An imminent agreement between the United States and Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents must be followed by concrete steps to end the war in the country and achieve lasting peace.
The agreement is likely to include a cease-fire between the U.S. forces and the Taliban followed by a conditional withdrawal of over 10,000 American troops currently spread across Afghanistan. In return, the Taliban would ensure that Afghanistan is never again used as a terrorist haven to plot attacks on Washington or its allies.
However, a comprehensive cease-fire is unlikely, as the Taliban militants and government fighters form most of the combatants on the ground. The two sides have yet to engage in proposed direct negotiations to determine Afghanistan’s political future. There is no clarity over a type of government or the fate of the presidential elections planned for late September.
While there has been talk for weeks of negotiations between a delegation appointed by President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban, they have yet to materialize. It is imperative that any negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban include an agreement to cease hostilities and allow Afghanistan to be governed in a way that builds confidence between the parties.
A prolonged period of negotiations as fighting continues is not an option. This is largely due to the fact that the United States withdrawing troops before the presidential election in November 2020 is a real possibility. Therefore, it is imperative to examine alternative measures that can be put into place in order to prevent such a withdrawal without any accord being reached between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
This is particularly important because some analysts believe that a hasty withdrawal would lead to a civil war, similar to the 1990s.
One option would be what some in Kabul have referred to as a new interim or caretaker government that would govern for a maximum of three years prior to a peace accord being reached. While such phraseology has become immensely polarizing in the Afghan capital, it is crucial to examine the confidence-building role it could play in laying the groundwork for peace.
To ensure that negotiations lead to a settlement, the Taliban and the Afghan negotiating team must first agree to an all-encompassing cease-fire to halt the hostilities causing most of the bloodshed in the country. They, however, must agree on the continuation of Afghan Army operations against the growing threat of Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K). The ultra-radical group has repeatedly targeted civilians in eastern Afghanistan and Kabul.
The Afghan side must then form an inclusive negotiating team of high-level officials. Senior officials with decision-making authority will hasten the process of reaching compromises. It is crucial for such a team to be inclusive because if it only included one ethnic group or political faction it would not lead to a peace agreement. Specifically, it must include civil society and ethnic minorities, along with those who have been in direct combat with the Taliban for decades. This will serve as a confidence-building measure among the Taliban and those who are wariest of a peace accord with the group.
Time is running out for Kabul to address the most polarizing topic among Afghan political elites: the fate of the upcoming presidential election. Thus far, the two sides have been unwilling to compromise on this in even the slightest manner, with Ghani insisting the elections go ahead as planned. Conversely, the Taliban have threatened to violently disrupt the elections as they have in years past.
Thus, a delay in the election must be agreed upon for a period of up to three years to address Afghan anxieties over their country’s immediate future and allow for time to work out differences. The election is nearly a month away and, in contrast to the wishes of many stakeholders, it is difficult to imagine the Taliban partaking as a political entity. Furthermore, the current circumstances are only causing more division and polarization when what Afghanistan needs most is national unity.
This will allow the Taliban and the Afghan negotiating teams to come to an accord and implement it through a democratic process. Subsequently, a caretaker government can be formed that is inclusive of all political factions.
At the same time, the Taliban can start to be integrated into the formal government structure. For instance, ministerial posts could be reassigned so that critical ministries such as the interior and judiciary can be divided between the two sides. Further, this can be done in a manner that tests the ability of the leadership to work together. For example, each minister representing the Taliban could have an Afghan deputy. This would be a gradual yet important step for the Afghan people to see firsthand if the Taliban are serious about their commitments.
This could also lay the groundwork for a post-cease-fire arrangement where the Taliban would be guaranteed control of certain ministries regardless of the outcome of elections. Furthermore, such an arrangement has the potential to be inclusive and bring together factions of the current political scene in Kabul that have failed to reach a consensus in recent years.
Once the political track moves, steps should be taken to integrateeligible Taliban foot soldiers into the Afghan forces. This is of particular importance given that the army already faces grave challenges regarding ethnic divisions and command structure.
Amid the status quo in which political elites jockey for power at the expense of civilians while violent extremist groups continue to wreakhavoc on the country, a new approach is necessary. It is imperative that following the conclusion of an agreement between the Taliban and the U.S. Afghan stakeholders must come to an agreement that will allow the country to be governed while negotiations take place.
The proposal of an interim or caretaker government composed of all factions of Afghan society along with the Taliban is the best of the worst options. This would allow for confidence to develop between the two sides and for the country to experience peace during what will likely be a prolonged and an exhaustive process of intra-Afghan negotiations.