The Debate

Winning the Elusive Peace Against Terrorism in Afghanistan

Recent Features

The Debate

Winning the Elusive Peace Against Terrorism in Afghanistan

Bringing peace to Afghanistan will require renewed commitment from partners and neighbors.

Winning the Elusive Peace Against Terrorism in Afghanistan
Credit: Afghanistan ARG Presidential Palace

On June 6, 2017, when the Afghan government hosted the first meeting of the Kabul Process for security and peace cooperation, terrorists carried out a suicide attack on the ancient Great Mosque of Herat, killing ten fasting worshipers and wounding over 20 others. This followed back-to-back terrorist attacks that killed and injured more than 700 innocent civilians in Kabul in less than a week. In flagrant violation of the core tents of Islam, a religion of peace and tolerance, and the key principles of international humanitarian law, this and many other terrorist attacks on Muslims and non-Muslims around the world have been carried out during the Holy Month of Ramadan.

This demonstrates the ruthlessness of terrorists and their state and non-state sponsors, who should be boldly confronted by the international community, in line with the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 60/288, which underpins the UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy. The strategy requires that the UN member-states “consistently, unequivocally, and strongly condemn terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever, and for whatever purposes, as it constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security.”

A daily victim of terrorism with regional and transnational roots, Afghanistan has repeatedly reminded its neighbors and the broader international community that terrorism — fed by state and non-state sponsored radicalism — hardly recognizes borders but transcends them across the globe. Afghanistan doesn’t distinguish between terrorist attacks at home and those that have taken civilian lives in the United States, Europe, Iran, Russia, Turkey, China, India, and the Middle East. Afghans have long felt the pain of terrorism victims in these nations and continue to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend their country and the rest of the world against the intertwined threats of terrorism and radicalism.

At the time of this writing, Afghan forces are fighting some 20 different terrorist groups across Afghanistan. At the recent Kabul Process meeting, President Ashraf Ghani called on the world to “help us respond to this threat,” adding that “we are gathered in this conference because the world community signed promise that terrorism would not be tolerated. Sponsorship of terrorism would not be tolerated. Transnational financing of terrorists would not be tolerated.” He echoed the frustration of British Prime Minister Theresa May, following the recent London and Manchester attacks, that “enough is enough.”

Although Afghanistan has made notable progress in every sector since 2001, the country remains the regional and global frontline in the fight against terrorism, narcotics, and criminality. Between 2015 and 2017, 75,000 innocent Afghans, including women and children, have been killed and wounded, due to non-stop terrorist attacks on Afghan villages, towns, cities, as well as public and private institutions.

This is a heart-wrenching price Afghans are daily paying because of a lack of regional consensus on the long-term stabilization and sustainable development of Afghanistan. The country’s neighbors fail to act on the fact that a stable Afghanistan ensures and enables a stable region. Even though consensus on the need to stabilize Afghanistan often emerges in rhetoric, it hardly translates into tangible results for achieving durable peace, which the Afghan people desire, deserve, and demand the most. Unfortunately, the elusive regional consensus on Afghanistan stems from the preference by certain state-actors to advance their geostrategic goals through instrumentalization of non-state actors: the Taliban and others.

For instance, the deliberate avoidance by Pakistan to engage with Afghanistan on a state-to-state basis has continued to derail the Afghan peace process, effectively undermining the many peace initiatives pursued by the Afghan government, with the support of its key international allies and partners, including the United States and China. That is why the ongoing, devastating violence in Afghanistan isn’t a battle among Afghans but a complex conflict imposed on Afghanistan. Consequently, terrorists from the region and beyond have exploited this lack of inter-state consensus and cooperation to further expand their operational space across Afghanistan, positioning themselves to undermine regional stability and prosperity.

It is in this context that Afghanistan’s neighbors must avoid preferring the Taliban over Daesh (the Islamic State), as the former and the latter only share minor differences but enjoy a symbiotic, ideological and operational relationship, reinforcing one another. In other words, it is the Taliban and their state sponsors in the region that provide an enabling environment for Daesh to operate in and out of Afghanistan against all. “Taliban-sponsored terrorism is creating a platform that is bringing terrorists and criminals from all over the region to Afghanistan,” Ghani told the representatives of 26 countries and inter-governmental organizations in the recent Kabul Process meeting.

To weaken and eliminate this emerging relationship, Afghanistan is thankful to the United States, NATO, and its other partnering nations, which have stood by Afghans in their relentless defense against these intertwined security threats with far-reaching implications for international peace and security. The country also appreciates their financial pledges of development assistance in last year’s Brussels Conference, which would go a long way in strengthening human security in Afghanistan, effectively depriving terrorists of opportunities to recruit among Afghan youth.

In the same vein, Afghanistan is grateful to Russia, India, China, Iran, and Turkey for their security and development assistance, as Afghans strive to stabilize their country. Success in this collective endeavor will help these countries achieve their own stated end-goal of defeating terrorism, allowing the countries of Heart of Asia to focus on implementing win-win programs of economic revitalization, sustainable growth, and regional economic integration.

To that end, Afghanistan wishes to become an area of cooperation among all regional and global stakeholders. This requires that the principal stakeholders come to a results-driven consensus on Afghanistan, where the hand of the Afghan state is strengthened by state actors against all non-state actors, including the Taliban. The Afghan people, 80 percent of whom reject the Taliban, want their democratic state-building process to succeed, with the continued support of the United States and Afghanistan’s neighbors.

To ensure the sustainability of their shared achievements, however, the Afghan government will continue to pursue a political settlement with those armed groups, including the Taliban, who accept the country’s basic conditions for peace talks. However, for any peace talks to deliver tangible results, principal obstacles to peace like the good terrorist-bad terrorist distinction, as well as safe sanctuaries, material support, and operational capabilities provided to the Taliban outside of Afghanistan, must be overcome with verification. Any measurable degree of success in this effort to be facilitated by Afghanistan’s international partners and verified by a third party, such as the United Nations, should translate into diminishing violence on the ground.

Recent peace processes, including the one between the Colombian government and FARC, illustrate the fact that when sources of support for terrorism dry up, militants would automatically be compelled to opt for a win-win political solution through peace talks. Afghanistan needs nothing less for sustainable peace to take root in the country and the rest of the region.

All told, a few principles must guide any peace efforts to help find a durable solution to years of a destructive war imposed on Afghanistan. First, there is no substitute for state-to-state cooperation, which must underpin all regional efforts to help the government of Afghanistan reach peace with those armed groups, who are genuinely willing to enter an irreversible political settlement.

Second, sincere regional cooperation is essential for ensuring that any joint peace efforts will bear the results Afghanistan and the region ultimately seek. And that is an end to the suffering of the Afghan people, which would enable them to further consolidate their hard-earned gains of the past 16 years, in continued partnership with the international community.

Third, regional consensus on the long-term stabilization of Afghanistan as a common good is emerging. This must continue to evolve and translate into concrete steps to be taken by each of the regional and global stakeholders, in support of an Afghan government-led and Afghan-owned peace process.

Fourth, Afghanistan rejects duplicity and selectivity in defining terrorism. This means that regional counterterrorism efforts must mirror those of national counterterrorism action plans adopted for implementation by Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Pakistan.

Finally, the Taliban must realize that they cannot win militarily. The way forward shouldn’t be more of the same: violence and bloodshed. Instead, Afghans’ message to them is clear: That the Afghan government and people want peace; that they seek to achieve peace through direct talks with the authoritative leadership of the Taliban; and that the best venue for their face-to-face peace talks is in Afghanistan or at a location mutually acceptable to both sides. In the recent Kabul Process meeting, Ghani encouraged the Taliban to step forward for peace talks, while warning that “we’re offering a chance for peace but we must also be clear that this is not an open-ended opportunity.”

The 26 participating countries and organizations in the recent Kabul Process meeting unanimously agreed that a stable Afghanistan is the key to ensuring regional and global stability. They noted that “this can only be achieved through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned political process with the full support of neighbors and international partners, as demonstrated in the recent successful peace deal with Hezb-i-Islami, Hikmatyar.”

In the same meeting, Ghani echoed this global call for peace in Afghanistan, arguing that “peace in Afghanistan will bring stability to our neighbors, to Asia, and to the world.” He concluded by quoting the renowned Pakistani poet Iqbal Khan who said, “When Afghanistan is in accord, Asia is in accord; when Afghanistan is in disaccord, Asia is in discord.”

Ashraf Haidari headed the Afghan delegation in the Eleven-Party and Six-Party Meetings on Peace in Afghanistan, hosted by the Government of the Russian Federation in Moscow in April and February 2017. Haidari is the Director-General of Policy & Strategy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, and formerly served as the country’s Deputy Chief of Mission to India. Prior to this, he was Afghanistan’s Deputy Assistant National Security Advisor, as well as Afghan Chargé d’Affaires to the United States. He tweets @MAshrafHaidari.