On February 23, diplomats from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States will meet in Kabul for the fourth round of talks aimed at bringing respite to a troubled land. This quadrilateral process is the latest effort in the long and arduous journey towards an Afghan peace settlement. The pursuit of peace is almost as old as the Afghan conflict itself.
In January 1980, the United Nations General Assembly called for a political settlement to the conflict, which has never been finalised over the past 36 years. Despite the overwhelming consensus on the need for a peaceful Afghanistan, there remain fundamental questions over the shape of an eventual settlement and the way forward.
The quadrilateral process is overshadowed by Washington’s war-weariness, Kabul’s desperation, Beijing’s ambitious geo-economic regional projects and the overconfidence of Pakistani generals in the Taliban’s military prowess.
Attaining consensus for an eventual settlement and for the principles on which it is based are the key requirements for success. To this end, there have to be greater efforts to reach an understanding on the nature of the Afghan conflict, before agreeing on a conflict resolution plan.
At this stage, Beijing sees the Afghan conflict as a typical civil war, a position that is closer to some United States pundits and British diplomats who describe the Afghan conflict as tribal warfare among the unruly Afghans.
Meanwhile, Pakistan blames the conflict on the Pashtuns’ exclusion from power, a grievance fuelled by India. The Afghan government characterises it essentially as a war imposed by Pakistan, whereby poor, illiterate and rural Taliban are being manipulated by Islamabad.
Pakistan's Taliban strategy is transform the group into a political and military entity with total control over a number of Afghan provinces, similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This would mean a de facto partition of Afghanistan.
Among the Afghans, there are also divergent views on the nature of the Taliban. While there is an overwhelming consensus about the primary role of Pakistan in the Afghan conflict, there is less clarity and agreement over the degree of Taliban independence and responsibility.
There is hardly any sympathetic voices among non-Pashtun political elites about the Taliban, whereas the views among a significant number of Kabul-based Pashtun political elites range from sympathy and justification to silence. Former President Hamid Karzai’s favourite characterisation of the Taliban is “my upset brothers”. His successor’s view of them is as his “political opponents”.
The Taliban apologists are mocked as “necktie-wearing Taliban”. And while Afghanistan’s growing civil society and democratic constituencies despise the Taliban, a large number of clerics remain silent, with the exception of a few, such as Sayyaf, a prominent Mujahidin leader and a religious scholar.
For the more informed observers, the Afghan conflict is a hybrid one, involving internal drivers (elite polarisation, weak state institutions, and drug/war economy) and external drivers (great/regional powers’ geostrategic competitions, Pakistan’s hegemonic objective and the rise of Islamist movements).
Therefore, a viable settlement has to address both these internal and external drivers. Pinprick solutions would only lengthening the Afghan conflict.
Embracing “democratic politics” is the only answer to elite polarisation. Neither violence nor “ethnic entitlement” should be justified as a path towards political power. Contrary to his Western lobbyists, Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, continues to be haunted by his original sin, which was his failure to win a democratic mandate, thanks to Karzai’s manipulation of the electoral process.
Electoral reform, and the taming of his ethnic and authoritarian impulses can partially redeem Ghani. The recent warning by James Clapper, the US National Intelligence director, over the risk of a “political breakdown during 2016” in Afghanistan reinforced the primacy of political stability over any hasty peace process.
Despite efforts to create a new political identity, political space and legitimacy for the Taliban, the group after all is an integral part of Islamist radical movements, and incompatible with constitutional and democratic politics. It meets every definition of terrorism.
Pakistan’s Taliban strategy is to transform the group into a political and military entity with total control over a number of Afghan provinces, similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This would mean a de facto partition of Afghanistan.
Washington and Beijing seem to be comfortable with such an arrangement, as long as their core geostrategic and geoeconomic interests are safeguarded. With other Afghan political groups, however, the only viable path for Taliban’s political power has to be democratic politics and mainstreaming.
However, the emergence of the latest generation of radical groups in the region, namely the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the death of the Taliban’s demagogue leader Mullah Omar are changing the Taliban from a coherent, ideologically driven military group into factions of fragmented militias.
The unending terrorist attacks in Pakistan and President Barack Obama’s prediction of growing instability in Afghanistan in coming years should awaken Pakistani’s military establishment to the dangers of playing with radical groups. The policy of managed instability in Afghanistan will only accelerate the crippling process of Talibanisation of Pakistan.
In addition, China’s grand initiative of “One Belt, One Road” could only be realised in a peaceful neighborhood. One also hopes that Washington has learned the harsh lesson that wars do not end on schedule, through bureaucratic benchmarks and Washington’s electoral cycle.
The weariness generated by the Afghan conflict, coupled with the fear of a regional spillover similar to the Middle East, provide the necessary momentum to push for a viable peace settlement. As many other conflicts have shown, an enduring peace is attained only from the position of strength rather than desperation.
Davood Moradian is the director-general of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, former chief of programmes in President Hamid Karzai’s office and chief policy adviser to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.