Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Getting to the Steering Wheel: President Ghani’s new set of peace proposals

Thomas Ruttig 20 min

President Ashraf Ghani updated peace plan, presented at the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan on 28 November, the 13th international Afghanistan conference since 2001, built on the February 2018 Kabul Process proposals. Ghani foresees a five-phase approach to consultations and five years of implementation. At the same time, these proposals represent an attempt to reassert the Afghan government’s role in a peace process that has barely commenced, not least due to the Taleban’s refusal to negotiate with Kabul, and when the process remains dominated by the US agenda. AAN’s co-director, Thomas Ruttig, analyses the document, while also considering the Taleban’s most recent statement at the Afghanistan conference in Moscow (with input by Jelena Bjelica from Geneva).

Afghanistan’s government is seeking a “peace agreement” with the Afghan Taleban, who, if they agreed “would be included in a democratic and inclusive society.” This is the key statement of an evolved plan, a “road map for peace negotiations” as President Ghani called it when he presented it to the Geneva conference’s main session, a minister-level meeting with representatives of 90 donor governments and multilateral organisations on 28 November 2018 (see an AAN primer on the conference here and the Afghan government’s official concept paper for the conference here). A three-page document, titled “Achieving Peace: The Next Chapter in the Afghan-led Peace Process,” was published summarising the proposals.(1)

Ghani’s Geneva peace proposals are not called a new plan, but rather a “new chapter” to an existing one. These build on and modify elements of earlier proposals and plans – including Ghani’s “unconditional” peace proposals as laid out in a speech at the second meeting of the “Kabul Process for Peace and Security Cooperation in Afghanistan” held in the Afghan capital on 28 February 2018 and in its final declaration (full text here and AAN analysis here). The Kabul Process 2 meeting is was a senior officials meeting attended by donor and regional governments.

The plan’s main content

Ghani’s proposals for a “new chapter in the Afghan-led peace process” consists of three main elements: four ‘tenets’, in which main principles for peace are reiterated; five “phases” of consultations with various domestic and international actors involved in the current war, both or either militarily and politically; and a five-year implementation period. It also prominently speaks about the relationship between a peace process and the April 2019 Afghan presidential elections.

The president started the introduction of his updated plan with the reiteration of four “tenets” under which the Taleban would be included in a “democratic and inclusive society.” This, in itself, is already a ‘tenet’, as it is far from clear that the Taleban would agree to the term ‘democratic’ and how they would define ‘inclusive.’ Ghani emphasised that these tenets came out of “extensive consultations over the past eight months with diverse groups of Afghans.” He particularly referred to his own meetings: “For the past eight months, I have listened to men women from all strata and all over the country, in Kabul, but also the provinces in my trips. ”Actually, the tenets represent the much-debated ‘red lines’ or ‘conditions’ – although these terms are not used – behind which the government vows not to fall back in any future negotiations.

Ghani had already laid out these tenets in his speech at the February Kabul Process meeting (in its Pashto part, see here) – here in the Geneva version:

  1. The Constitutional rights and obligations, of all citizens, especially women, are ensured.
  2. The Constitution is accepted, or amendments proposed through the constitutional provision[s].
  3. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and civil service function according to law.
  4. No armed groups with ties to transnational terrorist networks or transnational criminal organizations, or with ties to state/non-state actors, seeking influence in Afghanistan will be allowed to join the political process.

Tenet no 3 is probably the only one which the Taleban would agree to without much discussion. They have made it clear in earlier track II meetings that they are interested in keeping Afghanistan’s security forces functioning and to avoid their breakdown (see in this AAN analysis). Tenet 4 is mainly a US demand (although surely widely shared among the Afghan population), namely that the Taleban guarantee to break all relations with al-Qaeda and associated terrorist groups. This does not seem to be unrealistic, although the Taleban have so far avoided in distancing themselves from those groups in public.

The focus on the constitution could prove more problematic, as the Taleban reject it. In their statement at the mid-November Moscow Conference on Afghanistan organised by the Russian foreign ministry (also known as Moscow format consultations; transcript here) they stated that the constitution had been

[…] copied from the West and has been imposed on Afghanistan’s Muslim society under the shadow of occupation. It can neither respond to the desires of the Afghans nor can be implemented, as its provisions are vague and contradictory with each other. […] So, the current constitution in its present version is a major obstacle to peace.

In the Taleban’s view, it needs to be substantially ‘reformed’ based on Sharia principles (read AAN analysis here) or even re-drafted (see Moscow statement).

Not really new is the idea off a “five-phase approach” of consultations of relevant domestic and international actors, ie with the Taleban and other relevant Afghan political (and social?) groups (“intra-Afghan dialogue”) ,“with Pakistan and the United States” as key players in the conflict, with “regional actors, the Arab-Islamic world,” and NATO and non-NATO countries, ie current and, hopefully, future donors. The latter two groups are required to work out an “implementation plan for a post-peace Afghanistan” and fund it, and to “secure the international and regional guarantees required to sustain peace.”

Ghani also said that there should be confidence-building measures in the first year, without giving more detail or saying who should start. The Taleban had their ideas about this laid out in Moscow, too, there called “preliminary steps for peace” that included: the removal of the UN (and possibly other) sanctions list against them; the release of Taleban detainees; a formal (re-)opening of their political office in Qatar (AAN analysis here), and a stop to what they call “poisonous propaganda against the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. This refers to incidents they see themselves being blamed for without proof, such as “blowing [up] bridges, spraying acid on school students, [plant]ing road side [bombs against] civilian vehicles, abducting people and committing other crimes.”

What was entirely new in Ghani’s Geneva speech was that he envisages that the “implementation of the peace process” will require “minimally […] five years.” This corresponds with the next president’s tenure (he will hope his own one).

However, the links between the three main elements in Ghani’s updated peace plan – the ‘tenets’, the five phases of consultations and the implementation period – remain unclear. For example, it is left open as to whether the implementation phase refers to Ghani’s peace plan, or a future peace agreement – and, if the latter, whether the president has an idea as to how quickly this can be achieved. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation(about his role more below), for example, was more outspoken on this point in a recent radio interview where he said he would

[…] hope that the Taliban and Afghans would use the election date as a deadline to achieve a peace agreement before then.[…] Ideally, of course, it would be good to have an agreement with the Taliban first, and then have the presidential election, because then the Talibs will also participate in a possible election, or whatever road map the Afghans agree to.

The Afghan government’s message on its peace proposals had been carefully threaded in the readouts and bilateral statements at the Geneva conference. The readouts from side meetings and side events all included references to the peace process, mainly as a consideration on how a development agenda would accommodate it (see the video recording of the readouts from side meetings, side events; as well as bilateral statements; statements by representatives of partner governments; as well as the Afghan civil society joint statement, see here and here). On 29 November 2018, the day following the conference, a meeting was held between representatives from Afghan non-governmental organisations (NGO), UN agencies, donors and international NGOs based in Afghanistan and/or Geneva on the so-called triple nexus approach, ie interlinkages between humanitarian, development and peace actors (for more background see here). This meeting aimed at kicking off a national dialogue on the triple nexus – tailored for Afghanistan and to include all relevant stakeholders.

Downgrading the High Peace Council

Furthermore, Ghani announced that “the required bodies and mechanisms to pursue a peace agreement” have been formed now. First, there is a new 12-member negotiating team led by presidential chief of staff, Salam Rahimi. It also comprises three women and a former deputy Taleban minister, Abdul Hakim Munib. He is the highest-ranking ex-Taleb ever in a post-2001 government position, first as provincial governor of Uruzgan and, currently, as deputy minister for religious and Haj affairs. (2)

Secondly, a new “peace advisory board” comprising of nine committees will be established. It will “provide direction” to the negotiating team and “ensure consensus.” Nine committees will represent key political and social groups: political leaders, political parties; youth; women; religious scholars; provincial leaders (which might give a role to the elected provincial councils); civil society: the private sector; refugees and the diaspora. There seems to be a possible overlap between some of these groups, as most political leaders who are often consulted by the president are also party leaders; the same goes for some leading ulema.

At the same time, the role of the High Peace Council (HPC) has been significantly cut down. “On their own request […], it will be restructured to focus on public awareness and provide advice regarding post-peace scenarios.” Ie, there will be no HPC role in the negotiations itself. This controversial body, formally in charge of negotiations (see its role in the 2016 peace deal with Hezb-e Islami) had been established by ex-President Hamed Karzai in 2010 and already had been significantly reorganised in 2016 (read AAN analysis here and here).

Two members of the HPC’s Executive Board of Advisors have made it into the negotiating team: Attaullah Ludin, a long-time commander of Hezb-e Islami (but currently not in Hekmatyar’s faction) and Hasina Safi, who went from director of the Afghan Women’s Network to culture and information minister. The two other women are Shahgul Rezayi, a young Hazara MP from Ghazni who did not run again this year, and deputy refugee minister, Dr Alema (one name only), who has a western education, both from the old East and now reunited Germany. Conspicuously missing from the negotiations team is the HPC’s vice chair, Habiba Sarobi, the most high-profile and senior woman there, so far (Rezayi and Safi are much younger). It remains to be seen whether she will stay on the reformed peace council instead and use her experience gathered on the body over the last years and contribute to working out post-agreement scenarios.

All members have leading posts in government, parliament, the Supreme Court or the Ulema Council. This ensures the government’s prerogative over any negotiations, although a continuing role of the Afghan intelligence service and the National Security Council can be assumed.

The context

Recent United States initiatives toward a negotiated end to the Afghan war and a withdrawal of its troops from the country had lent new urgency to the Afghan government’s peace efforts. These efforts had been given new impetus during the February 2018 Kabul Process meeting, after initial initiatives – immediately after his election in 2014 Ghani had sought China’s and Pakistan’s support, resulting in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and US; AAN analysis here) and the 2015 Murree talks – had faltered (AAN analysis here).

In 2018, Ghani achieved a ceasefire over the Eid festival in mid-June, which the Taleban also joined in with. It was widely applauded, not least among Afghans of all sides. AAN wrote that it allowed them “to imagine their country at peace” for the first time after almost two decades of a new phase in its 40 years’ wars. However, nothing more followed. The Taleban rebuked an ambitious three-months’ follow-up ceasefire offer by the government, as they did not want to give the government carte blanche for the parliamentary elections in October. More generally, they continue to refuse to sit and talk, not to talk of officially negotiating with the Afghan government that they label as “American puppets” and “impotent” in their reaction to Ghani’s proposals.

Khalilzad, the (not so) new US government’s special envoy (3), and other high-ranking US officials, including principal deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of South and Central Asian affairs, Alice Wells, held various rounds of direct talks with Taleban representatives at their political office in Doha, Qatar earlier this year (media reports here and here). Washington called these talks preliminary and vowed that they were designed to facilitate the entry into them of the Afghan government as a third party. (The Taleban used the word “exploratory”; see here.) US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Kabul in July 2018 “we can’t run the peace talks.“ Wells added after a meeting with Taleban representatives later that month in Qatar that “Any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and Afghan government,” and that the US was “exploring all avenues to advance a peace process in close consultation with the Afghan government” (quoted here). After her March 2018 trip to Kabul she already said: “We certainly cannot substitute for the Afghan government and the Afghan people.”

Envoy Khalalzad’s modus operandi, however, created concerns in the Afghan government that it might be sidelined and/or even left out of a bilateral US-Taleban deal. In October 2018, the New York Times quoted Afghan officials as saying that President Ghani had “repeatedly expressed concern and resistance to American officials about the prospect of talks that did not include his government” and reacted “furiously” when he learned about Khalilzad’s first meeting with the Taleban, not from him, but through a Taleban statement, although the US envoy just had visited Kabul before.

Indeed, there already seemed to have been talk about substance at Doha (and Khalilzad’s meetings elsewhere); namely, about the issue of the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan – the Taleban’s main demand – and a schedule for it (read the Taleban statement about their meeting with Khalilzad on 12 October 2018 here). Notably, the Taleban representatives at the mid-November Moscow Conference on Afghanistan in Moscow – the same group who met Wells and Khalilzad, from their Qatar office – had told Russian media in an interview there that before the so-called intra-Afghan talks (ie between them and the government)

[…] the American side should guarantee and they should fix a timetable for the withdrawal of their forces […], than it is possible [to hold talks] with the Afghan side also.

The Taleban also confirmed that the discussions also touched upon what they called an “end to the occupation” as well as removing their leaders from sanctions lists.

The Afghan government had misgivings about this meeting and reportedly insisted it must be in the lead as, in its view, otherwise the meeting would boost the international standing of the Taleban. It decided to not officially participate. The US initially concurred. This led to the postponement of the meeting originally scheduled for 4 September 2018 (media report here). Finally, however, the US sent Moscow-based diplomats, as “observers”, not participants. On the Afghan side, Afghanistan’s High Peace Council (HPC), which is formally independent, but acts based on guidance from the Afghan government sent a delegation. (It had, with its deputy chair, Habiba Sarobi, the only woman at the conference table.) Also, Kabul’s ambassador to Russia, Abdul Qayum Kochi, an uncle of the president, was seen in their midst during the conference (photo here).

Further misgivings in Afghanistan’s government were created by the intensive, weeks’ long discussion about a possible delay of the Afghan presidential election scheduled for 20 April 2018 in Kabul this autumn. This involved diplomats, the UN, as well as young generation leaders of Afghan civil society and political organisations that both overlap. The issue was reportedly also pondered by the country’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) (media report here).

The Wall Street Journal had reported on 13 November that “[t]he Trump administration is discussing whether to press the Afghan government to suspend coming presidential elections, according to people briefed on the discussions” and that the idea had been “raised by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in talks with various stakeholders and intermediaries.” According to this report, he “has suggested that a postponement of the elections could be a component of the peace process.” Ghani, meanwhile, had repeatedly insisted that the election in which he has said he we will run again was held on time, according with the constitution (this would be the first such election in post-2001 Afghanistan). He highlighted this in his Geneva speech again, when he said the next presidential election was “key to successful peace negotiations“, as it would provide “the elected government with a mandate to obtain ratification, implement the peace agreement, and lead the societal reconciliation process.”

Khalilzad and others, however, had suggested that elections could create a fait accompli that would complicate a possible agreement with the Taleban and further harden their stance  – as they have consistently rejected to join the current political system, at least unless it is ‘reformed’ (see this AAN analysis). In order to circumvent a situation in which elections are postponed in breech of the constitution without an alternative, the option of an interim government or council was introduced into the discussion. In the best case, this argument went, Taleban representatives could join it, making it the premise of negotiations. (An interim government is also the choice of a large array of Ghani’s domestic political opponents, who do not trust the electoral institutions, but also eyeing a larger political role. This includes ex-President Karzai, who is blocked from becoming head of state again under the current constitution (more AAN analysis here).

Part of this equation is that the US – as Khalilzad confirmed in his 28 November 2018 radio interview already quoted above – is “in a hurry” for peace in Afghanistan. This is not least driven by a fear of US President Donald Trump’s short fuse, not only when it comes to Afghanistan. In 2013, he had tweeted that “Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis [sic] we train and we waste billions there,” and “We are building roads and schools for people that hate us. It is not in our national interests.” Once in charge, however, he has been forced to change his mind: “[T]he consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable… A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th” (AAN analysis here). However, after his election, in an announcement on 21 August 2017, he reiterated that his“original instinct […] was to pull out” (see the transcript of this speech here). AAN heard from a number of both current and former diplomats in Kabul that they fear that these ‘original instincts’ prevail in Trump’s thinking and might erupt into a pullout decision, if things did not go well in Afghanistan.

However, one day before Ghani spoke in Geneva, the country’s IEC drew a line under such discussions and declared 20 April 2019 as the final election date. This did not happen by accident, but can read as a clear statement by the Palace in Kabul, as the commission is independent only in name (it has been appointed by the president, although after input and consultation with various political groups, mainly the ‘Abdullah camp’ in the National Unity Government, the NUG – AAN analysis here). President Ghani was obviously concerned that the ‘Afghan-lead’ in the ‘peace process’ – often declared, but often overruled by other agendas – might even be further undermined, if elections are not held in time.

Domestic dissent…

One problem for Ghani is that there is no consensus about peace talks and a power sharing with the Taleban, at least in the political class. He indirectly admits this by giving the new peace advisory board the task to “ensure consensus” in the wider society. The range of issues starts from whether there should be ‘red lines’ for negotiations – for example, on democratic, minorities’ and women’s rights – or not, and, if so, which ones to the debate about, whether the Taleban represent parts of the Afghan society or are nothing but “terrorists” and a tool of Pakistan, meaning that talks should be held with Pakistan and not them.

Based on the latter reasons, there is a very articulate constituency that opposestalks with the Taleban in the first place. The most vocal among them is former NDS chief, Amrullah Saleh, who, on a podium at Kabul’s Afghanistan Institute of Strategic Studies (AISS) on 8 November, made clear he did not think there was a difference between the Taleban and the local chapter of the Islamic State and that negotiating with them was “connecting with terrorists.” Former Afghan deputy defence minister and Director General at the Afghan National Security Council Tamim Asey wrote in an op-ed for the Small Wars Journal that “the Afghan Taliban have not changed and […] still serves as an umbrella organization to many terrorist organizations including Al Qaeda and provide them an enabling environment to plan, train and equip for their next deadly missions in the subcontinent and beyond.”

Saleh also doubted that there was any unified “peace process”, nor that it was “Afghan led.” Instead, he said, there were “twelve different countries” running their own ‘processes’. He quoted another strong opponent of Taleban talks, former foreign minister and Karzai advisor, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, who helped set up AISS (and was in the audience) as saying there was only agreement “about one word, peace – everything else is disputed” (a video of his speech here). Former Afghan deputy defence minister and Director General at the Afghan National Security Asey also made his mistrust of the US and NATO’s role visible in his op-ed, writing that both were “in a rush to a graceful exit for its forces with political cover claiming a successful conclusion to the Afghan war.”

It is not clear how large this group’s support is amongst the population. (4) However, it has significant potential to mobilise and link up with other groups and sections of the population who reject the Taleban for their many years’ use of terrorist means and the still large number of civilian casualties inflicted by them as exemplified by the recent Taleban offensive in the south-eastern Hazarajat which involved alleged killings and mass displacement (AAN analysis here and here).

There is also no consensus about the often-heard posit that ‘there is no military solution,’ including in the government. Hamdullah Moheb, the new chairman of the Afghan National Security Council said as much at a reception for foreign media on 21 October 2018 (which was attended by AAN). This is also shared by a number of civil society activists. The Taleban offensive in Hazarajat has deepened both positions – ‘no talks’ and ‘military solution.’

The consultations mentioned by Ghani in Geneva have clearly not overcome the problem of the lacking consensus. This has not only been highlighted by Saleh, but also, for example, Helena Malekyar, an Afghan analyst, who had also been involved in the post-Bonn political process. In a co-authored op-ed for Turkish media she wrote that “to achieve a comprehensive and sustainable peace, first and foremost, all Afghans must feel ownership of the process“ – clearly doubting this was the case – and warned against an deal approved only by the “stamp“ of the “mostly irrelevant old guard.” In Geneva itself, the joint statement of Afghan civil society, presented by two delegates of a group of ten officially invited to the conference and elected in Kabul, sent a strong message by calling the “peace deal” envisaged by the US “a quick fix” and “not sustainable.” One of the ten official Afghan civil society delegates, Suraya Pakzad of Women’s Voice organisation, was quoted as saying “We are concerned that women [rights] will be sacrifices for peace.“

It is also not clear how inclusive those consultations have been. In his Geneva speech, Ghani only referred to his own meetings that are usually attended by handpicked participants. There are also widespread general doubts about how inclusive Ghani’s approach is. AAN heard from those involved in an earlier phase of consultations, immediately after his takeover as president, that it was mainly Ghani who spoke in such meetings. This left little time for those consulted who were then asked to provide their input in writing, which then remained without reply.

… and the issue of elections

Ghani’s hope for his new legitimacy through the April 2019 presidential election might be problematic. If those elections are as poorly organised and conducted as the October 2018 parliamentary polls were (read AAN analysis here) and end with a disputed result similar to that of 2014 (which led to the creation of the unbeloved NUG), the government’s legitimacy might suffer even further and weaken its position vis-à-vis the Taleban.

It would require a miracle if even only the most important shortcomings in the country’s electoral institutions could be sorted out in the extremely short time of under five months remains (for the many shortcomings, see AAN’s Election Conundrum series here). This includes an eventual reshuffle of the IEC that, as rumours in Kabul go, is under discussion, which would require consensus about new personnel in a highly disunited and mutually suspicious government led by two (possible) contenders of the elections this commission is to conduct. Experience shows that this could take many more months. Apart from this, the post-parliamentary elections process of counting and adjudication is still in full swing, its length exacerbated by a series of delays. It might well go on early into the new year 2019 and interfere with the necessary preparation of the April presidential poll.

Conclusion: It needs three to talk

There is one big gap in President Ghani’s ‘new chapter’ in the peace process: the Afghan government is nowhere in the lead, as yet, as the envisaged partner is lacking – the Taleban. So far, only the Taleban and the US are talking to each other. It does not lie in the hands of the Afghan government to overcome this hurdle.

The current constellation means only the US can make the Afghan government the third party to peace talks, but many Afghans – including President Ghani – do not trust the US and, particularly the hast, and way in which the new envoy Khalilzad operates. (To be sure, there are also many Afghans who believe he is just the right man for it.) These Afghans fear that the US might ‘sell’ them to the Taleban, or simply conclude a ‘deal’ that formally ends the war and allows the US to pull out its troops, preferably rather sooner than later, without thinking too much about the implementation, monitoring and financing of post-peace arrangements.

For example, it can be expected that, after a peace agreement, many of the current 350,000 government police and army soldiers, as well as tens of thousands of Taleban fighters need to be demobilised and reintegrated into civilian life. This need to happen in a sustainable way so that the ex-fighters do not see themselves compelled to take up arms again to ensure their livelihoods once the initial reintegration packages are petering out – and this in an economy that already lacks many permanent jobs for its large work force. Also, the experience of the post-Bonn DDR and DIAG programmes left behind a multitude of former fighters who have been readily recruited into new auxiliary forces or militia-like armed groups over the past 17 years (AAN analysis here).

Therefore, what Ghani has laid out in Geneva was more a declaration of intent, of principles, and of red lines (the latter, without calling them that), rather than a ‘road map’ or a ‘peace plan.’ With his proposals and the IEC decision a day earlier about the 20 April 2019 presidential election date, he tried to get a grip on the steering wheel of the peace process that has barely commenced and has not been Afghan-led, so far.

It could also be argued that none of the parties to the conflict actually should be in the lead of a peace process and that it would be better to have ‘third-party’ mediation or facilitation (here: fourth-party, as the US is the third party in the conflict and also cannot play that role). This does not mean that the government cannot take the initiative and push the process forward.The successful June 2018 ceasefire has proven this.

For some time now, a futile blockage has existed. It has been created, on the one hand, by the Taleban’s refusal to negotiate with the Afghan government and, on the other hand, the government’s repeated attempts to deny the Taleban the status of a recognised party to the process by preventing them from participating in peace-talks-related meetings and conferences. This blockage pervaded three meetings in late 2017 (AAN reporting here) and again for Tashkent in March 2018 (media report here), but not in Moscow in November 2018.  Other peace processes (as experienced in Colombia or the Philippines) show there is no way around accepting an entrenched insurgent group as a negotiating partner with a degree of support and/or hold over territory, if peace is to be negotiated. Negotiating does not mean their recognition as a second government. The Taleban, of course, can overcome this problem, if they agree to talk with the government.

It is unquestionable that there are three parties to the Afghan war, to end it and to organise the post-war Afghan society, namely: the internationally recognised and supported Afghan government; its largest donor and supporter, the US; and the Taleban. The Taleban, who also would be much less strong without their external support, both logistically and financially, need to understand and accept that the Afghan government will not go away soon – even though it remains almost totally dependent on foreign financial support (despite some increases in domestic revenue highlighted in Geneva) and, to a large extent, military support. It would soon run into trouble, particularly without US troops and money. (At the moment, it is unable to pay the salaries of its 350,000 policemen and army soldiers, before even talking about the various auxiliary forces.) Also, socio-economically the country is on a backwards path, so that a solution for the financial gap is still elusive. The poverty rate has relapsed back to levels at the immediate post-Taleban rate of almost 55 per cent (AAN analysis here). (5)

Although President Trump’s personal temptation to pull out of Afghanistan might be strong, it is difficult to see how he would do so before a peace agreement, as anything else would jeopardise the US’s last 17 years’ investment ‘in blood and money’. (Some US analysts also argue, by the way, that the Afghan war merely represents one per cent of the US military budget and pulling out would hardly lead to massive savings.)

There are also visible entry points around which the current mutual Kabul-Taleban blockade could be overcome, without forcing both parties to give up what they define as their individual main goals. First, there is the US offer, given at the Kabul Process meeting in February 2018, to put troop withdrawal and a timeframe for it onto the agenda of eventual peace talks. This would provide the Taleban with their main goal. The Taleban, in Moscow, said that, after a timeframe and guarantees, are given, ie before a peace deal is finally concluded, they could talk to the government. (Previously, they often said this would only be possible after all foreign troops had gone.) This would fulfil the government’s current main goal – namely direct talks with its involvement. On this, the Taleban can and should be taken by their word in all future talks. Finally, if the two Afghan sides start talking to each other on this basis, the way could be opened for the US to get their desired troop pullout.

Such a scenario still leaves for the government in Kabul plenty to do in a leading role. This would involve: creating consensus about peace talks with the Taleban that do not result in a sell-out on the key rights issues; developing ideas how a post-agreement Afghanistan and “societal reconciliation” (Ghani in Geneva) would look like; and, ensuring that there are resources – both domestic and external – for the implementation of such a peace process. Geneva was barely a beginning.

Edited by Sari Kouvo


(1) As this text was finalised, the full speech has become available, here.

(2) Added on 4 Dec 2018: Afghan news agency Ariana quoted Munib on 30 November that he had not been aware of his selection.

(3) Khalilzad, who was born as an Afghan, already played a key role during the first years of what was then called the Bonn process (full text of the Bonn agreement here), as President George W. Bush’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan (December 2001-November 2003) and US ambassador to Afghanistan (November 2003-June 2005).

(4) During the same event, AISS presented a study called “The Fallacy of [the] Peace Process in Afghanistan: The People’s Perspectives” based on 2,000 interviews with Afghans; the majority of them called the peace process so far (which included the current approach to talks with the Taleban) a failure. However, the study found that 80 per cent of respondents wanted peace with the Taleban, 83 per cent believed it was possible and 55 per cent were in favour of making concessions to them. At the same time, only 50 per cent believed the Taleban had the intention to make peace, 73 per cent doubted the Taleban’s ability to effectively govern the country and only 10 per cent found their policies acceptable.

The author of the study, Omar Sadr, also argued in his summary that one of the “fallacies” of the peace process so far was that it amount to “appeasement.” Respondents were not asked such a question though.

(5)  Ghani said 40 per cent in his Geneva speech; but his government had published the higher figure together with the World Bank earlier this year.


Ashraf Ghani Donald Trump Geneva conference 2018 High Peace Council Kabul Process peace talks Taliban Zalmay Khalilzad