While the negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban were recently thrown-off course, a peace agreement among Afghans remains an urgent priority. The U.S.-led negotiations over a phased drawdown of U.S. troops in exchange for a Taliban commitment to eschew terrorism and engage in intra-Afghan negotiations took nearly a year. Yet these talks excluded the Afghan government and other political elites and didn’t address the fundamental question of what it will take for Afghans to put a sustainable end to four decades of war: how will power be shared?

Former Taliban fighters line up to handover their rifles to the Afghan Government during a reintegration ceremony, May 2012. (Department of Defense/Lt. j. g. Joe Painter)
Former Taliban fighters line up to handover their rifles to the Afghan Government during a reintegration ceremony, May 2012. (Department of Defense/Lt. j. g. Joe Painter)

For Afghans, the “endless war” has actually lasted for over 40 years, starting with the 1978 Communist coup and 1979 Soviet invasion, the subsequent 1990s civil war that culminated in Taliban rule, and then the current U.S.-led war to topple the Taliban. There are many complex issues to address stemming from all this conflict—from a cease-fire to disarmament, from freeing prisoners to addressing past atrocities, from resettling millions of refugees to safeguarding rights for women and minorities. But, perhaps the hardest of all will be creating a vision for a common future, where all parties will need to compromise on sharing power.

Barring another abrupt change of course, the process to address all these issues will have to be rebooted after the September 28 Afghan presidential election. This reset provides an important opportunity to explore the potential and the pitfalls of power-sharing arrangements that could ultimately secure peace. Recent interviews with dozens of senior Afghan politicians, civil society leaders, and activists reveal deep anxiety about the coming changes but some rays of hope. While most believe that there is a path to peace, all consider it narrow, with many obstacles along the way.

Major Obstacles to Peace

Afghan political figures in Kabul have been intensely concerned over a U.S.-Taliban agreement that appears to hand the group a narrative of victory and expectations of a return to power. As a result, many have celebrated President Trump’s rejection of a deal that could provide legitimacy to the Taliban even as they continue violence. However, the permanent cancellation of talks could prove a pyrrhic victory for those Afghans skeptical of the draft deal, as the status quo offers little prospect of a military breakthrough for the government and the dangers of a U.S. withdrawal absent a peace agreement are profound.

Finding common ground between Kabul and the Taliban will not be easy—it could take years—and there is concern that in the intervening period the Taliban won’t give up violence—their principle leverage—until they attain their minimally acceptable outcome.

The peace process is ultimately dependent on five complex, deeply uncertain issues:

  • Whether the U.S. will stop or slow troop withdrawals if the Taliban continue violence or violate other conditions of an agreement;
  • Whether the Taliban will genuinely negotiate with Kabul, share power, and renounce terrorist groups;
  • Whether Pakistan, chiefly, and others in the region will support a sustainable peace;
  • Whether the post-Bonn Afghan coalition in Kabul will put peace before personal and factional agendas; and
  • Whether the U.S. and international community will continue robust security and economic support.

Key Power-Sharing Issues for Future Negotiations

Power-sharing is about the form of government (institutions, checks and balances, national/subnational configuration); the process of government (elections, appointments, budgeting, dispute resolution); and the allocation of power to various groups or interests (through quotas and appointment criteria). The interplay of these elements creates both challenges and opportunities for negotiations.

Intra-Afghan negotiations around power-sharing will be fraught for multiple reasons. First, these discussions will require engagement on principles, including deeply held beliefs on the nature of Islamic governance and democracy; on a centralized state; on ethnic and regional divisions; on reading of recent Afghan history and the role of outsiders; and on individual rights. At the same time, the negotiations will be weighted with very practical implications for a greater number of actors getting a limited share of power.

A successful and sustainable result will require an approach that accomplishes several things: an identification of underlying interests; opportunities for engagement that allow parties to express their narratives of sacrifice and accomplishment; and carefully tracing the implications of the arrangements determined through negotiations.  

Emirate vs. Republic: Afghanistan’s form of government will be a foundational issue in power-sharing negotiations. The Taliban have said they want Islamic government, ideally in the form of an emirate. Most take this to mean a government of clerical rule drawing its legitimacy from clerics, if not led by one. The “Kabul” position is that Afghanistan must remain an Islamic Republic, in which the legitimacy of the government is derived from the consent of the governed through universal suffrage, and where basic rights are enshrined and protected in accordance with international laws and norms, as the current Afghan constitution recognizes. The challenge will be to create a shared worldview, and to do so in a way that is rooted in more universal values and principles and not subject to fiat.

Horizontal Power-Sharing: Afghanistan’s highly centralized presidential system heightens the sense of winner-take-all politics in a diverse and atomized polity. Over the last 18 years, important inclusion efforts at ethnic, geographic, and political balancing have been made through the appointment of vice presidents, ministers, governors, a National Unity Government, and other bodies. However, the lack of formal mechanisms to share power, centralized control across the country, and the lack of strict constitutional checks (e.g., on the president’s decree power) or legitimacy (e.g., fraudulent or overdue elections, lack of judicial independence, etc.) appear to concentrate too much power into the presidency, making it a too-valuable prize. Thus, this is an important moment in which to imagine alternatives to distribute power more evenly to avoid resort to violence in the contest for power.

Vertical Power-Sharing: There is a wide range of views on subnational governance in Afghanistan. Some support the current system of strong centralization and want it further strengthened. Others would like to see much greater regional and provincial autonomy, with elected governors and locally controlled administration of policing, taxes, resources, and the judiciary. Yet still, some would like limited decentralization, or “de-concentration,” recognizing that local capacity and resources are constrained, but that control from the center is attenuated, resented, and reduces prospects for power-sharing. The current situation of divided security control, a heavy urban-rural cultural divide, armed ethnic factions, and regional economies means that there will continue to be decentralization and center-periphery tension. As part of the peace process, it would make sense to look for solutions that retain the unitary character of Afghanistan but devolve more power to the subnational level.

Economic Power-Sharing: While much of the attention in the negotiating process will be on political power-sharing, it is worth thinking about what economic power-sharing could mean, especially as the state controls a substantial amount of employment, investment opportunity, and revenue sources. Doling out jobs is a significant form of patronage available to those in power. Done right, this can be a legitimate policy aim to boost and balance employment, not corruption. While procurement processes should continue to be transparent and rule based, there is opportunity to direct and restrict these in order to achieve other stated policy objectives in ways that benefit various groups. For example, in Colombia, ex-combatants from opposing sides were given loans to open small businesses if they started and ran a business together.

Women’s Rights: Women’s rights to fully participate in political, professional, and economic life should also be seen through the lens of power-sharing. Government power distribution will both affect individual women directly and the course of policy making. There is great reluctance in Kabul to make any changes to the already constrained status of women. Further, there is significant concern that the Taliban have not advanced from their 1996-2001 position, which led to bans on things like work and education. While it may be feasible for the parties to agree, in principle, on a formula for women’s rights that appears to secure them, in practice the question will be who has the power to interpret the application of those rights.  

Interim Arrangements: Many believe that successful negotiations could lead to the creation of interim arrangements that will allow for short-term power-sharing while the permanent questions about the constitution, demobilization, and others are negotiated. Most parties consulted seem to agree that an extended period—from 18 to 36 months—will be needed to address the likely issues on the agenda for this transitional phase. The first major hurdle is whether this process would create an interim government to replace the existing government—a move the next president will likely resist after a hard-won election. The second hurdle is that parties may insist on ensuring their bottom-line approach to the form of government or basic rights for even the interim period, making any agreement difficult and potentially dispositive on the long-term arrangements.

Power-Sharing for Peace

Whether or not the draft U.S.-Taliban deal was good for most Afghans, the suspension of talks maintains a deadly and worsening situation. The Taliban continue to hold large amounts of territory, political debates are increasingly polarized, and the level of civilian casualties is horrendous. Fundamental uncertainty over the future course of peace negotiations may trigger hedging behavior that could lead to a rapidly worsening situation. The worst-case scenario, including for the Taliban, is a Syria-like situation or repeat of the 1992-1998 civil war that devasted the country, and led to global terrorists finding safe haven in Afghanistan. Many in Kabul inside and outside the government also raised the growing threat of ISIS or other groups as a long-term threat to peace and regional security.

There is also considerable concern about the intense humanitarian and political implications of further destabilizing refugee flows. Heighted conflict and insecurity will likely trigger significant outflow of Afghan refugees into Europe. In 2015, Afghanistan was the second or third largest nation of origin during the migration spike that fundamentally disrupted European politics and spurred a populist, nationalist surge.

If these ominous conditions focus the minds of the parties and a meaningful peace process gets back on track, there appears to be a narrow but feasible path to a negotiated settlement. However, a dangerous mix of mistrust, opposing ideologies, ongoing violence, regional interference, internal political differences, and poor preparation could disrupt the talks. But, if the Taliban moderate their views on an acceptable form of government and basic rights for all Afghans and agree to a cease-fire and power-sharing, and elites in Kabul are willing to accept a meaningful share of power for the Taliban, some changes to the constitution, and the need to address issues of justice and corruption, there may be a deal to be found. The apparent alternatives to a deal—a continued stalemate, full state-collapse, or return to Taliban rule—should be sufficiently sobering to galvanize a better outcome.

Alex Thier is the founder and CEO of Triple Helix and a former senior U.S. official working on Afghanistan and Pakistan. He can be followed on Twitter @Thieristan. His research on power-sharing options in Afghanistan was sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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