The 3 keys to peace in Afghanistan

The 3 keys to peace in Afghanistan
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As U.S. negotiators finalize the terms of a settlement deal with the Taliban, several profound disagreements and contradictions are set to make winning Afghan peace as difficult as winning the war.

Unfortunately, the unvarnished reality in Afghanistan is that the Taliban is winning. The group’s current “fight and talk” strategy is meant not only to kill but also to shape the political environment in its favor. Today the Taliban’s most important leverage remains an active and adaptive fighting force. They use that leverage to bank on their violence at the table while simultaneously positioning themselves for the breakdown of talks.

As talks enter the intra-Afghan negotiations, it could well fall apart. The problem is that the talks have so far been focused too much on securing an agreement on paper but less so on the post-deal implementation.


Ultimately, the success or failure of the peace negotiations depends on at least three fundamental issues.

The first main issue pertains to serious disagreements among the Taliban’s leadership about the peace talks. Like the Afghan state, the Taliban polity is marred by infighting, with its two powerful political and military commissions seemingly divided on the peace issue. Taliban hardliners believe they can still score a victory and have no military reason to stop fighting. Many prefer victory as a substitute for a peace settlement, operating under the belief that the Taliban are stronger because the Afghan government is weaker.

The Taliban’s military leaders believe the group should continue its military struggle and buy time because American withdrawal is imminent. They’re also adamant that the movement’s formal name, the Islamic Emirate, be preserved to signal their objective of restoring a sharia-compliant regime.

Meanwhile, the two commissions seem split on the U.S. withdrawal timeline, with military leaders worried the political commission may settle with U.S. negotiators on a withdrawal timeline longer than 12 to 18 months.

As talks progress, these internal divisions among the Taliban leaders have put the group’s seriousness to engage in good faith under question. It also poses a critical stumbling block to reaching a comprehensive settlement deal and bringing the Taliban into the political mainstream. One short term solution is to engage the military leaders and field commanders in the talks on a rotating basis to ensure a future deal stick.


The second issue is the type, shape and the balance-of-power arrangements of a post-settlement Afghan state, involving the Taliban.

For too long, the Afghan society has wrestled with an invisible battle between religion and modernity. Today, that clash revolves around the question of the nature of the future system: Islamic Emirate vs. constitutional Islamic Republic.

The Taliban’s objective at the moment does not seem to be state collapse but monopolizing power, allowing them to reconfigure the state within the framework of a Sharia-based Islamic Emirate. Taliban oppose the concept of the republic and disdain elections, which is now on a parallel track with peace talks. The Afghan government, which supports the current republic system, believes that the Taliban’s opposition are political, not religious, which can be addressed through constitutional amendments.

The Taliban, however, has not yet provided their blueprint for a Sharia-compliant state they want established, including how it should be formed and how political succession should take place. For now, the Taliban are negotiating to create an outsized role for mullahs in the future system.

Ultimately, the Taliban may agree to share power, but they are unlikely to amend their rigidly anti-democratic governance style. For this reason, it is likely the future system would involve a two-tier governance system to be practiced in Afghanistan. Such an arrangement, possibly a government with clerical oversight, would include a political system of both elected and non-elected leadership, similar to countries like Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan.

The challenge is that the Taliban, as a rural insurgency, has already become entrenched in the state’s power structure in the vast swaths of rural Afghanistan. After a settlement, the group will solidify their administration over those areas, effectively expanding the growing urban-rural and sectarian divide in the country.

Also, how might such two opposing governance arrangements operate together when there are multiple power centers across the country? Will sharia be applied only on the non-Taliban population, a common practice during the Taliban’s regime? How will state resources be allocated? How will foreign relations be conducted? These and other questions will pose a real test for Afghan leaders in upcoming talks, though most appear more concerned with managing power than managing the country.

 The third issue is the reintegration of the Taliban ex-combatants and their networks and the extent to which they will be absorbed in the system.

At present, the Taliban’s fighting strength is estimated at 60,000-men, which includes full-time and part-time fighters, commanders and facilitators. Nearly half of them are rank-and-file, whose main skill is fighting. Many fighters are in combat for a paycheck, others are driven by ideology and used as hired guns by regional countries. There are also a growing number of businessmen Taliban, who are engaged in drug trafficking and organized criminal activities.

Even though the current Afghan state has the capacity to subsume a large number of ex-combatants, not every fighter is employable. Meanwhile, not every combatant wants to reconcile, including the hardliners. Some ex-combatants would need basic income, while others who declare neutrality would need a job. The businessmen Taliban would likely maintain their criminal activities to enrich themselves. Many hardliners, including those radicalized in Afghan prisons and released, would likely join the Islamic State.

Ultimately, about 30,000 ex-combatants would fit the criteria for reintegration. The excess capacity in Afghan security institutions, including the army and police, would absorb a substantial number of Taliban’s rank-and-file. Others could be recruited into the local police, highway police and the territorial force. Some can be employed by the private sector. Taken together, this would create a government-aligned security force in the future order.

Many Taliban leaders, meanwhile, can be integrated through non-elected roles into the system, including in ministries, provincial governments, the Senate, and possibly in missions abroad. Make no mistake, Taliban leaders will use its fighting leverage to push for sharing power in the security institutions, potentially creating a significant stumbling block in the talks.

At the same time, funding the reintegration process could prove to be an important challenge. For now, the donor community, including the United States, is working to design a five-year $5.2 billion post-peace economic package. The plan, which is likely to create specific entitlement and job creation programs, would provide special benefits to ex-combatants, including handouts.

 For now, Afghanistan is too dangerous to fail, and an ungovernable Afghan state that exports terrorism will be disastrous for American interests. While any final settlement will be far from perfect for all warring parties, it should clearly delineate authorities, resources and expectations for all sides. The real test for the United States is to ensure that tomorrow’s peace looks noticeably different than today’s conflict.

Javid Ahmad is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter: @ahmadjavid