16 August 2019

Afghanistan- the coming peace. If not September, then when?

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

After president Donald Trump announced, last year in December, that he will withdraw the US militaries from Syria, now, the president wants to accomplish another of his electoral campaign promises, that being the withdrawal, if not total, at least partial, of the American contingent from Afghanistan. The reasons behind this decision are mostly electoral, but the political, economic, financial and military ones are also important.

Image source: Mediafax

A plumb evaluation for a flying electoral campaign

The Afghanistan campaign, after 18 years of thousands of American militaries being dislocated there, after tens and hundreds of billion dollars invested in a clay walls construction (there are public estimations which are referring to a 1 trillion dollar amount, around 50 of country’s national GDPs or 200 national budgets), did not come with the expected military and political dividends. Where US and NATO member states’ forces brought peace, the presence of US’s regional competitors, firstly China, but also India, Russia and Iran is more active than ever.

The mediation of this withdrawal is on ambassador to Afghanistan’s responsibility, Zalmay Khalilzad, former diplomat in this country, as well as on the contacts they have with the Taliban movement, through their representation structure from Doha, Qatar.

The process has many phases, because, although there is a political will to make it happen, both from the American side and Kabul’s government as well, negotiations are not that simple, as there are so many disputes, and the Afghan opposition lies in wait also to be included in it.

As for the governmental part, it tries to create a national debate framework, one to allow a good representation for all social categories, for all regions. The representatives chosen this way had a mandate to present their specific problems and their hopes.

Diplomacy is always optimistic… However…

The 8th negotiation round from Doha, that took place recently, it was also the most successful one, as the ambassador Khalilzad was claiming. It was also the moment Afghan government’s representatives and Taliban’s ones made direct contact, something unlikely to happen some time ago. The contacts were not recognized, as the Afghan officials came to negotiations personally, authorized by Kabul. It is a step forward. Another one was the support Pakistan promised to give to this process, something discussed during the White House visit of the Pakistan prime-minister, Imran Khan. It is a tough deal for Washington, as president Trump, not long ago, was accusing Islamabad for being like a black hole for US, more of a money consumer than a support provider in the fight against terrorism. It seems that prime-minister Khan was convincing enough to make the American president change his mind, also taking advantage on the electoral circumstance.

After this negotiation round, we can already talk about some of this withdrawal plan’s specific elements, some steps that should be made. Although nothing is certain until the documents are signed, and even then also they can have some surprises, we can use Khalilzad's assessment to define the moment: 80 - 90% of the negotiation was completed. As everyone knows, the few percentages left are always the most difficult. Concretely, they have agreed the following:

- The US withdrawal will be between 4,000 and 5,000 militaries, which would decrease the US contingent deployed to Afghanistan from about 14,000 to just under 10,000. Subsequently, it is possible to be reduced also the representation of some of the NATO partner states that contribute to the Resolute Support Mission (including Romania, with its more than 700 military), but this will soon be the result of inter-allied negotiations;

- In the following negotiations phase, Taliban’s representatives and those of the Afghan government should face each other, this time officially. Therefore, negotiations’ location will have to be changed to a more neutral location, probably Norway, as unofficially suggested, and the number of representatives will probably be bigger. Maybe even Mullah Baradar, the Taliban's political leader, will come. This step could take place no later than a few weeks and should not take long, because President Trump has set a deadline for completing these negotiations;

- the agreement should be ready by September 1, conditioned to both President Trump's planning and election needs and the straightforward entry of the Afghanistan election campaign for the September 28 elections.

… negotiations that are smelling like dust are not good for an agreement

It is known that elections, the electoral period in general, are not a good time for negotiations, especially those having such a high stake, so the opportunity for these discussions is not very large.

 In the 80-90% percentages there are a number of important provisions regarding national representation, power sharing, security assurance. In the 10-20% percentages of no agreement, there are several elements that can be extremely important for the future progress of these negotiations. Most important, from a government perspective, are the guarantees that the Taliban reintegration process will take place as established. Because there are a number of realities in the field and lessons learned, in recent years, which are raising skepticism upon an overly optimistic vision of this post-agreement phase:

- The Taliban are already controlling 50-60% of the national territory, the biggest part since 2001. In other words, they are on fire and they know it. Indeed, most of the cities and the urban population are in the governmental areas, but communication, spaces in between and freedom of movement are all belonging to Taliban.

- so far, Taliban negotiators’ answers to the basic problems of functioning and defining the state have not been clear, although they agreed on the principles. It is going to be an Islamic state, according to what both sides seem to have agreed, but will it be a republic or an emirate (following Qatar's model, for example)? There will be elections, as agreed by both parts. But what kind of elections? The Taliban have contested the last three rounds of elections under international monitoring, and the presence of observers has only convinced them that foreign actors have interfered. Women will be protected, both parties seem to have agreed. But how, continuing to allow them to participate in an early education process that brought millions of Afghan girls and women, for the first time, in schools, that have allowed their representation in government, administration and parliament, or bringing them back to a safe place, say the Taliban, the four walls of their family's house that will give them what the Afghan tradition says they have to offer?

Even withdrawing, more haste, less speed

This urgent withdrawal, mostly needed by electoral reasons, rather than solving the situation in Afghanistan, could affect process’s quality and its accomplishment accordingly with the provisions stipulated in the agreement.

As for this latter point, a broader explanation should be offered. Generally, for an agreement to be materialized, especially given Afghanistan’s issue complexity and the lack of trust between the sides, it is necessary to be based not only on a well- written text, but also on a number of preconditions, whose implementation depends on the whole process, including a military truce between the sides, with very clear delimitation in terms of the the controlled territories and the necessary verification measures.

 Therefore, the negotiations should have been preceded by a ceasefire between the Taliban group and government forces, to prove that the both parts are genuinely interested in a discussion process that would end with an agreement.

The announcement of Taliban's spring-summer offensive, as well as the latest attacks in Kabul, are, in fact, proving that the Taliban are trying to use the force situation on the field to position themselves in an advantageous position at the negotiation table.

It also shows that the process takes place in a chaotic environment, difficult to control by the current US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, but that will be even more difficult to control it when this force is smaller.

But it is not only the Taliban who are trying to use the negotiation process in their own interests. The pro-government forces, especially President Ashraf Ghani, are accused by the Afghan opposition of using the public consultation process initiated in talks with the Taliban, with a series of procedural steps starting with local, regional, to national representation, as an electoral promotion framework for the elections to take place in September 28, 2019.

Also, this urgency to have a document that would allow part some US forces to get back to their bases will invert these steps. Indeed, the draft agreement will be important, it will be presented as an important victory for the American diplomacy and, implicitly, the president, but its implementation, lacking the necessary training elements, will depend on the chance of ad-hoc developments that, given Afghanistan’s situation, cannot but be regarded as negative

It is not a conclusion, but a perspective that…

… instead of a military armistice, followed by a discussion on how to distribute the power, ended with an agreement to involve also an international body, maybe UN, to monitor its implementation, the drama to be played, most likely, in September, will have, firstly, a script written by two authors, then the actors will be free to say whatever they want.

Afterwards, one of them may decide that he wants a solo at the end of the show.

Translated by Andreea Soare