The Taliban’s decision to observe a partial ceasefire for only three days of Eid al-Fitr, which was at first proposed by President Ashraf Ghani as a unilateral and unconditional offer from the 27th day of Ramadan to the fifth day of Eid, has created excitement in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
However, the future stability of the country is not only a matter of a political agreement between the Taliban and the government in Kabul but also on the ability of the Afghan political leadership to forge internal political consensus, create a viable economic vision, and manage conflicting interests of major regional stakeholders through a comprehensive and transparent inter-Afghan dialogue.
In fact, the only period of political stability in the 270-year history of the country, which led to the formation of a strong centralized government and modern state institutions, was the placid rule of the late King Mohammed Zahir Shah from 1933 to 1973. For most Afghans it was a glorious time of peace, followed by a brief system of constitutional monarchy from 1963 to 1973. Therefore, for many of us Afghans the reference to an enduring peace is indeed the Afghanistan of the 1960s and 1970s when the country was on the right path toward economic and social development.
Asia’s economic gains skirted Afghanistan
Nevertheless, the communist coup in April 1978 provoked unprecedented social and political upheaval, which caused fundamental political and social rifts in the country. In addition, Afghanistan has been left behind by the wave of economic development that has spread throughout Asia since the 1980s and has also failed to benefit from globalization during the past two decades.
Meanwhile, the hope for a lasting peace and rapid economic development after the US military intervention in 2001 was short-lived. By 2006 the Taliban had re-emerged as a ragtag force in remote villages bordering Pakistan but soon were able to undermine the international efforts to rebuild the Afghan state. Now, they have again become an alternative governing force.
In fact, after the start of the civil war in 1992, many Afghans considered the emergence of the Taliban in lawless Kandahar in 1994 as a good omen and thus received them with open arms as saviors. Even the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, then Afghanistan’s defense minister, provided them with military assistance. In addition, in 1996 when their forces reached the outskirts of Kabul, he met with Mullah Omar’s deputy in the hope of reaching a compromise in view of an ultimate political solution.
Taliban savagery led to diplomatic isolation
However, the Taliban deceived Afghans by refusing to accept a political solution after they took over Kabul in September 1996. To the contrary, they adopted harsh measures against the civilian population, and they murdered former president Mohammad Najibullah, who lived under United Nations protection in Kabul. Subsequently, they lost their initial popularity, and most importantly the international community refused to recognize their government except for three countries: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Today’s situation in Afghanistan and in the region has drastically evolved since the 1990s, and the Taliban movement’s archaic message does not resonate with Afghanistan’s young and growing urban population. In addition, rising political awareness in the context of the last 17 years of a democratic political process, and particularly free media, has given voice to all Afghans, and a modern constitution guarantees the political rights of all minority ethnic groups.
Meanwhile, despite the insurgents’ inroads and territorial gains vis-à-vis the Afghan government in the past four years, they have not been able to address fundamental questions about their intent and end goal as an alternative governing force. In addition, they have remained mute about their participation in the current political process or their willingness to accept a power-sharing mechanism with other relevant political forces in the country.
In addition, regional dynamism in the context of geopolitical competition, between the United States and rival powers such as China and Russia on the one hand, and the Saudi-led Sunni coalition against Iran on the other hand, has gained a new momentum. Therefore, the likelihood of Afghanistan becoming once again the ground for a new regional proxy war is as high as it was in the 1990s.
Kabul still depends on US financial support
Also, Afghanistan has become financially dependent on the international community, and no other country or coalition of countries is capable of matching the level of the United States’ financial contribution to keep the government in Kabul alive. During the 1990s, and particularly during the Taliban reign in Kabul, the bulk of Afghans were dependent on humanitarian assistance for their survival, and economic activities in major cities were reduced to the level of subsistence.
Actually, the key to solving the puzzle of Afghanistan does only lie in a political agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. That is indeed necessary but in order to make it sufficient, all the looming economic, social, and political challenges must be addressed in a comprehensive and inclusive dialogue. In addition, regional stakeholders must agree to refrain from spoiling the situation in the country and seek their legitimate interests through concerted negotiations.
Meanwhile, there is well-founded skepticism among Afghans about a durable peace in the country because they remember the fact that the United States abandoned Afghanistan to the mercy of regional powers after it achieved its goal of defeating the Soviet Union in 1989. In addition, they fear that President Donald Trump’s administration in its quest to increase pressure on Iran might make considerable concessions to Saudi Arabia’s anti-Shiite agenda in Afghanistan, which could provoke a hostile reaction by Iran and its regional allies in the country.
Therefore, the onus is on the United States, which has sufficient influence and leverage in Afghanistan and in the region, to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a new theater of sectarian violence and ensure that the current peace initiative is a transparent and inclusive process rather than another short-lived political deal.