“Let us give peace another chance” seems to have become the enduring motto of the spiraling battle to secure stability in Afghanistan. In yet another bid to push for peace in this country, the second round of the Kabul Peace Process was organized in the capital city. This initiative brought together regional and international players with the intent to chart out a path to reconciliation for Afghanistan. Although devoid of any participation from what can be said to be the main antagonist in the whole crisis — the Taliban — a major outcome of this process could potentially transform it into a formal player.
One of the many peace initiatives that have taken place since 2001, what sets apart the Kabul Process from the others is its discernable Afghan-ness. Unlike many regionally and internationally orchestrated efforts, this was very much pushed by Afghanistan for itself. Demonstrating its Afghan ownership, this peace process emphasized the importance of creating a national environment that is more conducive for reconciliation. While direct and indirect hints were made about the involvement of external actors in creating and adding to the crises, the tone of this peace process was particularly domestic. The stress on the domestic accent of this process was underscored by the fact that it was organized by the government of Afghanistan to present “its vision for peace and security cooperation.” In addition to this, the 20 countries engaged in this initiative rallied their support behind the Afghan government “in forging a practical plan for reconciliation, which includes negotiation of various issues and any contested aspect of the international community’s future role in Afghanistan.”
As part of its effort to “end the ongoing agony of Afghan people”, the Kabul Peace Process in this second round of what I describe as “intention demonstration” — and not peace talks as such — extended an olive branch to the Afghan Taliban by agreeing to hold talks with it “without preconditions.” In the hope of getting it to talk, the government of Afghanistan not only decided to confer recognition on this group but also agreed to review the constitution to meet one of the persistent demands it has maintained. The threshold for holding talks has now been reduced to the lowest possible denominator — renunciation of violence — all with the intent to draw this persistent conflict to a political close. This decision comes close on the heels of the Taliban’s own offer to discuss peace in Afghanistan.
While the domestic ownership of the peace process is significant, the transnational nature of the conflict in Afghanistan has not been lost on the participants. Recognizing the importance of transnational “security cooperation and counter-terrorism,” the declaration adopted by the Kabul Process reiterated the necessity to support “Afghanistan as the front-line state against over twenty domestic, regional, and transnational terrorist groups.” The declaration emphasized the need to strengthen bilateral efforts against transnational terrorist networks and transnational criminal organizations with “strong, consistent, collective and multilateral campaign against terrorism and the spread of its ideology, backed by a set of practical measures by each regional and international stakeholder.”
Perhaps out of the gravity of the event or to ward off any untoward incident, the whole of Kabul was made to observe as representatives from 20 countries and regional and international organizations gathered at the Afghan capital to discuss the path to peace. This was certainly not the first time that international and regional players had come together to give peace another chance, but what made the Kabul Process significant was what it attempted to do with the issue at hand.
By agreeing to hold talks with the Afghan Taliban without any preconditions, the Kabul Process could be seen as allowing this group an opportunity to cut some of the strings with which the Pakistani military-intelligence nexus continues to puppeteer it. In conferring it recognition, and consequently a promise of a share in power, the Afghan government seems to have made a deal that is too good to resist for the Taliban. In giving them greater room to maneuver, the Kabul Peace Process has effectively made an attempt to “domesticate” the issue without losing sight of the bilateral, regional, and international dimensions of the conflict.
Both the Afghan government and the Taliban need to realize that in a battle that affects the very population over which they seek to preside, there can never be a position of privilege one can speak from.
On the flipside, the decision to proceed with the talks without preconditions can also be read as a sign of collective exhaustion with the situation in Afghanistan. Both nationally and trans-nationally, the sentiment at large is to see stability getting restored in Afghanistan, although the desired shape it should take differs in imagination. The various actors involved in the process have their respective interests in Afghanistan, which often happen to be at odds with each other. In these circumstances, where the common endeavor for peace and stability stays, the way to go about it has created a lot of dissonance. This disagreement, in turn, has either converted a lot of initiatives into non-starters or resulted in their abortion in the middle of the process. Since no player — regional or international — is willing to cede greater space to its adversaries, the persistent conflict in Afghanistan continues to be fueled by battles of ego happening outside of it.
The deteriorating security situation, combined with uninspiring economic and political performances, has rendered a greater sense of urgency to the matters at hand, especially as the next Presidential election is just around the corner. Popular despair with the state of affairs in Afghanistan has further added to the necessity to arrest the situation from the kind of free-fall it is in before it gets too late. Where public disenchantment with the present situation is evident, the political class on the whole is doing little to generate public confidence. Rather, the social and cultural faultlines in Afghanistan are being rampantly exploited by these political leaders for their personal benefit.
In an environment of insecurity and mistrust, the potentials of democracy are being turned against it. What could have been points of constructive mobilization have been transformed into moments of crisis so much so that those in power now use it as an excuse to silence credible voices of dissent. Right from the issuance of national identity cards, to the change in the personnel structure of the army, to competing claims over a grave, politicization seems to have become common in Afghanistan, often to the detriment of the substantive issues that need priority and attention. In this situation, the apparent amnesty offered by the government of Afghanistan to the Afghan Taliban in return of its participation in the peace process is bound to generate its own set of tensions both domestically and beyond its shores.
At one level, the potential trade-off between accountability and justice and peace is expected to create massive local resistance. Unlike the case of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his party, the discontent with the decision to forget the excesses committed by the Taliban could result in a more broad-based public uprising. Given that the Taliban had upset many local leaders by usurping their power, it is likely that opposition to this decision, while ethnically mobilized, could, nevertheless, get pieced together into a more comprehensive and encompassing revolt against it. At another level, the attempted domestication of the Afghan Taliban may not go down well with those players that have been leveraging this group in particular and the conflict on the whole to secure their own interests. The Taliban too has a mind of its own, and given how the international forces had brought their members into confinement in the past, it would not be hard to expect that this group will still take time to play ball.
Overall, however, the Kabul Peace Process holds some promise. Having lowered the bar, the Afghan government has shown both its willingness to end the conflict and its sheer exhaustion with it. Both the Afghan government and the Taliban need to realize that in a battle that affects the very population over which they seek to preside, there can never be a position of privilege one can speak from. The Afghan government, with its eye on the upcoming elections, appears to have learnt this lesson. For the sake of power, and maybe peace, it would be in the Taliban’s interest to make use of this opportunity before the door shuts on it.