Afghanistan Is Not Doomed to Repeat Its Past
Peace talks in Afghanistan may come down to an agreement between the Taliban and Kabul on an interim government. Here’s how the sides can avoid the pitfalls of 1992 and 2001.
Negotiations between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan have opened in Doha, Qatar, but violence continues and even appears to be escalating. Some of the worst attacks, such as the Oct. 24 strike on an educational center in Kabul that killed at least 30 students, have been claimed by the so-called Islamic State. That group rejects all negotiations as it pursues its global agenda. But both the Taliban and the government have been responsible for recent civilian casualties, too, with Taliban offensives responsible for most of the violence. That’s why the government in Kabul, the political opposition, and civil-society groups are all demanding that the Taliban agree to a cease-fire.
So far, the only condition the Taliban have stated for ending the violence is the establishment of an “Islamic system,” which they have not defined. The group has meanwhile stalled the proceedings by refusing to budge on procedural matters, including on which school of Islamic jurisprudence should be used to resolve disputes. If and when the talks turn to substantive matters, a ceasefire will be on the agenda.
To get the Taliban to agree to one, they will most certainly have to be given something substantial in return. They will want further guarantees from the United States that it will complete its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and lift sanctions imposed on the Taliban. From the Afghan side, they may demand the replacement of the current government by an interim government with representatives of both sides. The interim government would preside over a political process to determine what the Doha agreement calls a “roadmap” for Afghanistan’s political future. Such an idea is under discussion in Kabul, but is very controversial. There is precedent for interim governments in the practice of peace processes in general and in Afghanistan, but the history of Afghanistan also shows the risks inherent in such measures.
The Bonn Agreement of December 2001, concluded after the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban government, provided for a six-month interim administration that would convene an emergency loya jirga (grand assembly) to create a transitional administration that would oversee elections and the adoption of a new constitution. That transition was largely implemented under the sponsorship of a large international presence, but the exclusion of the Taliban from the process and many other errors meant that these efforts marked a new stage of the war rather than a transition to peace.
And before that, there was Afghanistan’s experience establishing an interim government from 1991 to 1992. In those days, an effort led by the United Nations and supported by the United States and the Soviet Union led to the resignation of Afghan President Mohammed Najibullah. His departure was supposed to make way for the installation of an interim government, but instead conflict broke out, leading to the breakdown of state institutions and the escalation of the war that eventually produced the Taliban.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has cited these events as a warning. “Dr. Najibullah made the mistake of his life by announcing that he was going to resign,” he told the audience at an event hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Atlantic Council in June. “Please don’t ask us to replay a film that we know well.”
A closer look at the history Ghani was referring to is warranted. The Geneva Accords of April 1988 provided for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan by Feb. 15, 1989. As a first step toward stabilization, they also required the end of U.S. aid to the mujahideen by May 1988, but the United States refused to implement that provision without a commitment by the Soviet Union to stop military aid to the Afghan government.
The Geneva Accords made no provision for a political transition, but in 1989, after the Soviet Union withdrew, Moscow began a dialogue with the United States about a U.N.-sponsored political settlement and conditions under which both sides would end military assistance. Najibullah and his Soviet backers argued that the process should start under the incumbent (him), who may leave at the end. The United States, mujahideen, and Pakistan insisted that Najibullah resign at the start and be replaced by a U.N.-mediated interim government. The Soviet Union agreed after the failed coup by hard-liners in Moscow in August 1991 that triggered the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December. Just before the state’s demise, in September 1991, both sides had agreed to end military aid to their proxies by January 1992, with an interim government to take over on from Najibullah on April 15 that year. Mujahideen leaders in Pakistan rejected that agreement, though, and mutinous militias blocked Najibullah from flying to India under U.N. escort. The security forces fractured, and war started inside Kabul. Out of the resulting chaos came the Taliban.
Looking to the possibility of an interim government today, there are some elements in place now that would prevent a 1992-style collapse.
First, aid to the sitting government will continue. As a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Najibullah’s government lost the assistance that paid the security forces and fed the urban population, leading to desertions and mutinies. Today the Afghan government is even more dependent on aid than the Najibullah regime, but negotiations between it and the Taliban have begun while U.S. forces are still in the country and aid continues. The Taliban have not asked the United States to halt aid to the Afghan government, and the United States is committed to giving it, even if not at the same level. At the request of the Taliban, the Doha agreement the group signed with the United States commits Washington to support the future development of Afghanistan.
Second, the negotiation process has been more transparent. In 1992, negotiations over the peace plan took place entirely between Najibullah and U.N. envoy Benon Sevan without participation by Najibullah’s colleagues in the ruling party, who suspected him of abandoning them to an unknown fate. They decided to take matters into their own hands. Analogous factional disputes have recurred this time around, but the peace effort is led by Ghani’s main rival, Afghanistan’s former CEO Abdullah Abdullah, and the negotiation team includes representatives of all the country’s major groups.
And that leads to the third point, which is that the armed opposition is united and engaged in negotiations. In the 1990s, the mujahideen—also at war internally—refused to meet with representatives of the Kabul regime, making the creation of a power-sharing interim government impossible. This time, the Taliban also refused to meet the Afghan government before its February agreement with the United States on troop withdrawal, but they are now engaged in direct negotiations with representatives of the government. The parties to a potential interim government are meeting directly in Doha, and the Taliban have developed a unified command structure to avoid the factionalization that undermined the mujahideen.
Finally, the 1992 peace plan contained no provision for the legal framework for the transition. Nothing had been settled about the future command and pay of the security forces. There was no road map that explained what role various groups might play under what rules, or how the transition would end. Rule of law remains weak in Afghanistan, but there is now a constitution, and three functioning branches of government. Afghanistan is a member of the United Nations and a party to many international agreements. Any transition should seek to assure the continuity of the legal identity of the state and its institutions, especially the security forces.
In other words, the prospects for an interim government are better this time than in 1992. What is left is for the parties to, first, make clear the means by which each of the parties will commit to an agreement internally.
Any agreement to modify Afghanistan’s current political arrangements should take existing institutions as a point of departure. For instance, the constitution provides for an interim government in Article 67, which outlines procedures in the case of the death, resignation, illness, or impeachment of the president. To depart from these constitutional lines of succession, the formation of a new interim government could be approved by an emergency loya jirga, a customary institution codified in the Bonn Agreement. The Taliban would likewise use their own institutions to ratify it. The agreement would also have to include, as did the Bonn Agreement, the structure and personnel of the interim government, provisions for all armed forces to come under the authority of the interim government, and the legal framework under which the interim authority would operate.
To develop its legal framework, the Bonn Agreement reached back to a time before the armed conflict. It defined the basis of the interim government as the Afghan Constitution of 1964, with specified changes to meet the conditions of the time. For a transition under current circumstances, it would make sense to specify the legal framework as the current constitution with appropriate modifications to accommodate the agreement on the interim government. The Taliban may reject such a proposal, since it implies the acceptance of the existing constitution, but one former Taliban official suggested that the group might accept a modified version of the constitution of 1964, on which the current constitution is based. The government could negotiate for appropriate changes based on the 2004 constitution for purposes of the interim regime. Both the 1964 and 2004 constitutions provide for administrative centralization, which many communities oppose. Those voices should also be heard.
Any interim government agreement should also note, as did the Bonn Agreement, that “the Interim Authority shall be the repository of Afghan sovereignty, with immediate effect.” The counterterrorism obligations of the Taliban enumerated in the Doha agreement as well as those of the current government could become obligations of the interim government. The United States would also have to agree with the interim government that all bilateral agreements remain in effect, subject to updates reflecting changed conditions in the country.
Finally, both sides have so far rejected any mediator or international facilitation, but they will find it difficult if not impossible to negotiate and implement such a complex agreement without it. If there is no progress in the talks, the United States could simply disengage. The United States is unlikely to break up like the Soviet Union, but it is certain to be distracted by the pandemic and numerous domestic crises. The process might be different than in 1992, but the result could be similar if not worse. It is urgent to get these negotiations moving.
Barnett R. Rubin is director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project and associate director at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. He is also a nonresident fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He has taught at Yale University and Columbia University, headed the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and served as senior advisor to both the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009-2013) and the U.N. special representative of the secretary-general for Afghanistan (2001-2002). His next book, Afghanistan: What Everyone Needs to Know, will be published by Oxford University Press in July.