Against the backdrop of national and international clamors for peace, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has taken a major step toward preparing for the intra-Afghan talks by approving around four dozen members for the High Council for National Reconciliation. Led by three-time presidential contender Abdullah Abdullah, the council’s membership represents a who’s who of Afghan politics, bringing together current and former officials, mujahedeen leaders who fought against the Soviet Union, and even a number of female representatives.
Among those invited to join the council are former mujahideen leader Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former Vice President Mohammad Karim Khalili, former Deputy Chief Executive Mohammad Mohaqiq, Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, former Vice President Mohammad Yunus Qanooni, former Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, former mujahideen leader and ex-Minister of Energy Mohammad Ismalil Khan, former Balkh governor and the Jamiat-e-Islami leader Atta Mohammad Noor, head of Maaz-e-Milli party Sayed Hamid Gailani and Zabihullah Mujaddedi. The invitees also include Former President Hamid Karzai, although Karzai has refused to participate, saying that he does not want to be a part of any government structure.
Ghani has asked religious scholars, the parliament, the private sector, media and provincial councils to nominate their own members within a week. It remains to be seen what the final shape of the government’s peace council will be, which may not sit well with the Afghan Taliban’s negotiating team, led by chief negotiator Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai. The Taliban’s negotiating team includes only 21 members who have been given the authority to make final decisions by their supreme leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhunzada. The team includes Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar. His rise in the Taliban hierarchy is viewed as significant due to his reported reputation as a hardliner. Another important member is Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the Taliban. Many members of the Taliban’s team also participated in the recent peace talks with the United States.
The Ghani administration’s actions in recent months have earned the president a lot of criticism and the label of “spoiler” from many desperate to have a final peace accord between the Afghan government and the Taliban settled at any cost. One cannot rule out the possibility that Ghani has been purposely creating hurdles in the talks, stalling until the result of the U.S. presidential election is known. A Joe Biden presidency, rather than a second term for the Donald Trump administration, could mean a postponement of the seemingly imminent exit of American troops. That may prolong Ghani’s stay in power or change the dynamics around the U.S.-Taliban deal.
But much of this criticism seems to disregard the rationality underlying the actions of the Ghani government, which seems to be calculating that both the peace process and the final peace accord should not represent a bad deal for the cause of national unity.
Popular commentary has so far focused on how challenging it has been to bring the two Afghan sides together to start negotiating a power-sharing agreement. Thus, Ghani’s recent assertion that peace does not mean a power-sharing deal is likely to be interpreted by the Afghan Taliban and its Pakistani supporters as another obstructionist tactic. However, what remains beyond doubt is that the time has come to challenge the dominant narrative underlying the intra-Afghan talks. A peace process should not be seen as a zero-sum game; it should offer possibilities for transformative change through the inclusion of women and other marginalized sections of Afghan society, rather than simply opening up a pathway to power for the Taliban.
The Afghan president has raised a very important issue regarding the ultimate aim of the peace process: the fulfillment of the will of the Afghan people to end a long period of violence and bloodshed. Although we can only guess at Ghani’s true intentions, his comments should prompt a debate about how to change the negotiating landscape and empower civilians within the process. It is true that many post-conflict societies have slipped into situations of uneasy coexistence among former rivals, after the enthusiasm shown during the early stages of the peace process becomes difficult to sustain amid the perceived bad faith on both sides. Seen in Afghanistan’s context, Ghani’s apparent reluctance becomes even more understandable as the push for taking the peace process to its logical conclusion has only been necessitated by Washington’s determination to pull out troops.
Ghani is not oblivious to the fact that the Taliban has met only one of the seven conditions stipulated in the peace accord settled in late February with the U.S. – the release of 1,000 Afghan prisoners. The Taliban is yet to sever its relationship with al-Qaida, as required by the agreement. Peace pacts usually have some kind of enforcement mechanism that holds each side answerable for their pledges. Since that is not the case with the U.S.-Taliban deal, there is no provision if the Taliban breaks its promises or does not even attempt to fulfill them.
The implementation of the February deal cannot be allowed to become a mere technocratic exercise of amending the constitution, rehabilitating the Taliban and bringing it into government, and restructuring the Afghan army, while leaving the more difficult issues of reconciliation unaddressed. To this end, it will be critical to closely scrutinize the agenda of any future talks as well as the conditions under which a final peace is agreed.
Those critical of the Afghan government have contested the effectiveness of its efforts to build up Afghan state institutions. In order to build peace beyond the technicalities of reaching a final accord with the Taliban, it is important to reconnect and incorporate the voices of ordinary Afghan civilians into the peace process. To confine peace to conference halls where discussions on issues ranging from sharing of power to the role of Islam in public life to minority rights to foreign policy approaches will be conducted in a semi-secretive manner will only further disconnect the masses from those who claim to represent their interests.
The intra-Afghan talks should not only be guided by the time-tested principle of political “give and take”; they should also be about rebuilding Afghan lives. While Afghan civilians continue to experience the privations of four decades of mayhem, violence and devastation, it is only pragmatic to expect the intra-Afghan talks to be as transparent and accountable as possible. Inclusivity is widely perceived as a key advantage of a comprehensive approach to a peace settlement. Thus, the absence of such inclusivity will only ensure that the peace process remains disconnected from the Afghan people.
Since the overthrow of the Taliban regime some two decades ago, Afghanistan has continued to rely on centralized and highly personalized forms of government, perpetuating a deplorable pattern of corruption, unethical decision-making, and human rights abuses. The existing Afghan state has thus become psychologically remote from people’s lives, saddled by its inadequate capacity in social provision and limited in its ability to project its will beyond a few big cities, including the capital Kabul.
The widespread presence of the Taliban as an alternative source of power and legitimacy has effectively meant that the Afghan state finds itself relegated to a not-so-significant position among the networks most relevant to the lives of the country’s people. Although this has considerable political implications, the notion of the state as the principal unit of political organization, deeply ingrained in the Western political consciousness, will thus come under increasing scrutiny as the intra-Afghan negotiations progress. Therefore, sufficient attention needs to be paid to evolving the Afghan political culture and to how embedded societal norms and conventions interact with newly-created political institutions.
Although the negotiators appointed by the Ghani government cannot be expected to allow an iniquitous peace under the shadow of the Taliban’s violence, they are well advised to retain a flexible approach that allows recognition of the prevailing circumstances and not stick to the textbook interpretation of political legitimacy. To sum up, both sides should demonstrate a seriousness of purpose in finding a political solution to Afghanistan’s ongoing conflict, and an end to the sufferings of the Afghan people.
Vinay Kaura is an assistant professor in the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan. He is also an adjunct professor on the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies (PTSS) at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany.