Written by Amina Khan­­.

Although the last seventeen years have failed to deliver a negotiated settlement between Kabul and the Taliban, the year 2018  and onwards has proved to be the most promising yet, as significant progress has been made regarding the peace process in Afghanistan. Even though a negotiated settlement with the Taliban remains elusive, several previously unprecedented developments have taken place that warrant recognition. This can be narrowed down to three aspects: a growing change within the Taliban, recognition for a peaceful settlement, and the assertion of regional actors.

Growing change within the Taliban

The overall outlook and conduct of the Taliban has gradually undergone a major shift. While still relying heavily on warfare, the group has altered its strategy by moving away from practices that alienated it from the Afghan community at large. The Afghan Taliban of today openly denounces and ask its fighters to avoid killing innocent people, including women, children and the elderly.

The group is making a conscious effort to  evolve and transform itself and its tarnished image into a social and political group compatible with and capable of becoming part of the future political set-up in Afghanistan. This is becoming evident in a number of ways, such as the group’s tilt towards a negotiated  and peaceful settlement for Afghanistan and  its demand to engage directly with the US. There have been several rounds of direct talks with the US in Doha and the UAE.

The Taliban have demonstrated a significant change in their desire to engage with other major actors to find a solution for peace

Another sign has been the Taliban’s acceptance of a three-day ceasefire where they interacted with ordinary Afghans, including women. Also their active and public participation in the Moscow format  as well as recent intra-Afghan talks in Moscow, which are unprecedented and unparalleled.  Contrary to the Taliban’s brutal attitude towards women in the 1990s, which was shrouded in ignorance and obscurantism, the group now openly supports women’s right to education, the right to work in male-dominated professions, and the right of women to choose their spouse.

In a break with the past, the Taliban no longer  envisage  a monopoly of power and nor do they  want a complete ‘military’ victory. Rather, they aspire to reach a solution through peaceful means and dialogue, with the aim that once the foreign forces withdraw, there should be no further intra-Afghan conflict and instead longer-term peace. This indicates that they may be open to a power-sharing set-up in the future.

While the Taliban continue to emphasise the need for US forces to withdraw, at the same time they have stated that they seek friendly ties with the US and would want the US to come back and help build the country through reconstruction and development. This is a clear departure from their previous stance.

Similarly,  the demand  for  a  constitution based solely on Islamic principles has been modified, as the Taliban now talk about a constitution  prepared by Afghan scholars and intellectuals in an atmosphere of freedom based on ‘principles of Islamic religion, national interests, historical achievements and social justice [and] Afghan nationalism’, being ‘committed to human dignity, national values and human rights’, and which could guarantee the territorial integrity of the country and the rights of all citizens. Considering that in the past the Taliban would never talk about concepts such as human rights, Afghan nationalism or the rights of all citizens including women, this is certainly indicative of a growing change within the group.

The Taliban have demonstrated a significant change in their desire to engage with other major actors to find a solution for peace. To this end,  the group has started focusing on foreign relations and diplomacy in an attempt to cast itself in a more favourable light. At the same time it is mustering support for its cause by holding meetings with a host of countries, including countries it previously opposed such as Iran and Russia.

It is understandable that such recent moves and pledges by the Taliban come with a fair amount of suspicion, considering their previous practices and rigid stance. Nonetheless, the fact that the Taliban are  openly and publicly  addressing such issues by engaging with the international community and calling for a peaceful settlement  to end the Afghan war is certainly a positive development. It indicates a growing change within the group and warrants some recognition.

Recognition for a peaceful settlement

Unfortunately, it has taken more than seventeen years of violence, bloodshed and hundreds of thousands of deaths for the international community, and in particular the US, to realise what Pakistan has been saying all along: that there can be no peace in Afghanistan until a sincere and legitimate political effort of reconciliation is initiated with the Taliban. Although this realisation has clearly come at a very heavy cost,  the decision by the US to engage with the Taliban is a much-needed step in the right direction and highly welcomed.

However, now that a process of dialogue has been initiated, it is imperative that all the stakeholders continue with the positive momentum and continue to talk, as this is the only solution to ending the turmoil in Afghanistan. At the same time, it is essential that the US works towards a durable peace settlement that addresses the concerns of all stakeholders, rather than settling for a hasty peace settlement and troop withdrawal which is prone to collapse. Hence all efforts must be focused on a credible and sustained ceasefire leading to intra-Afghan talks, primarily between Kabul and the Taliban, followed by a responsible and measured withdrawal of foreign forces.

The assertion of regional actors

There is a growing realisation amongst Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours (Pakistan, Iran, Russia,  China and the Central Asian republics) that the region can no longer depend on the international community. It is time for them to take ownership of the region and fend for themselves by overcoming their differences, building positive relations, and developing a common vision for the region – especially for Afghanistan.

For the first time these regional players at last appear to  be on the same page with a common (regional) vision for the future of Afghanistan. This entails a more prominent regional role, recognition of the Afghan Taliban as an essential component of the peace process, fighting Islamic State (IS), and bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.

While Pakistan, China and the Central Asian states have been playing an instrumental role in the Afghan peace process for a while now through several track two initiatives, Moscow has also started to be actively involved.  This could be seen in the Moscow talks in November 2018 as well as the intra-Afghan talks held in Moscow in February 2019.  

This clearly shows that, unlike the past, regional actors are now willing to take centre stage to bring peace to Afghanistan. At the same time, regional initiatives are delivering results, such as the  Moscow intra-Afghan talks which brought the Taliban and leading Afghan political figures to the same table to negotiate about the future of Afghanistan.

Amina Khan­­ is a Senior Research Fellow (Afghanistan and FATA) at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), Pakistan. 

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.

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