An Afghan peace deal is within grasp – let’s not throw it all away on a whim

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Roland Kobia
Roland Kobia

EU Special Envoy for Afghanistan

On the morning of 7 September, US President Donald Trump unexpectedly redistributed the cards of the Afghan peace process by announcing the suspension of talks with the Taliban in a few lines on Twitter. This happened just hours before the expected announcement of a bilateral deal. While talks might -and should- resume in the future, this will have consequences on the timing, process and/or contents of the agreement. The little trust that existed between parties will have to be reconquered.

War has been ravaging Afghanistan on and off for the last four decades. In the past year, direct talks between Washington and the Taliban to prepare for a US drawdown broke some earlier taboos and created a necessary process of dialogue, bringing Afghanistan to the brink of a formal peace process. For a few months, diplomats and commentators shared an increasingly upbeat mood, as the question shifted from ‘was peace possible?’ to ‘what kind of peace?’.

The four chapters being negotiated were known, but only a handful of insiders knew of the paragraphs and footnotes constituting the deal in the making. Zooming out, this deal went beyond Afghanistan, as it was going to move the regional geopolitical tectonic plates of the Heart Land. It would have certainly changed the regional order, and maybe impacted the international security order in the long-term.

However partial, the US-Taliban talks were a necessary game-changer. But the key is that they were supposed to prepare the ground for direct talks between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, a quintessential part for a sustainable peace process. This is the only way out of a military conflict that has dragged on for 18 years, and has admittedly no military solution for either side.

The international community must keep searching for ways to create the political conditions that are conducive to dialogue and to a full-fledged peace process between Afghans.

If the current opportunity is missed, we may have to wait another decade to go back to the negotiating table. Such chances have been missed before, notably in the early 2000s. The international community must keep searching for ways to create the political conditions that are conducive to dialogue and to a full-fledged peace process between Afghans.

The way forward includes mediation, offering incentives and finding points of agreement among stakeholders. International actors should redouble efforts to launch intra-Afghan peace talks, accompanied by a ceasefire, at least temporary, for the duration of the talks as an unambiguous token of good will.

In this complex and subtle line between Afghan ownership and need for foreign support, the European Union has consistently endeavoured to respect three fundamental rules of engagement: support without interference; keep a principled-based line; and favour cooperation over competition and confrontation.

The history of Afghanistan is rife with examples of the damage that competing powers trigger in interfering, in changing positions according to political opportunities and in pursuing narrow national interests without considering Afghan aspirations. Many want to fill in any vacuum that opens up, reinforce economic and security leverages, and eventually ensure political domination. If the paradigm that has led to the current situation is not changed, the same lines will be written in ten years time. Humans should learn from their past errors.

The state-building efforts by the EU promote the long-term stability and security of Afghanistan, and can help create conditions for lasting ‘positive peace’.

The EU, having no geo-strategic interests, has offered to support and guarantee the peace process along the following lines: making the process more inclusive; promoting international consensus; helping with the reintegration of ex-combatants; and supporting the necessary reforms and the long-term development of the country.

The EU has made its rules of engagement public and clear. Its position is based on the conviction that the peace process should consolidate, rather than erode, the gains made over the past two decades. The enormous sacrifices made by the Afghans and the international community should not be neglected. Afghanistan should move forward, not go backwards.

In the coming months, EU support to peace efforts will be aimed at promoting the resumption of dialogue, the launch of transparent and inclusive intra-Afghan talks, accompanied by a ceasefire, supporting the peace negotiations so that they reach a durable peace agreement, and ensuring that the final agreement preserves the fundamental rights and constitutional order for all Afghans, in particular women, minorities and vulnerable groups. These principles are shared by a large part of the Afghan society.

In the long term, there is a need to provide economic opportunities to all Afghans through the development of key economic sectors – such as agriculture, mining and transport – and to better interconnect Afghanistan with its many neighbours.

Afghans have expressed support for a peace process endorsed by the EU. This would provide reassurance to all those who fear that, otherwise, their fundamental rights might become a trading chip. The state-building efforts by the EU promote the long-term stability and security of Afghanistan, and can help create conditions for lasting ‘positive peace’.

While foreign powers have a role – and a responsibility – any peace deal will only be lasting and acceptable if it is owned by Afghan society, and not perceived as externally imposed.

The EU offers a complementary role to the negotiations, going beyond shorter-term goals. Guarantees against international terrorism, fight against drugs trafficking and the spread of radical ideologies might fail if the right structural environment is not created and sustained, notably after a troops drawdown. The EU helps build that structural context. Short-termers often lose sight of the long game.

Given the current developments, diplomatic tenets now call for all efforts, jointly by all major international stakeholders, to push for a resumption of talks and the formal launch of an inclusive peace process. This should be accompanied by concrete signals that show a real commitment and willingness to reach peace (ceasefire above all, and also release of prisoners and hostages).

But let us not be naive. Peace negotiations will probably be long, painful and frustrating. There will be further setbacks, involving exegetic wars of terminology and battles of interpretation. Alliances will shift and violence will persist from some groups. The peace-seekers will therefore doubt the agreement and some might be tempted to take up arms again.

A key lesson to be drawn from the recent diplomatic setback is the need for peace efforts to be as inclusive and transparent as they can reasonably be. This should represent all voices of Afghan society, especially those who are traditionally side-lined. While foreign powers have a role – and a responsibility – any peace deal will only be lasting and acceptable if it is owned by Afghan society, and not perceived as externally imposed. Let us learn from past mistakes. Peace can only be reached, be accepted and last if it is made by Afghans, and for Afghans.

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