How Afghans Can Work Together to End the War

By Aref Dostyar, NYTimes

KABUL, Afghanistan — Momentum is building toward peace in Afghanistan.

On Saturday, the United States and the Taliban will sign an agreement that will pave the way for talks between the Taliban and a team of negotiators led by the Afghan government in March. There is hope, at last, of respite from the long war.

The Afghan government deserves credit for planting the seeds of peace two years ago by offering unconditional talks to the Taliban and announcing a unilateral cease-fire that blossomed into a three-day pause in hostilities in June 2018.

Kabul continued to reach out to the Taliban and sent some officials in July to an informal peace dialogue in Doha that brought together the warring sides for the first time. In February, the government of Afghanistan agreed to stop its operations against the Taliban for seven days to facilitate the first formal negotiations between Kabul and the insurgents. The Afghan government and the American forces abided by the agreement. There were reports of several attacks by the Taliban on the Afghan civilians and security forces, but violence certainly decreased during this period.

Negotiations between an inclusive Afghan government-led team with the Taliban offer us a historic opportunity to end the war. If these talks are going to deliver peace, both the Afghan government and the Taliban urgently need to think more clearly about their coming talks and what they envision as the potential outcomes.

In October, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan published a plan articulating his vision for peace. He laid out the steps for peace from talks with the United States and NATO about the withdrawal of their forces and a subsequent counterterrorism framework. The plan includes the creation of an inclusive Afghan team to negotiate with the Taliban and talking to regional and global partners to ensure national security and cooperation to develop the Afghan economy in “post-peace agreement” Afghanistan.

President Ghani also put forth the path to resolving long-term local grievances caused by feelings of exclusion from political processes or low levels of accessibility to law enforcement and justice. Furthermore, the plan aims to strengthen national public institutions to maintain order and deliver essential services to the people.

But the Taliban have shown profound and worrying lack of clarity, and their intentions remain inscrutable. They insist that they want the violence to stop, but they agreed to only a seven-day “reduction in violence” and refuse to accept a cease-fire until after official peace negotiations, the parameters of which remain undefined.

The Taliban have also been extremely vague about their proposed policies on human rights, the relationship of the Afghan government to its people and the future of relationships between Kabul and the world.

The details are absolutely crucial. The Taliban have spoken about agreeing with human rights based on Islamic law. Will their interpretation be aligned with the positions of its founder Mullah Omar, or will it align with something that progressive scholars of Islam would approve? They are entirely silent about this.

The Taliban say that their proposed governance system is one that is “based on consensus among people.” But they have not clarified whether they agree that all men and women of age have the right to vote and whether they would accept peaceful transitions of power based on free elections through secret ballots.

The insurgents have not explained whether they would accept the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which is informed by the core ideas of Islam and explicitly prohibits the promulgation of any laws contravening the tenets and provisions of Islam. The people of Afghanistan deserve to hear the Taliban’s positions clearly on these and many other questions.

These uncertainties and the absence of trust of the Taliban have created certain attitudes toward the peace talks among pro-government factions, particularly among some political parties who seek a share of power and a new generation of politicians who don’t want to lose their hard-fought gains.

The most common of these attitudes are the “compromise model” and the “defensive model.” The “compromise model” sees a degree of compromise with the Taliban as a prerequisite to successful peace negotiations, and it is implicitly and explicitly propagated by some international peace experts as well. But it is a shortsighted and problematic approach.

The opponents in negotiations, at best, compromise on superficial bargaining positions rather than on their core interests. In the Afghan context, it focuses on a division of government positions among certain people or groups of people instead of building a sustainable system for political inclusion of all Afghans.

And it is difficult to understand what one can afford to compromise on. Development? Social and political freedoms? People’s right to food and education? Can one agree to halfway rights for women?

In Kabul, the “defensive model” plays out as a feeling of defensiveness, a compelling urge to guard against a dreadful past when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. It stems from a sense that the ideals and achievements of the past two decades are under attack by the Taliban, and that fear is based on the regressive and ultra-Orthodox positions the Taliban demonstrated when they were in power in the 1990s.

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