It is time for Afghans to take the initiative in the peace process.
Few have hope for Afghanistan
Those in favour of the United States government’s decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan see no pathway to victory by American forces and NATO allies over the Taliban. Meanwhile, opponents of President Joe Biden’s proposed drawdown are less interested in the welfare of the Afghan people, than they are about leaving conditions ripe for a terrorist haven to develop.
Yet, this general pessimism about the current state of affairs in Afghanistan misses one central fact – that not since 1979, before the Soviet invasion, has there ever been as much of a chance for peace as there is now.
Integral to this is how no side to the conflict – neither the Taliban nor the Afghan government – possess the ability to subdue the other.
The Taliban is, at best, a guerrilla insurgency without the capacity to capture the entire country. It has an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 fighters, a force five times smaller than that of the government. Even during the Taliban’s reign, 15 percent of the country remained under the control of its opposition, the Northern Alliance.
Today, the Taliban is thought to control approximately 15 percent of the country and the government claims it controls about 50 percent, with the remainder contested.
The Taliban has also lost the ability to justify more conflict: In the past, the claim was that foreign invaders needed to be expelled. Now, the US and NATO are gesturing that they are more than ready to hand over the political reins of the country to domestic forces.
For the Afghan government, its military support may seem to be under threat by the US and NATO withdrawal. But the troop drawback is not total abandonment. The Afghan government has a 300,000-strong military force that will continue to be financially supported by the US and NATO. The US military leadership has also made it clear that it is willing to use force in the near future if hostilities continue.
Such comments and commitments show that the US will remain behind the scenes, in some fashion, for years. Removing troops does not include the use of advisers, as well as potentially using the air force to make limited, targeted strikes in the future.
It is true that since President Biden announced the US troop pullout, violence has risen across the country from both the government side and the Taliban. Yet, these twin showings of force are best understood as evidence of strategic posturing; this temporary escalation proves that the two parties retain the capacity to blow things up and kill one another.
More to the point – this short wave of violence illustrates how neither side can bend the other to its will.
What we have is an impasse, but not one without hope.
In this situation, the art of making sustainable peace depends on interests – some inside; others, outside the country – aligning over more long-term prospects.
What could lead different economic and political interests to view peace in Afghanistan as desirable?
First, there’s lots of money to be made.
How? There’s lithium, natural gas, cobalt, gold and all other kinds of mineral deposits currently sitting in the ground, untouched. Development could mean jobs for people in Afghanistan, as well as revenue for everyone involved. Given that the most pressing issue within the country is hunger, a steady stream of money will definitely ease the conflict.
Furthermore, international projects such as the TAPI pipeline, which will carry natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, should strengthen regional peace through cooperation and result in billions of dollars of royalties for Afghans and neighbouring countries.
The $10bn project will not only provide gas but also heighten regional peace and stability through connecting the economic and energy interests of the countries involved.
There is also the potential refugee catastrophe that may result from the conflict continuing or getting worse.
Look no further than the Syrian civil war for what could happen if nothing changes or if the conflict worsens. That conflict displaced upwards of 50 percent of its population and the resulting refugee crisis added fuel to far-right, xenophobic forces across Europe. Afghanistan’s population is double that of Syria’s. An Afghan refugee crisis would make what happened in Syria appear minimal.
Is Europe prepared to receive millions of new refugees?
The European Union has the capacity – and interest, namely, for fear of another refugee crisis – to use its diplomatic expertise to pitch in and help the opposing sides to the Afghan conflict sit down and come to terms.
A practical way towards peace can be found in history; namely, the Chapultepec Peace Accords that ended the more than 12-year Salvadoran Civil War in 1992.
El Salvador had been caught in a civil war that began in the late 1970s. The country was torn apart as the US supported the military government and the Soviet Union, Cuba and Nicaragua all helped the left-wing FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) insurgents. Years of violence led the parties to the conflict to request United Nations mediation in 1989. Meeting in 1990, after a resurgence of violence proved that neither side could beat the other, peace talks began in earnest.
The resulting peace accords contained political and economic elements.
Politically, the military became subject to civilian control, human rights training became part of the reformed military and police forces, and institutions were created to ensure electoral integrity. Additionally, the FMLN agreed to lay down its weapons and transition into a political party.
Economically, land redistribution was promised, as well as creating an institutional space for unions, businesses leaders and government officials to debate policy.
The peace negotiations proved successful in ending the conflict but didn’t achieve all that they could have to fashion a sustainable peace in a post-conflict society. What is positive beyond doubt is how guerrillas became politicians and a multi-party democracy replaced a military dictatorship.
Yet, economic reforms took a back seat. This was the critical shortcoming of the accords and is why El Salvador remains a country ravaged by inequality and drug-related violence.
Those negotiating peace in Afghanistan must learn from the Salvadoran experience.
For starters, a third-party mediator, like the United Nations, is key.
Additionally, the Taliban must agree to a ceasefire and to integrate into the political system. Reports show that this is, in fact, on the table.
Human rights cannot be ignored, especially concerning women. Even here, despite some doomsday predictions in the press, the Taliban has made changes, particularly with respect to women’s rights. Knowing that they cannot simply erase the freedoms that women have earned in the government-controlled areas of the country since 2001, the Taliban’s position has softened on women’s involvement in the public sphere such as acquiring education, employment and partaking in social life.
Such changes should provide hope for the potential future of human rights in the country, not receive scorn for failing to immediately create a perfect world.
Still, the lynchpin to an enduring peace lies in economic matters.
The question is how to develop infrastructure and promote mining in ways that would benefit the Afghan people by providing employment and resources for critical public services such as education.
For a country as corrupt as Afghanistan – ranked in the top 12 in the world – the danger is that the lion’s share of the profits will go to the few.
This is why economic deals need to be integral to peace negotiations, including dedicating royalties to provinces, promoting international monitoring to ensure transparency, and targeting infrastructure spending for schools and hospitals.
This money would help stop young men from choosing the path of war and, instead, to rebuild their country. Local Taliban leaders, therefore, would have a more difficult time recruiting people who wish to dedicate their time to jobs, families and school.
Taliban leaders, too, stand to benefit, by becoming involved in these business ventures and seeking to direct resources and provide services to their future constituents.
The international community and most people in Afghanistan agree that war is not the answer. Peace is inevitable, will be advantageous to most and, finally, possible. The enlightened self-interest of various stakeholders could lead to a sustainable peace for a people who deserve so much more and absolutely no less.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.