Is Afghanistan, a country ravaged by war over the past four decades, on the verge of a blossoming peace?
On the surface, the question sounds ridiculous. Afghanistan, after all, is the most violent nation on the planet. Civilians die on a daily basis, caught in the crossfire between Taliban and Afghan security forces who battle near their homes, in their neighborhoods, and by their marketplaces.
Afghan civilians aren’t even safe in their own places of worship. Various groups — including the Islamic State — deliberately target mosques and schools as if they were extensions of the battlefield. The United Nations reported that 2018 was the deadliest year on record for the Afghan people in a decade, with over 3,800 killed in acts of violence.
Yet it would be an act of extreme cynicism to simply dismiss the latest developments in the Afghan peace process, particularly the intra-Afghan peace conference hosted in Doha, Qatar, on July 7-8. While there is nothing particularly new about these events — there have been countless Afghan peace initiatives sponsored by foreign governments and non-governmental organizations over the past 18 years — the conference this month in Doha was unique. For the first time in a long time, Afghans who were part of the government in Kabul sat with Taliban officials around the same table.
This is nothing to overlook or trivialize. While the Taliban remains insistent that it will not negotiate with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s administration, the group has been open to meeting Afghan government officials in their personal capacities.
In an ideal world, Taliban and Afghan government delegations would come together and talk peace for the sake of their fellow Afghans. But the world of diplomacy often operates far below the realm of the perfect. Insisting on the ideal, regardless of how difficult it is to achieve, is typically the quickest way to a diplomatic stalemate. If we are to even have a glimmer of hope for eventual peace and stability in Afghanistan, we must not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.
As much as President Ghani will resist, he may have no choice but to follow the advice of former U.N. special representative Kai Eide by swallowing hard and nominating delegates sympathetic to Kabul’s position but who are nonetheless representing themselves as Afghans first and foremost.
There are two sets of active negotiations at the present time.
The first, between U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban, is in many ways the easiest one. After eight months of intense talks, U.S. and Taliban delegates understand what the end-game is. For the Taliban, a U.S. and foreign troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is the main objective. For Washington, preventing Afghanistan from posing a terrorist threat to the American people and to U.S. interests is the paramount goal — as it should be.
The difficulty is determining the right sequence of events, such as whether a troop departure should occur during an intra-Afghan peace agreement or after a deal is finalized.
It is the second set of negotiations, those among the Afghans themselves, which will be the most arduous and complicated. Unlike the discussions between the U.S. and the Taliban, which in many ways are similar to a simple transaction, talks among Afghans concern issues of incredible gravity to that country — including, but not limited to, how political power is dispersed in Kabul and across the country; how the rights of minorities and women can be defended; whether Afghanistan’s system of government will remain centralized in Kabul or become more localized; and how Taliban fighters will be integrated into the Afghan security apparatus.
None of these subjects is easy; indeed, if they were, the war would have ended years ago.
The communiqué issued after the two-day Afghan peace dialogue in Doha, however short and vague, serves as a rough opening blueprint for more substantive negotiations in the future.
To be disappointed at the lack of concrete details after a single weekend, as some appear to be, is useless energy and dangerous impatience. Peace in the complex environment that is Afghanistan cannot happen after a single round of negotiations, and it’s dangerously naïve to expect such an outcome. To expect progress on the details would be to cheer for a result that was so hopefully optimistic that it bordered on clueless.
If there is even a slim opportunity for Afghans across all sectors of society to enter the stage where haggling over the details is on the agenda, the international community will need to exhibit the wisdom to realize that there are no quick solutions to problems that have lasted decades. This will be a marathon, not a sprint — and it could very well be the case that the runners aren’t able to cross the finish line. But if through our patience we allow them to move a few inches closer, it will be worth it.
The American people are understandably exacerbated with how the war in Afghanistan has progressed. Fifty-eight percent of U.S. veterans and 59% of American adults believe the war was not worth fighting. This is a stinging indictment on U.S. policy and reveals a general frustration across the American population of the decisions policymakers in Washington have made since this conflict began. They are, in a word, tired.
The American people and the men and women in uniform who have fought so hard on the front-lines deserve a sense of cloture. The peace process, warts and all, has the ability to finally produce it.