Momentum on Peace Talks Critical to Survival of Afghan Government

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks at a memorial for more than 30 victims of a suicide attack. Jalalabad, Afghanistan, April 23, 2015. (Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images)

Kabul has enjoyed a period of relative calm and stability this week, in stark contrast to the offensive launched by the Taliban in the capital and across Afghanistan since early 2015, which highlighted the government’s fragile hold on the country. Discussions on January 11th in Islamabad aimed to chart a course to draw the Taliban back into negotiations on a peace process, with continued momentum critical to ensuring survival of the country’s post-2001 order.

Previous talks stalled in July last year, when the government belatedly announced the 2013 death of the Taliban’s former commander Mullah Mohammad Omar and set off an internal power struggle within the group. A subsequent renewal in violence has raised major concerns for the durability of the Kabul regime. When the city of Kunduz fell in September, before being quickly retaken, it was the first time since 2001 that the capital of an entire province had been lost. This instability, which has been generally heightened since the 2014 withdrawal of international forces, continued with a major attack on Kandahar airport and the capture of several districts of the southern province of Helmand, all while attacks continued in Kabul.

The increasing challenge to the capacity and legitimacy of the government is of grave concern. Afghanistan’s four decades-long conflict continues to contribute to a lack of regional stability in South Asia more generally, and also has ramifications for peace and security further afield: The country’s pre-September 11 harboring of al-Qaeda cannot be forgotten at a time of heightened global concern over Islamic terrorism. An affiliate of the so-called Islamic State has also been on the rise, and claimed an attack on the Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad that killed seven this week.

The recently concluded talks in Islamabad occurred between the so-called Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) of Pakistan, the United States, China, and Afghanistan. The group faces the central challenge of overcoming the continued splintering of the Taliban, with several factions refusing to pledge allegiance to current leader Mullah Mansour.

Doubts also persist over the willingness of these disparate groups to agree to any direct negotiations with the Afghan government, with a representative from the dominant group indicating this would not occur without the US government first being involved. Nonetheless, the final communique of the recent meeting stressed the need for “direct talks between representatives of the government of Afghanistan and representatives from Taliban groups.”

It is important that the present peace process also discuss the current level of support for the Taliban from long-time affiliates such as the Haqqani network, the Tehrik-i-Taliban (the “Pakistan Taliban”), and al-Qaeda. Indications are that it remains significant.

Future dialogues will be critical to providing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani an opportunity to strengthen and consolidate his position. The administration is in great need of a political victory, after facing constant attacks from the country’s citizens, political opponents, and bureaucrats for his ineffective response to the rising insecurity.

Ghani is occupied not only with the direct security threat of the Taliban, but also the support that neighboring Pakistan has provided it, including allowing high-ranking officers and leaders such as Mansour to operate within its territory. Mullah Omar and former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden both also died there. Pakistan therefore remains important to the peace process because it can bring the Taliban and its affiliates to the negotiating table. Nonetheless, Ghani’s conciliatory approach toward Afghanistan’s neighbor has caused discontent among the Afghan population, and among security officials and politicians. Most recently, the country’s departing intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil cited it as one of his main reasons for resigning.

Given that Pakistan’s intentions toward the peace process remain questionable, the Afghan government will need to draw heavily on the support of the wider international community, especially the US and China, to work toward positive outcomes. These two countries have a greater capacity to influence Pakistan, which relies on them heavily for aid and political and military support.

Despite the relief and promise that would come from a breakthrough in the peace process, more fundamental development and building of capacity within the country will also need to follow any outcome. The drawdown of troops since 2014 has been matched by a drastic reduction of international aid and donor support, which has led to a widespread increase in unemployment and economic challenges. Reconstruction funding from the US—still Afghanistan’s biggest foreign donor—has fallen from a peak of $16.7 billion USD in 2010 to $6.3 billion USD today. The increasing insecurity has also meant businesses are finding it harder to operate beyond Kabul. The harmful effects of widespread corruption within the Afghan government have led to a paucity of long-term and economically sustainable initiatives.

The increase in the number of young people emigrating has likewise been a constant issue, despite several attempts to increase confidence in the potential of future economic growth and prosperity. Ghani has made several public appearances in 2015 and promised to deliver strengthened economic development and youth job creation, by extending programs from his “100 days of good governance” initiative. Other efforts were made through social media to spread the word regarding the importance of youth for long-term growth and stability, while Afghan police have attempted to crack down on illegal smugglers in urban centers and border provinces, but with few results.

Following the recent turn of events, negative comparisons have been increasingly made—largely in private for now—between the government’s failures and the greater economic resources and security provided by the previous administration of Hamid Karzai. If not addressed adequately, this resistance could lead to a complete collapse of political structures in Afghanistan, with long-term and wide-ranging repercussions.

Finally, it is important to note that the national unity government is continuing to operate with an incomplete cabinet after more than a year of its existence, due to the inability of Ghani and the country’s Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah to reach consensus on appointees. The fragility of power sharing increases the imperative for a decisive solution to the Taliban threat and a lasting peace deal.

Nonetheless, the government cannot put the cart before the horse in this respect. Progress toward peace with the Taliban and necessary co-operation with Pakistan would go a long way to regaining the confidence of Afghanistan’s own weary citizens, and discouraging them from leaving. It could also help gain the confidence and support of the international community and reinvigorate foreign investment in the country’s economic development and growth.

Suparva Narasimhaiah is a Researcher at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit in Kabul.