M. Ashraf Haidari, Director-General of Policy & Strategy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, has been intimately involved in the Afghan peace process. Below, he answers the most commonly asked questions about the latest developments.
What is the main purpose of the Kabul Process for Peace and Security Cooperation?
President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah re-launched the Kabul Process in June 2017. The principal purpose of the process is to ensure an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, inclusive peace process where we are fully in the driver’s seat to address the multiple dimensions of ongoing war and violence in Afghanistan. But we know this is impossible without results-driven regional and international cooperation. Since its re-launch, the Kabul Process has been recognized as an overarching platform, under which all other peace initiatives and efforts take place to support Afghanistan in our quest for genuine, lasting peace. Because the success of the process hinges on sincere regional cooperation, we continue to call on our neighbors and partners in the region to develop measures necessary to end violence and to forge sustainable peace in Afghanistan. Doing so, we strongly believe, should create positive dividends for the entire region.
What has the Kabul Process so far achieved to restore peace in Afghanistan? Did the recent Tashkent Conference in support of the Kabul Process produce any results?
As I said, foremost, through the Kabul Process, we have been able to bring strategic coordination to international peace efforts in support of the Afghan government. This has helped ensure the Afghan leadership and ownership of the process and thereby our end-goal of its success when we gradually achieve a sustainable political settlement with the reconcilable elements of the armed opposition, including the Taliban. Under the Kabul Process, the key regional and international stakeholders – some 30 countries and international organizations including NATO, United Nations, and the European Union – have met in Kabul twice so far, once in June 2017 and more recently this past February. In both meetings, the participants have strongly endorsed and supported our peace initiative, calling on the Taliban to discontinue violence and terrorist attacks against their own suffering people and to opt for peace through dialogue. In the same vein, 21 countries and intergovernmental organizations, which gathered in Tashkent on March 27, renewed their call on the Taliban to accept the Afghan peace offer and cease violence.
What does President Ghani’s grand peace offer to the Taliban entail? Any preconditions?
Made with no preconditions, our president’s peace offer is underpinned by our belief in the common equality of all Afghans and their right to live in peace and dignity. This includes those Taliban who are willing to denounce violence and opt for reconciliation with their nation and government, based on a few commitments, which I would like to point out.
First, we have offered a ceasefire, enabling both sides to pause for building confidence and reaching a settlement that allows the Taliban to organize as a political party for recognition followed by an inclusive, credible, free, and fair elections. Second, our peace offer is driven by a legal framework that consists of a constitutional review, justice and resolution of grievances, as well as prisoner release and removal of reconciled Taliban leaders and commanders from the sanctions lists. Third, throughout the peace process and following the end of hostilities, we will ensure the security of reconciled Taliban and their families, as well as reintegration of former Taliban combatants into civilian life. At the same time, we will facilitate the return of refugees and internally displaced persons from abroad and inside, reintegrating them effectively through social and economic development programs that meet their short- and long-term reintegration needs into our society.
How have the Taliban responded so far?
We are still waiting for the Taliban to respond. We understand that it takes time for them to discuss our unprecedented peace offer and then to come back to us for direct talks. Our only concern is that since they lack independence, as they’re foreign-controlled, they may further delay in responding to our offer, which the whole international community has encouraged them to consider and step forward to talk to the Afghan government. But we exercise strategic patience, knowing that any peace process is complex and lengthy and, in our case, it’s even more complicated given the multiplicity of actors that influence the process.
On a related note, why have Afghanistan’s continued peace efforts under the Kabul Process failed to bear fruit, despite international support?
I must give an explanatory response to this important question. Although we have made notable progress in every sector since 2001, our country unfortunately remains the regional and global frontline in the fight against terrorism, narcotics, and criminality. Between 2015 and 2017, 75,000 of our innocent people, including women and children, were killed and wounded, due to nonstop terrorist attacks on our 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. Our 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 our peace process, effectively undermining the many peace initiatives pursued by the Afghan government, with the support of our 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 our country. 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.
Who are the Taliban and how have they exactly sustained their relentless campaign against the Afghan government and people?
As I pointed out, the Taliban are a proxy extremist force, which Pakistan created and launched to destabilize Afghanistan in 1994. Although the country made a U-turn on 9/11 to disown the Taliban, whose tyrannical regime was toppled in 2001, Pakistan reconstituted the Taliban in the post-9/11 period. Despite our relentless efforts to engage with Pakistan on a state-to-state level to address both sides’ legitimate concerns, they have been reluctant to cooperate, continuing to provide safe havens and other operational means for the Taliban to maintain a terror campaign across Afghanistan that daily maims and kills scores of our innocent people. That is why we have welcomed the new U.S. strategy for South Asia and Afghanistan. Unlike those pursued by the past U.S. administrations, the new strategy seeks to address the intertwined threats of extremism and terrorism where they continue finding state sponsorship. For the Afghan peace process to succeed, we strongly believe, regional state-sponsorship of Taliban and their terrorist activities must end.
Are there any plans to create a buffer or peace zone for the Taliban?
No. The whole of Afghanistan is potentially peaceful the second the Taliban cease violence against their people. Afghans have repeatedly called on the armed opposition to accept our grand peace offer against a foreign strategy that exploits the Taliban to kill their own people and destroy their own beautiful country.
Despite international peace efforts, the Taliban still prefer to talk to the United States rather than to the Afghan government. Why is that?
As I noted, the Taliban are guided by their external state sponsor to deliberately challenge us. By refusing to talk to us, they try to undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government, whose leadership was elected by the Afghan people. Afghans have embraced democracy and freedom against extremism and terrorism that underpinned misrule by the Taliban when they were in power briefly. Back-to-back surveys by the Asia Foundation find Afghans to be firmly behind our government and the continuation of the present constitutional order in Afghanistan against anything that the Taliban represents.
How soon can peace talks with the Taliban start; what would be the initial agenda; and how can regional and international stakeholders in the Afghan peace process support the Afghan government in achieving the results Afghanistan seeks?
Now that we have overcome years of difficulties and obstacles to make a grand peace offer, we are prepared to hold immediate, direct face-to-face peace talks with the Taliban leaders. We flexibly offer to meet in Kabul, in an Islamic country, or in a third country to be mutually agreed. We wish our initial meetings to focus on a substantive discussion of our commitment, gradually reaching negotiated agreements toward a peace accord for adoption and implementation by both sides. The negotiation process and the agreement, which we reached with Hezb-e Islami last year, sets a clear precedent as an effective intra-Afghan dialogue, which must help guide both sides toward our shared goal to end years of deadly war and violence in our country.
On how the international community can continue helping us, we call on all external stakeholders and supporters of the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process to exercise utmost neutrality, avoiding any kind of interference with the intra-Afghan peace talks to be steered by the Afghan High Peace Council under the Kabul Process toward a desired outcome. In other words, the Taliban should get clear messages that the region and the broader international community are on the same page with our government and people throughout the start, progress, and success of the peace talks. We know from international experience that giving and sending mixed signals and messages to the warring parties undermine and spoil the process.
And to reinforce our peace efforts, I renew our Tashkent Conference call on the regional and international players to consider adopting for implementation a regional counterterrorism and counternarcotics strategy, which our national security adviser, Minister Hanif Atmar, proposed in the second meeting of the Kabul Process last February. This will effectively wean the reconcilable militants off the battlefield, while pressuring others to accept our grand peace offer and join the process. As we said in the Tashkent Conference, we look forward to a regional conference where our neighbors and we meet to agree on the provisions and objectives of such a strategy, in line with our international obligations under the UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, as well as the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.