Thousands of miles away from Washington, D.C., something miraculous occurred in the small Gulf Arab emirate of Qatar. For the first time in months, Taliban officials and representatives of a broad cross-section of Afghan society — including those from the Afghan government — met for two days of discussions about what Afghanistan will look like after 40 years of intensive bloodshed. Given the extreme violence on the ground, the fact that the meeting happened at all was a visible sign of just how desperate Afghans are for some sort of peace.
The country is, frankly speaking, sick of waking up to news of bombings and ambushes. With the exception of those who profit from the war and the most radical elements of the insurgency, the parties to the conflict understand that no one side is strong enough to win militarily. And yet the war continues. If Afghanistan’s situation sounds illogical, that’s because it is in many ways.
While the United States is also engaged in its own negotiations with the Taliban, the intra-Afghan track will determine whether or not some stability is woven into Afghanistan.
Whereas the dialogue between American and Taliban officials is largely one of finding the right sequence on the main tradeoff — a foreign troop withdrawal in exchange for a Taliban commitment to keep a lid on foreign terrorist groups — the discussion between Afghans is about politics, law, and the survival of the state.
It’s an enormously emotional experience bringing the victim and the aggressor together in the same room and at the same table. Reports from those covering the talks describe heated arguments among the participants in the room about some of the most consequential items at stake, including the distribution of power, constitutional reform, values, and what it means to operate an Islamic system of government.
The joint statement produced after the session, in which all parties emphasized reducing civilian casualties, releasing prisoners in a humanitarian, and an assuring women’s rights within the confines of Islam are protected are vague but instrumental in maintaining the diplomatic momentum for later rounds.
Washington has its own red-lines for both sets of negotiations. Preventing Afghanistan from sourcing out terrorism against the American people is objective one, two, and three of the bilateral dialogue with the Taliban.
During a recent interview, President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE said he wants to leave a strong intelligence gathering force in Afghanistan. He said, “I would like to get out. The problem is (Afghanistan) just seems to be a lab for terrorists. I call it the Harvard of terrorists.”
The U.S., however, is also insistent that whatever political arrangement Afghans decide to support, baseline protections for the safety and rights of those who were oppressed by the Taliban must be a principle aspect of a deal.
Indeed, no peace agreement will be worth the ink if women and minorities are subjected to the same predatory behavior they experienced when the puritanical Islamist movement ruled most of the country.
The Trump administration should hold true to its red-lines and not apologize for them. The Taliban must realize that as much as the United States would love to bring its men and women in uniform home after a mistake-prone, expensive, nearly 18 year-long military campaign, it won’t hesitate to use force quickly and decisively if terrorists on Afghan soil threaten the American people.
But just as Washington rightly defends the security interests of the United States, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s team ought to exercise some caution as the intra-Afghan track proceeds to more substantive issues.
As much as we may dream of Afghanistan becoming a Central Asian city on a hill, we can’t allow our dreams to cloud good judgment. Reality must guide U.S. policy, and the reality is that Afghanistan’s personality rivalries, power disparities, tribal fissures, and obscene corruption problems are not America’s to solve.
If these issues can be alleviated, they will have to be done by Afghans, not Americans. It may be a cliché, but foreigners have no business trying to do what Afghan politicians, tribal elders, civil society activists, and community leaders can do themselves.
The intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha is a good beginning, even though there is a greater probability of sputtering out with no deal than ending in a conflict-ending accord. There is always a likelihood that the Taliban will use the process to buy time as its fighters press the war on the ground.
There will be considerable grumbling and outright anger from President Ashraf Ghani and his ministers about the insurgency’s continued refusal to recognize the Afghan government as a legitimate entity. Opposition politicians running for president will attempt to exploit talks with the Taliban in order to damage Ghani’s leadership before the September elections. Ghani may do the same to his political rivals.
Progress will be frustratingly slow, particularly for the mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters who will lose loved ones in the meantime. If the United States wants to increase the chances of success, it would let the Afghans conduct the process on their own while reminding all participants — including the Afghan government — that nobody will win if diplomacy succumbs to selfishness or ego. Indeed, it will only result in more tears, caskets and funerals.
Donald D. Harvel is a retired brigadier general former deputy commander of the Texas Air National Guard and a fellow at the American College of National Security Leader.