Qatar’s capital city Doha has joined the list of cities that have hosted meetings between various parties to find a durable political settlement of the Afghanistan crisis since 1979. The list reflects a truly global map, including New York, Moscow, Geneva, Islamabad, Peshawar, London, Tashkent, Tehran, Nicosia, Mecca, Bonn, Paris, Beijing, Ashgabat, Abu Dhabi and Jeddah. Can Doha distinguish itself as being able to decipher the Afghan enigma?
The Doha deal contains elements that would satisfy US’ security and economic concerns. Washington’s endgames have been either a safe exit from the Afghan quagmire or an affordable presence at the heart of Asia. If the deal succeeds, we get the latter, if it fails, we will be left with the former.
Previous attempts to arrive at a ‘peace deal’ failed due to an inability to address both the immediate issues, such as ceasing hostility, and long-term concerns, primarily creating and sustaining an inclusive and functioning constitutional order.
This failure was compounded by the imposition of external demands over the Afghan political settlement. For example, during the 2001 Bonn conference, Pakistan’s wish to install a malleable Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, was fulfilled against the collective decision of the intra-Afghan meeting that elected another person.
Breach of UN’s legal system
Unfortunately, the Doha deal has carried out preceding flaws. It is essentially aimed to address Washington’s immediate and long-term needs. The Trump administration is desperate to show something for his 2020 presidential election campaign. In an election year, a photo opportunity with the bearded Taliban is a gamble that President Donald Trump is ready to take.
In addition to inadequate reciprocity between the two sides in favour of the Taliban, this deal between a UN-designated active terrorist group and a permanent member of the UN Security Council is a clear breach of UN’s legal system. It also undermines the legitimacy of the Afghan government, and risks setting a precedent for deals with other proscribed groups such as the Al-Qaeda.
A cooking analogy
The US-Afghan peace deal can best be described with a cooking analogy: The menu has been chosen by Pakistan, which is to be cooked by an American chef, Zalmay Khalilzad, in a German kitchen to be served in a Norwegian restaurant. The bill has been paid by Qatar.
The Taliban will get the starter whereas the main dish will be divided between Pakistan and Trump’s election campaign.
The Afghan government would get a part of the dessert. Afghanistan’s democratic constituencies, including women rights, would be given the leftover, if any.
Some paid and orientalist experts and organisations such as the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) would act as marketing agents, followed by the UN in charge of issuing a health certificate. Of course, the copyright belongs to the UK.
Deal based on old assumptions
Unfortunately, this deal is based on dated assumptions, mindset and actors, and hence the expected outcome.
But the Taliban of 2020 is different from its early generation. While being media savvy, today’s Taliban resembles more a drug/mercenary cartel rather than an organised government-in-waiting. Unlike the all-powerful Mullah Omar or business savvy Mullah Mansour, current Taliban leader — Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada — acts mainly as a manager rather than a supreme leader.
The rest of the elements in Afghanistan have also significantly changed. Despite its serious flaws and poor performance, the post-2001 constitutional order has taken root within the Afghan polity and regional and international system. Recent public surveys have found an overwhelming support for a republican and democratic political order among the citizens of Afghanistan.
The Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) have denied the Taliban any strategic gains. Notwithstanding political posturing, the regional and global powers support existing political order in Kabul, as the alternative ones, the return of the Taliban or the collapse of the political order would bring in unmanaged chaos and disaster. Despite the projection of victory, much of Taliban is conscious of its loss, humiliation, displacement, war fatigue and early misrule and miscalculation.
An incompetent Trump administration
The Taliban, however, is fortunate to deal with a desperate negotiator, the US and is being guided by a masterful player, Pakistan and a rich host, Qatar. A more autonomous Taliban would struggle to impose a unilateral deal on its fellow Afghans.
As demonstrated in the Middle East, Iran nuclear deal, North Korea, Venezuela and recently in Doha, the Trump team lacks competency, experience and trustworthiness to be called a peacemaker or a fair and skilled mediator.
US’ chief negotiator, former ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, is a disciple of the school of “regime change” and “managed chaos”. The current political stalemate in Kabul is mainly his design and trademark, first by imposing “a winner-take-all” strong presidential system on the Afghan constitution in 2002 and later by systematically undermining the Afghan constitutional order, including his effort to cancel the 2019 presidential election.
Condescending Europeans and opportunistic regional actors are unqualified to drive the Afghan peace process. The Afghan political entrepreneurs have also lost the legitimacy and capacity to lead the process.
The three fundamental issues
So, the Afghan peace needs to become a truly nationally-owned endeavour to succeed. This includes the venue of the negotiation. The city of Herat, known as the “abode of saints”, has been cited as a suitable venue to host the negotiation.
There are three fundamental issues that drive the Afghan conflict: legitimacy of its constitutional order, state capacity to provide public goods and its vulnerability to Pakistan’s hegemonic ambition. If and when these three interconnected issues are addressed, a durable political settlement will be born and sustained.
The author is director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies and former senior policy adviser in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Views are personal.