The abrupt flee of then-President Ghani was conceived to be a major cause for the failure of peace efforts in Doha and the collapse of the state in Afghanistan. Regardless of the two statements issued by Mr. Ghani from the United Arab Emirate, the dilemma of how and why he decided to abandon his country and people at such a critical juncture of history will remain a puzzle for the foreseeable future. Whatever the reason might be, the unique opportunity and efforts made by the international community, mainly the United States, in building regional consensus for a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan went in vain.
Doha peace process, with all its anxiety, has come to an unsuccessful conclusion and was not able to facilitate a peaceful transfer of power from Ghani to a more compromised authority and create a conducive working environment for the Afghan government and Taliban. How complex and serious the negotiations might have been, the context of the talk, which was supposed to build peace, had serious flaws, multiplied by a number of internal and external paradoxes. Therefore, even if it delivered some short-term favorable outcome, in the medium and long run, it would hardly be sustainable to serve the purpose and its ultimate goal of ending decades-long hostilities and establish durable peace. Some of the critical issues which contributed to the failure of Peace talks in Doha are underscored beneath:
First and far most, Peace has not been the ultimate goal of the Doha process; it was rather intended to broker a deal between the Taliban and the United States and later negotiate a settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan Administration. The first attempt to negotiate an agreement between the United States and Taliban has successfully facilitated an end to the U.S. and NATO decades-long combat mission in Afghanistan, which was concluded very recently on August 31, 2021. But, unfortunately, the second phase of the process, which had to enable a settlement between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, did not yield the desired outcome. The latter attempt failed with the debacle of the Afghan state.
After agreeing with the United States, the Taliban saw its victory immediate. They seemed less interested in negotiating a deal with the Kabul administration, which has been on the verge of crumbling. The agenda for discussion from both sides have been overburdened with so many conflicting items that it would require years of efforts to build the necessary trust among the too many stakeholders, let alone discussing a lasting peace. In Doha, talks evolved around, apart from observing the implementation of the Doha agreement between Taliban and the U.S., reduction in violence, a continuation of negotiation, and the future format for the Afghan government. It never went deep down to address the root causes of the ongoing conflict and discusses the way forward for a progressive Afghanistan in peace with itself and its neighbors. The best term that could possibly describe the talks in Doha could be a political deal, not Peace Talks.
Second, the talks have remained highly confined to the closed doors in Doha, that getting access to information for some of the most relevant people became difficult. Third, the disconnect between those negotiating a deal in Doha with those enabling such deal by reducing violence (i.e., Afghan leaders and Taliban military commanders) would create a confusing situation for brokers who had to travel back and forth between various capitals to ensure the sustainability of the negotiations and tangible outcome of the talks. Nevertheless, whatever the mode of negotiation had been in Doha, violence kept its upward trajectory, and both sides’ losses were the highest comparatively.
A genuine peace talk would allow an inclusive and transparent mechanism to address the fundamental issues that have been instrumental in creating a conflict and develop necessary measures to avoid any future clash. But, unfortunately, the Doha deal neither reconciled old enemies nor remained a platform to minimize future armed confrontations. Contrary, Doha will be remembered in history as a venue that facilitated outreach to and hosted the leadership of the Taliban, who overthrew an internationally recognized state and grabbed power by force.
Third, a combination of internal and external factors reduced the Afghan government’s role in making significant concessions to the Taliban and losing its national and international credibility. The process, which had to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led, turned to be neither Afghan-owned nor Afghan-led, mainly due to incompetency within the Afghan administration and lack of cohesion among elites in Kabul. Even the team assigned to represent the Afghan government and people in negotiations remained divided and fragmented over some of the critical issues they had to pursue, such as women’s role and the composition of a future administration.
Fourth, the Doha Agreement between the Taliban and the United States had to follow and should have been made conditional to an agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. After securing a deal with the United States, the Taliban did not see any merit in negotiating a settlement with the already diminishing state in Kabul, which was heavily dependent on foreign aid and support. The settlement between Kabul and the Taliban would anyway not last for too long given the conflicting views and a long history of hostilities; or would require a heavy foreign hand to sustain it, but at least it could provide the opportunity to observe the practical aspects of a deal. The abrupt collapse of the military institutions and Afghan state took many by surprise and left no choice for the international community to deal with the vacuum created by the disintegration of the Afghan institutions.
Last but not least, and complementing the past atrocities, the Doha Deal represents a different version of the regional rivalries, aiming to pursue strategic and security objectives in Afghanistan through proxy forces. The void created in the aftermath of U.S. and allied forces’ withdrawal has immediately turned into a new dilemma for many of Afghanistan’s neighbors who, as free-riders, were better off with the burden of the war against terrorist outfits being shared by Afghan and foreign troops rather than considering it a shared responsibility. Terrorism and violent extremism were perceived to be a threat to the stability of each country but also to the future development of the entire region. However, none of the countries in the region volunteered to support and strengthen the efforts to eradicate the menaces of this phenomenon. In the worst scenarios, some of the countries in the region even tried to sabotage international efforts by hosting and supporting those militant groups and their cause without calculating the cost of such a misadventure.
In the context of a new geopolitical landscape where China is aggressively pursuing its Belt and Road initiative throughout the region, Russia comfortably observes the situation from across the Ammu Darya (River) and strengthening its footprint in Central Asia, Pakistan too reluctant to cooperate and remained a safe sanctuary for Taliban operatives, Iran has got bigger ambitions by destabilizing the entire Middle East, Saudi Arabia not committing anything due to Iran-created problems around it, India has got its strategic objectives to pursue in rivaling Pakistan, and the Central Asian republics unable or unwilling to engage in Afghan matters due to the reservation from Russia. Even if peace talks would have succeeded, regional rivalry through proxy forces has been inevitable due to Afghanistan’s complex environment and the void created by the NATO departure. Moreover, now that the Taliban has declined to form an inclusive government and reverted to strict Sharia rule, the recipe for another protracted internal conflict is around the horizon, and the theater is back in play. Under such circumstances, peace remains wishful thinking. The Taliban is no more than a proxy group that is determined to play foul once again.
To conclude, it is neither the first nor the last time that the international community has failed to find a durable solution for the conflict in Afghanistan. The failure is not due to the lack of sincerity in the efforts led by the United States and other members of NATO. Still, it is primarily due to two obvious reasons: one, the complex environment around Afghanistan, which is hostile by the many different players who pursue conflicting interests through hostile groups in their neighborhood. The situation in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, South East Asia region is created mainly by ruthless neighbor(s) who promote their political, economic, and security interests in destabilizing their nearby territories.
Two, the recent effort for peace failed because of the wrong approach and mismatch between the concept and critical components for sustainable peace. The environment within Afghanistan results from decades-old conflicts, exacerbated by interventions through proxy forces from its neighbors and socio-economic factors. Any peace would require an in-depth study of the various factors contributing to the instability and protracted conflicts. The pathway towards (long-lasting) peace would require a desire and political will from the International community, regional stakeholders, and the various groups in the country. In the case of Afghanistan, none has been achieved, and therefore the outcome turns into a painful experience for millions of people who have to suffer and for generations to pay the price.
Zahidullah Jalali is a former Diplomat and Foreign Service Officer of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan who has served in Bishkek, Kyiv, and Islamabad and held some of the key assignments at the Ministry. He was lately responsible for Coordinating matters on peace affairs at the Deputy Foreign Minister’s office in Kabul. Views are his own.