The United States has kept its promise to the Afghan government from 2009, that America would fully support Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace talks to end the war. Ambassador Khalilzad on behalf of the the White House has managed to get the Taliban to meet with the Afghan government in official talks that the Afghans are calling the Afghan Peace Negotiations.

The preliminary talks have been under way for over two weeks (started on September 12) and both sides have been establishing the ground rules for negotiations that could end over 40 years of violence. There will be some challenging moments ahead for both sides of the negotiations. This piece addresses some of the probable negotiation challenges and offers some possible solutions.

Cease Fire!

The number one priority that almost every Afghan and most of the global community is calling for is a cease fire for the duration of the talks. The Taliban have been open about their desire not to grant that wish.

This is an urgent humanitarian issue that must be addressed – a point the world has made repeatedly [UN and EU statements], and the Afghan Government has some negotiating power to achieve this.  The Taliban should consider accepting this concept so the peace talks don’t lose momentum or fall apart. The Taliban have much more to lose from failed talks than they and their regional supporters, like Pakistan, might think.

To build more trust between the Afghan government and the Taliban, they could address cease fires in a series of marked duration events. Start with a 30-day cease fire among all combatants, then increase to 60-days, and then 90-days to mark the progress in the talks. If the talks fall apart during a cease fire, the war, of course, continues. Even a series of repeating 30-day cease fires would make a huge impact on the lives of the Afghan people as COVID-19 continues to spread and preparations for another rugged winter begin. There are other ways to approach this issue, but pushing it off until the end of what could be months, or years-long negotiations should not be one of them.

How can a small delegation solve such a big problem?

Facing a complex or sensitive issue, the larger group of negotiators might want to bring in issue-specific study groups to tackle that workload.  For example, an expert team of Islamic scholars (from all the major relevant theological and justice schools of thought) might be a useful study group to have waiting in the wings in Doha. Many of the negotiation topics will require legal, Islamic, and constitutional scholars who can look for helpful international examples and give options that may be acceptable to the key constituencies. Letting the experts confer and hammer out challenging topics in private, across the table from people whose credentials they respect, will make it easier for the delegates to make compromises in the end.  Other study groups might look at topics such as land disputes, victim restitution, drug-trafficking, and local versus national control of security forces.

Sit down, this is going to take a while

Looking at the Colombian process and many other peace negotiations, Afghan government and Taliban delegates might want to prepare for the possibility that this won’t be a fast process. Although Afghans are famous for resolving some disputes, this battle for power has gone on since the 1970s and may not be resolved quickly. In Colombia, there were two years of “pre talks” (which were secret) and four years of public talks. If both sides in Doha are prepared for a long negotiation and it wraps up fast, that is a bonus, but mentally they should brace for a tough slog.

Feeling as though you need to make constant public breakthrough announcements will be draining to all concerned.  It makes the public more cynical about the process; not more hopeful. The key is to ensure a gradual pace of increasing peace and stability so that the Afghan people on both sides of the fight will feel it. Also, critical will be the constant support of international partners. There are many now standing ready to assist. Keep open communications with them all and assign a team to that task. Constantly knowing how those outside the negotiation room can help you is a critical mission. If they are offering help, then give them work to do that you don’t have time for. This will keep these vital future partners involved and interested.

One discussion point during these long negotiations will certainly be the future of the Afghan security sector. Determining how to re-configure and retain the right military and police forces to sustain the peace after a settlement is reached is vital work. This discussion should begin as soon as possible as it might be the longest discussion that is held. Military leaders from both sides of the table should start using this time to set up contact groups and invite study teams to help them reach possible agreements.

What about a referee?

Often warring sides reject a mediator and try to do it themselves.  We think that may make the talks take longer. So, if the talks get stuck on a topic or start to go in circles back to items that were believed to be settled, it might be necessary to bring in a mediator. There is a long list of candidates willing to enter into this role. Ensure they are trusted, as neutral as possible, and focused on the peace talks and not publicity for themselves. Don’t forget to look for mediators outside the official diplomatic career field. It is quite possible a respected general that has worked with the Afghan government and fought with the Taliban could offer some of the most raw and groundbreaking ideas to move past sticking-points. The Taliban are fighters. They may trust a warrior over a diplomat in this case.

It is doubtful any mediator will be aligned with the Taliban goals as they are currently violating, and have violated in the past, many human rights laws. So even a mediator that is partisan to the Afghan Government but fair-minded and truly seeking peace might work. It might be useful for both sides to meet with the former U.S. Special Envoy (Bernard Aronson) that worked in both Colombia and El Salvador to learn more about the role of such a mediator, and what to look forward to in negotiations.

Should you keep religion and governance separate?

There are many nations throughout history that have tried to successfully keep religion and politics intertwined—few have found it a useful path for all citizens. One of the key issues for Afghans is equal application of human rights among the various subgroups based on ancestry and religion. An over-reliance on one religious viewpoint during negotiations may lead to unsustainable decisions about how government and religion will be connected in the future. The issue can easily derail the peace talks.

This might be another area that could use a diverse study group’s attention. The youth in Afghanistan are especially keen to ensure progress on human rights (women’s rights, religious minority rights, and ancestral minority rights) are not reversed. Inviting a study group made up of young Afghans from across the country to lay out their vision for the future might help negotiators to see what is going to be acceptable in future decades.

You won’t end up where you started

While both sides have entered these talks with a list of demands and public and private red-lines they are vowing not to cross—that is all going to change, if other peace talks are any indication. If you went back in time and showed both sides exiting successful peace talks the final document when they first started, they would say they could never agree to it.  More challenging than negotiating with the opposition may be negotiating with your own side! This process will work best if the delegations are fully empowered to make big decisions to move the process forward. Every time the delegates have to take an issue back to more senior leaders and watch it get leaked and publicly debated, the talks will stall and maybe even reverse. (That said, consult with your public about big compromises as soon as you are ready, so that they don’t reject the final agreement.)  Be ready for the unexpected and be ready to trade your “red-line issue” for one of the other sides.

Jason Howk is a retired U.S. Army Afghanistan specialist and has worked with the Afghan government since 2002 building the ANDSF, designing and conducting DDR and SSR, and starting/sustaining the Afghan peace efforts since 2009. These comments are his alone do not reflect the views of any other person or any US Government entity.

Jason is currently coauthoring a paper on the future Afghan security sector after a peace-settlement with Annie Pforzheimer and Andrew Hyde. They will compare the security requirements in Afghanistan with similar international cases and suggest what kind of Afghan security forces are necessary and realistic in the context of safeguarding a peace settlement. The report will outline what the U.S., Afghans, and other international partners can do now and in the future to make the future Afghan security force a reality. Annie Pforzheimer was Deputy Chief of Mission in Kabul and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Afghanistan. Andrew Hyde was NATO’s Deputy Senior Civilian in Kabul and focused on conflict prevention, stabilization, and post-conflict reconstruction during his diplomatic career.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, works with numerous non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.