Forged by years of conflict and failed negotiation attempts, the cease-fire was not the first step on the path to a political settlement. But it may very well be the most critical.
Although the Taliban on June 17 ultimately rejected Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s offer to extend the Eid al-Fitr truce, this moment may be remembered as our last best chance for course correction. We — American, Afghan, European, Pakistani citizens and others in the region — must seize the momentum for peace now or commit ourselves to another generation of veterans lost to our forever war.
For many of us who have witnessed up close the resilience of the Afghan people in the face of so much carnage, we know the road to reconciliation will not be easy. We’ve seen the path blocked countless times by the venality of politicians determined to enrich themselves on the backs of the region’s disenfranchised and displaced. But I’m convinced that peace is the only destination, and we must travel together to get there. The question we now need to answer is how to reach a sustainable political settlement.
When this question was put to me six years ago while I was still living in Kabul and covering the conflict, everything was a muddle then as it is now. But one thing was as clear to me then as it is today: The only sure way out is a concerted U.N. effort to bring all parties to the table. Experience suggests there will be great temptation to get bogged down in determining the shape of the table and who should be at it. So, let’s stipulate a few things up front.
First, there will be more bloodshed. The Islamic State in Khorasan (ISK) and corrupt Afghan and Pakistani war profiteers are likely to be among the biggest spoilers in any peace process. Second, as the dialogue with the Taliban progresses in the coming years (and yes, it will take years), a sustainable peace deal will depend on our ability to distinguish the important from the urgent.
In the important category, two interrelated issues stand out: the need to address the transitional justice problem and the multiple dysfunctions of the Afghan justice system under the current constitution. The Taliban needs to give up its long-held demand for a side deal with the White House that results in a full and immediate U.S. exit. The United States and the Taliban are both direct parties to the conflict, as evidenced by the pending war crimes inquiry at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. With some 1.17 million Afghan citizens’ war crimes claims now under ICC review, neither the Taliban nor the United States is in a position to cut a bilateral peace deal. Afghans are demanding not only peace but also accountability from all sides.
The ICC could make an announcement about the status of the pending request to open a formal investigation before going into recess on July 20. Whatever the response from any of the relevant parties to any ICC action or inaction, we should expect a few detours on the road to peace as a result. Kabul’s leaders need to acknowledge that the Afghan judiciary is not well positioned under existing laws to expeditiously and fairly handle war crimes claims. Unless constitutional reforms are undertaken to correct the imbalances between the Afghan judiciary and executive branch, there are no alternatives to an internationally led transitional justice process.
In the related and urgent category, all parties must be made to understand that by continuing the fight, they are only worsening the suffering and despair of the people they purport to defend. In the first quarter of this year, Afghanistan sustained 2,258 civilian casualties. Nearly 20 percent were caused by pro-government forces. There are encouraging signs that U.S. and Afghan forces are now beginning to take accountability for civilian casualties much more seriously. Not so are their Taliban counterparts, who account for the vast majority of casualties.
Taliban leaders have not done enough to address the problem of civilian harm. To prove its commitment to protecting the Afghan people, the Taliban must designate a representative who can openly and publicly show his face when speaking to questions of accountability. In exchange, one near-term option would be a progressive U.S. drawdown matched by NATO investment in increased technical capacity within Afghan government and among reconciled Taliban forces to account for civilian harm and a commitment by all parties to clean up the mess of their unexploded ordinance.
The U.N.’s help will be needed to address the knotty problem of commanding responsibility for years of horrendous human rights abuses, civilian casualties and violations of the laws of war as prospects for a political settlement increase. Secretary General António Guterres should consider options for establishing a specially designated team of U.N.-backed peace negotiators.
Washington should follow suit by formally reconstituting elements of the State Department-led team of negotiators focused on resolving the conflict in South Asia. This need not be a grand recapitulation of the admittedly sprawling special envoy enterprise first launched in 2009, but it should be an effort that engages civilian and military veterans from all sides — formally and informally — with the support of the experienced and respected South Asia hands at the congressionally mandated U.S. Institute of Peace and the Department of Defense’s Transregional Threat Coordination Cell.
All these confidence-building measures are well within reach; every step could shorten the long march to peace.