Since 2009 the Afghan government, with international support, has pursued a policy of opening the door to a political solution to the war in their nation. That policy decision was backed up by a massive push to professionalize the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and to continue to militarily pressure the taliban and others on the battlefield. The underlying premise was that the Taliban movement (senior and low-level members) would be forced to react to the legitimate Afghan government olive branch in many ways.
As we enter our second decade of this policy what are the chances it will succeed? This article looks at the peace process so far and offers thoughts on whether the policy is working and what to look for in the future. The big question is, will Pakistan rethink its unconventional warfare strategy against Afghanistan?
The current Afghan policy has a solid chance of success as the international community still fully supports the legitimate elected Afghan government in their quest for a durable peace. Equally as important, the international community still supports and has established long term partnerships with the ANDSF. The ANDSF is the cornerstone of a durable peace in Afghanistan. With a strong, united, and loyal Army the elected Afghan government cannot be overthrown by the Taliban or Taliban supporters.
There are many signs, based on the study of various conflict resolution patterns, that since 2009 this policy has moved Afghans towards peace despite the continuing bloodshed in the country. The peace push of 2009 created a high peace council, convened a peace jirga, and resulted in a national peace policy in June 2010. In short, the 2010 Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP), approved by the Afghan people, offered peace and reintegration to all Afghans outside civil society to rejoin it. It offered peace on 3 levels: the local level for foot soldiers and junior leaders of small insurgent or criminal groups, and both the strategic level and political level for senior leaders of regional and also international violent extremist and terrorist organizations.
It caused the Taliban to send a canary into the coal mine (Kabul) when a man pretending to be a senior Taliban leader arrived to see if peace talk overtures were a trap. It caused the Pakistani’s to arrest Mullah Baradar to stop him from entering peace talks with the Afghan government or intermediaries. This was a major disruption in the Pakistan and Taliban strategic plans for Afghanistan. (Some Pakistan power-brokers clearly strongly objected to Afghan peace overtures to their Taliban clients, and have also tried consistently, since 2002, to derail the creation of a capable and right sized ANDSF).
The Afghan peace policy then caused the Taliban to enter into “secret” talks with the US in 2011 and they would continue to probe the US government for years to attempt to find a political solution. The Taliban were starting to see that a military solution was no longer possible in the face of a professionalizing and growing ANDSF. This also led to the creation of a political office in Doha that the Taliban could use to further their diplomatic efforts to end the war. Although the Taliban were allowed to misuse the Qatar site (by Qatar) to try to find a way to better their standing and undermine the legitimate Afghan government, the fact that they were seeking a diplomatic route at all cannot be overlooked.
By 2014, the ANDSF had reached a level of skill that would allow them to take the lead in the fight from NATO forces. This was another indicator to the Taliban and their sponsor that they were losing their route to a military victory, although they would not give up the effort, as they do not care about Afghan civilian casualties.
President Karzai would leave power unable to secure a peace negotiation with the Taliban, but his efforts to open the door to a political solution were honorable and timely. His reintegration relaunch in 2009 would continue until 2016 officially and take many low-level fighters off the Taliban rolls. The Peace door would remain open under the next administration and even lead to Hekmatyar leaving the Taliban to take the political olive branch.
President Ghani would continue to offer a peace process alternative to the Taliban. NATO and the US administrations of Obama and then Trump would continue to back this policy. In August 2017 President Trump issued his South Asia Strategy to ensure all instruments of US national power were focused on bringing the war in Afghanistan towards a durable peace process.
President Ghani would offer fresh olive branches of peace to the Taliban movement in February and then November 2018, and again in early 2019
His early efforts would lead to the first ceasefire of the war since 2001. For three days in June 2018 all Taliban movement militias, the ANDSF and NATO/Coalition forces stopped the war. This is a historically critical indicator that a peace process is possible.
The cumulative effect of the ANDSF offensive, that began in Spring 2018 and has not stopped for any traditional seasonal respites, has kept the Taliban actively engaged in diplomatic efforts as their forces have been pummeled on the ground. The Taliban have now admitted they cannot win on the battlefield and that they need a political solution. This is a critical indicator in a conflict resolution process.
The Taliban have been steadily meeting with a new US diplomatic team, multiple other nations, and importantly with dozens of Afghan leaders. The Taliban have now spoken with an ex-president and ex-vice Presidents, former ministers and governors, and even accidentally sat in the room with the chairman of the Afghan High Peace Council. While the Taliban have, up until now, refused to meet with sitting members of the Afghan government, they are inching ever closer to breaking the redline they have set for themselves.
World leaders have continued to endorse Afghanistan conflict resolution efforts. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has repeatedly gained UN support to further its Afghanistan mission mandate. NATO has continued annually to renew its support for advising and assisting the ANDSF. The EU has continued its support of the Afghan government. Islamic religious leaders have continued to condemn Taliban violence as un-Islamic. Everyday Afghans even took to the roads as peace marchers walked into Taliban areas to discuss the need for peace.
The US has ended its most recent round (Sept 2019) of talks as the Taliban refused to reduce violence or agree to a ceasefire in order to move the talks forward. This is not the end of peace talks, but a pause and a chance for Afghans to hold its 4th presidential election and recalibrate all efforts on their behalf.
Now the world attempts again to get the Taliban to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government. Meanwhile the Taliban, clearly stung by being caught overreaching in negotiations by the US, are wasting no time in trying to get talks restarted.
Analysts should watch for
- changes in Pakistan’s calculus that might lead to more serious Taliban talks
- the speed in which the ANDSF secure previous-Taliban strongholds and whether any of those areas return to taliban control
- the morale of the ANDSF and the Afghan people towards a brighter future
- the actual rejection of terrorist relationships by the Taliban
- any cease fires of any duration
- Taliban willingness to sit down directly with any official Afghan government delegations
- a reverse of commitments by NATO, the UN, or the EU
- reintegration of Taliban fighters
- factionalism among the Taliban
- Afghan political and national unity strengthening or weakening
- civilian casualty numbers caused by any combatant in Afghanistan
While it is easy to say that every stutter and misstep in this peace process is a reversal or failure it misses the larger picture. In peace efforts you must take the long view. Any movement, backwards, sideways, or forwards, is still movement. It’s when all movement stops that you are in trouble. That is not the case here. The legitimate government of Afghanistan has the upper hand in this arena; they initiated the peace process. As long as they continue to hold out an olive branch to the Taliban, the Taliban movement will be on the defensive trying to explain why they choose war against civilians over a political solution leading to peace. Islam is clear on which road the taliban must take at this point, and they know it.
In the end only an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process will be durable. The world should continue to support the ANDSF as they pressure the Taliban to engage in non-military avenues. The world must cooperatively push the Taliban towards cease-fires and direct talks with the elected Afghan government. The world must also be prepared to be part of a peace enforcement mechanism and be ready to take on the powerful opium network that also plagues Afghanistan and the world. This is a long-term problem and needs long term vision.
Major (Ret) Jason Criss Howk has been working on Afghanistan since 2002 and has been involved in major turning points in the war advising senior military, diplomatic, and political leaders. You can follow his Afghanistan thoughts on twitter @jason_c_howk and his blog. Follow his interfaith work to increase religious tolerance as a speaker and podcaster and join his non-profit efforts for military families and growing literary talent. Jason loves wildlife, writing, and teaching.
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