The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the Atlantic Council hosted an expert discussion on the state of the Afghan peace process on March 3, 2021. Panelists included Amb. James Cunningham, Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center; Amb. Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin, Former EU Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan; Fatima Gailani, Member of The Negotiating Team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan; and Ghizaal Haress, Ombudsperson for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
One year since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February 2020, U.S. troop numbers are down to their lowest levels since 2001, intra-Afghan negotiations have stalled, a campaign of targeted assassinations has compounded fear and mistrust, and a full U.S. troop withdrawal on May 1st looms. As a new U.S. administration reviews the agreement, the Taliban are increasing violence and traveling the region to court legitimacy, and many international allies fear the consequences of a precipitous withdrawal or the collapse of the Doha talks.
Panelists shared key recommendations – from Afghan, U.S. and European perspectives – on how the U.S.-Taliban Agreement has changed dynamics on the ground and at the negotiating table, how the talks can be recalibrated to achieve a political settlement that leads to durable peace, and how to mitigate the risks if the Taliban walk away.
State of the Peace Process
- For any peace process to lead to a durable, sustainable political outcome, Afghans need to be at the center of shaping and leading it.
- The Taliban must be clear about how they view power-sharing and whether or not they will accept red lines such as protection of rights laid out in the Constitution.
- Political consensus about the Constitution will help guarantee a future political order. However, the restoration of an Islamic Emirate is contrary to the constitution.
- Afghan security forces have a role to play in promoting peaceful solutions on the ground. Local deals should not be ceded to the Taliban.
- We should give the Doha peace process a chance to succeed and not replicate the past.
- The Biden Administration must develop a strong diplomatic strategy for Afghanistan that engages regional and international allies at the highest levels of leadership. This effort should be multilateral and multifaceted – addressing a variety of concerns such as preventing terrorist resurgency, supporting Afghan security forces, and ensuring inclusive peace talks.
- The Doha agreement needs to be recalibrated to restore conditionality, which involves security guarantees, a ceasefire, and clear and meaningful progress in negotiations. U.S. troop withdrawal should be based on conditions met, not arbitrary deadlines. The Taliban have violated the terms of the agreement with no consequences.
- The U.S. and allies should maintain low levels of international forces to support Afghan security forces in preventing a terrorist safe haven. We need strategic patience in withdrawing our troops because deadlines and hopes for rapid outcomes will operate against a successful political strategy.
- A renewed U.S. commitment to support the Afghan government is necessary to prevent the Taliban from continuing to seek advances on the ground instead of making compromises at the peace table,
- The U.S. needs to strengthen and renew its partnership with European allies and other international partners. The Taliban have seen these fractured over the years and have taken advantage of them. In fact, the US-Taliban agreement was made without either Afghan or European allies participation.
- International allies and partners need to clarify and restate their support for the Afghan state and people and define what vision of Afghanistan will be accepted for continued financial and material assistance.
- A senior international figure, such as a representative of the UN Secretary-General, should be charged with putting together a cohesive regional strategy. The UN has an important role to play in Afghanistan and the region, and the international community must not accept a Taliban return by force and terror.
- Regional actors need to align their priorities through a cohesive regional mechanism, and understand that a stable and sustainable Afghanistan is in their interest. Nearly all actors agree that Afghanistan should not be divided, its territory should not be used as a vehicle for attacking its neighbors, and there should be a commitment to an Islamic Republic. Advancing joint strategic goals will be important for achieving a sustainable end-state solution.
- Pakistan and Iran, among other regional powers, need to be part of any peace agreement. Any regional structure must be able to constrain the Taliban’s freedom of operation, and its ability to seek safe haven in Pakistan.
- A dedicated point-person should be appointed to the task of building a stronger regional consensus on an end state in Afghanistan.
- The 2004 Constitution ensures inclusivity and pluralism for all Afghans, and its core principles must be respected. The constitution-making process was Afghan-led, inclusive, participatory, and is widely supported and respected by Afghans over the past 16 years. Its reconciliation of Islam, democratic values and principles, and human rights must be preserved.
- The Constitution should be subject to amendments to respond to the emerging needs and demands of society, but fundamental rights cannot be compromised. A mechanism for such amendments already exists within the current constitution. Nullifying the current Constitution and creating a new one is both unlikely and extremely risky. The great majority of the Afghan people support the Constitution.
Women’s Rights and Inclusive Peace
- Women’s rights and their inclusion in the peace talks and Afghan society at large should be made a red line in the negotiations. A sustainable peace has to be a just peace, including women’s rights, human rights, and minority rights.
- Democratic values and principles cannot be compromised in a peace agreement. Afghans need a guarantee that the values and fundamental rights that they have fought for and reclaimed since 2001 will be preserved.
- Women’s rights must be on the top of the Biden Administration’s agenda. Peace negotiations will not be successful if half of society is left off the table.
- Clarify the Taliban’s interpretation of women’s rights in accordance with Islam, and be weary that they have changed their views. The Taliban want all Afghans to be subjected to their radical interpretation of Hanafi jurisprudence, and undermine the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.
- Women must shape and be involved in all stages of the peace process. The presence of women in negotiations with the Taliban sends a symbol about the need to advance an inclusive society and political settlement.