Completing the Afghanistan peace puzzle

Completing the Afghanistan peace puzzle
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After 17 bloody years of fighting and suicide bombings, an inflection point is fast approaching for bringing peace to Afghanistan. Two weeks of high-level talks between U.S. and Taliban representatives recently concluded in Qatar. No big breakthough took place, but both sides say progress was made.

The U.S. Envoy for Afghan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has said he hopes to secure a peace deal before Afghanistan’s next presidential election, planned for July and now postponed to September. But to achieve that, three pieces of a peace puzzle for Afghanistan must be put into place for it to be lasting. 

The United States and the Taliban have agreed in principle to a conditional withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops in exchange for a Taliban pledge not to allow Afghanistan to be a safe haven for transnational terrorists, like al-Qaida.

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That addresses a critical piece of the puzzle. The second will be even more difficult — an inclusive, intra-Afghan dialogue to achieve a comprehensive internal settlement, one that covers a range of fundamental issues including cease-fires, power sharing, constitutional arrangements, and women’s and civil rights protections.

To date, however, the Taliban is steadfastly refusing to enter into talks with the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, calling it “illegitimate.” Beyond that, given their  actions when ruling Afghanistan, there is the fundamental issue of whether the Taliban will honor any of the promises they make.

Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, is especially worried about Afghan women and girls, who suffered the most under the Taliban: “What’s going to happen to Afghan women? The women we encouraged to step forward, the ones that we made a major effort to get back into schools. There is no guarantee that the Taliban would make that I would trust. Who’s going to enforce it?”

Here the international community can play an important role: by monitoring adherence to the terms of any agreement — the European Union has already offered to act as a guarantor of the peace process — and by its provision or withholding of vitally needed financial and reconstruction assistance for Afghanistan, now running at $15 billion through 2020.

But even if successful, an intra-Afghan political settlement will not be sufficient to assure Afghanistan’s long-term stability. What is required is a third piece of the Afghan peace puzzle — an external political settlement, one that brings the country’s neighbors and key regional players into the process.

Historically, Afghanistan’s troubles have been caused, for the most part, by external interference and intervention, as well as by Afghan parties inviting foreign elements to take part in their internecine conflicts.

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The importance of minimizing, if not totally eliminating, interference from outside parties was recognized by Afghan and other international participants at the Bonn Conference in December 2001, soon after the Taliban were ousted. The declaration adopted by the conference included a request that “the United Nations and the international community take the necessary measures to guarantee the national sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Afghanistan as well as the noninterference by foreign countries in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.”

Since the U.N. secretary general already has the mandate in the Bonn Declaration, he should appoint a person of high political stature and experience — after appropriate consultation with key parties — to focus exclusively on an external political settlement for Afghanistan, one that leads to a regional compact on noninterference and nonintervention. A similar U.N. special envoy was appointed for the 1988 Geneva Accord, a move that led to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It must be an inclusive process, including Afghanistan and its six neighbors as well as others in the region and beyond that will play a critical role in stabilizing Afghanistan’s future, especially those that have suspicions and rivalries with one another.

Pakistan and India come first to mind, so also the United States, Russia and China, and Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The compact should also address matters that have critical regional importance and opportunities for cooperation: combating drug trafficking; assisting refugee populations; and facilitating commerce, transit and energy flows throughout the region. The latter would underscore the potential benefits for all in the region of a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan, and provide a powerful incentive to hold the arrangement together.

Once concluded, the accord should be endorsed by the UN Security Council. For its part the Council should offer to assist in monitoring the implementation of the agreement, perhaps working with existing regional organizations like the Organization of Islamic States and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Everyone’s first desire in Afghanistan, it’s said, is to influence — only second to assist. Enhancing capacity to assist by denying everyone’s first desire would thus respond to what the Afghan poet, Khalilullah Khaleeli, poignantly described as the “promise of tomorrow.”

Karl F. Inderfurth served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs and deputy U.S. representation to the UN Security Council. Chinmaya R. Gharekhan served as India’s special envoy for the Middle East and is a former U.N. Under Secretary General.