Washington’s fresh approach to settling the Afghan conflict
16 Mar 2021|

The protracted Afghanistan conflict and lack of progress in the intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha have prompted President Joe Biden’s administration to get tough with the Afghan government and pressure the Taliban to reach a political settlement urgently. It has proposed a United Nations–led international conference to boost the chances of such a settlement. Will this new initiative work?

In heavy-handed style, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently sent a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stating bluntly that his government should either get its act together and reach an accommodation with the Taliban or face the wrath of the militia who stand to gain more territory at the cost of the government. He proposed that a peace conference be held under UN auspices in Turkey, bringing together the warring Afghan parties and Afghanistan’s neighbours to hammer out an agreement for a transitional government, a ceasefire and a political roadmap involving constitutional changes and establishing an Islamic Council, with the full participation of the Taliban, leading to a general election that allows the Afghan people to elect their government. Turkey has since announced that it plans to host such a meeting next month.

Blinken’s proposal is very much along the lines of the US-driven and UN-led Afghan Bonn peace conference of December 2001. That event, which took place following America’s toppling of Taliban rule, mapped out a political transition for Afghanistan, without the participation of the Taliban since it was designated as a terrorist group.

The unusually sharp tone of Blinken’s letter to Ghani is understandable. The US and its allies have been fighting in Afghanistan for nearly two decades without a very effective partner on the ground to stymie the growing Taliban-led insurgency. Afghan governmental and non-governmental leaders have proved to be divided, quarrelling among themselves for self-centred and self-serving objectives rather than institutionalising a governing system and pursuing strategies that could generate national unity and benefit a majority of the Afghan people. This dysfunction has fed into what have also largely evolved as inappropriate US Afghanistan policies, which have failed to halt Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and failed to neutralise the insurgency of the group and its affiliates.

Biden’s predecessor, the impulsive neonationalist and longstanding critic of the Afghan war Donald Trump, found the situation untenable and opted for a total military withdrawal from Afghanistan no matter what. His envoy for Afghanistan, the Afghan American Zalmay Khalilzad, negotiated and signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, which provided for a US and allied troop pull-out by 1 May 2021. This was in return for a Taliban pledge to prevent hostile actions against the US and its allies from Afghanistan. The deal, in which the Afghan government had no part, also provisioned for the release of 5,000 Taliban from Afghan jails and the liberation of 1,000 government soldiers from Taliban captivity.

That agreement was the worst of its kind. It made the Taliban America’s partner in peace, without obliging them to agree to a universal ceasefire or to genuinely enter negotiations with the other Afghan parties, including the government, for a viable settlement. In effect, it furnished the Taliban with carte blanche to dramatically increase their operations across the country, involving targeted assassinations of civil activists, journalists, enlightened religious figures, judges and officials, at the cost of mounting military and civilian losses, while maintaining the facade of peace talks in Doha.

The problem with Blinken’s forceful initiative is that it has identified the Taliban as the salient force, while striking a raw nerve in the Ghani government. Ghani has worked hard to rebut the Taliban’s continuous labelling of his government as an American ‘puppet’. He, along with some of his ranking supporters in the government, cannot but view Blinken’s message in the form of a patron imposing its preferences on a client for its own benefit.

Speaking on behalf of the government, the first vice-president and former head of the Afghan National Directorate of Security, Amrullah Saleh, criticised Blinken’s initiative as unacceptable. He essentially reiterated Ghani’s past emphasis that there would be no compromise on the 2002 Afghan constitution and the legitimacy of his government and transfer of power by election. Saleh stressed that the government and the people want peace, but not simply on any terms imposed upon them.

While Saleh’s stance is supported by Ismail Khan, a former heavyweight minister from western Afghanistan, it is not shared by several other leaders outside the government. For example, former President Hamid Karzai (2001–2014) has backed Blinken’s proposal as the ‘best chance to accelerate stalled peace talks’ between the warring Afghan parties. So has the ex-vice-president of the Karzai era, Yunus Qanuni. Nonetheless, Ghani and most of the other leaders have agreed to attend the Turkey conference.

Blinken’s move is forceful enough to cut both ways. On the one hand, it has cajoled the government and the Taliban to strike a deal at the Turkey conference, despite the risk of any deal being unravelled in its implementation, as happened to the outcome of the Bonn conference. On the other hand, it can further polarise both sides, causing them to harden their positions and thus undermining the chances of a viable political settlement for an early US and allied military exit with some face-saving measures.

Meanwhile, Ghani and several other leaders have also agreed to attend an Afghanistan peace conference in Moscow this week, perhaps as a balancing act to keep Russia on side. Whatever the case, in the event of Turkey’s conference resulting in the formation of a transitional government, it seems certain at this stage that it will be portioned among Ghani and other leaders, who have most unfortunately failed the Afghan people thus far. This may help the US and its allies to complete their military withdrawal, but pity the suffering Afghan people who are set to endure violence, insecurity and uncertainty for quite a while longer.