Is the peace process in Afghanistan already in serious trouble? Talks continue in Doha between the US and the Taliban – which is good. The Loya Jirga – dedicated to peace and reconciliation - has concluded, but with a number of prominent politicians abstaining. In Moscow a significant group of prominent Afghan politicians met in February to start a dialogue with the Taliban negotiating team. But efforts to continue this dialogue failed, with Kabul presenting an unmanageable list of 250 representatives. Who was responsible for the failure is not for me to judge.
However, the fact is that real negotiations – Afghan-owned and Afghan-led – have not started, nine months after the US initiated talks with the Taliban about withdrawal of US forces. The reason is not simply that the Taliban refuses to recognize the current leadership in Kabul as a legitimate government. To expect that Taliban leaders would suddenly recognize a government they have fought for more than 18 years seems unrealistic.
The current stalemate is also caused by the inability of the Afghan political establishment to appoint a real negotiating team able to negotiate on behalf of the wider Afghan society. Presenting a list of 250 individuals to meet with the Taliban in Doha illustrates the problem. The fact that presidential elections are approaching makes the challenge even more demanding. The peace process is – sadly – becoming a victim of the upcoming elections. If the two cannot be separated in the minds of prominent politicians, the peace process between Afghans could well fail before it has really started.
So what is the solution? I believe that two obstacles are of critical importance – and have to be overcome.
First of all, the Afghan government should no longer insist on sending “government representatives” to talks in Doha. President Ghani could well assign a number of people he trusts to conduct talks with the Taliban, but as part of a team of individuals representing the Afghan society at large.
Second, other stakeholders will have to accept that real negotiations will be impossible if they all insist on being represented. Large gatherings – such as the one that took place in Moscow – could be useful if the purpose is only to conduct an initial dialogue. However, real negotiations will obviously require a much smaller format.
Consequently, pragmatism and discipline will be necessary in order to start real preparatory talks. Without such pragmatism and discipline there will not be any real peace process. The worst-case scenario is that the international community would be more than fed up and start disengaging.
In my opinion, stakeholders in Kabul should make their best efforts to agree on a small team of individuals – probably 10-15 - to represent the Afghan society. I underscore the term “individuals”, since they should not be seen as representing any particular sponsor or part of that society, but the Afghan society at large. For instance, the team would have to include a meaningful number of women, who would ideally be appointed by their own organizations.
The Taliban cannot refuse to meet such a team – as long as the team members do not represent the government or any other particular stakeholder. Of course, each member of the team would report back to appropriate institutions and organizations. However, to whom they would report would also not be up to the Taliban. Hopefully, this pragmatic approach would enable preparatory talks to get underway.
I agree that inclusiveness would have to be ensured. That could be obtained if appropriate mechanisms of reporting and coordination are established.
Furthermore, it is my conviction that an international convener would be useful and should be appointed – preferably by the UN Security Council. The US negotiator, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, cannot play this role. He represents a party to the conflict and is not a neutral participant. The role of the convener would be to facilitate each meeting, assist in establishing the agenda and sum up conclusions and decisions. Furthermore, during such processes events will inevitably occur that could lead to breakdown of talks. The facilitator would play a role in helping to overcome such obstacles.
Of course, any such convener would have to be trusted and accepted by all parties. And – equally important – he or she would have to be familiar with the parties and the issues at hand. The time available is too short to introduce newcomers – or to allow the UN to appoint a personality because of a particular nationality or organizational belonging. This is not a time for experiments.
In my opinion, the most critical challenge is not related to protocol and formalities, nor to finding the right convener. The real challenge lies within the Afghan society. Is it possible to agree on a team small enough to conduct meaningful negotiations? At the moment I am not optimistic. But there is no other way - provided all stakeholders want to end the war and give Afghanistan a new life on peace and prosperity.
Kai Eide is former UN Special Representative in Afghanistan.