Can the Afghan cease-fire pave the way for peace?

Can the Afghan cease-fire pave the way for peace?
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The Government of Afghanistan on June 7 offered a unilateral, week-long cease-fire to the Taliban beginning June 12, in observance of the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Of course, a cease-fire is not a peace agreement, but it can lead to one.

A successful cease-fire is first a humanitarian win because lives are saved during the lull in fighting. For this cease-fire — the first major cease-fire since the war began in 2001 — to become a political win, the parties should develop next steps on a path to negotiate their grievances rather than fight each other. While far from putting in place a viable peace process, this cease-fire marks a turning point that should not be squandered.

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The Taliban’s acceptance of the cease-fire comes as a surprise since both sides seem prepared to continue fighting and there has been so little progress on the peace process. Yet, over the past year, several building blocks have laid a foundation for this moment: The military situation is at a stalemate, while internal and external fatigue over fighting helps make the cease-fire attractive.

 

President Ghani put an offer on the table of unconditional talks with the Taliban earlier this year, which was followed by the March 28, 2018 Tashkent Declaration by Afghanistan’s neighbors supporting a peace process as the best way to end the conflict.   

U.S. General John Nicholson, commander of the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, immediately announced that U.S. forces would adhere to the cease-fire as well. The Taliban, for their part, have offered to reciprocate with a three-day cease-fire with the government only, starting June 15.

The U.S. will continue the fight against transnational terrorist groups like the Islamic State that operate within Afghanistan. This is by no means a total cessation of fighting, but it is an opportunity.

Cease-fires can fail for many reasons and unilateral cease-fires tend to be more fleeting than negotiated ones. Cease-fires are usually calculated at the highest levels of political and military leadership, but can be broken by the lowest ranking fighters.

Fragmentation within the fighting parties leads to defections; monitoring challenges make violations difficult to prevent and de-escalate; and the fighting parties themselves sometimes use cease-fires to prepare for a return to warfare. Violations are likely, but the parties should adhere to their own commitments to get the benefit of a cease-fire toward ending a conflict. One of the most effective ways to prevent spoilers from breaking the deal is to establish a permanent channel for the parties to talk out alleged violations rather than engaging in retaliation.

The best way for the Afghan parties and the international community to take advantage of this cease-fire would be to scrupulously observe it and then extend it beyond Eid el-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, through a joint declaration or merely by continuing to pause the fighting.

This is the demand of a courageous group of citizens from Helmand that arrive in Kabul this week after a long march while fasting for Ramadan, seeking a three-month pause in the war for humanitarian needs. An extension of the present cease-fire would signal the parties’ intention to negotiate larger political grievances in good faith.

Most critically, the time seems opportune for all parties to invite a neutral third party to convene a peace process leading to the Taliban joining the Afghan political order as non-combatants.

This can be done by letting the United Nations secretary general designate a peace mediator or having the U.N. Security Council empower a neutral country or organization to do the same. Even without U.N. endorsement, the principal combatants and interested parties can invite by consensus a neutral state or international figure to assist the parties in holding peace talks.

There have been numerous back channel and informal contacts among Afghanistan’s political factions and the Taliban, but these have yet to coalesce into a solidly structured set of talks. The goal of a mediator would be to organize disparate conversations into a constructive dialogue that systematically addresses key elements of a peace deal, including policies for reintegrating former fighters and constitutional reforms.

Using a cease-fire as a step toward a larger peace process supports U.S. and international security goals. The U.S. should continue to stand by the Government of Afghanistan and help it combat the Islamic State and al Qaida-linked groups. But, the U.S. should also vigorously support mediation among the parties to achieve a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.

A peace process leading to a mediated political accord is a long shot, but within reach. That is the best way to build on this cease-fire.

Anthony Wanis-St. John is an associate professor at American University, Washington DC. He researches international negotiation and advises on peace processes.

Scott R. Worden is director of Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs at the United States Institute of Peace.