After four decades of conflict, the Afghan government and the Taliban are engaged in peace talks. Many differences in crucial issues for the future of the country still remain, but the road to peace in Afghanistan has begun.
Simone Sessolo, Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies
One of the longest conflicts in modern world history might be getting closer to its end. For more than four decades, Afghanistan has been plagued with violence, conflict, and war. Sustained conflict has led to widespread poverty, the collapse of the education and healthcare systems, and to frequent violations of human rights. In September 2020, however, Doha, Qatar hosted the first, historic peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Afghanistan is a mostly mountainous country situated in Central Asia. It has 32 million inhabitants, mostly belonging to the Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek ethnic groups. Historically, different empires have dominated this borderland between the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. The modern cities of Afghanistan were once important trade stations connecting these two worlds.
After a coup in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded the country to support communist insurgents and install a communist government. The Mujahideen, anti-Soviet insurgents financed and armed by the United States, fought against the USSR using the mountainous terrain to their advantage in a prolonged guerrilla war that culminated in the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country in 1989. The civil war, however, continued.
The ultimate goal of the negotiations is to develop a roadmap for peace in the country and for the creation of a government that both parties recognize.
In the late 1990s, an insurgent group, the Taliban, started to grow more prominent and more powerful in the southern part of the country, around the city of Kandahar. In the following years, the Taliban occupied Kabul, the country’s capital, and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They adhere to a hard line form of Islam and, once in power, banned cinema, music, television, and introduced public executions for offenses against Islamic law, Sharia. Moreover, men were obliged to grow beards and women to wear an all-concealing burka. During this time, the Taliban closely associated with Al-Qaeda and sheltered Osama bin Laden, its leader.
After the Al-Qaeda attacks of 11th September 2001, US President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban hand bin Laden over to the United States to be tried. They refused, and in response the US, together with a coalition of other countries, launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” and invaded Afghanistan. The military action, which was approved by the United Nations Security Council under the name International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), aimed first at securing Kabul, where a transitional government was established, and then at gradually securing the whole country. In 2002/2003, ISAF managed to put the Taliban on the back foot and developed a democratic system of government for the country, with a bicameral parliament and a directly elected president. In 2004, the first democratic elections took place: Hamid Karzai, the candidate backed by the US and its allies, was elected president.
Infighting, however, continued. In the following years, the Taliban periodically regrouped and carried out attacks against the civilian population as well as against ISAF troops. It is impossible to obtain a precise count of how many casualties the four-decades-long conflict caused. According to the latest United Nations report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan, in the period from 2010 to 2020, at least 2,000 civilians died in the country every year. In addition, 3,502 soldiers of the US coalition lost their lives in Afghanistan. Eventually, the lack of a definitive military solution to the conflict pushed the involved parties to the negotiating table.
In September 2020, historical negotiations started in Doha, Qatar. In the presence of a US negotiating team, two delegations, one representing the Taliban and the other representing the Afghan government, met for the first time to discuss a possible peace agreement.
It is impossible to have a precise count of how many casualties the four-decades-long conflict caused. According to the latest United Nations report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan, in the period from 2010 to 2020, at least 2.000 civilians died in the country every year.
The talks follow a deal reached between the US and the Taliban. The US has agreed to withdraw all its soldiers in the country, of which 2.500 remain, by April 2021 on the condition that the Taliban limit acts of violence and dissociate from Al-Qaeda.
The ultimate goal of the negotiations is to develop a roadmap for peace in the country and the creation of a government that both parties recognize. In the short-term, however, the priorities of the two parties appear divergent: The Afghan government hopes for a ceasefire to be implemented as soon as possible. The Taliban prioritize negotiations over the future institutional organization of the country, based on strict Islamic law. Once the first round of negotiations were complete, they used bombings and shootings against security forces and civilians to gain more leverage in the peace talks, leaving more than 200 people dead in October 2020.
These divergent priorities are only one of the hurdles that face negotiators. Fundamental differences remain in relation to the meaning of terms like “ceasefire” and “Islamic”. Ceasefires can include peacekeeping troops or demilitarized zones, can be partial or country-wide, be conditional or permanent, and negotiations on the specifics could take months to reach an agreement. Furthermore, both the Taliban and the government insist on establishing an “Islamic” state, but further specification of what the term means to each party is lacking, and debates over the definition are to be expected in upcoming meetings.
These differences could delay the discussion on core issues for the future of Afghanistan such as economic recovery, the reconstruction of the education and healthcare systems, and the protection of human rights. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on the planet, with a PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) GDP per capita of only $1,889. A halt to violence might induce a strong economic recovery by fostering entrepreneurship, trade, and foreign investments. The damage of forty years of violence is not only limted to the economy. Decades of conflict have shattered the education system: for many children, especially for girls, completing primary education is a dream. The healthcare system is also very fragile because of the frequent attacks on hospitals. Almost a quarter of the population does not have access to medical care. Both systems would benefit enormously from a peace agreement, and investments in these crucial sectors could also contribute to improving the competitiveness of the country on the global market as well as improving the well-being of Afghans. Finally, human rights, especially women’s rights and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities have suffered during the years of conflict and during the oppressive years of Taliban rule. The future of Afghanistan will be defined by how the negotiations manage to protect, guarantee, and foster the individual and collective rights of all Afghans.
Prospects for peace in the country are slim. Although a ceasefire agreement might be reached early in the process, it is not likely that a peace deal will be agreed upon in the short-term. Negotiations to achieve a peace agreement will take years, and the two parties’ unwillingness to compromise on key issues, such as democratic representation and the rights of women and minorities, might indefinitely delay the prospects for peace in the country. For more than four decades, Afghans have lived with violence, conflict, and war. It is time for this to change. It is time for peace.