The United States, successive Afghan governments and the Taliban missed several opportunities to achieve peace over the past couple of decades. Today, under the Taliban government, which is not recognized by a single country, Afghanistan is facing twin economic and humanitarian crises while the marginal gains made on women’s rights have all but evaporated.

A mural depicting Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, and Mullah Baradar shaking hands after the signing of a peace deal, in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 15, 2020. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
A mural depicting Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, and Mullah Baradar shaking hands after the signing of a peace deal, in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 15, 2020. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

Masoom Stanekzai, a former chief peace negotiator for the Afghan government and director of the National Directorate of Security in Afghanistan, believes three historic mistakes were made in the decades-long peace process. First, he said, the exclusion of the Taliban from the Bonn Conference in 2001 that produced an agreement on a post-Taliban government was a “strategic mistake” that resulted in squandering a “unique opportunity” for peace. Second, Pakistan, through its support to the Taliban, played the role of spoiler in the peace process. And third, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 diverted attention away from Afghanistan at a critical moment. 

Steve J. Brooking, a former special advisor on peace and reconciliation at the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) who led U.N. engagement with the Taliban, quoting Lakhdar Brahimi, a former head of UNAMA, described the exclusion of the Taliban from the Bonn Conference as the “original sin.”

Habiba Sarabi, a former member of the Afghan government negotiation team led by Stanekzai, and former deputy chair of the Afghan High Peace Council, a body established in 2010 to negotiate with the Taliban, pointed out another flaw in the process. She said that when the peace process got underway participants were looking for a “quick fix” and, as a result, critical constituencies, particularly women, were ignored.

Stanekzai, Brooking and Sarabi participated in a panel discussion hosted by the United States Institute of Peace on October 25.

Missed Opportunities

Following the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, Stanekzai said Afghanistan was turned into a laboratory for experiments with peacemaking, development initiatives and security sector reform. But, he said, the disconnect between these efforts meant instability persisted.

In 2013, an opportunity for peace presented itself when the Taliban opened an office in the Qatari capital Doha following months of diplomatic negotiations. It was a good idea to have an official address where people could engage with the group’s leadership, said Brooking. However, that opportunity was lost because the Taliban opening of the office violated certain terms of a memorandum of understanding, which was brokered by Qatar. The Taliban shut the office following objections raised by the United States and then Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the Taliban’s use of its white flag and a sign that read “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” — actions that were expressly prohibited in the memorandum of understanding.

By 2018, the peace process had gained momentum. Then U.S. President Donald J. Trump appointed Zalmay Khalilzad special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation and tasked him with striking a deal with the Taliban.

The United States engaged in direct negotiations with the Taliban in Doha. The Taliban had refused to negotiate with then Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which it considered a puppet of the West, as it did the Karzai government before it. The fact that the Ghani administration was excluded from negotiations — just as the Taliban was excluded from the Bonn Conference in 2001 — delegitimized the Ghani government, said Stanekzai.

Khalilzad’s appointment marked the beginning of a process with the Taliban that Kristian Berg Harpviken, a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, said caused “considerable unease” among Afghanistan’s neighbors “almost all of whom actually want the United States out, but then almost all of whom also worry about the consequences” of a U.S. withdrawal.

The United States’ priority was the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan, while for Afghans it was that this withdrawal be done in a responsible manner that results in peace, said Stanekzai.

Brooking said that after the United States signed the Doha agreement with the Taliban in 2020, the Afghan negotiating team was sent in “with one hand tied behind their back” and later when U.S. President Joe Biden announced his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan it “cut the legs off the negotiating team.”

“After that, failure was inevitable,” Brooking said. By August 2021, the Taliban had overrun Kabul and Ghani had fled the country. Brooking said Karzai and Ghani were equally to blame for lost opportunities for peace. He said they had “scuppered various initiatives for peace, presumably for their own interests.”

Women Ignored in Peace Process

Describing women as strong peacebuilders, Sarabi, who as governor of Bamiyan province was the first female governor of an Afghan province, said they were “forgotten” and “ignored” in the peace process. “The peacebuilding that people are doing at the local level with the community is very important; the social peace,” Sarabi explained.

Sarabi said that when peace negotiations got underway, some organizations took the initiative to have an “inclusive mechanism for peace” with the aim of building a bridge between civil society, women’s groups and community elders and the peace negotiations team. However, she said, “the Taliban was not ready to listen to the voice of people and the voice of women.”

Sarabi pointed out that the Doha agreement did not contain a single word about women. “The quick fix announcement of [the] peace process damaged everything,” she said, adding, “Peace cannot be [achieved] within a month or some months.”

A big problem, Sarabi and Stanekzai said, was a lack of consensus among the United States, Afghan leaders and Afghan civil society on the definition of peace. For example, Sarabi explained, while there were many discussions about reducing violence these came to naught in the absence of a mechanism to reduce violence. Stanekzai said the U.S. and Afghan governments were focused on the peace process but not on the end state.

Managing the Spoilers

According to Stanekzai, Afghanistan’s stability has been impacted by several factors, including government corruption, extremism and the fact that the country is caught in the middle of global and regional power rivalries.

“In order to understand Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan we certainly have to understand Pakistan’s relationship to India,” said Harpviken, pointing to the longstanding rivalry between India and Pakistan.  

Stanekzai described the detrimental role played by “spoilers” — specifically Pakistan — in the peace process, noting that neither the U.S. government nor the Afghan government properly managed this challenge.

“Pakistan has been a problem,” said Brooking, adding that while U.S. intelligence agencies and successive administrations were well aware of the support Pakistan was giving to the Taliban, nothing was ever done about it.

“The United States often has a myopic view of conflicts,” said Scott Worden, director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at USIP, who moderated the discussion. “We put ourselves at the center of the problem and then, in this case, we focused on Afghanistan” and then “recognized that Pakistan had a central role in both supporting the Taliban and affecting events on the ground in Afghanistan.”

In Bonn, Brooking recalled, the United States told the world “you are either with us or against us.” Pakistan reluctantly sided with the United States, but then the invasion of Iraq created a “massive distraction” which Pakistan exploited to rearm the Taliban, he said.

In 2010, with the establishment of the special representative’s office in Washington, “the policy of the day became Af-Pak,” said Harpviken. There was an eagerness to “pursue a genuine regional engagement,” but that goal was quickly shelved as “the strategy for the neighborhood morphed into primarily being about preventing Pakistan from undermining the project in Afghanistan,” he added.

Afghanistan’s neighbors pursued their own objectives that were largely informed by security threats. As a result, Harpviken said, despite the fact that there were “very attractive economic and social prospects” that they could have pursued, the immediate threat to these countries was “existential,” which is what shaped their relationship with Afghanistan.

Harpviken said the United States did not consistently pursue a regional concert in support of Afghan peace. As for Afghanistan’s neighbors, he asked: “Why was it that they didn’t see the potential for them in a peaceful Afghanistan?” The answer to that is quite simple, he said, adding: “The obstacles to getting to that objective, attractive as it was, seemed to them to be insurmountable. Therefore, minimizing risk would be the wise thing to do.”

‘Back to Square One’

Worden noted the shift in the United States’ global position in 2001 when it was a unipolar actor with greater economic and political leverage than it has today. Following its military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August of 2021, Worden said, the United States has become “increasingly reliant on the region to address the risks that come from Afghanistan, and Afghans themselves rely on the region to hopefully provide a source of additional stability.”

However, there may be only so much that regional powers can do. Harpviken said that while Pakistan has been “absolutely instrumental” in the Taliban’s ability to return to power, it now finds that the Taliban are “not obeying orders” and “in many ways we are back to square one.”

Unlike in the 1990s, when the Taliban government was recognized by Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, no country today recognizes the government in Kabul. Nevertheless, Harpviken said many of Afghanistan’s neighbors have developed working relationships with the Taliban. “We do see a gradual adaptation,” he said, adding, “geography matters and if you are a next-door neighbor you want to minimize the risks.”

Eventually, Harpviken said, “A level of consistent engagement with the Taliban will be necessary, recognizing fully that we will not see dramatic reform within the Taliban neither in the short nor the long term.”

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