The world may be going through turbulent times, but a glimpse of hope is coming from an unexpected place: Afghanistan.
In recent days, American and Taliban officials have been meeting in Doha, Qatar. Zalmay Khalilzad, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, says the talks have yielded “significant progress on vital issues”, though he cautions that details for a final settlement to the 17-year-old conflict still need to be worked out.
How significant is this new opening? After years of violence and deteriorating security, Afghans themselves are seeing reasons for cautious optimism. During a recent exchange with an Afghan friend, I asked him how things were in Kabul. His response was very brief and straightforward: “We are watching how the peace talks move forward, Inshallah” – God willing.
Many of the soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers who have worked in Afghanistan agree that there is no “quick fix” – and no purely military solution to what is now America’s longest war. The initial reason for military intervention in Afghanistan was to ensure that the country does not again become the source of international terrorism. Since 2001, the Afghanistan conflict has been a laboratory for different strategies, tactics, and doctrines. From counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency, to “clear, hold and build”, to empowerment, training and accountability, it was clear that at a certain stage and under appropriate circumstances talks with Taliban should take place.
For peace efforts to succeed, the coherence of the international community will be crucial
It is no secret that many Afghan leaders, from former president Hamid Karzai to current president Ashraf Ghani and to key international stakeholders, have tried to entertain contacts with Taliban representatives. The Taliban for years has spurned the Afghan government's offers for direct talks, however, and instead has continued to stage a surge in violence around the country.
Ultimately, it was Donald Trump, who, even before announcing the troop reductions recently, decided to holding direct talks with the Taliban leadership. Afghan-born US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was appointed to lead negotiations and recently announced significant progress, saying these talks were “more productive than they have been in the past”.
While the details of “significant progress” in talks will have to be clarified and finetuned, this is indeed a major development, which will require not only US leadership, but, even more importantly, an internal Afghan inclusiveness and sustained external support to finalise any peace and reconciliation accord. It will require all Afghans to come together and end violence, build democracy, and ensure human rights. Regional powers need to help stabilise (and not destabilise) the country, and the international community to continue supporting development in times of peace as it did during years of conflict.
The drivers for conflict, however, remain strong and Afghanistan's history suggests caution. Much will be decided in the coming months. For peace efforts to succeed, the coherence of the international community will be crucial. All of Afghanistan’s neighbours and regional players can play a positive role in this regard. The European Union with its comprehensive approach of conflict resolution, development aid, and regional diplomacy, can play a significant supporting role in peace process. Under the United Nations’ leadership and stewardship, the EU along with other key international stakeholders can assume the International Peace Guarantor’s role for the eventual Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Afghanistan to be respected and implemented.
This can only unfold if the talks with the Taliban are fully embraced and owned by the Afghan political leadership and population at large. The incoming talks should also recognise substantial societal developments that have occurred when it comes to access to education for all, women rights, and democratic governance, including free media. Participation of women representatives at the negotiation table with Taliban would address former concerns.
Both the Taliban and the US seem to have the same overall objective: the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan. However, the most sensitive stage of negotiations between Taliban and the Afghan government is still due to come. While the final talks should be fully owned by the Afghans themselves, the US and its coalition partners alongside the neighbouring and regional players should genuinely support peace and reconciliation. Turning Afghanistan into a hub of regional stability and economic development is the way forward.
In this context it is critical that next to the US and its coalition partners, other non-traditional donors such as China, India, Pakistan Russia, Saudi Arabia, and others are fully involved into the political deliberations on regional support for the peace talks. To follow the Geneva accords of last year, international donors should step in with support for a broad-based programme of economic initiatives which would advance a post-settlement return of Afghan capital; increased Afghan and foreign investment; job creation; and, enhanced regional economic integration.
The West cannot abandon Afghanistan. We will need to demonstrate staying power in support of Afghanistan peace and reconciliation, economic development and respect of human rights.
A historical turning point for Afghanistan seems to be within reach. We cannot afford to miss it.
Vygaudas Ušackas is a Council Member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. He was previously European Union Special Representative to Afghanistan 2010-2013, foreign minister of Lithuania, Lithuanian ambassador to the United States, Mexico, Court of St.James’s, and most recently as the EU ambassador to Russia.
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