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Afghanistan’s road to peace won’t be an easy one

- March 30, 2018

Is there hope for an end to the long war in Afghanistan? A month ago, President Ashraf Ghani offered the Taliban a “comprehensive peace deal.” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says the United States is open to a peace settlement in Afghanistan. And some Taliban leaders have expressed an interest in talks, as well.

For now, however, the prospects for peace in Afghanistan remain grim. There are multiple steps to a potential deal — and many barriers to success. Here are five pitfalls on the road to peace.

1) Will the Taliban negotiate?

The Taliban chief, Haibatullah Akhundzada, has not responded to the peace offer. Some analysts are reading his silence as a sign of interest. But it is more likely that he does not want to negotiate. A powerful faction within the Taliban, the Quetta Shura, is not interested in talks.

The silence may reflect the Taliban’s military confidence, which would support fighting instead of negotiations. Scholars highlight two conditions under which rebels remain optimistic about their military prospects: when rebels have state backers who give them sanctuary and material support, and when rebels have access to funding streams from illicit economies.

The Taliban meets both criteria. Its leadership has sanctuary in Pakistan and Iran. It receives material support from Russia. The drug trade and kidnappings continue to provide high earnings. Many in the Taliban’s shura think that they stand a chance to win — and that the United States is out of steam.

The United States has tried to curtail the Taliban’s incentive to fight on, in part by increasing airstrikes against the Taliban’s leadership and drug complex. But there is little evidence that this has significantly harmed the Taliban. Instead, it has increasingly bombed cities, including Kabul.

The United States also suspended military aid to Pakistan to pressure the Islamabad government to stop supporting the Taliban. That has yet to shift Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. My research (with Paul Staniland and Sameer Lalwani) suggests that Pakistan is unlikely to crack down on the Taliban because of U.S. pressure. The Taliban provides Pakistan with influence in Afghanistan — and does not challenge the Pakistani military’s vision of nationalism.

Bottom line: As long as state backing and illicit funds make the Taliban confident of a victory, there is reason to doubt that it would want to negotiate.

2) What would peace terms look like?

But suppose that the Taliban agrees to talk. The next challenge would be to reach a consensus on peace terms — a key obstacle for most conflict agreements. In Afghanistan, building consensus is tricky, as the terms will be shaped by conflicting interests of the U.S. and Afghan governments, along with the Taliban.

The Taliban’s recent demands include a U.S. exit from Afghanistan and share in the Kabul-based government. The United States seeks guarantees that the Taliban will not support transnational Islamist extremists. The Afghan government wants the Taliban to respect the rule of law.

The Taliban’s demand for a U.S. withdrawal is likely to cause a deadlock. Key Taliban leaders worry that if they back down, their credibility with their base of support will suffer. But it is hard to see President Trump’s hard-line foreign policy team agreeing to a withdrawal as a concession to the Taliban. And the Afghan government has reason to worry about its own survival in case of a rushed U.S. departure.

Any power-sharing demands from the Taliban would be contentious. The Taliban worry that if they demobilize without a large share, the Afghan government will renege on agreed terms. Ghani’s recent offer has nothing on power sharing, and it will be difficult for him to include the Taliban in his complex multiethnic coalition.

To reach a workable consensus, the United States has the most power to shape the terms that satisfy the Taliban. For now, the U.S. stance is that the terms are for the Afghan government and the Taliban to decide.

3) What are the likely spoilers?

In the unlikely event that the three parties can surmount these problems, the Afghan context is ripe for another major obstacle to peace — what scholars call the spoiler problem. An unhappy faction might try to derail the process with violence — by launching a major attack in Kabul or assassinating a senior leader of the Taliban during the talks.

The Afghan context brims with potential spoilers. These include factions within the Taliban, Afghan politicians, Pakistan, India, Russia, Iran, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. These parties have different ideas about how the war should terminate and thus could jeopardize the peace process, causing the talks to break down.

4) How hard will it be to implement peace?

Even if there is some arrangement that is acceptable to all, committing to the terms of peace is a critical barrier to settlement. Warring parties worry that the other side may not keep the terms. Rebels worry that government forces might harm them once they disarm. Amid such concerns, a third-party guarantor is essential to implementing the terms of peace.

In the Afghan context, an acceptable third party will be difficult to find. The Taliban wants guarantees from an international coalition including China, Iran and Russia. But the United States worries about China’s ambitions in South Asia, Russia’s growing sphere of influence and Iran’s subversion. The United States is not likely to concede a role to its foes to satisfy the Taliban.

5) Could civil war return to Afghanistan?

Even if the parties overcome all of these challenges and strike a deal, a major risk of a return to war emanates from Ghani’s domestic politics.

Ghani draws multiethnic support, but many in the governing coalition do not want to share power with the Taliban. A peace deal means they stand to lose their privileged status — and that raises the risk of a coup by estranged ethnic factions after the deal.

How will Ghani respond to such a threat? He will face what political scientist Philip Roessler calls the “coup-civil war trap.” Ghani will have to pick between a possible coup by select factions in his coalition — or more civil war with the Taliban. More likely, he will choose a civil war with the Taliban over the coup.

Reaching a sustainable peace deal in Afghanistan is not a single problem but a series of formidable hurdles. And this means the war in Afghanistan is unlikely to abate anytime soon.

Asfandyar Mir is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Chicago and pre-doctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.