How to Secure a More Stable Future for Afghanistan
By Alissa Wang
In the closing days of December, officials from Afghanistan and Pakistan came to an agreement to reinitiate joint peace talks with the Taliban. After meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced, “Both sides have agreed to continue the peace process with groups of Taliban that are ready.” The renewed effort comes several months after previous talks disintegrated following the Taliban’s confirmation that its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had been dead for two years, an announcement that shattered the already-fragile trust of its negotiating partners. Whether the talks succeed this time will be critically dependent on the commitment and strategic choices of the United States (US). In order to secure a more stable future for Afghanistan, which has been intermittently embroiled in civil wars for nearly 40 years, the US must maintain an ability and willingness to participate to an extent in the ongoing civil war in order to keep pressure on the Taliban during negotiations. However, the US will also need to make several crucial concessions, including representation for the Taliban in an inclusive Afghan government and the implementation of some Taliban demands through legislation.
Following the drawdown of American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops from Afghanistan in 2014 and the majority of Afghanistan’s security burden being shifted to the Afghan Armed Forces, an emboldened Taliban has taken advantage of the US’ lowered military presence to reassert itself. The group is now active in almost every province of Afghanistan and has been carrying out attacks across the country, bolstered by its safe havens in Pakistan.
The situation became bloodier in November when part of the Taliban led by Mullah Mohammed Rasool Akhund violently rejected the leadership of newly installed leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour and splintered off. The challenge posed by Akhund has pushed Mansour to aggressively reassert his authority in order to maintain his credibility as an insurgency leader. Violence in civilian areas have spiked while the Taliban factions battle each other. Further fracturing within the group is possible, and if that happens the bloodshed will only intensify. The Afghan government will thus find it an even more arduous task to clamp down on violence.
The upcoming peace talks are the only solution that can stabilize Afghanistan and prevent further escalation of the conflict. But the peace talks can only be successful with the full commitment of the US. In order to keep the Taliban at the table, the NATO and Afghan forces must keep pressure on the Taliban on the battlefield while negotiations take place; any gains the Taliban makes would reduce the leverage of the US and Afghanistan and disincentivize Taliban participation in the negotiations. Although the Taliban will insist that all American and NATO troops leave the country during negotiations, the Afghan Armed Forces currently have inadequate training or experience to function independently. As Chief Executive Officer of Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah admits, the national forces “haven’t met expectations” and “lack discipline.” The US must stand firm on maintaining some degree of military aid and advising to ensure the Afghan Armed Forces are capable of standing on their own.
The US must also be willing to compromise on key issues. While the US may prefer a Western-style secular democracy in Afghanistan, a stable Afghanistan may entail including representation of the Taliban in the government and the legislative implementation of some of its ideals. That is the lesser evil in comparison to unending civil war, in which the Taliban stands a chance of gaining significant political power in some regions through the fighting. In that scenario, it is unlikely that any moderate governance will occur.
Finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Afghanistan will be demanding, and will likely take many years if it is ever to be achieved. A final agreement will include painful concessions on all sides; but it is the only hope for freeing Afghanistan from eternal violence and terrorism and for establishing the country as a functional and stable democracy. The US must be committed to continue working toward this goal.