In the last two weeks, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has held discussions with Afghan leaders, opposition leaders, the Taliban, and regional powers to “speed up the Afghan peace process.” There are numerous reports suggesting that Khalilzad is sharing a draft U.S. proposal for post-peace Afghanistan. The reported plan proposes that the ruling Afghan elite cooperate with the Taliban elite in order to form a “transitional peace government” in Afghanistan. The proposal, leaked by Afghan media outlet TOLOnews over the weekend, made Afghan President Ashraf Ghani angry. He strongly insisted, once again, his stance against any interim government solutions to the current crisis.
The leaked proposal came out alongside an undated letter from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Ghani. Many have interpreted the letter as implicitly threatening the possibility of a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, with Blinken noting that the U.S. still has all options on the table. Blinken suggests in the letter a high-level United Nations conference including “envoys from the United States, China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and India to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace” and a summit in Turkey, in addition to consideration of a peace proposal being toted around by Khalilzad.
There is no clear indication of whether the current peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban will pay off. However, if the peace talks do ultimately lead to an agreement, the question of what happens after is unclear. What institutional framework will be proposed for the post-peace agreement era? This is not a question unique to Afghanistan, but one common for all post-conflict countries. But when it comes to Afghanistan, past experience demonstrates that post-conflict arrangements in the country invariably lead to new conflicts.
The most recent such agreement was made at a conference held in Bonn, Germany in 2001 in the aftermath of the Taliban’s overthrow. In the Bonn agreement, Afghan leaders, mostly mujahideen, agreed to form the basis for a democratic transition in Afghanistan. After almost 20 years, the result of the Bonn agreement is today’s Afghanistan, characterized by insecurity, corruption, ethnic division, and a majority population living below the poverty line. Why did the Bonn agreement fail to yield a democratic and stable Afghanistan? What was missing from that round of peace talks that led to the present situation?
The short answer is that both before and after the Bonn agreement, the Afghan people had almost no active role. How can a post-conflict transition to democracy be successful without giving priority to the people under the pretext of whose interests the political system is supposed to be structured?
In the Bonn agreement, only a limited number of strong leaders, mostly warlords, shaped the outcome. These were the very same warlords who pushed Afghanistan into a full-fledged civil war in the 1990s as their rivalry superseded their former alliances to push out the Soviets. Their only concern had been the preservation of their power and status. The golden opportunities made possible by NATO’s ousting of the Taliban and continued security support coupled with the unprecedented injection of billions of dollars of development aid by the international community were wasted.
Why? Because, paradoxically, the preservation of status of the current leaders of Afghanistan is guaranteed only by the conservation of an at least partially unstable state and its illicit economy, from which such leaders draw status, power, and wealth while contributing to the deterioration of the country. Positive developments — such as the strengthening of Afghanistan’s failed institutions — would drive such leaders out of the system. So-called technocrats, educated mostly in Western countries, joined this evil cycle perpetuating corruption, ethnic division, destruction of social trust, underdevelopment, poverty, and most importantly, insecurity.
The warlords coupled with the technocrats together form the political class, or the elite of post-2001 Afghanistan. The achievements of post-Bonn Afghanistan (such as free and fair elections, the development of civil society, and progress on women’s rights) on which they justify their effectiveness are superficial gains, many simply on paper. On the other side of conflict are the Taliban, with a hard-line fundamentalist vision and a publicly declared antagonism against human rights, women rights, and a history of attacks against NATO forces, Afghan national security forces, and even civilians.
Now, after almost 20 years of the Taliban’s insurgency and two years of peace talks between the Taliban and the U.S., the Afghan elites (both in the Afghan government and the Taliban, that is) are supposed to build the future of Afghanistan, as suggested in the draft of “transitional peace government” proposed by the United States.
Regardless of the draft’s details and the possibility of its realization, what is important is that if peace talks result in an agreement, the resulting agreement is arguably similar to what has been agreed in the past. While the Taliban were not party to the Bonn agreement, its formation by elites for elites is the reappearing theme. The pattern is the same; any agreement would be elite-based, not people-centered.
Similar to the Bonn agreement and other post-conflict proposed trajectories for Afghanistan, the present talks and probable agreements are aimed at bringing together the elites whose interests are in conflict. Two reasons for persuading the elites of both sides to reach a peace agreement are to get their buy-in with the confirmation that their interests would be preserved by the agreement and the similar securing of the interests of international and regional powers.
One problem with this elite-based pattern of peace is that if, and frankly when, the conflicting elites conclude that the arrangement does not secure their interests, a new conflict will break out. The other problem is that neither the interests of the elites nor the agreement of international and regional powers is always to the advantage of the people.
It’s evident that the current peace talks, and the leaked peace proposal, follow in the same footsteps of elite-based agreements postponing momentarily the current conflict but leading to the next in due course. The crucial component missing in the current talks is the will of the people to influence the future of their country. It might be argued that for a successful transition, it is necessary that the elite be gathered to agree on the future path and during the transition, people will be given priority gradually as the system is fixed. But the problem with Afghanistan is that it is always in transition from a bad situation to an unclear future. And this trend is to the advantage of the elites and to the detriment of people. Therefore, the elite will try to maintain the chaotic situation in an effort to preserve their status through an evil cycle of consecutive crises and endless transitions.
Milad Naeimi is a student at the University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.