Afghanistan is yet again at the cusp of transition and perhaps transformation. On February 29, in Qatar, the United States entered into a peace deal with the Taliban. Despite proclaiming in the very title of the document that it was an “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America,” the provisions therein emphatically reflect the ground that the U.S. government has ceded vis-à-vis the Taliban. There is a surreal sentiment pervading the peace agreement, given how the Taliban from being ousted from power in 2001, has nearly re-entered the corridors of power less than two decades later. Few could have imagined some years back that Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy leader of the Taliban, would put his point of view in a New York Times op-ed “What We, the Taliban, Want.”
Amrullah Saleh, the vice president-elect of Afghanistan in a recent article for Time magazine “I Fought the Taliban. Now I’m Ready to Meet Them at the Ballot Box,” while calling for truce and peace in Afghanistan, was skeptical and suspicious of the Taliban having changed their ends or means.
The question of sustainable peace and transitional justice hangs over the moves of a war fatigued United States and an emboldened Taliban. Even the initiative for a week-long reduction in violence was preceded by an air-strike in the Kashk-e-Kohna district, claiming the lives of at least 11 civilians; and it was followed by a blast at a football stadium in Khost province that killed three.
The tension between the means to achieve peace and providing justice in a war-torn country like Afghanistan is not new. Even during the negotiations in 2001, leading to the Bonn Agreement, shows a history of providing blanket amnesties in the name of peace and power sharing arrangements in the country. Is history being repeated in 2020 and what will it mean for the dream of sustainable peace? UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi himself remarked that one could either have peace or justice. Even the peace deal with Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in 2016 reflected disregard for the voices of victims of the war in Afghanistan. Even a draft agreement for bringing peace in Afghanistan developed by U.S.-based Rand Cooperation talked about broad amnesty.
Neither former President Hamid Karzai nor President Ashraf Ghani have been supportive of the country’s engagement with transitional justice. Opposition from members of the Afghan Parliament, many of whom were war crime suspects themselves and the passing of the National Reconciliation and Amnesty Law prevented the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commissions (AIHRC) from publishing a Conflict-Mapping Report, documenting war crimes in the 1978-2001 period. In 2019, civil society activists in Afghanistan were taken aback when the International Criminal Court’s (ICC’s) Pre-Trial Chamber II Judges decided not to authorize an investigation into allegations of widespread abuses at the hands of government forces, the Taliban and U.S. military and intelligence operatives during the Afghanistan conflict. Most importantly, the inclusion of a committee for war victims in the Peace Advisory Board as suggested by Ghani has been a failure due to lack of clarity on the role of members or their appointment process. The Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Program (APRP), initiated in 2010 with an aim to reintegrate insurgents and addressing local grievances gave amnesty to those that shifted to the government’s side.
A majority of the 6,500 Afghans who identified themselves as victims of war crimes during their interaction with the ICC said they wanted the court to investigate war crimes committed in Afghanistan. So far, both the national and international community has failed to do justice to civil society and victims’ groups who have been arguing to include justice as an important component of a peace agreement in Afghanistan. On the contrary, the U.S.-Taliban peace deal states that up to 5,000 prisoners of the Taliban will be released by March 10, 2020, the first day of the intra-Afghan negotiations. Additionally, the U.S. has agreed to discuss and convince members of the United Nations Security Council and Afghanistan to review sanctions against members of the Taliban. The UN sanctions on Taliban figures are to be removed by August 27, 2020, way before significant progress would have been made in the peace process.
Moreover, it is important to take note of releases like Abdul Rashid Baluch, a former Taliban shadow governor who was on the United States Treasury Department’s “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” list. The situation would get further complicated if the Taliban demands the release of members of the Haqqani network, as seen in the case of Anas Haqqani, younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was released in exchange of two Western hostages in November 2019.
Such decisions exemplify the fears of the Transitional Justice Coordination Group (TJCG), which in 2014 criticized the U.S. for releasing Taliban members, arguing that the U.S. policy toward the Taliban and those who have committed crimes will lead to a likely rise in the civilian killings in Afghanistan.
The United States, given its past record in Afghanistan, and the Trump administration’s election time exigency to redefine peace in Afghanistan and start the withdrawal of troops, will likely remain silent on the issue of transitional justice. The Trump administration even threatened the ICC for investigating U.S. citizens relating to war crimes in Afghanistan. There is little hope that the intra-Afghan talks following the U.S.-Taliban deal will consider the issue and initiate talks on mechanisms through which the grievances of victims can be addressed. Even so, the Taliban will probably have an upper hand in the negotiations considering it got what it had demanded for so long — direct negotiations with the United States, raising critical questions over the proclamation of the peace being Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. On the other hand, Ghani has barely emerged out of a disarrayed election and his differences with political rival Abdullah Abdullah, and the absence of cooperation from local parties, might weaken the Afghan government during the intra-Afghan talks. Where does this leave the issue of transitional justice and addressing past crimes, on the still elusive road to sustainable peace in Afghanistan? Will the façade of a hastily signed peace agreement, further weaken the already faint voices of victims of the war in Afghanistan, and give way to recurrent patterns of violence in a country, yet to be healed through justice?
Monish Tourangbam is a Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), India.
Neha Dwivedi is a freelance strategic analyst and has a MA in Geopolitics and International Relations from Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), India. She was also a SAV Visiting Fellow at Stimson Center, Washington D.C.