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Good Luck Afghanistan: peace prospects in the RIV-era…

February 21, 2020

Summary: a week-long reduction in violence commitment from Taliban begins tomorrow.  It is a good opportunity for the people of Afghanistan that should be embraced.  But the process will be long, fraught and fragile, with spoilers every step of the way.  Good luck Afghanistan.

Background

 

The current US administration has appeared frustrated and erratic with regard to its policy on Afghanistan.  Approval to send 4,000 more troops was made in 2017.[1]  At the end of 2018, President Trump spontaneously threatened to pull out as many as half of the total number (from approximately 14,000 down to 7,000).  This risked undermining what was a delicately balanced peace process.[2]

On 9 September 2019, US President Donald Trump declared the talks between the US and the Taliban to be “dead”.[3]  Talks have since resumed.[4]  It appears likely that some form of reduction in violence commitment may be made by the Taliban, perhaps even in the next few days or weeks.[5]  This is not a formal ceasefire.  The intention is that this could form the beginning of a process of US troop drawdown over months and years, concurrently with talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.  But there is a lot still that has to happen.  This is a small segment of an overall peace process that will need to engage with many factions of society.  The Taliban have avoided direct and formal engagement with the Afghan government, choosing only to talk to the United States and demanding the complete withdrawal of US forces before they will talk about anything else.[6]  It is still unclear how the Taliban envisage their future role in society and government, and how they might reintegrate into politics, government and society.  Wider dialogue and reconciliation will pose a major challenge.

“A US-Taliban peace agreement seems closer than ever, but the whole thing could unravel when it comes time for intra-Afghan talks…The temporary ceasefire, if agreed upon, may provide a new lease on life to the on-again, off-again peace talks. A more permanent agreement, however, faces a number of pitfalls that could scuttle the ultimate objective of bringing lasting peace to Afghanistan…Who is going to amass what gains and on what terms and conditions in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan is so far a guessing game.  But the Taliban are probably the most influential force in deciding this question, and to some regional and international players, the militia is the crucial factor for bringing peace to Afghanistan. But will they act in the interests of peace?  Besides suffering from their own dilemmas vis-à-vis the peace process, the Taliban’s possible inclusion in power-sharing in Kabul is seen with concern for two major reasons: The militia’s desire for power and their world view.”[7]

As yet, there has been no let-up in the fighting.[8]  There is likely to be a formal agreed “reduction in violence” process starting from Saturday 22 February, as a part of the US-Taliban agreement.  In the next 6 to 12 months – expectations, tensions and manoeuvrings regarding the talks will insure the situation remains fragile.  We might well see upsurges in fighting as both sides attempt to secure a military advantage to bolster their position in the talks.[9]  “Spoilers” across the military and political spectrum, for example Islamic State, may attempt to disrupt and destabilise.

A greater concern relates to the medium and long-term. A hasty US-Taliban peace agreement followed by a precipitous US military departure, in the absence of a wider Afghan discussion and reconciliation, will increase the risk of instability and even civil war.[10]

“…that road to actual peace could turn out to be as long, steep, and winding as the Salang Pass road. Peace may only come to fruition long after U.S. troops have withdrawn and after much intra-Afghan fighting… the intra-Afghan negotiating and fighting could go on for years. It could easily feature unstable deals that easily collapse, powerful spoilers, military and political coup d’états, and the loss of interest by the United States (but active meddling by regional powers).”[11]

What prospects?

The watchwords are “volatile” and “fragile”.  This not a done deal (any more than Brexit was “done” on 31 January).  Nothing is going to happen quickly, although it might superficially seem like it at the beginning.  Judging by the Taliban’s ability to effectively reduce violence during the June 2018 ceasefire, it looks likely they will again be able to restrain their diverse fighting groups.  American and international forces are likely to be the main beneficiaries, less so the Afghan army and police.  A week-long reduction in violence will likely be an intoxicating feeling for ordinary Afghans.  Taliban and government fighters alike might get caught up in the euphoria and fraternise, as happened in 2018.  This may serve to set expectations artificially and unrealistically high for what is to come.  Intermingling of Taliban and government forces could spark accidental or intentional clashes.

Much can happen to derail any peace deal between the US and the Taliban.  The political and security situation is highly volatile – and likely to remain so for at least the next 5 – 10 years.  The Afghan Presidential election was held in September 2019.  Amid much credible allegations of corruption and fraud, Ashraf Ghani has only just been declared the victor – by the narrowest of margins – over his rival Dr Abdullah.[12]  Not only has Dr Abdullah not accepted the result, he is talking openly about himself as the winner and his intention to form a new government.[13]  Many key players are muttering darkly about resisting the “wrong” result by force.  Dr Abdullah is likely to bluster and moan but ultimately back down.  But volatility and hotheads on all sides make the situation hard to predict.[14]  Inter-factional strife would be a disaster at any time, but particularly devastating if defeat were to be snatched from the jaws of talks with the Taliban.

We should not confuse terms – a “peace deal” will be initially only mean a brief reduction in violence.  If that works, it will lead to talks between the US and the Taliban.  This is just to allow the Americans to pull out over a period of months and years.  There is no “ceasefire”, merely a less clearly defined “reduction in violence”.  It will be temporary.  The Taliban are very worried about their fighters losing their cutting edge and the Taliban leadership losing control over the fighters who might start fraternising with the locals, who are often from the same local tribes and even families.  The difficult work of talking Afghan to Afghan will not begin until later.  And it will be harder and take longer (years) and be volatile.  Outbreaks of violence are almost a certainty.

Major infrastructural problems in the country will continue to contribute to medium and long-term volatility and fragility – corruption, warlords, illegal armed groups, Islamic State, interference from Pakistan/Iran/etc.  The Afghan government still cannot function without billions of dollars of contributions from the US/international community.

There is potential for the Taliban to fragment and the violence resume.  There is potential for the government to fragment and the violence resume.  If it comes to bringing the Taliban fighters in from the cold, integrating 50-60,000 Taliban fighters into the army will be massively problematic – it could cause the army and security forces to crumble.  Deedee Dirksen’s paper examining the challenges of integrating Hezb-e Islami forces into the ANSF is a highly pertinent study.[15]  It will be very expensive.  Taliban commanders will now demand to be generals, with salaries and pensions to match.  They will want to bring their mates with them.  They will not want to train to be a professional, Western-style military, perhaps even with US military advisors.  Does the US have the willingness to pay even more for the Afghan military?  It hardly seems likely.  But the alternative is tens of thousands of redundant Taliban, army and police.  Mass unemployment of thousands of trained gunmen could be destabilising.

There is strong potential for the “Trump factor” to confuse, complicate and collapse the situation.  Last September, allegedly in response to the death of one US soldier, Trump cancelled the talks for months.  Trump’s agenda is clear and Trump-centric:  Trump is in this for his own personal domestic political benefit – expect an invoice for a Nobel prize once the first US battalion lands back in the US.  Otherwise, Trump has no knowledge, interest, understanding or patience for Afghanistan (his loose talk of dropping nuclear weapons on the country should be proof of this).  He will demand a timetable that aligns favourably (for him) with the US elections in November 2020.  This makes him a dangerous and unstable element where calmness, intellect and patience are essential.

Even if…

In short, everything is still very unstable, even if a reduction in violence is declared.  Even if the US reach a deal with the Taliban.  Even if the Taliban start talking to the Afghan government.  Even if Donald Trump can be restrained.  There is real, tangible hope for the Afghan people.  But there is still a great risk of a slide backwards – even into civil war – once the US pulls out.

————————————-

 

[1] ‘US to send 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan’, Deutsche Welle, 16 June 2017, https://www.dw.com/en/us-to-send-4000-more-troops-to-afghanistan/a-39271721

[2] Jackson, A., ‘Trump Leaves Behind Mess for Afghans to Clean Up’, Foreign Policy, 21 Dec. 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/12/21/afghanistan-trump-united-states-taliban-conflict/

[3] ‘Afghan peace deal: Trump says Taliban talks are “dead”’, BBC News, 10 Sep. 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-49642655

[4] Gul, A., ‘Trump Suggests Peace Talks With Afghan Taliban Back on Track’, Voice of America, 23 Nov. 2019, https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/trump-suggests-peace-talks-afghan-taliban-back-track

[5] Mashal. M., Rogers, K., Ghazi, Z., and Gibbons-Neff, T., ‘As Afghan Soldier Kills 2 Americans, Peace Talks Forge Ahead’, The New York Times, 17 Feb. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/17/world/asia/afghanistan-peace-american-deaths.html

[6] ‘Afghan Taliban, US to hold peace talks on Wednesday’, The Week, 8 Jan. 2019, https://www.theweek.in/news/world/2019/01/08/afghan-taliban-us-to-sit-down-to-peace-talks-on-wednesday.html

[7] Khattak, D., ‘The Pitfalls in Afghanistan’s Peace Process’, The Diplomat, 24 Jan. 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/01/the-pitfalls-in-afghanistans-peace-process/

[8] Bolton, A., ‘U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan highest in years’, The Hill, 1 Jan. 2020, https://thehill.com/policy/defense/476461-us-combat-deaths-in-afghanistan-highest-in-years  and ‘Afghanistan: US and Afghan soldiers killed in attack’, BBC News, 9 Feb. 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51430867

[9] ‘Taliban Attack In Northern Afghanistan Kills At Least 13’, RFE/RL, 29 Jan. 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/taliban-attack-in-northern-afghanistan-kills-at-least-13/30403883.html

[10] Dobbins, J., et al, ‘US-Taliban Negotiations: How to Avoid Rushing to Failure’, The Atlantic Council, 3 Sep. 2019,  https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/us-taliban-negotiations-how-to-avoid-rushing-to-failure

[11] Felbab-Brown, V., ‘Order from Chaos: After the US-Taliban deal, what might negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan side look like?’, Brookings Institute, 19 Feb. 2020,  https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/02/19/after-the-us-taliban-deal-what-might-negotiations-between-the-taliban-and-afghan-side-look-like/?utm_campaign=Brookings%20Brief&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=83635291

[12] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/18/world/asia/afghanistan-election-ashraf-ghani.html

[13] https://www.france24.com/en/20200218-afghan-election-challenger-abdullah-declares-himself-president-announces-parallel-government

[14] https://www.khaama.com/dostum-endorses-abdullahs-stance-regarding-elections-urges-supporters-not-remain-silent-04466/

[15] https://www.usip.org/publications/2018/07/hezb-e-islami-peace-and-integration-afghan-security-forces

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