The Afghan quest for peace and stability is ongoing; it’s a battle between violent men with supremacist ideas and those wanting to build a unified nation. This means there will be further diplomatic efforts to find a way for Afghans and Pakistanis to learn to accept each other, and for Pakistan to stop its proxy warfare. This short piece looks at the phases of the recent peace process between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Pakistani proxy force known as the Taliban.
Phase One: Afghan Led, Afghan Owned
In the summer of 2009, I was asked by the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Commander to help Sir Graeme Lamb build a NATO organization that could help President Karzai on his latest push for peace with the Taliban. This was all done in public view; it was not secret. As an Army captain, I held the first international meeting on the topic in Kabul, and we ensured everyone knew our purpose. While NATO termed the efforts reintegration, the Afghan government saw it as a broad three-level policy that would allow foot-soldiers to go home and also allow political-level militia and terrorist leaders to reconcile.
Lt. Gen. Lamb was adamant about one key piece of this effort, “we would not take one step ahead of the Afghan government.” He held the world to that promise to Karzai, even convincing Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to quietly work with us to ensure no nation got ahead of the Afghans on the journey towards peace. It had to be at their pace, and it needed to be a peace that worked for them – not the West. That political effort culminated in 2010 with the Afghan policy called APRP or the “Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program,” and its approval at a Peace Jirga that summer. It was UN-backed, created a High Peace Council of various Afghans, and opened the door for Afghans to begin talking about peace. Pakistan wanted their Taliban proxy to avoid this peace outreach, they knew that the ultimate goal of the effort would leave the Taliban weakened politically and it would demoralize the fighters that Pakistan was funding and training.
Phase Two: Impatience
With the departure of Sir Graeme and the death of Holbrooke a new set of negotiators tried to move the talks forward. They instantly shed the key edict that Lamb had wisely enforced: the world was now going to get ahead of the Afghan government. The Afghan leadership would begin to undermine their own peace efforts after this phase and let the issue divide them politically, instead of using peace efforts to weaken the Taliban and Pakistan.
When the secret negotiations spilled into the headlines, those of us who crafted the original policy knew the executive branch efforts would hamper Afghan leadership, empower the Taliban diplomatically, please Pakistan, and create conspiracy theories that the U.S. was working to put the Taliban in power and undermine the Islamic Republic. This phase culminated with the 2013 opening of the Taliban terrorist outpost in Doha Qatar. There is a reason the phase 1 leaders had avoided the requests by Qatar to get involved in the peace process. Qatar had mixed motives for their interest and were not skilled at being neutral and helpful. This phase pleased the Taliban and Pakistan, and their supporters in Russia and China. There was no peace and no decrease in violence; although one key terrorist leader (Hekmatyar) finally reconciled with IRoA, and it also helped the U.S. better understand the redlines of the Taliban. The cost of talking to the Taliban directly instead of forcing them to talk to the Afghan government was too high.
Phase Three: More Impatience
I checked my email on the way back from a summer 2018 D.C. trip to find the State Department had been authorized to restart Afghan Peace Talks. I was asked my advice on how to launch the efforts based on the 2009 launch of the NATO/U.S. policy. Instead of appointing a NATO Special Envoy to represent all nations, choosing a person who is trusted by the Afghan people and would be respected by the Taliban and Pakistan—the White House tapped Zalmay Khalilzad in 2018 as special adviser on Afghanistan, to facilitate an intra-Afghan political peace process.
The Taliban and Pakistan took advantage of Khalizad and created a very lopsided U.S.-Taliban agreement in February 2020. Pakistan and the Taliban also ensured that the peace negotiations further increased the divide between Afghans and America/NATO. While Khalizad negotiations undermined the Afghan government diplomatically, the leaders of Afghanistan also did themselves no favors. Instead of engaging vigorously with the U.S. to put Afghans back in the lead of the peace process, they fought against an inevitable peace deal.
Pakistan and the Taliban, and their allies, took full advantage of Afghan resistance to the U.S. peace efforts and sidelined IRoA and many other peace activists on the world stage. This set up the most recent phase of the process.
Phase Four: Apathy
The Biden Administration opted for a full and rapid abandonment of security and diplomatic support to the Afghan people. The White House kept Khalizad on as negotiator as they continued the work of withdrawing U.S. forces. Pakistan saw the green-light for what it was; they had fully driven NATO from Afghanistan and could launch their final assault to secure the country with the Taliban-Haqqani terrorist network.
The Afghan peace talks failed to bring a peaceful transition of power towards a more inclusive government. Afghan leaders chose to fight the idea of the talks when they got sidelined, instead of retaking ownership. Negotiators from 2011-2021 from around the globe lost their patience and purposely sidelined the Afghan government, knowing that it would only strengthen the Taliban and Pakistan diplomatically.
The Peace process is not over, the Pakistani-backed regime in Kabul still needs to find a way to stop an insurgency from throwing them from power. Pakistan still needs to find a way to make peace with Afghans and to not get sanctioned (or let the Taliban get sanctioned) by the West for their actions. Afghans still have the power to lead themselves towards normalcy and to put diplomacy and unity above violence and anger at the West for being betrayed. We now will see who rises, and if the diplomats will return to the idea of letting Afghans lead and own their peace process.