The Taliban will not be defeated militarily. This is an unfortunate reality, but a reality it is. It does not mean that Afghanistan is 'lost'. It means that 'winning the war' can no longer be the guiding principle for policymakers. The collective commitment must now be 'winning the peace'.
Thankfully, most people finally recognise that there is no war to win - only one to lose. The eventual solution is now seen as a negotiated settlement, i.e. a peace process involving political engagement with the Taliban. Yes, a bitter pill to swallow but an important departure point on the path to peace.
So what next?
The prevailing assumption is that the next step is getting face-to-face negotiations underway. The attempts of the 2015 Murree peace talks and the 2016 'Quadrilateral' format both failed but they were a step in the right direction because the logical extension of 'no military solution' is to get each side around a table and they'll thrash out some sort of deal, right?
A singular focus on 'the table' is a recipe for failure. Afghanistan is not ready for formal negotiations. Urgency is understandable but we are trying to jump straight from the 'no military solution' departure point directly to the final task of formal negotiations. We forget the critical interim steps. We forget that successful peace processes involve far more than negotiations. Peace, after all, is a process and not an event.
Look at Northern Ireland, Colombia, Indonesia or elsewhere. Formal negotiations were built on long, intense sequences of internal consensus-building, indirect communication, informal dialogue, talks-about-talks, ceasefires and confidence-building measures. Before parties negotiated peace, they built trust between negotiators. They negotiated frameworks and strategies for offsetting spoilers. They agreed seating, documentation, media engagement and many other pre-negotiation issues. Years of intensive preparation created environments where negotiations could a) happen and b) be successful.
Afghan peace efforts have lacked these foundational steps. We have been trying to press towards the endgame via a series of sensational 'table meetings' instead of establishing a structured process. This needs to change. Going forward, some 'process-builders' could be:
- Degrade the 'Surrender-Narrative': 'Peace' is currently synonymous to 'surrender'. It must be reframed as a process of change or enhancement for all - not a return to pre-war life.
- Increase Understanding of the Opposing Narrative: Since 2001 the Taliban have been demonised to the point where engagement is seen as betrayal. While understandable, this must change. The problem is not talking to armed opponents but giving in to them. Understanding their demands is not forgiving or forgetting the past but being pragmatic about the future.
- Acknowledge the Taliban's Political Legitimacy: A peace process requires creating a framework not to stop differences but to address them peacefully. The Taliban will have to be accepted as a legitimate political actor. This does not mean trusting them or committing to their worldview but accepting that they are entitled to have a worldview. If their narrative is dismissed, the signal will be that they will also be dismissed from other parts of a peaceful society - hardly a scenario that encourages them to rescind violence.
- Build domestic consensus: No actor can currently articulate what 'peace' actually entails. Unless the absence of a shared Afghan vision is rectified, peace will be elusive. Negotiators need to know what they are negotiating for.
- Formalise the Use of Intermediaries: The tribal/political landscape of Afghanistan provides considerable scope for using intermediaries. Many volunteers have and will continue to try and play that role. Yet to date they have neither been credible to both sides nor able to work in ways that appeal to the interests of both.
- Signal Intent with Indirect/Informal Dialogue: A cavernous trust-deficit exists in Afghanistan. The Taliban see the government's peace strategy merely as an extension of the war strategy, i.e. an effort to achieve military victory or surrender. This has to be overcome to have serious negotiations. Signals of peaceful intent via statements, position papers or press articles can reduce suspicion. Informal dialogue helps and already happens but it should be built into familiarisation, trust-building and eventually 'talks about talks'.
- Confidence-Building Measures: CBMs demonstrate that engagement and compromise is worthwhile. An option for Afghanistan is localised ceasefires. They can demonstrate that opponents are talking and that they can make agreements. Reductions in violence would inflate civilian belief that peace is possible. This can encourage reciprocal goodwill gestures from opponents and force politicians to commit to peace.
- Incentivise Engagement: Despite widespread calls for the Taliban to come to the table, the incentive remains unclear, especially with their increased battlefield gains. Nobody is currently able to put a proposal on the table, let alone one so attractive that they cannot afford to walk away. We need a better idea of what they actually want, beyond broad concepts. Otherwise it will remain difficult to convince them that their goals can be achieved at the table in a less costly manner than on the battlefield.
- Increase Robustness: Hyper-competitive Afghan politics means that peace efforts are easily derailed. Few, if any, Afghan leaders have the political space to stay-the-course in the face of extremists, atrocities and spoilers. Peace needs to be ingrained as the eventual - and only - way forward. It must monopolise the public mind-set so when negotiations begin, a step towards the enemy is a response to public demand and not desperation or surrender.
While not exhaustive, this list highlights ways that Afghanistan can start building a process. A focus on getting to the table is needed but peace is more than a singular event or a series of meetings. So while 'step 1' was recognition of no military solution and 'step 2' was recognising the need for political engagement with the Taliban, however well-intentioned or seemingly logical, 'step 3' is not direct negotiations.
The next step may actually be another recognition: that if we are serious about peace we cannot continue expecting a successful outcome without a successful process.