In the fall of 2001, the U.S. influenced the paths of two strongmen in the north of Afghanistan. CIA operatives and U.S. Special Forces landed in the country’s north to help General Abdul Rashid Dostum fight a Taliban commander near Mazar-i-Sharif, Mullah Mohammad Fazl. He eventually surrendered to Dostum and in return, Dostum handed Fazl over to the U.S. forces.
The U.S. interrogated Fazl and sent him on to the U.S. military’s detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He spent nine years in the notorious prison. In 2014, Fazl and four other Taliban members were released in exchange for U.S. solider Bowe Bergdable, who had been captured by the Taliban. Fazl moved to Doha, Qatar.
Dostum’s path was different.
After 2001, Dostum enjoyed political luxury and represented the interests of Afghanistan’s Uzbek ethnic community in the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. Between 2014 and 2020, Dostum was first vice president of Afghanistan, and despite repeated controversies during that period he remained a powerful figure. In 2020, Dostum was officially awarded the rank of marshal, only the third man in the country’s history to receive its top military rank.
Nearly 20 years on from the U.S. invasion, fate of the two men is being reshaped, again – this time by the U.S. withdrawal. In March of this year, Dostum and Fazl crossed paths in Moscow at a peace conference. Dostum wanted to greet Fazl, who is now a member of the Taliban’s negotiation team. Dostum reportedly put his hand on Fazl’s shoulder. Fazl abruptly pushed back, calling Dostum a “traitor” and “killer.”
The U.S. is now set to withdrawal unconditionally from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. By then, Washington, in essence, hopes to make peace between these two men who cannot even greet each other. In reality the challenge is much larger, as the U.S. aims to leave with some kind of peace settled between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The ongoing peace effort, long stalled and sluggish, aims to solve decades-long crises and suture wounds that run deep in Afghan society. Just a few months remain; Washington is leaving, regardless.
In its last-ditch push for peace, the U.S. proposed a U.N.-led peace conference in Istanbul, Turkey to include the Taliban in a political settlement. The Istanbul conference, in some ways, mirrors the conference held in Bonn, Germany in 2001, which reached a political settlement to rule post-Taliban Afghanistan. The Taliban was not included in the Bonn conference, having been defeated and ousted from power, but negotiations ran instead between other powerful figures, warlords, and politicians on how to share power.
The focus on power-sharing, then and now, assumes that peace between a few men at the top is a shortcut to peace for the country and the people below. That assumption has proven to be fatal for common Afghans. The war never really ceased.
“For 20 years, the international community built a government for Afghanistan and fought for its survival,” said Ali Amiri, a lecturer at Ibn Sina (Avicenna) University, a private university in Kabul. “Now they make peace for Afghanistan.”
With U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan and a vacuum of power created by the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the U.S. gathered Afghan powerbrokers to arrange a political settlement. A handful of men debated and agreed on how to govern an Afghanistan still reeling from the rule of the Taliban.
Donald Rumsfeld, who was U.S. defense secretary between 2001 and 2006, told U.S. envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad: “You have to take your hand off the bicycle seat!” Khalilzad wrote in his memoir, “The Envoy.” Rumsfeld implied that the U.S. had to let Afghans either fail or succeed. For 20 years, the U.S. kept troops in Afghanistan, trying to guard the political settlement brokered in 2001; Washington kept its hand on the proverbial bicycle seat.
In the initial years, common Afghans and powerbrokers alike welcomed the Bonn settlement. Then the top-down political arrangement began to crack: Powerbrokers played politics around the settlement, common Afghans grew distant from it, and the Taliban waged a widespread battle against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. The political settlement remained, largely, a system of power-sharing between a few men at the top, failing to serve Afghan society more broadly.
“We lost the gamble of the first Bonn Conference that took 20 years, spent billions of dollars and claimed lives of hundred thousands and crushed beliefs and values,” said Sayed Massoud, a professor at Kabul University. “Now we go back and those who had made the first Bonn Conference plus the Taliban to shape our destiny. They pay no price for their mistakes, and no one [makes] them accountable.”
The Biden administration dreams of ending the Afghan war through a second, updated, version of the Bonn Conference. The initiative, with power-sharing a key goal, replaces the slow-motion ongoing peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. It took those talks more than four months to draft an acceptable set of procedures for further peace negotiations between the two sides. Each single step toward peace was carefully negotiated and was accepted by both sides.
While the peace negotiations were making their slow progress, the Biden administration grew impatient and proposed a possible shortcut: a peace conference in Istanbul. Weeks have passed, but the peace conference has yet to take shape. Originally reported to be scheduled for April 16, the Taliban initially dithered on whether it would attend. Then, the Biden administration announced U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan beyond the May 1 deadline set out in the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban deal, but would leave the country by September of this year. The Taliban then said that the group would not participate in any conference as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan, delaying any hoped-for Istanbul conference indefinitely.
“The peace process is not being shaped by political maturity and internal forces’ responsibility,” said Amiri, the lecturer. “It is rather being shaped by international relations and circumstances. The role of internal forces in the peace process is extremely weak.”
In previous years, Afghan efforts for peace have been a failure. President Hamid Karzai reached out to the Taliban in 2010. Mullah Ghani Baradar, deputy leader of the Taliban, showed a willingness for talks with the Afghan government. But then Baradar was arrested by the Pakistani intelligence agency. Teams from the Kabul government and the Taliban met in Peshawar, Pakistan for peace talks in 2015. But then it was revealed that Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, had died back in 2013.
Peace efforts since largely remain U.S.-driven. The ongoing peace process was triggered by the Trump administration in July 2018 when U.S. diplomats were ordered to begin direct talks with the Taliban. The lengthy talks resulted in a deal between the United States and the Taliban in February 2020, with a U.S. withdrawal tied to the opening of intra-Afghan talks.
Amiri, the lecturer, said that neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban had an acceptable, workable, peace plan. The government’s offer was holding an election to transfer power to a government shared with the Taliban, after a political settlement. The Taliban rejected that plan. Amiri said that the Taliban itself had no peace plan of its own to counter with, but remained a bullying military force.
As the clash over peace rages on, so does the war: ongoing violence is one of the hurdles to a power-sharing agreement. The Bonn Conference in 2001 was a short-lived success largely in absence of an active war zone: Afghanistan was held and defended by the U.S., the Taliban had been diminished and its leaders fled, and no strong military forces threatened the emergent status quo. But in 2021, Afghanistan is an active war zone, with the Taliban resurgent, other militant groups active, and a yawning vacuum of power due to the draw down of U.S. troops that promises to grow wider with their full withdrawal later this year. The Taliban sees an opportunity to once again take over Afghanistan by force.
The U.S. troop withdrawal and the air-lifted peace process doubles uncertainty over the possibility of success in formatting a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Even with the U.S. troop withdrawal, the driving force behind the peace process remains the United States. As it is a U.S.-initiated process, both success and failure of the process depends on the engagement of the United States. “If the [U.S.] engagement loosens, the process will collapse,” says Amiri.
“The drawback of such [a] peace is that the international community sees the process only through the lens of security and strategy and leaves out internal forces, social realities, and human rights,” says Amiri. “The current peace process can jump-start formation of a new government but a dysfunctional and crippled one. A dysfunctional government not consistent with the mosaic of Afghan society will be the cause of the next episodes of violence and crisis.”
The U.S.-led international community already once ignored the social realities that brought war to Afghanistan. In 2001, the Taliban sent a letter to Karzai, who was then set to become head of the interim government. The letter said that the Taliban “was transferring power to [interim] government.” It was refused. Rumsfeld, then the U.S. defense secretary, rejected the surrender of the Taliban in Kandahar. The U.S. “vigorously” fought the Taliban and did not include the group that had previously ruled the country in the new Bonn-generated political arrangement.
Now the U.S. is vigorously trying to make peace and wrap up the war in Afghanistan, this time including the Taliban in the settlement. Critics say that the current peace process ignores the demands of a large portion of Afghan women and men whose values differ from the Taliban. The Asia Foundation’s survey of Afghans in 2020 found that 85.6 percent of surveyed Afghans said that they would be “very unwilling to accept” a peace agreement that will ban women and girls from attending school, for example.
Afghans are largely disconnected from both politics and peace, after decades upon decades of conflict. An estimated 1.8 million Afghans, out of more than 9 million eligible voters, cast ballots in the 2019 presidential election. The Taliban leadership is not elected. And the Asia Foundation’s survey of Afghans in 2020 found that 50.1 percent of surveyed people said they did not feel represented in the peace negotiations, while only 40.9 percent said they did feel represented in the negotiations.
Formatting a political settlement that includes the full diversity of Afghan society will take months, if not years, of civil debates among Afghans. The Istanbul peace conference, as first conceived, was scheduled for 10 days to solve a 43-year-old war. While it is still in doubt whether or when Afghan powerbrokers will gather to form a political settlement, the mass of the Afghan population remains, once again, left out of the decision-making about their own future.