On January 28, following six consecutive days of talks in Qatar’s capital Doha, Washington’s main negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad announced that the US and the Taliban finally have a “draft framework” in place for a deal which could pave the way for peace talks with the Afghan government.
Khalilzad’s comments undoubtedly ignited hopes of a breakthrough in the grinding 17-year conflict, but neither the US nor the Taliban officials offered any details on the specifics of the framework.
Historically, due to its strategic location, Afghanistan often served as a battleground on which global and regional powers settled their rivalries. Series of invasions, interventions, wars and long-term confrontations caused major devastation and loss for all involved parties, with the highest price inevitably being paid by the Afghan nation.
Over the years, the warring parties participated in countless rounds of talks and negotiations, at times creating cautious optimism. However, due to decision-makers’ short-sightedness, overconfidence and refusal to learn from past mistakes, peace always proved evasive and the suffering of millions continued.
Today, we seem to be facing yet another opportunity to break this cycle of violence and start a peace process that could finally allow the people of Afghanistan to unite, heal and prosper. However, as has been proven many times over in the past, sustainable peace cannot be achieved unless all parties learn from past mistakes, understand their enemy’s needs and motivations, and come up with a settlement that satisfies the local population as well as all regional and global stakeholders. This is why it is crucial at this historic juncture to examine the factors that led to the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s and the motivations that guide the group to this day.
What does the Taliban want?
The Taliban was formed in the early 1990s by a faction of “mujahideen”, Muslim Afghan fighters who had resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989). Taking advantage of the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the group easily expanded its sphere of influence in the years following its formation and seized control of Afghanistan in 1996. It held control of most of the country until being overthrown after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in December 2001 following the September 11 attacks.
After the toppling of the Taliban regime, the group’s members were ready and willing to accept a peace deal that would allow them a modest but dignified existence in the country. Yet, politicians and decision-makers both inside and outside Afghanistan, intoxicated by their decisive victory, refused to entertain this option and swiftly kicked the Taliban off the negotiating table. At the Bonn Conference, which determined the country’s destiny, they completely ignored the group’s most basic demands and facilitated the formation of a strictly anti-Taliban government. This was the fundamental mistake that triggered the latest round of bloodshed in Afghanistan and brought us to where we are today.
Today, we are dealing with a group whose members view themselves as holy warriors who managed to defeat an unjust foreign invasion.
In the past 17 years, countless Taliban leaders were killed, humiliated and forced into exile by US forces. The ones that were not so lucky ended up in cages at Guantanamo or Bagram, where they were subjected to unspeakable torture and degradation. All this caused members of the group to view their fight against US forces as inevitable, necessary and even sacred.
Moreover, the governing powers forced members of the Taliban to live in conditions so grave – as fugitives always on the run – that entering the battleground became an easy, even natural, choice for them. Perhaps more significantly, over the years the Taliban continued to expand its zone of influence in Afghanistan and came to think of itself as the victor in the conflict. The group also managed to win the hearts and minds of a portion of the disenchanted rural population that views the central government as ineffective in providing them with basic services and is overwhelmingly drowned in endemic corruption.
Now, as an influential political and military entity recognised by all involved parties, the Taliban wants to achieve two long-term goals: The complete withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan and the establishment of an inclusive Islamic government.
Of course, the group, which believes it has the upper hand in negotiations, also has multiple short-term demands aimed at building confidence.
The Taliban wants its leaders to be taken off international sanctions lists, its prisoners to be released and its political office in Doha to be recognised internationally. Unlike the period following its defeat in 2001, the Taliban now believes it has earned the right to remain a substantial political force in Afghanistan following a settlement. It has a clear political vision and wants to set some parameters for its future international relations. This is why it is also keen to sign bilateral non-aggression treaties with regional and international powers.
The ongoing negotiations can only succeed if all involved parties acknowledge the Taliban’s position and avoid underestimating the group.
Last year’s successful three-day Eid ceasefire between the Taliban and the Afghan government – the first of its kind since the start of the US-led invasion in 2001 – was a clear indication that ordinary Afghans are ready to make peace with the Taliban. Indeed, my people are desperate for a return to normalcy after four decades of war. However, this does not mean they are willing to accept any peace settlement with the group. Many Afghan women think a peace deal with the Taliban will limit their rights. Members of the Hazara minority, who are Shia Muslims, also believe a poorly configured peace settlement may put their future in the country at risk.
To achieve sustainable peace, the Afghan government, with the help of the US, will need to strike a balance between acknowledging the needs and expectations of the Taliban and providing the necessary protections for segments of the Afghan population that feel threatened by the group.
Moreover, all local stakeholders – government officials, opposition leaders and tribal elders – will need to reach a consensus among themselves on what they want from the peace settlement. For now, they all appear to be more focused on holding on to their seats after the next election than reaching a deal with the Taliban. If they continue to be more concerned about maintaining their grip on power than bringing stability to their country, and refuse to negotiate a power-sharing deal, any peace efforts will be doomed for failure.
Further complicating matters, regional and international powers have not yet reached a consensus on the specifics of a peace settlement in Afghanistan. An inclusive regional consensus is imperative; the US won’t be able to do this alone if it wants sustainable peace in Afghanistan. Moscow, Beijing, Islamabad, Tehran, New Delhi and Ankara would all want a say in the final settlement.
Nevertheless, as an Afghan citizen, I am more cautiously optimistic than I have ever been before about prospects for peace in Afghanistan. The Taliban is still refusing to talk directly to the Afghan government, but this time the US is highly motivated to get the two sides together. President Donald Trump made it clear that he is eager to get his country out of “dumb wars” abroad and the only realistic way for him to achieve this goal is to bring both the Taliban and Kabul to the negotiating table.
There is no doubt that ultimately it is us, the Afghans, who are responsible for and should own and lead the peace process, but to reach this goal we need the assistance and goodwill of all our neighbours and partners. We only hope this time they will not repeat past mistakes and will help us find a way out of this conflict by taking into consideration the expectations and needs of all involved parties as they push the negotiations forward. It’s high time for Afghanistan to stop being a battleground for foreign powers and fulfil its true potential and become a central hub of connectivity in the heart of Asia. And today, this dream is within our reach.