A Last Chance for Peace for Afghanistan?

by Fatemeh Aman

The Taliban is gaining more power, and Afghans are demanding more security from their government. The price of leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban would be enormous, and the stakes are much higher now than the first time the militant groups came to power in 1996. As the country descends into chaos, Afghans may wake up soon to realize that they either have to be ruled by the Taliban or share the government with the Taliban. In the wake of the deadly bombing in Kabul last week, President Ashraf Ghani called on the Taliban “for the last time to join the peace process or face the consequences.”

The first in a series of recent suicide bombings in the heart of Kabul on May 31 killed more than 150 civilians and left hundreds more injured. To protest the current security situation in the country, more than a thousand people gathered in Kabul on June 2 and called on the unity government of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to resign. Subsequent clashes between demonstrators and the police left seven dead including the son of a senator. Then, at the funeral of Salem Izadyar, the son of the senator, three suicide bombers blew themselves up and killed at least seven people and injured many more.

Both factions of the unity government are completely at odds with each other as well as with their former allies within their parties. On June 6, the Jamiat-e Islami Afghanistan party, to which Abdullah Abdullah belongs, announced the formation of a new interim leadership with such prominent figures as acting Minister of Foreign Affairs Salahuddin Rabbani, former Herat Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan, Balkh Governor Atta Mohammad Noor, and Ahmad Zia Massoud, the brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a mujahedin commander who fought the Soviets and was assassinated in 2000 by a suspected al-Qaeda suicide bomber. Abdullah Abdullah, however, was excluded from the leadership. This bitter rivalry between powerful political figures in Afghanistan makes the recent attacks more destructive in terms of threatening the stability of the country.

Ahmad Zia Massoud, the former special envoy for reform and governance that President Ghani appointed in 2014 and fired in April 2017, was one of the voices calling for Ghani’s resignation. Even before Wednesday’s incident Massoud, a leader from the Jamiat-e Islami Afghanistan party, had called for an early election and the formation of an interim government—though considering the fragile and inadequate security situation in Afghanistan, holding a new election is simply not a feasible option at this point. Massoud has long been very critical of Ghani’s actions, particularly his attempt to restart peace talks with the Taliban. The EU’s special representative in Kabul criticized Massoud’s tours of the north as “undermining the government and attacking the security forces while the country is at war.”

The Jamiat-e Islami has also called for the removal of National Security Adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar, a demand rejected by the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC). The Jamiat-e Islami has claimed links between some circles within the government and those behind Kabul’s terrorist attacks.

Another prominent figure to call for President Ghani’s resignation was Abdul Latif Pedram, an MP from Badakhshan province and the leader of the National Congress Party (NCP). He recently stated that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a veteran Afghan warlord and the leader of Hezb-i-Islami, who returned to Kabul as part of a peace deal with the government, was in fact part of a plot by the US to create a “mono-ethnic government in Afghanistan.”

These internecine rivalries make it very difficult for the government to engage in possible peace talks with the Taliban.

Is It Time to Give Up on Afghanistan?

The Trump administration has not clearly expressed its future Afghanistan plans other than general statements about increasing the troops. Even the proposal to send more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan has encountered criticism for its ineffectiveness. After all, close to one trillion dollars has been spent on Afghanistan during the 16 years of the US presence in the country, and Afghanistan is still in ruins. If 100,000 U.S. troops couldn’t achieve their goals at the peak of deployment in 2011, how can another 3-5,000 troops do the trick? A leading expert on Afghanistan argues that “in the absence of an effective diplomatic strategy, more troops could lead to more destabilization in Afghanistan.”

The Afghan government is not helping matters. Government forces may not have been able to prevent demonstrators from getting too close to the presidential palace, but there must have been ways to prevent the killing of protestors. General Gul Nabi Ahmadzai, in charge of Kabul security, denied that he or anyone else under his command had ordered the shooting of protesters. General Ahmadzai, nonetheless, described the protest rallies as “riots.” An order to shoot protestors was the most reckless way of reacting to the protests, especially at a time of mourning. It did, however, served the Taliban and Islamic State-like groups very well. Equally unwise has been the government threat to execute Taliban’s prisoners in retaliation for the suicide bombings.

The government and the National Directorate for Security blamed the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, a Taliban affiliate, for the bombings, adding that the notorious network has acted with the help of Pakistan’s intelligence agency (ISI). Pakistan rejected the claim. Knowing that ISI was behind the bombing doesn’t take people’s pain away, and it doesn’t exonerate the government in Kabul. It is time for the Afghanistan government to take responsibility and not blame everything on the ISI and Pakistan, which has been undeniably involved in creating chaos in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s Last Chance?

In the conference that started in Kabul on June 6, President Ghani called on the Taliban to join the peace process “or face the consequences.” He went on to say, “We are offering a chance for peace but this is not an open-ended offer.” He offered the Taliban a chance to open an office in Kabul or any other part of the country “as long as the Taliban genuinely is committed to peace agreement with the Afghan government.”

The Taliban may be thinking (and calculating) that the government is so weak that it can continue to increase its leverage. This, however, might be the Taliban’s actual last chance. When the Taliban came to power in 1996, the entire Western world wasn’t too concerned about who took power in Afghanistan as long as it wasn’t the former Soviet-backed government. The Taliban was a unified organization with patriotic and nationalistic tendencies. But now? There are not many people in Afghanistan who prefer the Taliban over the current government. Even if they return to power, how would they be able to stay in power? The only allies Taliban may have would be some foreign governments who are using them as proxies. Moreover, the Taliban is more divided than ever before, nothing like the unified group that took over Kabul in 1996.

If they want to intimidate people with violent operations and suicide bombings, the Taliban can’t compete with the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in its brutality. The Taliban claims to be able to govern a country. If they want to be part of the power structure in Afghanistan, they have to win the hearts of Afghans, and winning hearts is impossible through bombings. It is possible that Taliban was not behind Kabul’s recent bombings. But it is equally possible that some Taliban factions are responsible, and the leadership is in such chaos that it is blindsided by the action of certain fractions. It is also possible that any IS-like group could have conducted the attacks. Either way, the Taliban is to blame for not knowing which of its factions was behind the bombings or whether it has been undermined by an IS-like group.

Afghanistan is a tribal and multiethnic society, which would be any central government’s nightmare. There is still one reason for optimism: Afghans, from all tribes and ethnic and religious backgrounds, call themselves Afghans or citizens of Afghanistan. No Afghan, not even a member of the Taliban, has ever expressed separatist tendencies. This could be the central point around which people could unite. This could, in fact, be Afghanistan’s last chance.

Photo: Former members of the Taliban give up their weapons (Fraidoon Poya via Flickr).

Fatemeh Aman

Fatemeh Aman, a nonresident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, has written on Iranian, Afghan, and other Middle Eastern affairs for over 20 years. She has worked and published as a journalist, and her writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Atlantic Council, and the Middle East Institute’s publications. She is the author of the Atlantic Council’s Water Dispute Escalating between Iran and Afghanistan (2016), and co-author of Iran, Afghanistan, and South Asia: Resolving Regional Sources of Instability (2013).