After 20 years of international allied engagement in Afghanistan, the country is in a worse state than ever. Despite the peace talks in Doha between the Government of Afghanistan and Taliban, the security situation has deteriorated significantly. In addition, in the last few months, targeted killings of journalists, human rights activists, judges, and teachers have reached an unprecedented level. And many of them have been women.
While the Taliban denies responsibility for the violence, experts have concluded that this is part of the movement’s new strategy to silence civil society and undermine the rule of law and its nascent democracy – and at a critical time of transition. It is a warning that cannot be ignored.
Notwithstanding this chilling development, the Biden administration has inherited the Trump-administration’s commitment to withdraw the remaining US-troops from Afghanistan by 1st May. A large number of troops have already been pulled out in accordance with the US-agreement with the Taliban. Just 2500 remain. It is decision time for President Biden and his colleagues in the White House.
While the presence of American troops has not really helped stabilize the situation in Afghanistan, let alone succeed in combatting terrorism, a premature withdrawal without an agreed framework for peace going forward, will likely have devastating consequences. A concerted, coordinated effort by the US, and by key actors in the region and beyond, will be critical. Otherwise, Afghanistan risks falling into chaos. This can in turn further destabilize a volatile region, which can become an even stronger operating theatre for terrorist groups, affecting us all.
The Biden administration is now reviewing its policies, including the Trump-agreement, and will shortly present its own plan for Afghanistan. We got a first hint of where that is headed with the letter Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently sent to President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan. The Secretary outlined a number of steps the US is planning to take to “move matters more fundamentally and quickly” toward a political settlement and cease-fire. The US would ask Turkey to host peace negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban in the coming weeks and the United Nations would be requested to convene talks with the region and geopolitical powers like Iran, Russia and China, to coordinate a unified approach to peace in Afghanistan.
The peace negotiations in Doha have been stalled for a long time now, and there is a dire need for American engagement to get the talks out of the dead-water. Secretary Blinken has now moved ahead with speed, suggesting major changes in the process. Accelerated talks between the two parties, to be accompanied with a commitment to a 90-day reduction in violence, leading up to a senior-level meeting between the two sides in the coming weeks in Turkey. For a long time, the absence of an impartial third party-mediator has made progress very difficult. Now, this is happening.
In addition, achieving peace is not possible without engaging regional powers, including Iran, India, Pakistan, Russia and China, and the neighbours in Central Asia. This was another major problem with the Doha-negotiations. Ignoring them would allow these important countries to undermine the process. The objective must be to try to make the regional powers part of the solution, and not part of the problem. If Afghanistan is to be stabilized, a coordinated regional strategy is needed. The UN can indeed play an important role in such a process, as an honest broker. It is time the organisation is given the opportunity.
There are still many unknowns in the US-strategy, however. Expected agreements on foundational principles for Afghanistan’s future, for example, leave the status of the existing Afghan constitution open, and for example the fate of important principles on human rights and the rights and status of women. Opinion polls show that these rights have strong support from the vast majority of Afghans. While agreement to achieve peace is fundamental for Afghanistan’s future, walking back on these critical principles would be disastrous.
It is decision time, not only for the American administration but also for all the Afghan leaders and for the region. Will the Taliban be willing to compromise on these (and other) issues? Will the regional powers accept that their interests are best served not with propping up their favourite Afghan allies or with playing them against each other, but with an Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbours? And will the prominent leaders in Afghanistan, past and present, accept a framework of peace that does not guarantee their continued prominence for the future? The US is walking a tight rope here, but so are others.
Secretary Blinken called for a unified voice for peace from the most influential among the Afghan leaders. And he warned that absent this a withdrawal by 1st May could still become a reality. Let us hope this veiled threat does not become a reality. It is decision time indeed. Much is at stake, and time is short. And we know that these multiple decisions will have global consequences. Because what happens in Afghanistan has. Let us hope all stakeholders involved have this in mind, and not solely their own self-interest.