US-Taliban talks: Is Afghanistan ready for real peace?

Pavel Golovkin/AP
Taliban Mullah Abbas Stanikzai (c.) attends ‘intra-Afghan’ talks in Moscow. On Feb. 12, 2019, the Taliban announced a 14-member negotiating team, led by Mr. Stanikzai, ahead of talks with US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been meeting with the insurgents to try to end the US’s longest war.
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A series of contacts between US officials and the Taliban have raised hopes for peace in Afghanistan. Yet concerns abound. Even as the Taliban mount a charm offensive, they refuse to speak to the Afghan government and identify as representatives of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which ceased to exist in 2001. For many Afghans who have seen advances in women’s rights and other gains in civil society, the question remains: How much have the Taliban changed?

“The new situation we are facing is a combination of optimism and fear,” says Orzala Nemat, director of a think tank in Kabul. “The optimism comes from the fact that there seems to be a serious opportunity to end the bloodshed,” she says. “The fear that I have is: What will this new peace look like? Is it taking us back to the Stone Age?”

For Abdul Hamid Wardak, whose uncle and brother-in-law were executed by the Taliban, even a glimmer of peace brings some level of hope. “When I heard that peace is coming, I was very happy,” he says. “I felt good for the whole country.”

Why We Wrote This

Finding a path to peace involves taking risks and building trust. In Afghanistan, the US seems eager to end its longest war, and Afghans yearn for peace. Despite some hopes, issues of trust loom large.

With the United States eyeing a withdrawal from America’s longest war, a fledgling peace process in Afghanistan involving direct talks between the US and Taliban insurgents has created the most optimism in years.

But serious concerns abound, not least due to reports the Taliban are preparing for a new fighting season even as they negotiate.

The colossal challenges yet to come in bringing the Islamist Taliban and Afghan government to a peace agreement are encapsulated in a story surrounding a single “hanging” tree in Wardak Province, southwest of Kabul.

Why We Wrote This

Finding a path to peace involves taking risks and building trust. In Afghanistan, the US seems eager to end its longest war, and Afghans yearn for peace. Despite some hopes, issues of trust loom large.

It was from that tree that the Taliban, three years ago, hung the body of Rahmatullah, an off-duty army officer and father of seven, after kidnapping, starving, and torturing him for two weeks.

Attached to the tree they left a small note of explanation: “Anybody working with the government, this is the result.”

“It is not only our family that has made sacrifices; every family in Afghanistan has losses like this,” says Rahmatullah’s brother-in-law, Abdul Hamid Wardak, a quiet 26-year-old who was shocked to see the state of his relative’s body. Months later Mr. Wardak’s uncle also was murdered, accused of being a government spy and shot dead by Taliban gunmen. Wardak had to move away and today runs a vegetable shop in Kabul. 

“That’s clear, how bad the Taliban are,” says Wardak. He says he can’t forgive the Taliban for the killings that have devastated his family, but he sees a higher aim in a peace that could end the bloodshed – a trade-off that will have to be embraced by many Afghans if a peace deal is to prevent future slaughter.

“When I heard that peace is coming, I was very happy. I felt good for the whole country,” says Wardak. “Conflict and war are not only in my province; they are all over Afghanistan.... We urgently need peace.”

US sense of urgency

That peace is not imminent, and the “most optimism in years” is a low bar. But analysts say factors are lining up in ways they have not before: President Trump has expressed a determination to withdraw the 14,000 US troops from Afghanistan, and while the Taliban have made battlefield gains for years, few analysts expect that outright military victory over the government – backed for now by US and NATO forces – is possible.

Signs of progress are plentiful: Taliban negotiators have met several times with US officials in recent months and agreed in principle to a framework that would exchange a US troop withdrawal for the Taliban ensuring that Afghan soil is never again used to mount terrorist attacks abroad.

There is a sense of urgency engendered by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, who said a week ago there was “a lot of work” still to be done but that he hoped a deal could be finalized before July, when Afghanistan is due to hold presidential elections.

Mr. Khalilzad will next meet the Taliban Feb. 25 in Doha, Qatar.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
The special US representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, approaches the microphone to speak on the prospects for peace, Feb. 8, 2019, at the US Institute of Peace, in Washington.

The Taliban, however, refuse to speak to the Afghan government, which they call a puppet of the US. And so far the government is not part of the US-led process, nor was it invited earlier this month to Moscow, where the Taliban met other Afghan politicians, including former President Hamid Karzai. US officials increasingly speak of the need to bring all Afghan parties together.

President Ashraf Ghani nevertheless called Monday for a national loya jirga, or consultative assembly, by the end of March.

“We have to determine those values which should not be compromised,” said Mr. Ghani, who recently stated that 45,000 Afghan security force members have died since he took office in 2014. “The scale of flexibility and the cost of peace must be clarified.”

Yet there is no agreement on how the Taliban might be integrated into current state structures – which the Taliban have fought for years, with widespread assassination and intimidation campaigns – or even if the Constitution might be changed.

Among women, concerns

And crucially, for many Afghans who, since the US toppled the Taliban in 2001, have seen advances in women’s rights and education, the rule of law, a free press, and other gains in civil society, the question remains: How much have the Taliban changed?

During Taliban rule, Afghan women were not allowed to work. Nor were they allowed to leave their home without wearing an all-enveloping burqa. Girls were forbidden from going to school.

“The new situation we are facing is a combination of optimism and fear,” says Orzala Nemat, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), a think tank in Kabul.

“The optimism comes from the fact that there seems to be a serious opportunity to end the bloodshed, to end the killing of Afghans, [because] I see the graveyards getting larger across the country,” she says. “The fear that I have is: What will this new peace look like? Is it taking us back to the Stone Age?”

Aside from stopping the fighting, Ms. Nemat says, peace “also means that, when I am engaging in my public life, I will not feel threatened by anyone. So that’s the other side, and women take that very seriously.”

Taliban delegates to the talks present themselves in public as members of a wiser, media-friendly organization that has learned from mistakes in the past. Analysts note in recent years that, despite the violence, the Taliban have often shown increased flexibility to accommodate local wishes in areas under their control.

And yet the Taliban also publicly downplay the scale of civilian casualties, suggest vaguely that women’s rights will be beholden to Islamic law – their interpretation of it – and speak in the name of their former regime, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which ceased to exist in 2001.

The result, says Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, is that much more needs to be done.

“Let’s not expect that all the mess of 40 years of conflicts in Afghanistan can be cleaned out in six months, because in the last 17 years there was progress here and there, but also new problems,” he says.

“We are at the very beginning of a very long way, and it is not a smooth path,” says Mr. Ruttig. “There is potential conflict about every meter of that way, because it is about rights, about what a future state should look like.”

‘There should be peace forever’

To maximize their leverage, the Taliban appear to be on a diplomatic charm offensive.

“We know that ... taking the whole country by [force] will not help, because it will not bring peace in Afghanistan,” Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban political chief, told the BBC in Moscow.

“We wanted to solve these things on the table, in a peaceful manner,” said Mr. Stanikzai. “So after the withdrawal of foreign forces, there should be no fighting among Afghans. There should be peace forever.”

Stanikzai said that after the withdrawal of US forces, “we want to be friends with you in the future. So the Americans should come back to Afghanistan and work with us in rehabilitation and reconstruction.”

But those optics are misleading, says Nader Nadery, a senior adviser to the Afghan president.

“America’s efforts for peace are very much welcomed, but we need to be mindful that, if we rush things, that will send the wrong signal to the Pakistanis and the Taliban,” he says, referring to Pakistan’s long-term, deep support for the Taliban.

“That sense of urgency we understand; we Afghans have that sense of urgency. But rushing it through is making the Taliban more arrogant, to feel that they have the upper hand and feel that the US is desperate,” says Mr. Nadery. “The outcome will not give the Afghan people and the Americans what they want: a stable country that will build on the gains that have been made in the last 17 years, at the cost of blood and treasure.”

The Taliban’s baggage

How far the Taliban’s diplomatic rhetoric affects the battlefield is hard to gauge, since it comes after a stepped-up American bombing campaign that has killed more than 30 Taliban commanders since December, according to Western and Afghan sources. In fact, the peace effort comes after US airstrikes hit a decade high in Afghanistan, with 7,362 weapons released in 2018 – more than the previous three years combined – according to the US Central Command.

At the same time, the Taliban have been preparing through the winter for a new season of fighting as if peace were not an option, says an Afghan intelligence officer of the National Directorate of Security, who asked not to be named. Replacement commanders installed by the Taliban have been among the most hardened.

“I am on the front line; I am collecting information from everywhere,” says the intelligence officer. “Every day we see [Taliban] restructuring, and new responsible people coming from Pakistan. They are distributing weapons, preparing suicide attackers, preparing car bombs.”

“If such a thing [peace] will be their next plan, why are they working on their new war strategy for the next year?” he asks. “There is also a difference between the Taliban. Some of them want peace and accept the voice of the leadership. And some of them don’t know who they are or what they are doing. They only need to be at war. Their lifestyle is like this.”

And the Taliban have another problem as they try to reenter politics. When they first took control in 1996, they were welcomed by many, despite their strict Islamist rules, for ending years of brutal fighting between mujahideen warlords.

“The Taliban today have a much harder time to convince people that they are not going to deceive Afghans by saying, ‘Oh, we are the peace-bringers in this country,’ ” says Nemat of the AREU think tank. “Because [they have] the fresh blood [on their hands] of young journalists being killed, young teachers, young students, young girls and boys, and even the elderly, with no reason.”

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