Argument

False Dawn in Afghanistan?

A temporary Taliban truce, despite the opportunity it presents, doesn’t mean peace is about to break out anytime soon.

Kandahar Air Field on Sep. 9, 2017. (Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)
Kandahar Air Field on Sep. 9, 2017. (Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)

In recent days, unprecedented developments in Afghanistan have brought new hope to one of the most war-stricken countries in the world.

The Afghan government and the Taliban declared separate brief cease-fires to mark the Eid al-Fitr holiday. Over a remarkable three-day period, smiling soldiers, civilians, and Taliban fighters mingled together in the cities, including the capital Kabul, and shared hugs and sweets. Though the Taliban leadership declined Kabul’s request to extend the cease-fire, new truces have reportedly been struck between local officials and insurgents in parts of three different provinces.

Thanks to this momentum, Afghanistan now has a real opportunity to launch a long-elusive reconciliation process to end a war that has raged relentlessly for nearly 17 years. And yet, amid all the euphoria, a peace deal remains a far-off prospect. Getting the Taliban to the negotiating table will be tough enough; getting it to yes will be an even taller order.

The Taliban’s first-ever cease-fire does indicate that the insurgency is willing to support peace — even if for only a few days. Many Afghans have now experienced peace for the first time. After nearly 17 years of war, five years of brutal Taliban rule, several years of bloody civil war, and a long period of Soviet occupation, the country got a tantalizing taste of how things could be.

Given a growing pro-peace civil society movement, there’s good reason to believe there’s an appetite for more. Even some Taliban fighters told journalists they’re tired of war. These are striking admissions. In contrast, a new report from the United States Institute of Peace, based on interviews with 32 insurgents and supporters last year, found that members of the Taliban rank and file were keen to keep fighting.

The cease-fire’s popularity could blunt the opposition that confronted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during his previous pushes for reconciliation and give him more political capital and public support to push even harder for talks now.

Meanwhile, Taliban commanders now face the unsettling possibility of foot soldiers, fresh off experiencing peace for the first time, harboring serious doubts about going back to war. This could negatively affect battlefield performance and institutional cohesiveness. Consequently, pressure on Taliban leaders to consider talks could grow. This wouldn’t be as much of a leap as the Taliban’s defiant rhetoric about continuing the fight may suggest. The insurgents have held short-lived back-channel talks in the past.

But it’s still a long route to the negotiating table. On June 20, three days after the expiration of the Taliban cease-fire, insurgent attacks killed 30 Afghan soldiers. Over a 12-hour period on June 21, they killed more than three dozen security forces. And 18 more, along with two civilians, were killed on June 22. Taliban commanders may be seeking to reassert their authority over their fighters and ordering them to carry out strikes.

If the Taliban starts targeting civilians again, as it has frequently done in the past, then the public mood could change in a hurry. Blowing up an ambulance in the middle of Kabul, as the Taliban did back in January, would shatter any remaining euphoria and bolster those who oppose extending an olive branch. A window of opportunity for launching a reconciliation process may be open, but it could easily slam shut at any moment.

The Eid truce of 2018 risks becoming a modern-day version of the Christmas truce of 1914, when Allied forces and German soldiers along the Western front briefly stopped fighting World War I to sing Christmas carols and exchange gifts. One British soldier described it as “a short peace in a terrible war.” The World War I truce, much like the recent cease-fire in Afghanistan, was a heartwarming moment that went over well with combatants and civilians alike, but ultimately didn’t address the demands or achieve the goals of the leaderships on both sides. Predictably, by New Year’s Day 1915, hostilities had fully resumed, and several years of uninterrupted war would follow.

Even if Afghanistan manages to seize the opportunity in time, prospects for a deal remain remote for the foreseeable future.

The Afghan government and the Taliban fundamentally disagree about peace, both in terms of how to achieve it and what the end goal should be.

Kabul favors direct negotiations with the Taliban. The Taliban, however, insists on direct talks with the United States. The Taliban claims it will talk with Kabul only after the departure of U.S. troops. Washington, which has consistently referred to reconciliation as an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” process, refuses to hold formal talks with the Taliban and has no immediate plans to withdraw its forces.

In recent days, the U.S. government has indicated it may be softening its position. In a June 16 statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Washington “is prepared to support, facilitate, and participate” in discussions with the Taliban about “the role of international actors and forces.” Earlier this month, Lisa Curtis, a top South Asia official at the White House, said the United States “is ready to participate” in negotiations, “but we cannot serve as a substitute for the Afghan government and the Afghan people.” This messaging suggests Washington may be amenable to joining negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban. But this wouldn’t be good enough for the Taliban, which will only accept bilateral talks with Washington.

Meanwhile, the Taliban is unwilling to stop short of victory; it sees peace as a return of the harsh Islamist rule that it oversaw between 1996 and 2001. Kabul, by contrast, wants the Taliban to accept, and be incorporated into, the existing political system. This helps explain why the group has refused to accept generous offers from the government. In February, Ghani offered the Taliban a political office and recognition as a political party. The Taliban, which rejects the current political system, didn’t even respond to the offer.

The only type of offer the Taliban would likely accept is the type that Kabul wouldn’t be willing to make. For example, it might look favorably on an offer from Kabul to formally cede to the Taliban the areas of Afghanistan currently under insurgent control. While some may see this as a compromise that an Afghan government desperate for peace would be willing to make, for Kabul this would amount to an unacceptable capitulation to the insurgents’ demand to govern Afghanistan their own way.

There are other fundamental obstacles to peace as well. The Taliban is riven by factionalism and doesn’t present a common front on policy issues, meaning its units may keep fighting even if peace negotiations were to begin. Additionally, Pakistan, which enjoys influence over the Taliban and likely helped persuade it to declare its brief cease-fire, could prove less helpful as a peace partner than Kabul and Washington would like it to be. Pakistan benefits from the insurgency because it pushes back against the presence of India in Afghanistan, which Islamabad fears New Delhi could use as a base to plot destabilizing acts in Pakistan. The Taliban may be fighting the Afghan military and its U.S. allies, but it has also attacked Indian targets, including Indian aid workers and New Delhi’s embassy in Kabul.

This isn’t to say these vast divides and dilemmas can’t be bridged and resolved. They can. Any successful negotiation requires painful concessions and creative solutions. But this process takes time — a lot of it, and it’s typically measured in decades, not days. Talks to end the insurgency in Colombia — a case often compared to the one in Afghanistan — took more than 50 years before an agreement was reached in 2016. And even that tenuous deal is now under threat.

It took a heartbreakingly long time for Afghans to experience a brief but exhilarating period of peace. It might be just as long before they get the chance for a lasting peace, not just a brief respite from war.

Michael Kugelman is Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He can be reached on Twitter @michaelkugelman and at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org @michaelkugelman

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