invasion?

Moreover during the Soviet occupation of our country, majority of the world including the United Nations officially accepted and recognized the Kabul regime as legitimate. So would it have been reasonable for the Afghan resistance of the time to follow suit?

– The main issue as it stands is that the entire world probably fears America, however we do not fear America. We have weighed America and have gained tremendous experience from fighting against her. America does not hold the right of determining the nature and type of governments in other countries. If you hold similar views then that is perhaps because you are an American citizen however no free human being can ever allow such audacity and interf erences.

The crux of the matter is, what is the vital concern of America, is it really terrorism?

Or is it extracting the mineral wealth of Afghanistan, imposing a self-styled government, preventing establishment of an Islamic system and pursuing imperial ambitions in the region from this land?

If it is the former, then we are sincerely committed to resolving it. We do not wish to interfere in the affairs of others and neither do we seek conflict with anyone including the United States. Our repeated letters to the American administration, people and congress were for this exact same purpose.

But if it is the later, then understand that this nation is unlike other nations which America has currently subdued, exploited their resources, are pursuing imperial ambitions inside them and are directly interfering in their internal affairs. In such circumstances, we do not care about America, neither do we wa nt to talk nor end resistance nor will we get tired. Then it is up to American analysts like you to keep score of the losses, whom suffers the most and whom loses in the end?

Regards

On Wed, Feb 28, 2018 at 1:48 AM, Barnett Rubin <brrubin@me.com> wrote:

 

 

 

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