What Makes Afghanistan Peace Process a Tricky Affair?

Zalmay Khalilzad, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation
Credit: U.S. Institute of Peace, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The United States is seeking a dignified end to its war in Afghanistan. The Biden administration has taken a diplomatic route to ensure that the Afghan peace process succeeds. To see the point better, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently is reported to have sent a letter — proposing a peace plan to Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. Moreover, the discussion on the draft of a peace agreement which was shared by Washington with the Afghan parties – reflects the seriousness with which America is dealing with the long-standing Afghan issue.

Though the Biden administration is reviewing its Afghan policy, it looks committed to withdrawing from Afghanistan after securing a peace settlement among the Afghan parties engaged in a fierce battle to assume power in Kabul. Incidentally, president Joe Biden maintains that meeting the May 1 deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan is a tough ask but the Taliban has warned against any move tantamount to delay in the troop pull-out. The big question is: if Washington fails to meet the deadline and the Taliban reacts with harsh measures, who will be held responsible for the ‘back to square one equation’ in Afghanistan? Obviously, the two sides will accuse each other of the breach of the Feb. 29 (2020) peace deal signed in Doha, a situation which will yield serious consequences for the worn-torn nation.

As per the letter sent to president Ghani from Mr. Blinken, it is proposed that a transitional Afghan government be set up once an agreement is reached among the various Afghan parties. However, the Afghan president has rejected the proposal, saying he will propose a new presidential election within six months. To this effect, he is set to put forward a peace plan, at an international gathering in Turkey next month, consisting of his offer to the US  proposal — the interim arrangement.

If Mr. Ghani agrees to the interim government, which he opposes in strong terms, the Afghan peace process is likely to move ahead with bright or dark prospects. But if he decides against stepping down, it will be a double-edged sword for him: one, he will further antagonize the Taliban, adding to their alienation; two, his refusal will reflect on the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts and influence aimed at clinching Afghan issue. Alienating the US will in no way be a political victory for the current Afghan government.  What is noteworthy is that without the Afghan president’s support, it will be very difficult for the US to move ahead on its roadmap for an end to its engagement in Afghanistan.

Besides, it will never be a cakewalk exercise for the Afghan leaders and the warring parties to find a power-sharing arrangement that can work smoothly. A Taliban spokesman has hinted that interim arrangements have not met with success in the past. It will be interesting to know the Taliban’s final stance on the interim government offer.

The other requirements under the US-drafted peace plan include a draft peace agreement to accelerate talks on a settlement and ceasefire, a meeting to be convened by the United Nations of the big regional players such as Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran and the US, and a 90-day reduction in violence — conditions which if met are likely to generate a cordial and confidence-building atmosphere for the peace settlement to actualize. But with the warring parties yet to reach any consensus, the political settlement of the Afghan issue looks far away. The main obstacle in taking the peace process forward is the clash of interests among the various parties to the long-pending issue. Unless negotiations focus on dismantling the walls blocking the way forward, there are slim chances of settlement of the Afghan conundrum. As of the regional consensus, it is indeed a key for the peace efforts to flourish. For Iran, participating in the regional backing process for the peace deal is significant: not only will Tehran be able to show its diplomatic potential in settling issues of global influence but also it will gain Tehran a window to get closer to Washington, a diplomatic act which can prove a good omen in the context of the Iran nuclear accord of 2015. Russia, India and Pakistan — three key regional players, are expected to play an important role in clinching the Afghan peace process.

Pertinently, the US needs to drop the posture of frustration and impatience in relation to the peace negotiations which are already underway between the warring sides of Afghanistan. Settling the decade-long issue can be tricky but to resolve it with all the warring parties on board will be a unique breakthrough. For that to happen, the US needs to ensure that it does not force the two sides to a settlement to be seen as a US-manufactured solution. For a successful solution to the tricky Afghan issue, tough compromises are to be made by the Taliban and Kabul. So both the parties may take time to arrive at any conclusion.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.