Special Commentary

Afghanistan: Prospects of a Political Settlement with the Taliban

15 Mar, 2019    ·   5567

Dr Omar Sadr examines a variety of mechanisms and evaluates their merits and de-merits with regard to the inclusion of Taliban in Afghanistan's political future.

Around mid-March, the fifth round of negotiations between the US and the Taliban—the longest in the ongoing series—concluded in Doha, Qatar. In the US’ view, a negotiation that could be considered successful would be one which results in two important outcomes: first, re-organising US-Taliban relations, and second, re-designing the power configuration in Afghanistan through an accommodation of the Taliban in the country’s political framework. The US’ current engagement with the Taliban is anchored in the assumption that the conflict in Afghanistan has reached a military stalemate. In order to justify the abandonment of its long-held narrative of “no negotiation with the Taliban,” the US is struggling to construct a distinction between the Taliban and terrorists.

The current mode of negotiations indicates that the US is ready to accept the Taliban as a part of the political process in Afghanistan. If the current phase of negotiations succeeds, sooner or later, the Taliban should sit with the Government of Afghanistan to draw up a mechanism for the accommodation of the group. However, the answer to this question remains unclear: what are the institutional arrangements for the Taliban’s inclusion in the national politics of the country? Beyond generic rhetoric that the Taliban should be accommodated into the system, so far, there is no systematic analysis on the political mechanisms of the inclusion of the Taliban and on the pros and cons of each arrangement.

A political settlement refers to a negotiated political arrangement between elites on how the power should be distributed and exercised. Irrespective of the stances of the parties with regard to the prospects of settlement, international experiences indicate that there could be four types of institutional arrangements for a political settlement: participation of the insurgents in elections; power-sharing arrangements; agreement on a transitional mechanism, particularly an interim government; and finally, devolution of power from the centre to local administration in a centralised state.

A recent study this author conducted suggests that the prospects of a political settlement with the Taliban look challenging and perplexing at best. A military stalemate is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a positive negotiated settlement. It is less likely that an insurgency such as the Taliban would agree to a power-sharing arrangement or inclusion in the electoral process if the group is deeply immersed in radical ideology and perceives the stalemate as being in its favour. Unlike the US, the Taliban are not in a hurry for a settlement. The current stalemate is not hurting them. On the contrary, the Taliban is enjoying an increasing political clout as the US is in a haste mode. Furthermore, as the Taliban does not recognise the legitimacy of the post-2001 order—which according to them came as a result of the US counter-insurgency policy—they might not agree for participation in elections and power-sharing both at the national and local levels.

With less than five months left for the next round of presidential elections in Afghanistan (which too was postponed from the original 20 April date), the incumbent government is also less likely to accept any settlement other than the inclusion of insurgents in the electoral process. It is understandable that the sustainability and continuation of the current political order in Afghanistan is related to holding regular and timely elections. However, elections might not necessarily lead to an inclusive and stable settlement in a fragile context such as in Afghanistan. The consequences of widespread fraud and irregularities witnessed in the 2014 presidential election and the 2018 parliamentary election are the good examples of this.

The other model involves an agreement on a transitional arrangement, i.e. an interim government—an issue that has been widely discussed in various circles. International experiences show that there could be four types of interim governments:

First, in cases where the insurgents overthrow the state and they promise a revolutionary provisional government. For example, during the Algerian war of independence, the Algerian National Liberation Front established the Provisional Government of Algerian Republic, and in 1974, a group of revolutionary army officers established the Ethiopian Provisional Military Administrative Council. Given the current military stalemate in Afghanistan, the Taliban does not have any chance to overthrow the state and the group lacks democratic ethos to commit to a democratic provisional government.

The second type of situation is one in which the ruling government is forced to step down or loses its democratic legitimacy, and a temporary government of incumbents promises to lead the transition period. For instance, in 1976, Prime Minister Adolfo Saurez led an incumbent interim government to manage the transition to a democratic order in Spain. In Afghanistan, as the incumbent government’s tenure is technically set to end in early May 2019, it might extend its tenure by promising an incumbent interim government. However, it is evident that the Taliban would not accept such an arrangement.

The third possibility is the formation of a power-sharing interim government. An example of this framework was seen in 1993, when President FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela agreed on a power-sharing Transitional Executive Council. However, in Afghanistan’s case, given the rivalry between the Taliban and the incumbent government, both sides reject such a possibility. However, a group of Afghan political elites who attended the February 2019 Moscow meeting with the Taliban are explicitly in favour of forming such a power-sharing interim government.

The last type of interim government is one which is an internationally organised arrangement. A manifestation of this model was seen when the UN Transitional Assistance Group administered a transition during Namibia’s independence. However, given the UN’s failure in administering a successful transition in the early 1990s in Afghanistan, currently, the UN does not have sufficient capacity and does not enjoy legitimacy in eyes of the parties to administer a transition phase successfully. Such an arrangement is possible in Afghanistan if the US and the patrons of the Taliban agree to the formation of a power-sharing interim government.

However, the current political condition is not favourable for establishing an interim government. The failed experience of an interim government in the early 1990s in Afghanistan shows that in order to have a successful interim government, state institutions should remain intact and the insurgency should not completely discount the state. The Taliban have already expressed their discomfort regarding existing state institutions such as the national army. The inclusion of the Taliban will thus intensify the fragility of the system which is already suffering from an imbalance of power.

Moreover, past experiences of peace agreements in Afghanistan demonstrate that implementation and actualisation of such agreements have not been successful, as most of these agreements were limited to elite power-sharing arrangements or power-sharing interim governments and did not cover substantial and structural issues related to lasting peace. With the growing fear that a possible immature agreement with the Taliban may lead to a breakdown of order or loss of recent democratic gains, it is important that efforts aimed at peace and settlements go beyond power-sharing and interim government arrangements, and avoid haste.

Instead, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart wrote in their 2007 paper, a plausible political settlement should work as a tool both for democratisation and statecraft. Hence, it is crucial that the most important issues related to the future system should be settled in the agreement itself rather than postponing that conversation to an unpredictable future. In addition to a settlement on a transitional period, the agreement should also include a new set of ‘rules of the game’, defining all aspects of governing relations. A settlement should not merely be a transitional mechanism for inclusion of the Taliban into the system; rather, it should function as a process to pave the way and implement a series of reforms toward democratisation. The following could be the new ‘rules of the game’:

  1. The relationship between the three branches of the government should be reconfigured. At present, the judiciary does not have the capacity to exercise its authority. Its role has been undermined by other institutions, especially the office of the president and affiliated bodies such as the National Security Council. Empowering the judiciary is key to ringing in rule of law.
  2. To strengthen the inclusive democratic and participatory process, substantial and tangible checks and balances should be placed and enforced on the executive branch.
  3. Local government institutions should be empowered in terms of decision making. A series of decision-making rights should be transferred to the local government.
  4. Local authorities, such as provincial governor, should become accountable to the people and hence, the provincial council should get oversight authority.
  5. Local authorities should be democratised. The governors should be elected by popular vote.

A comprehensive political settlement is essential for sustaining the democratic order. Of course, the agreement on the status of international troops is different from the agreement on domestic political settlement. However, if the US does not consider these two issues as an integral part of a comprehensive agreement and opts for pulling out its troop without making the Taliban negotiate with the government of Afghanistan on a domestic political settlement, whatever peace that would be achieved would be prone to failure. The status of international troops should act as a guarantor for a full implementation of an agreed political settlement. The fall of the South Vietnamese government in 1975 and Afghanistan’s descent into the chaos were largely a result of a lack of guaranteed political settlement. Provisions of inclusive and just political settlement are central to the success of a peace agreement.

Dr Omar Sadr is a Senior Researcher at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, Kabul