Afghanistan is at a critical juncture with a peace deal on the horizon that will decide its fate without really giving its people a say. While the formal negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban, the hardline Islamist foe of the government, have been underway for several weeks now, they have not officially started because of a deadlock over the procedures.
The Afghan National Security forces are struggling to control the territory and the Taliban are carrying out attacks across the country. According to tenants of the deal, the United States would get the Taliban to police the territory it controls in return for a withdrawal American forces. But is this sufficient to bring durable peace and prevent further instability?
The deal has been criticized as one excuse for the United States to leave Afghanistan. But unsatisfying as it may seem, it may be the best outcome for Afghanistan, especially if the United States uses its leverage toward a more inclusive political settlement. This formula would need to focus on decentralized governance that protects the diversity of communities in Afghanistan and reflects the distribution of power on the ground.
The war in Afghanistan has cost the United States almost $3 trillion to date, mainly for counterinsurgency efforts and to build up the national army and police force. But those internal negotiations, while revitalized, have not been devoid of violence, the majority inflicted by the elements against the government. The Taliban is growing in numbers, and with its boldness, reaching a recent average of 50 attacks each day.
The Taliban, in addition to its base in Helmand, has territory in numerous provinces and continues to threaten those capitals. In 2018, it captured Ghazni in a siege which revealed the hard truth that the Afghan military, despite American assistance, is still unable to contain the Taliban forces, which are becoming stronger. With no money to pay the police and little government penetration with rural areas, the Afghan people are hedging their bets and joining them as they are worried about security.
The rights of women have also been at the forefront of talks with the two sides clashing on visions of how to run Afghanistan. Despite the uneven improvements in the last decade, democratic governance has advanced women, mostly in health and education. Under the Taliban, girls were not allowed to attend school until they hit puberty. Today, millions of girls are enrolled in school, and women are in far more civil service roles.
Further, one in five members of the Afghan parliament are women. Given how tenuous these gains are, this is an area that needs special attention. The right to vote, run for office, have a job, and all other human rights in the talks have not been defined, and women have been mostly excluded from formal talks. The Taliban has been vague on gender issues despite attempts to portray itself as friendly to women. Any settlement needs to reflect key red lines for women after the American withdrawal.
Finding a way to ensure lasting peace is notably important as another era of brutal suppression could come with the resurgence of the Islamic State Khorasan Province. The infamous attacks on a maternity ward in Kabul this spring that killed babies, nurses, and health workers of mostly Hazara Shia is a reflection of the tactics the Islamic State Khorasan Province is using to instill fear and present itself as an alternative to the Taliban. Should it gain a presence in Afghanistan, the effects could be calamitous.
For peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region, several underlying causes of decades of violence must be addressed, as should the failures of economic development. Reconciliation in communities needs to pay attention to the social integration of the Taliban. But governance has to also address the decades of a political system that overlooks prevailing distrust among the diverse communities of Afghanistan and increasing competition for power that leads to conflict and fragmentation.
A more decentralized and inclusive governance model that would provide communities a say and the power to determine their fate can ensure that all the gains made to date in Afghanistan, especially in the northeast and in Kabul, will not be lost. Such a system will also prevent giving up on an entire country that is certain to otherwise descend into chaos.