As a student of peace studies, any initiative to curb violence through peaceful means is a subject of interest for me. But yesterday, the news that the U.S. government has agreed to engage directly in peace talks with the Taliban caught my attention for three reasons in particular:
1) Who are the actors participating in the negotiations – is the U.S. an actor in the peace talks, a negotiator, a mediator or all the above?
2) What are the roles of the Afghan government and the people of Afghanistan in this transition?
3) Why was the U.S.’ willingness to negotiate met with an attack on U.S. soldiers by the Taliban, putting the group’s long awaited objectives to negotiate with the U.S. directly in jeopardy?
While analyzing the current situation surrounding the reconciliation process in Afghanistan and peace talks with the Taliban, instead of feeling optimistic for potential peace in my country, I became highly concerned.
The first rule of negotiations or mediations in conflict resolution is to identify actors, mediators, negotiators, differentiate the roles each party plays in the conflict, and then ensure that the process for negotiations is inclusive and transparent. Looking at the short history of peace negotiations in Afghanistan, the fundamental factor of inclusivity is undermined; most often the marginalized groups that were not present at the negotiating table end up retaliating with violence and perpetuating the conflict.
For example, the Geneva Accords of 1988 signed between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan on ‘noninterference and nonintervention’, with the U.S. and the USSR taking on the role of guarantors and the United Nations mediating between the conflicting parties, was unable to bring all the necessary stakeholders to the table. Although, the proxy war with the Mujahedeen was against the Soviet backed Afghan government, the Mujahedeen were not present to be signatories to the Geneva Accords. As a result, the Afghan people witnessed a bloody civil war when the Mujahedeen factions, backed by regional powers, took control from the Afghan government and fought each other throughout the 1990s.
Another good example is the Bonn Agreement, the foundation laid by the United Nations and the ‘international community’ to bring durable peace toAfghanistan. Once again, the Bonn peace‐building negotiations were selective rather than inclusive in terms of the participation of actors. The West decided not to include the Taliban, the left wing parties and the voices of Afghan civil society. Twelve years later, the United States has decided to engage in peace talks with the Taliban, the same ‘terrorists’ that were excluded from the Bonn Conference.
Reflecting on past experiences with peace negotiations and mediation, the inclusivity factor becomes vital for conflict resolution and peace-building efforts. Therefore, as much as the direct talks with the Taliban are important to end violence and bloodshed, it is just as important to include Afghan people, its government and the various political factions (i.e. the Watan Party and former PDPA and Northern Alliance leaders) in the process in order to avoid continued violence and potentially another civil war.
The initiative of the U.S. to engage in direct talks with the Taliban without the Afghan government or other important political and civilian voices at the table highlights a failure to take into account the importance of the inclusivity factor in conflict resolution. The current peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban taking place outside Afghanistan has alienated the Afghan government from the peace process, making it an external player in its own affairs, which explains the discontent reaction of the Afghan government.
The Afghans and their representatives in Parliament will be some of those most affected by the reconciliation process. So far, the Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) of the Afghan government has not allowed a true bottom-up approach that includes Afghans in the reconciliation discourse, and instead it has focused only on political negotiations. As the exchange of prisoners between the U.S. and the Taliban remains a subject of debate in the U.S. Congress, similarly the Afghan Parliament should be given an opportunity to debate the national reconciliation process and political negotiations with the opposition. Engaging the Parliament and Afghan civil society in the determination of their nation’s future can reinforce the very democratic institutions built with the help of the ‘international community’ in the past twelve years. Reconciliation mechanisms such as truth commissions, restorative justice and the fostering of national identity are important to deal with the past.
In conclusion, I would like to reemphasize that talks with the Taliban can succeed when all sides are heard equally including the government, political factions from across the spectrum, civil society and young socio-political movements. Finally, peace talks and reconciliation are processes that are time consuming and cannot be given deadlines. It took roughly eight years to negotiate the Geneva Accords, in which objectives were directly linked to the withdrawal of Soviet troops and yet the negotiators were unable to include all parties at the table. For a durable solution to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, the mediators of the peace talks should separate the deadline for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the reconciliation process and peace talks.