A veteran of Afghanistan’s diplomatic scene on what the United States—and Afghans themselves—should watch for in the ongoing negotiations between the government and the Taliban.
Ershad Ahmadi was deputy foreign minister for political affairs in Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014 and is the president of Kabul Compass, a strategic analysis firm.
President Joe Biden announced in April that the United States would withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by September. The decision prompted a debate among Americans between those who want to remain committed and those arguing that it’s time to recognize the limits of U.S. influence in Afghanistan. But in Afghanistan itself, the biggest uncertainty is about who will fill the security vacuum left by U.S. troops. Will the Taliban take over, despite espousing a dogmatic vision that most Afghans reject? Will regional power players jockeying for influence fill the void, or will Afghanistan finally gain genuine sovereignty over its own territory?
To ensure the answer is the latter, all key Afghan players, including the Taliban, need to be committed to a peaceful settlement.
For the past nine months, the Afghan Republic and the Taliban have engaged in on-and-off talks to negotiate a political settlement that would bring about a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and set out the principles for a future Afghan state. The Taliban agreed to participate in these talks under a prior deal with the Trump administration, in which the Americans agreed to withdraw troops by May 1, 2021. But after Biden postponed U.S. withdrawal by four months, the Taliban refused to participate in the much-anticipated April peace conference in Istanbul co-hosted by Turkey, the United Nations and Qatar. The conference was delayed, but it is widely expected that talks will resume within the next couple of months. Meanwhile, Biden’s decision is placing pressure on both sides to develop more coherent positions and clarify exactly what they want.
The question for the Afghan people is no longer about the future of U.S. military involvement. Rather, it’s about what Afghans need to do, with the help of their partners, to ensure the country contributes to the region’s overall stability and economic potential, and is at peace with itself and its neighbors.
I was born in Kabul during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and I have yet to enjoy a period of life without conflict. I have dodged bombs and rockets in makeshift underground ditches, watched my home being looted by rival mujaheddin factions, and even gotten into trouble with Taliban authorities for a faux-hawk hairstyle inspired by Leo DiCaprio in Titanic. After the Taliban fell in 2001, I worked with the United Nations before joining the Afghan government in 2006. I eventually became deputy foreign minister, serving until 2014. Since then, I have been involved in several intra-Afghan dialogues, including talks with the Taliban.
My experiences have led me to make a number of conclusions about how to achieve lasting peace and security in Afghanistan. As the intra-Afghan talks resume, Afghans and their international partners should keep in mind the following factors: financial stability, distribution of power, nonalignment, and inclusivity. To bring about a settlement along these lines, the United States and its allies, Pakistan and other regional players, and, most importantly, Afghans themselves, all have a role to play. It is critical that the United States understand these dynamics in order to give this round of talks the best chance of setting Afghanistan up for peace and stability on its own terms.
The first consideration must be putting Afghanistan on sound financial footing. There can be no genuine sovereign independence for a country that is unable to raise sufficient domestic revenue to sustain its own public administration and security forces. Afghanistan’s long-term financial security should be considered just as important as elections and constitutional reform.
To be clear, international assistance will remain part of the picture for the foreseeable future. Still, as part of an eventual settlement, Afghan leaders should secure agreements on ways to build the country’s revenue base. This will include liberating all Afghans—men and women—to work, engage in business, and otherwise contribute to the economy.
Second, any settlement should reflect the reality that Afghanistan is a pluralistic society. This pluralism is manifested in the basic geography of the nation, which boasts snow-capped mountains as well as extensive plains; resource-rich regions alongside much poorer ones; dense urban areas and sparsely populated rural regions. There is also ethno-cultural diversity, and of course each province has its own aspirations and development priorities.
It has become fashionable over the decades to believe that only a centralized state can contain this pluralism. The impulse to over-centralize state power leads Kabul to attempt to implement national policies that may work in one region but fail badly in another. For instance, the central government in June 2020 decided that each Afghan province would have one female deputy governor—a policy that was welcomed in civil society but ignored security threats and hostile working environments for women in certain provinces. Similarly, the government recently imposed a uniform testing requirement for district administrators, which advantaged younger graduates with links to the capital while pushing out community-based leaders with experience dealing with local, tribal and cultural dynamics. “Kabul-centric” policies often fail to appreciate these realities on the ground.
Too often, the capital plays a life-and-death role in Afghanistan’s politics. For politicians affiliated with various regions, security for their part of the country often requires exerting control in Kabul. Failure to be part of the winning political force can mean getting shut out from accessing state resources. The concentration of power and resources in Kabul also means an imbalance in economic opportunities: Young Afghans in particular are very aware that there are limited prospects in the peripheral regions, even as the population of Kabul has grown fivefold during the 20 years of U.S. military involvement.
Relatedly, the concentration of power in the hands of a single official, namely the president, has proven counterproductive. The recent case of President Ashraf Ghani’s unilateral dismissal of a provincial governor is a case in point: The designated replacement, Daud Laghmani, is an ally of the president unfamiliar with the province. Locals have objected so soundly to his appointment that he is unable to take up the job. Sadly, there are many such examples in Afghan history in which capricious decisions from Kabul have led to violent insurgencies from the rural areas.
Decades of failed attempts at overcentralized governance suggest it is time to seriously consider constitutionally structured decentralization. The provinces, where the country’s diversity is truly on display, need the capacity to innovate and manage their own affairs while remaining part of the constitutional structure of the unitary government.
Skeptics may object that decentralization would weaken the government, entrenching established political forces in the provinces while enabling neighbors to meddle in Afghanistan’s internal affairs through local proxies. But it’s worth noting that successive efforts to create a strong centralized state have also failed to curb the influence of regional and local power holders in the provinces.
A third element of a long-term peace agenda is for Afghanistan to stand as a non-aligned regional power. The country has over 2,000 years of experience dealing with competing powers in its backyard. One important lesson is that while Afghanistan must be an open and engaged partner to all neighbors, it cannot be aligned with one or another side, because firm alliances create insecurities among rival powers. Afghanistan’s neighbors will need to accept this non-aligned position, for example through the endorsement of a regional understanding on cooperation and non-interference in Afghanistan.
This should not be read as a naïve call for isolationism. Rather, such an understanding will enable trade, commerce, investment, transit and other important exchanges that will advance peace and prosperity in the region.
Fourth, political elites in Kabul need to overcome their differences. The current government suffers from a serious lack of inclusivity and has not shown an inclination to unite the country’s disparate political groups.
There do exist leaders capable of embracing opponents “across the aisle,” to borrow an American phrase. They can be found in Afghanistan’s High Council of Peace, in both Houses of Parliament, among senior political leaders, within civil society, and among a new generation of young leaders across the country. But Ghani’s style of governance, which seems more focused on appointing loyalists than genuine power-sharing with the opposition, has proved an obstacle to unity. This only helps the Taliban. Unity in Kabul may need to come despite, not because of, presidential leadership.
Fortunately, the reality that U.S. forces will soon be gone has sharpened the focus in Kabul on the need to form a more united and coherent view. After decades of division, Afghans need to fashion a consensus based on their core values—among them a love of freedom, independence, and justice, a culture of hospitality and egalitarianism, and a common aspiration to be part of a unified Afghanistan—that are shared across regional, ethnic, religious and political backgrounds.
How can such a settlement be achieved? It’s clear that the United States needs to stay involved. Many Afghans fear that Biden is looking to desert the country. Older Afghans also recall the last time the United States suddenly disengaged, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Biden should make clear that his administration remains fully committed to supporting a political settlement and that Afghans are not being abandoned.
After U.S. troops leave, the United States should use its considerable diplomatic heft to ensure that the parties continue to negotiate and that regional actors play a constructive role. This includes trying to push regional powers like Pakistan, who have influence with the Taliban, to do their part to ensure that Afghanistan is not again dominated by a regime that is permissive toward terrorist networks and deprives its citizens of basic rights.
Notably, America finds common interest in this area with China, Russia and Iran, none of whom wish to see the re-emergence of an Afghan Emirate. These powers should overcome their differences and pool collective diplomatic and other resources to ensure a peaceful settlement.
For its part, Pakistan needs to intensify its efforts to ensure that the Taliban are good-faith participants in the peace process. Islamabad’s historical role providing the Taliban insurgency with support and sanctuary is one of the major reasons the NATO coalition failed for years to stabilize Afghanistan and bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Afghans, who once felt goodwill toward their neighbor for hosting refugees after the Soviet war, now see Pakistan as the only country seeking to keep Afghanistan subservient and underdeveloped.
Still, they hold hope that Pakistan will realize that its interests are not served by enabling the Taliban. Pakistan has been making progress against its own extremist problem with the Pakistani Taliban. The resurgence of a militant Islamic emirate in Afghanistan would surely threaten that progress by emboldening Pakistan’s religious militants. Afghanistan’s other neighbors—Iran, Russia, China, India, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan—all oppose the resurrection of the Taliban Emirate, fearing more chaos and waves of refugees.
Finally, ultimate responsibility rests with Afghans. Ironically, the Taliban may be doing the Republic a favor by delaying the talks in Turkey, giving the government and its allies time to unite around a coherent strategy to deal with the Taliban.
For Afghans, now is a time of reckoning. Most are now willing to see the Taliban share a role in governing the nation, but do not wish to go back to the future in the form of another Emirate. How Kabul reacts and whether it is able to foster genuine unity will determine whether the Taliban opt for serious negotiations or choose to stall until the Afghan government gradually brings about its own demise.
For their part, the Taliban need to consider whether their dream of re-imposing their ideology upon a population that largely rejects it is worth more violence and conflict—especially since their primary objective of seeing foreign forces depart is finally being achieved. A transitional government that includes the Taliban and preserves the current institutions, including the existing framework of citizen rights, is the most realistic solution. This will give all Afghans the opportunity, time and space to negotiate a long-term vision for a common future.
In the critical months to come, Afghanistan’s many international friends and supporters can help. But final responsibility rests with us Afghans, as we alone will again suffer the consequences of poor choices. With sovereign independence comes sovereign responsibility and accountability. Now is the time for genuine national leaders to step forward.