After nearly two decades of U.S. presence, the Afghan conflict between the central government and the Taliban reached a deadly stalemate, taking a hundred lives a day from each side between 2018 and 2021. However sad, the international community viewed this impasse as a sign of Afghanistan’s ripeness for peace. Meanwhile, the U.S. shifted its policy from pursuing a military victory to achieving an expeditious political settlement. Yet despite multifaceted and multiparty motivations to finally end this drawn-out conflict, the peace process still failed. Why?
This article’s authors observed the peace process closely from within the Afghan government. The following identifies four interconnected factors that converged to spoil the final attempt to end the long war in Afghanistan, resulting in the Taliban unilaterally taking control of Kabul in August 2021. Additionally, the piece offers three sets of recommendations to the United States and the international community about how the lessons of the past 20 years could inform a workable peace process going forward.
Failure in shaping narratives
Aside from armed struggles over physical territory, the Afghan War was also fought on a parallel battleground: the minds of the people.
Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government, which existed between December 2001 and August 2021, had the burden to prove two narratives: its ability to provide basic services — physical security at a minimum — to the local population and a capability to advance counterterrorism efforts both at home and beyond the country’s borders.
But the Taliban’s car bombs and suicide brigades continued to speak louder than the government’s infographics proclaiming the competence of its institutions. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan described civilian casualties in May-June 2021 — on the eve of the United States’ announced withdrawal date — as the highest on record for those two months since the mission began recording such data in 2009.
The government itself, seeking sustained global support in the fight against terrorism, reported during every major international meeting that more than 20 terrorist organizations with regional and international reach enjoyed safe havens in Afghanistan under the patronage of the Taliban.
The Taliban, by contrast, defined their existence in terms of the enemy, America, which occupied Afghanistan and established a “puppet” government in Kabul. Over the 20 years of war, the Taliban used sustained offensive attacks and some short-term ceasefires to promote themselves as a cohesive military force. And foreigners interpreted that characterization to mean that if the Taliban committed to something like crushing internationally designated terrorist groups, the Taliban could deliver on it. Whether they actually would remained to be seen.
No narrative promulgated by the last Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, who garnered less than a million votes in a contested election in September 2019, could change a simple reality: the war against the Taliban was widely perceived as lost.
Failure in leadership for peace
During the last decade of America’s presence in Afghanistan, the international community and the local government came to an understanding that the way to end the conflict was through peace negotiations with the Taliban. However, the stakeholders in these talks had conflicting interests.
For Afghan technocrats, peace initially meant a full Taliban surrender. The highest leadership bodies of the government held internal discussions regarding the “reintegration” of the Taliban fighters. During these meetings, the officials offered four types of incentives:
- Security in return for disarmament;
- Political space to run for office or be appointed to political posts;
- Economic incentives to provide jobs; and
- Legal incentives to remove the Taliban from international sanctions lists and release their prisoners.
For former mujahideen factions, peace meant a division of power among influential parties. But this process of power-sharing, which would inevitably break down along ethnic lines, would leave no room for the technocrats who now held the presidency. The share of power for Afghanistan’s ethnic Tajiks would go to the Jamiat party; that for the Pashtuns would be given to the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami; the Wahdat party would claim the Hazaras; and the Junbish party would represent the Uzbeks. Where would the technocrats fit?
Some individuals in the technocrat and mujahideen camps accepted that one way to achieve peace was to hold elections with the participation of the Taliban. However, there were disagreements around the timing of these elections, not to mention the Taliban’s total disinterest in sharing in what they believed to be an illegitimate political system imposed by the United States. President Ghani, in turn, demanded that the transfer of power be based on votes alone, but he showed willingness to hold early elections for the sake of peace. Potential rival candidates argued that no credible election could take place under a party to the conflict. These candidates pushed President Ghani to step aside and let an interim government oversee the elections, which he refused.
In the internal debates regarding peace, three important segments of Afghan society remained outside the process. Youth, women, and civil society organizations, including the media in Afghanistan, did not know what benefits peace would bring them. Apart from symbolic representation in some meetings that were held by the government or the international community, these groups did not meaningfully participate in the wider peace process.
Disagreements over how non-Taliban groups could negotiate with the Taliban were also not resolved. Ghani wanted a two-sided table — the government and the Taliban — in order to portray a united Islamic Republic. But others viewed this format as an unacceptable opportunity for government technocrats to assume leadership roles in the peace negotiations. Therefore, political opponents of the president advocated for multi-party talks in which each side could bargain based on its own interests: the government, the Taliban, political parties, and civil society.
The lack of a shared vision or clear objectives for the peace process among non-Taliban factions ultimately was another factor that contributed to the inability to achieve a settlement.
In addition to leadership challenges, technical chaos prevailed over the political peace process. The High Peace Council, which later transformed into the High Council of National Reconciliation under Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, was in constant rivalry with the Afghan president and never achieved the power needed to represent the political arm of the peace process. The State Ministry of Peace attempted but failed to project itself as the technical arm of the peace talks. Others rightly viewed “technical matters” as a strategic tool to influence the process.
There were also other governmental agencies that claimed leadership, which instead only added ambiguity to the process. Chief among these agencies was the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC), which maintained a Directorate of Peace and Reconciliation Affairs. Furthermore, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs struggled to preserve its perceived status as the point of contact on peace affairs for foreign countries. Disjointed involvement from too many people and institutions in the peace process meant local Afghans and foreign diplomats had difficulty coordinating their activities with the government.
To make matters worse, rivalries, incompetence, and ideological differences led to the formation of factions within the Afghan state’s negotiations team. When the president was finally able to create a government-led team, it was divided. A former head of the intelligence agency, Masoom Stanikzai, was the lead negotiator. But the Islamist Taliban disregarded Stanikzai because of his former affiliation with parties that were known for their adherence to communist ideologies. Via the Chinese and Uzbekistani governments, the Taliban asked the central government in Kabul to keep Stanikzai out of the peace negotiations. The government responded that the Taliban did not have veto power. Parallel to the official negotiations team, a secret channel of communication between the government and the Taliban opened in Doha, according to Fawzia Koofi, one of the negotiators.
The process was further complicated by foreign interventions. In December 2018, after a year-long effort, high-level representatives from Afghanistan, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia succeeded in bringing the Afghan government and Taliban negotiators to Abu Dhabi. Even though the two Afghan sides did not meet face-to-face during that time, this quadrilateral effort saw some progress until the Americans shifted the venue to Qatar.
Two years later, there was a new team of negotiators from Kabul and a new process was underway in Doha. At this moment, the U.S. administration changed and the newly appointed Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked the sides, via a letter, to appear for peace talks in Turkey. A meeting in Istanbul never materialized, perhaps because the Qataris, with significant influence over the Taliban, opposed it. Each change of plan meant more stakeholders offended, a reshuffling of negotiating teams to adjust their levels of participation, new logistical complexities, discontinuity, and, eventually, failure.
Peace negotiations never took place directly between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Composed of a few members, a governmental contact group repeatedly met with the Taliban in Qatar; but this was the extent of the face-to-face interaction between the two sides. They worked out the principles for the talks but never succeeded in developing an agenda, let alone negotiated over it.
Reducing peace to one element of a foreign deal
The role of the United States was equally important in forestalling peace.
For many years, the overriding stated purpose of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was to counter terrorism. And so, under the influence of this policy, the Afghan government continuously presented its peace plans as a counterterrorism strategy.
Over time, America’s assessment of the nature of the threat changed, with major terrorist hotspots appearing in other areas of the world. So, America shifted its sights toward withdrawal from Afghanistan, prioritizing the end of its protracted involvement in the region. The agreement U.S. officials signed with the Taliban in 2020 demanded security guarantees for the pull back of U.S. troops and the Taliban’s commitment to counterterrorist actions; but it encouraged the mere start of peace talks among Afghans and only included a ceasefire as a topic for discussion in subsequent intra-Afghan negotiations.
Once the U.S. was determined to depart and the collapse of the Afghan government became conceivable, negotiations with the Taliban were deemed more important than negotiating with the Afghan government. Diplomats and military generals from the U.S., Europe, and regional countries queued up to talk with the Taliban. The insurgent group viewed this string of international visitors as proof of the effectiveness of their violent movement. Now that the whole world was at their door and the United Nations had endorsed the deal they signed with Washington, they sensed it was only a matter of time before they would seize Kabul.
The Taliban, thus, encouraged the U.S. side to pressure the Afghan government into giving in without preconditions. Most notably, under foreign insistence, the Afghan authorities released more than 5,000 dangerous Taliban detainees in 2020, in return for one-fifth that number of their own prisoners. Against their pledge, these violent extremists returned to the battlefield with greater resolve for vengeance, while the Taliban leadership rewarded their time spent behind bars by appointing them as field commanders.
Conclusion and recommendations
The last political peace process failed, but the need for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan did not disappear. In fact, conditions likely to drive armed conflict — such as political exclusion and social oppression — are growing daily under the new regime. Therefore, Afghanistan requires a new political process that aims to not only prevent another civil war but also achieve lasting peace. Afghan leaders need to develop the capability to rally the public and align all Afghan sides of the conflict around a common vision for the future of the country.
The international community, particularly the United States, should undertake three specific sets of actions to foster the conditions for such a political process:
First, the U.S. should change its pragmatic engagement with the Taliban to a more inclusive engagement with all Afghan stakeholders, including civil society organizations, political parties, armed opposition groups, ethnic and religious minorities, women, and youth. While the U.S. has no diplomatic presence in Kabul, American officials can engage Afghan actors in the region around Afghanistan as well as communicate with those inside Afghanistan virtually, through video conference calls. Finally, Washington could better coordinate its efforts with the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which has a political office that is active on the ground.
Engagement with non-Taliban actors will have a range of repercussions. For leaders who remain inside Afghanistan, contact with the U.S. will come with security risks. Their identities should be protected; but ultimately, they must be allowed to determine for themselves whether the risks are worthwhile. U.S. interactions with the armed opposition to the Taliban can take place without providing material support to such factions. Engaging with America can still benefit armed groups as a means of exerting political pressure on the Taliban. If the U.S. administration shies away from such a policy, Congress should fill this gap.
In fact, Capitol Hill lawmakers ought to play a more active role regardless of the presidential administration’s stance vis-à-vis Afghanistan. American senators and House members should intensify their meetings with Afghans in the U.S. as well as travel to Europe and the region around Afghanistan to meet with leaders in exile. These meetings would broadcast a confident message that America stands with the people of Afghanistan in their struggle to create a peaceful and free country.
Second, the U.S. should use its leverage with the Taliban more strategically to encourage the start of a political process. For instance, the U.S. should work with the U.N. Security Council to turn international sanctions into effective tools of diplomacy rather than use them solely as punishment. Currently, neither imposed sanctions nor limited waivers are tied to specific political or accountability benchmarks and objectives. The unfreezing of Afghanistan’s assets and discussions about recognizing a new government should become conditional on progress in a legitimate political process.
Conditions and benchmarks for launching such a political process may include initiating a series of meetings between Afghan actors and the Taliban, developing a list of popular demands — from opening girls’ schools and reversing restrictive measures against women to creating a broad-based and people-centric government — and finally, delivering on these demands within agreed timeframes.
Identifying stakeholders to meet with the Taliban is complicated but not impossible. One way to group different segments of Afghan society is based on their ideological visions for the country: modernists who constitute much of the new generation of Afghan leaders, conservatives like the jihadist groups, fundamentalists such as the Taliban and their sympathizers, and moderates who have separated from or never joined the other three groups. Representation of all these ideological differences is important because not all civil society organizations, political parties, or women’s groups think alike.
Finally, Washington must revise its approach toward Afghanistan in light of the fact that al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri — who last month was eliminated by a U.S. drone strike — was found to have been sheltered in Kabul. America should, thus, take certain diplomatic steps to mobilize the region and the wider international community to ensure a political process leads to a government that does not harbor terrorists but promotes peace and stability in the world.
Al-Zawahiri’s presence only a few miles from Kabul’s Presidential Palace demonstrated that a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan can be dangerous for the region and beyond. A high-level visit from the U.S. administration or Congress to Central or South Asia in the near-term could potentially ignite momentum among regional countries to mobilize and diplomatically curb future threats that emanate from Afghanistan. The only sustainable means to achieve such an objective is to encourage the formation of a broad-based and people-centric government that is shaped by all Afghans through an inclusive political process. The fact that the Taliban continue to operate as a de facto “acting” government and have yet to announce a new constitution provides a window of opportunity for initiating such a political process.
These short- to medium-term measures by America are achievable. They could exert some pressure on the Taliban and reassure non-Taliban groups that they are not alone in their struggle. They could also mobilize the region to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a regime-run safehouse for terrorists with objectives reaching far beyond its borders. Lastly, these steps, if sustained long enough to jumpstart a potential political process and see it through to completion, could contribute to the restoration of America’s reputation after its catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Aref Dostyar is a Senior Advisor for the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc-Pulte Afghanistan Peace and Development Research Program, and former Consul General of Afghanistan in Los Angeles. He tweets from @ArefDostyar.
Zmarai Farahi is former Head of the Peace Unit at the Office of the National Security Council of Afghanistan. He tweets from @FarahiZmarai. The views expressed in this piece are their own.
Photo by KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.