Peace in Afghanistan is possible, but first the parties need to let go of five pernicious myths.
The Quadrilateral Coordination Group, consisting of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the United States, met on January 11 and 18 in an effort to forge a road map for a peace process. They are due to meet next on February 6. This is critically important work, but the members appear to remain short of an agreed way forward. Addressing these five myths may assist.
Those serious about peace will immediately stop violence.
Actually, even combatants serious about peace normally use violence as leverage. They want to enter into negotiations at the strongest possible position and maintain that power throughout the process. Only a fool would forfeit advantage prior to bargaining.
Reductions in violence are essential for a credible peace process. Measures to reduce violence are key for building confidence once a process is underway and gaining traction. Start with small steps first; agreements in words, followed by deeds. This process should become more specific over time to include violence-reduction measures and eventually cease-fire agreements.
The Afghan government and Taliban need a power-sharing deal.
Power-sharing deals between warring Afghan parties have a very poor track record. The Peshawar (1992) and Islamabad (1993) Accords, for instance, led to the disastrous Afghan civil war and the Taliban seizure of power. Similar power-sharing deals in conflicts ranging from Sierra Leone to Angola, Cambodia, and Rwanda failed quickly and resulted in even greater losses of life.
A credible peace process is patient about power-sharing. The most difficult compromises tend to occur at the end of a negotiating process, because all sides have enough "skin in the game." Agreements that were unthinkable at the beginning become sensible. Demanding a final agreement up front is a recipe for cynicism. Until the parties can trust the process and each other, any power-sharing agreement runs a high risk of collapsing into even greater violence. After 38 years of war, Afghanistan will require a very deliberate road map that may take more than a decade to unfold.
Preconditions separate the reconcilable from the irreconcilable.
In reality, parties with power have little incentive to accept preconditions. They can, and will, keep fighting until such conditions are removed. A "surrender and we will treat you nicely" approach to peace is, more often than not, a poison pill.
Irreconcilables will self-identify during a credible process. A deliberate process that combines increasingly binding words and deeds over time serves as a perpetual test of sincerity. Joint monitoring and accountability mechanisms can help address spoiler activity, mitigate the risk of any duplicity, and promote collective action against recalcitrant factions.
Pakistan can force the Taliban to sue for peace.
This is a long-standing demand from many Afghan elites. They believe that the United States and China can force Pakistan to deliver the Taliban into accepting the current political dispensation. This approach has been self-defeating. Efforts to coerce Pakistan into forcing the Taliban to surrender have been unsuccessful. Perhaps Pakistan is impervious to the coercion the United States, China and others are willing to apply; perhaps Pakistan exerts less control of the Taliban than believed. The end result is unlikely to change. Peace without compromise is a forlorn hope.
Pakistan can support, but not deliver, a credible process. Diplomacy is the art of the possible. The Taliban has much incentive to avoid being seen as a Pakistani puppet. Islamabad seems willing to accept a non-hostile western neighbor. As a deliberate process unfolds, the test of Pakistan’s sincerity will be its actions against those groups that self-identify as irreconcilable. Finding a credible custodian of the peace process will be needed to bring the Taliban into talks.
The initiative is with the Taliban.
Actually, the Afghan government is in a very strong position if it uses its capabilities and support more effectively. While the Taliban have made substantial gains since 2013, they have significant vulnerabilities. They remain unpopular. They are suffering a succession struggle. A breakaway group under Mullah Mohammad Rasul is reportedly a client of Iran. If true, this lowers the leverage of the mainstream Taliban group and Pakistan. The nascent Islamic State Khorasan branch is a mutual enemy.
The Afghan government can retake and retain territory from the Taliban. The key is a holistic approach that directs bespoke military efforts in support of good governance. Getting the Afghan army, the most credible institution in the country, into the field among the population is necessary to recapture and secure important territory, help serve as a watchdog for good local governance and check predatory actors. As the Taliban perceive that their leverage is at risk of slipping, they will be more likely to enter a peace process. Some might call this "counterinsurgency." I call it winning.
Christopher D. Kolenda, a former Pentagon senior advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan, is completing his Ph.D. on war termination at King’s College London. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.