After 16 years of war in Afghanistan, is a door opening for a peace process? The Afghan government and the Taliban insurgents both publicly offered peace talks last month, although the Taliban insist they want to negotiate with the United States and not with the internationally recognized government in Kabul. Past moments of hope for an Afghan peace process have been dashed by missed opportunities and difficult politics on all sides. For this possibility to gain traction, at least three next steps will be vital: the Taliban leaving the door open to Afghan President Ghani’s offer, Ghani building support for his offer among Afghan political leaders, and the United States launching a diplomatic effort to build on what Ghani has done.
The first step to watch will be the Taliban’s response to President Ashraf Ghani’s February 28 speech in Kabul—probably the most credible, specific peace proposal to the Taliban that the Afghan government has ever proffered. The Taliban’s official public reaction to date has been muted in comparison to the vitriol with which the group has greeted most initiatives from Kabul. While the group’s websites have offered various commentaries on the proposal, after nearly three weeks the group has posted no formal statement on it. American officials have cast this relative silence as potentially positive, though a statement condemning Ghani’s offer could emerge at any time.
It is unlikely the Taliban will accept direct discussions with Kabul (an idea they have resisted for years) in the near future, but they could demonstrate sincerity about peace by leaving the door ajar to further exploration, even if only in private. A formal Taliban statement excoriating the plan, an especially brutal Taliban attack, or even an obviously unreasonable counterproposal could slam shut the apparent opening of recent weeks. The Taliban’s own public offer of peace talks last month gives some cause for hope that the group wants to be seen as constructive on the peace effort, even if it knows the United States will not accept any proposal to exclude the Afghan government entirely from negotiations.
A second step is that the Afghan government will need to build support for its initiative across the Afghan political spectrum. This will be especially important on its admirably forward-leaning aspects. These include offers to potentially amend Afghanistan’s constitution in a process that would include the Taliban, release imprisoned Taliban, ease international sanctions now imposed on the movement, and recognize the Taliban as a political party. Many Afghan, and Western, leaders are loath to make such concessions, and the Taliban are quick to depict such fissures as evidence that Ghani speaks only for himself. Ghani will maximize his offer’s credibility if he can demonstrate that opposition parties, regional leaders, and civil society also stand behind it.
Third, the United States will need to summon vigorous diplomacy in support of the initiative. The senior U.S. diplomat for South and Central Asia, Ambassador Alice Wells, underscored March 9 that the United States “supports, and is prepared to facilitate” Ghani’s offer. This will mean seeking creative solutions to the dilemma that the Taliban are eager to talk to Washington but not to their fellow Afghans, for years the primary impediment to serious talks. It will mean close coordination with Ghani—as well as reasonable voices across the Afghan polity—to ensure that Kabul remains committed and unified behind Ghani’s offer. It will mean rallying strong support for Ghani’s proposal from the many regional powers in a position to either help or frustrate Afghan peacemaking—notably Pakistan, China and Russia. In a positive initial sign, Pakistan’s national security advisor quickly followed Ghani’s speech with a statement saying Pakistan would “do its best to facilitate” a peace process.
The United States could also explore the concept of a mediator for Afghan peace talks, potentially under United Nations auspices, with a Security Council mandate and the acceptance of all key parties to the negotiation. After years of intermittent discussion of that idea, the time for it might finally be ripe: a vigorous but neutral mediator could build on recent momentum and shepherd some form of proximity talks among the parties, hopefully building confidence for direct negotiations.
Different This Time?
Many past moments of hope for an Afghan peace process have dissipated due to missed opportunities, misunderstandings and thorny politics on all sides. U.S. and Afghan officials rebuffed Taliban leaders suing for peace after the regime’s overthrow. The Taliban sent negotiators to Qatar’s capital, Doha, only to cut off promising early talks in 2012. The brief opening in Doha of a Taliban political office in 2013, the prisoner exchange that included U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in 2014, and a Pakistan-brokered peace meeting at Murree in 2015 all failed to build on the promise of a larger dialogue.
Ghani’s offer is untested, but experts who have watched this process for years sense that it has opened a rare window of opportunity. “It is now up to Taliban leaders to respond to this serious offer,” Ambassador Wells told Afghan specialists in a forum at USIP. Such an opening may not come again.