One Side—Not Both—is Increasing Violence in Afghanistan

The US-Taliban agreement in February 2020 created hope for a reduction in violence in Afghanistan. However, since then, violence has instead intensified across the country. The American officials have said that the increase in the level of violence goes against the spirit of the US-Taliban agreement. The agreement does not ask the Taliban to reduce violence but US officials maintain that the Taliban made a verbal commitment to do so. The agreement also calls for the Taliban to halt all attacks against “US and allies,” which should include Afghanistan. Meanwhile, a false narrative is gaining traction that “both sides are increasing violence to gain leverage in the negotiations.” But is this narrative really true? Is the Afghan government increasing violence and does it have the capacity to do so?

First, since February 2018, the Afghan government has offered to negotiate a ceasefire and to recognize the Taliban as a political party. The terms of the offer even said the Taliban could open a political office in Kabul. Since June of 2019, there have been three Eid ceasefires, the first of which was a unilateral eight-day ceasefire initiated by the Afghan government. The second and third Eid ceasefires were announced by the Taliban in May and July 2020. Each time, the Afghan government said it was willing to extend the ceasefire, but the Taliban refused. During the US-Taliban talks, Afghanistan advocated for a ceasefire which to its credit the US tried but was unable to convince the Taliban. Now, with the intra-Afghan talks underway in Doha, the Kabul delegation’s priority is still to secure a ceasefire.

Second, for several reasons, such as pressure by the international community for peace and a great number of Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) casualties, Afghanistan is not in a position to increase violence. Afghanistan Analyst Network (ANN) notes that since February, the ANDSF has maintained an “active defensive posture.” In March and April, the Taliban launched an average of 55 attacks across 34 provinces per day. In October, in 24 hours, the Taliban launched attacks in 24 provinces against the ANDSF. An attempt to capture Lashkargah, Helmand’s capital, left some 30,000 internally displaced people. Kate Clark of the AAN concludes that Taliban suicide attacks and the US aerial bombings have dropped, but “neither the US-Taliban agreement nor the start of intra-Afghan talks has brought about a reduction in Taliban attacks, only US and ANDSF attacks.” This corresponds with the Afghanistan Study Group’s conclusion that “the Taliban has instigated most of the recent violence.”

Third, the Taliban remains responsible for more deaths of Afghan civilians. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), in the first nine months of 2020, at least 1,021 civilians died and 1,622 were injured. The report attributed 45% of the casualties to the Taliban; 23% to ANDSF; 14% to cross-fighting; 2% to the international forces; 7% to the Islamic State; 7% to other anti-government elements; and 2% to pro-government elements. Meanwhile, assassinations and magnetic bomb attacks across the country are increasing. One bomb attack in Kabul killed former TOLOnews TV presenter Mr. Yama Siawash and two of his colleagues. Another attack in Helmand killed prominent journalist Mr. Elyas Dayee. In Bamyan, one of the safest provinces in Afghanistan, two bomb blasts killed 17 and injured 50. The Taliban has taken responsibility for some of these attacks but not all.

Fourth, the government may not have the capacity to increase violence. Despite the ANDSF carrying out 90% of the operations, when pressed by the Taliban, the international forces had to intervene with air support. The government is also allegedly arming localmilitias in an attempt to prepare for the worst. Insecurity in the north has pushed actors like Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum and former governor Atta Mohammad Noor to go to their constituencies. Both have said that while they prefer peace, they are also ready to cooperate with the government in fighting the Taliban. Yunus Qanooni, another northern player, has said that the government should use the “reserve forces” of the former resistance front. At this stage, these schemes seem to be preparing for the worst-case scenario, that is if the Taliban tries to win by force. 

Fifth, the high level of violence has negatively impacted people’s perspective about the government while it kept the momentum alive for the Taliban. The government’s approval rating is plummeting due to corruption and bad governance already and violence adds another layer of mistrust. Many Afghans are angry at the government for its failure to protect citizens, particularly against numerous “sticky bombs” and mortar attacks on major cities in broad daylight. These scenes that resemble the 1990s when the mujahedeen groups were closing in on Kabul to overthrow the then “Kabul administration” bring bad memories to many Afghans. By increasing violence, the Taliban has little to lose. The bloodshed remains the glue that keeps the group’s hardliners united until their goal can be achieved.

Therefore, putting the Afghan government on an equal footing with the Taliban when it comes to increasing violence is debatable. The argument of “both sides” overshadows the reality that the Taliban overwhelmingly is responsible for perpetuating violence across the country as their main leverage. At best, the Afghan government has been in a defensive mode while the Taliban actively on offense by consistent attacks on Afghanistan security and civilian targets to push for concessions in the talks. Also, the Taliban has repeatedly rejected calls for a ceasefire. Unless the Afghan government goes full-scale offensive during the negotiations—which is unlikely–the theory of “both sides are increasing violence to gain leverage at the negotiation table” remains invalid.

This article was originally published in the Tolonews.

Growing Sectarianism Can Challenge Lasting Peace in Afghanistan

By Said Sabir Ibrahimi

October 15, 2020

As the peace talks continue between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, the Taliban have resorted to sectarian positioning that has the potential to derail lasting peace in the country. Last February, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal, two main elements of which are the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the beginning of the intra-Afghan peace talks, which finally started a month ago. 

The process is slow and the Afghans and the international community are anxious for results. The two sides have been discussing a “code of conduct,” or guidelines on how the “real” negotiations should proceed. One of the hurdles is the Taliban’s insistence on using the Sunni Hanafi fiqh (jurisprudence) as “a guide to all aspects of the terms and conditions.” Taliban’s insistence on the supremacy of Sunni Hanafism has alarmed Afghan Shias, who have long been marginalized.

After the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001, the Shias of Afghanistan (mostly ethnic Hazaras) not only gained constitutional rights but also assumed public offices and took up government positions. Shias participated in politics, making their way to the Afghan parliament and several government institutions, including the office of the second vice president under President Hamid Karzai and President Ashraf Ghani. The Shia Personal Status Law became part of the Afghan legal system, allowing Shias to have the freedom to be judged by their own laws – Jafari fiqh. In other words, Afghanistan has worked to achieve legal Shia-Sunni parity, which is now at risk because of sectarian posturing by the Taliban and other groups.

Shias and Sunnis share a common belief in the oneness of god, the holiness of the Quran, and the finality of the prophethood. What set the two apart over a millennia ago was a divergence in their beliefs regarding in the rightful leadership of the “umma” or Muslim community after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad. Afghanistan’s population of 35 million includes an estimated 15 percent Shias.

Sectarianism has not always been a major social problem in the country in comparison to other Muslim majority countries such as Pakistan. Second Vice President Sarwar Danish, also a Shia leader, said “Shias do not have problems with the Imam Abu Hanifa.” He said that Imam Hanifa established a rationalist and justice-centered school of thought and said “that anyone who prays to Kaaba (in Mecca) is a Muslim.” 

Nevertheless, throughout the history of contemporary Afghanistan, Shias remained marginalized by the state. The first episode of Afghan state anti-Shia policy was executed by King Abdur Rahman Khan, known as the Iron Amir, to subjugate them to his rule. In 1892, Khan had his Ulema Council issue a fatwa denouncing Shias, particularly ethnic Hazaras, as infidels and imposed Hanafi jurisprudence on the Shia population. This led to the large-scale massacre and enslavement of ethnic Hazaras.  

The second major wave of state-sponsored anti-Shi’ism came from the Taliban during their rule in the 1990s. The group banned the public proceedings of Shia rituals during the month of Muharram. While Shias were allowed to practice their faith in their mosques and in private, they lived in fear. The Taliban massacred hundreds of Shia civilians in Daikundi, Bamyan, and Mazar-e-Sharif  – in retaliation for armed Shias’ resistance to the Taliban rule. In 1998, the Taliban governor, Mullah Niazi, in Balkh denounced the sect and asked the Shia population to convert to Sunni Islam or leave Afghanistan.  ADVERTISEMENT

As the peace talks are underway, the Taliban’s spokesperson has said that two sectarian schools of thought cannot be implemented in one country. In April, Mullah Fazel Mazloom, a senior Taliban official in Quetta, Pakistan, categorized Shias with infidels. On another occasion, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, a Taliban splinter group commander in Herat, said that Shi’ism is fake. These assertions are alarming and resonate in the Taliban thinking. This is also an indication that extremists would resist coexistence with the Shias in Afghanistan. At the very least, these extremist views will keep the fire of sectarianism burning. At the worst, extremists could continue to resort to violence on their own or through new alliances with Pakistani anti-Shia groups or the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP).

More concerning, sectarian voices also come from other extremists who live under the umbrella of the Afghan government. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hizb-e-Islami, a former anti-U.S. and anti-Afghan government insurgent, also said that he agrees with the Taliban that Sunnis are the majority and thus Hanafi jurisprudence should be applied to bigger national issues. While Hekmatyar says that personal issues between Shias can be resolved through Jafari fiqhhis assertions point to the dissatisfaction of the Hanafi Islamists with the sectarian parity in the country. Both Hekmatyar and the Taliban have said that this issue will be discussed during the debates over amending Afghanistan’s constitution  – another uphill battle.

Taliban’s religious ideology stems from the Deobandi order of Sunni Islam in madrassas in Pakistan, including Darul Uloom Haqqania, where many of its leaders have studied. In the early 18th century, the Deobandi order was established in India as an anti-colonial institution. While the Deobandi order distinguished itself from anti-Shia Wahhabism, which originated in today’s Saudi Arabia, one of its leaders, Abdul Aziz Dehlawi wrote a prominent anti-Shia book in rejection of the sect. After India’s partition, the Deobandi branches in Pakistan moved toward Wahhabism, especially during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, when madrassas were subsidized by Saudi Arabia to produce dogmatic militants. The Darul Uloom itself became the university of jihad with links to several Sunni militant groups and some anti-Shia groups involved in sectarian violence in Pakistan. 

The Taliban through their deeds have shown that they see Shias as second-class citizens in Afghanistan. For practical reasons they have publicly distanced themselves from attacks on Shias and have established relations with Shia-majority Iran. In some instances, the Taliban even have reached out to the Shia communities. However, in areas under Taliban control, Shias have been harassed and attacked. The Taliban are also trying to capture Shia-dominated districts. This has prompted some Shias to pick up arms in provinces such as Sar-e PulDaikundi and in Ghor  – which could give birth to a new wave of warlords in the country. Meanwhile, ISKP has continuously targeted Shias since 2015. 

The cloud of sectarianism looms over Afghanistan at a time when the country is going through yet another pivotal historical moment with the peace talks underway in Doha. The Taliban have insisted on sectarianism, throwing a wrench into the process and simultaneously encouraging other extremist elements to show their dissatisfaction with the attempt at sectarian parity in the country. Sectarianism will challenge the prospects of lasting peace in Afghanistan and can prolong the war in another form. While the issue is now put aside, it will likely resurface again when there is a political settlement, and the constitution is up for an amendment.

The government of Afghanistan and the country’s civil society should stand firmly for the constitutional rights of all religious minorities as well as women, and the freedom of speech. There is also a need for a counternarrative to extremist sectarian views, with calls for tolerance and coexistence. Moderate Sunni and Shia leaders should speak out against sectarianism and launch an inter-sectarian dialogue to counter extremist views and protect the limited gains in Afghanistan.

This article was originally published in the the Diplomat.

Photo credit: Unsplash.

The Taliban Do Not Accept an Evolved Afghanistan as a Reality

After nearly two decades of war and military stalemate, the US negotiated an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw its troops in exchange for counterterrorism cooperation. However, the Taliban continue to fight and insist on establishing a rigid “Islamic order.” A Taliban commander, Mullah Fazel, recently told a gathering in Pakistan: “The amir or leader of [a future government] will be ours. There will be an Islamic Emirate, and there will be a system based on Shari’a.” This is when Afghanistan is already an Islamic Republic and society has evolved in many ways since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. Going back to the Taliban order is not an option for many and could further complicate peacemaking efforts in the country.

The post-2001 system with its shortcomings has many achievements including 9 million children enrolled in school, 35% of whom are girls; the freest media in the region with a dozen private TV and radio stations, newspapers and magazines; 20 million cellphone users; and a dozen private universities. Afghans also progressed in the areas of arts, culture, and sports from cricket to martial arts, which includes female participants. These numbers do not merely represent a temporary change but a profound shift in many Afghans’ thinking on sociopolitical matters. Under the Taliban regime, Afghans could not imagine a day when they would witness an elected president or a peaceful transfer of power. But both happened in 2014 when Hamid Karzai handed over the presidency to Ashraf Ghani. Today’s Afghanistan encourages accountability for elected officials, critical thinking, volunteerism, feminism, environmentalism—the unthinkable under the “Islamic emirate.”

Certainly, the post-Taliban regime is far from perfect. Afghanistan has held four presidential elections and three of them were marred with massive electoral irregularities. Afghanistan remains one of the top ten most corrupt countries in the world with a narco-economy that produces a large chunk of global demand for opium. The quality of education and healthcare need dire improvement. The country remains vulnerable to environmental challenges. The society remains ideologically conservative. Things can easily be interpreted as against Sharia. We remember the beating and burning of Farkhunda, a young woman falsely charged and killed by a mob for heresy on the streets of Kabul. Recently, Afghan author Zaman Ahmadi was released after spending 7.5 years in prison for an unpublished article deemed blasphemous.

However, many Afghans still prefer the post-2001 quasi-democratic system over the Taliban’s theocratic regime. The Asia Foundation survey also found that 65.1% of Afghans are “very or somewhat satisfied” with the way democracy works in the country; 86% of Afghans support women’s education, and 76% support women working outside the home. The return of a draconian regime will make Afghanistan a much more closed society. The threat is real and the Taliban are preparing for such a scenario. In a recent interview Taliban official, Hakim Akhunzada, said the Taliban did not see the environment as conducive for women to go to school beyond the age of puberty.

The Taliban have been seeking a puritanical “Islamic order” in an already Islamic nation where the constitution holds Islamic laws above any other law. From Mullah Omar in 2004 to Mullah Haibatullah in 2019, the group has rejected democracy and boycotted elections. The Taliban has killed and maimed voters and bombed voting sites. Now many in the group see the US-Taliban agreement as a victory and their trolls on social media threaten folks who disagree with them with their return to power. The narrative is that the Taliban is the best alternative. The rest of Afghanistan and the ideas of other Afghans do not matter and are seen as misguided and corrupt.

Additionally, what is casting more doubts on the peace process and the intentions of the Taliban is the level of violence amid a global pandemic – COVID19. Despite a brief reduction of violence (RiV) period in early March, the Taliban have launched hundreds of attacks on the Afghan security forces. In one instance, the Taliban killed 24 Afghan soldiers in their sleep in Zabul. The Afghan security forces, who had earlier paused offensives hoping to maintain the RiV, have now vowed to revenge. Furthermore, the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Khurasan launched several attacks, the latest of which was on a Shia Hazara gathering and a Sikh temple in Kabul, mercilessly killing dozens of men, women, and children. In another horrific incident, eight civilians, many of them children, died in Gereshk district of Helmand when a roadside bomb struck their car.

The Asia Foundation survey also found that 93.1% of Afghans fear to encounter the Taliban. For over two decades, Afghans have experienced the tyrannical reign of the Taliban in their midst. In the 1990s under the “Islamic emirate,” the economy also collapsed. The disgustingly salty bread rations by the United Nations were the only source of nutrition for many in an isolated Afghanistan. People would need to go to a Public Call Office to make an international call from the capital, Kabul. The Taliban moral police beat women in public for “immodesty” and jailed men for trimming their beards. They severed the hands of thieves, stoned the “adulterous,” and executed the condemned during soccer matches. These primitive practices continue to this day in areas under Taliban control.

Despite all these atrocities, the Afghan people favor negotiations with the Taliban to end this endless suffering. The Asia Foundation survey found that 89% of Afghans favor talks with the Taliban. The Afghan government offered to recognize the Taliban as a political party and enter negotiations. However, the Taliban rejected talks until a US-Taliban agreement was reached. Now that there is an agreement, the intra-Afghan negotiations are yet to begin while the Taliban have denounced the recently proposed Afghan negotiation team. 

The Taliban represent one of the many factions in the country, yet they aspire to rule all Afghans. The group either does not seem to realize an evolved Afghanistan as a reality or simply the goal is to establish the so-called “Islamic emirate” — an order that will take a heavy toll on the economy, pluralism, media freedom, women’s liberties, civil society, freedom of expression, and could be the end of the democratic experiment in the country. It will also leave no room for factional political participation and power-sharing, which will bring the country to the brink of yet another civil war. If the Taliban want to have a future in Afghanistan, they will need to accept the rest of the country as a reality, pursue a peaceful political struggle and not repeat their mistakes of the 1990s. The Taliban excuse for their jihad was “foreign occupation” – now foreigners are leaving – it is the Taliban versus the rest of Afghanistan.

Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate for Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Previously he has worked with several developmental organizations in post-2001 rehabilitation efforts in Afghanistan. Opinions expressed in this article are personal. Comments and follow at @saberibrahimi

The article was originally published on Tolonews.

Pakistan Sees Afghanistan Through India’s Lens

Since the summer of 2018, the United States has been negotiating a deal with the Taliban that would facilitate the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, initiate a ceasefire, forge a counter-terrorism understanding between the two warring parties, and kick-start the intra-Afghan talks. The Taliban has so far refused to engage in formal negotiations with the Afghan government but they have participated in some unofficial and secret talks. Pakistan, who has been providing sanctuary to the Taliban over the last 18 years, has a crucial role to play in peacemaking efforts. While recently Pakistan has offered to assist with the peace talks, uncertainties remain as Islamabad continues to see Afghanistan through the lens of its geopolitical rival, India. Islamabad has long sought a subdued government in Kabul through its strategic depth policy to fend off India’s threat to its northern border.

In February 2019, after the attacks on the Indian military in Pulwama, relations between India and Pakistan soared. India claimed that the attack was planned in Pakistan and retaliated with surgical strikes. Pakistan denied the charges, shot down India’s jets and closed its airspace to commercial flights between Kabul and Delhi. The Pakistani ambassador in Kabul warned that the worsening India-Pak relations could jeopardize the Afghan peace process. Foreign Minister, Mahmood Qureshi, warned the US that “India’s ‘aggressive posture’ could affect joint efforts for peace in Afghanistan.” In August Islamabad-Delhi relations further deteriorated when Prime Minister Modi’s government revoked Article 370 of India’s constitution that gave special autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. On August 6, 2019, during a joint session of Pakistan’s parliament, one opposition leader, Mr. Shahbaz Sharif, emphasized that India’s actions in Kashmir can hurt peace in Afghanistan and alleged that Modi’s administration was an impediment to peace. Islamabad’s envoy to the US also asserted that deterioration of the situation in Kashmir could harm the US peace efforts.

This past September, when Prime Minister Imran Khan visited the US, Afghanistan was on the top of the agenda for discussion with President Donald Trump, but, yet again, Afghanistan was linked with the issue of Kashmir. Mr. Khan said, “We also want to talk about all three neighbors: Afghanistan, India, Kashmir [sic] and of course Iran.” However, Islamabad’s Kashmir efforts have got little attention in the international arena, including in China, Pakistan’s all-weather friend. In the meantime, India has rejected the US offer to mediate saying that the dispute is a bilateral India-Pakistan matter.

India’s presence in Afghanistan has triggered the feeling of encirclement for Pakistan but Kabul and Delhi have been cautious and have not entered greater security cooperation. The focus rather has been trade ties, development aid, and limited security assistance. Delhi has invested over $3 billion in development projects such as building the country’s parliament, training some Afghan civil servants and military officers, providing educational scholarships, and most importantly investing in the construction of Chabahar port in southeastern Iran which will connect India to Afghanistan and Central Asia. In 2019, the trade volume between Afghanistan and India reached nearly $1 billion and expected to increase to $2 billion by 2020. On the peace efforts, India has supported the US peace initiative and maintained that the process should be inclusive and “Afghan-owned.” 

In some ways, Pakistan has played a positive role in initiating US-Taliban talks in Qatar. Islamabad had released the Taliban deputy leader Mullah Baradar from its custody to participate in the US-Taliban talks in Qatar. The talks had produced an agreement “in principle.” However, the negotiations were canceled by Mr. Trump who cited dissatisfaction with the deal and the Taliban’s insistence on violence. With Mr. Trump’s recent visit to Afghanistan, the talks are expected to resume. Pakistan has repeatedly reaffirmed its support to the process and also has participated in diplomatic forums such as the Afghanistan-China-Pakistan ministerial forum and a recent China, Pakistan, Russia, and US meeting in Moscow. The Moscow meeting has issued a communique endorsing the current peacemaking efforts – signaling a positive sign for international cooperation. Also, PM Khan has inaugurated a 24/7 customs facility at the Afghan-Pak Torkham border crossing and deemed it as a transformative project for the region.

Afghanistan and the US have welcomed these positive developments, however, a recent US Congressional Research Service report said Islamabad continues “to view the Afghan Taliban as a relatively friendly and reliably anti-India element in Afghanistan.” The existence of many Pakistani fighters in the ranks and files of the Daesh in Afghanistan also raises questions about the viability of peace in the country even if a political settlement is reached with the Taliban. Some Afghans remain skeptical because of the escalation of violence and the Taliban’s unwillingness to enter into direct negotiations with the Afghan factions. For the first nine months of 2019, the number of civilian casualties remained record-high at 8,200 – 2,563 killed and 5,676 injured. Additionally, there are on and off Afghan-Pak Durand Line skirmishes that continue to take military and civilian lives. 

Undoubtedly, internal political dynamics are key to the success of peacemaking efforts in Afghanistan but the role of neighbors, in particular Pakistan’s policy toward the country, remains equally crucial. Improvements in Pakistan’s behavior such as in facilitating talks between the Taliban and the US are positive signs but it seems as if the strategic depth policy is well alive and Pakistan continues to see Afghanistan through India’s lens. This policy has proven to be futile in many ways and a lose-lose situation – there is no Pakistan friendly government in Kabul, the issue of Kashmir remains unresolved, access to Central Asia is a challenge, and Afghanistan continues to suffer from violence. Pakistan must adapt its strategy toward Afghanistan or it will impede Afghan-US peacemaking efforts. Instead of trying to fend off Delhi’s influence with militancy, Islamabad can secure good relations with Kabul through economic development and respect for Afghanistan’s sovereignty. This will be in line with Prime Minister Khan’s vision, which is “to promote peace and prosperity in the region and move towards resolution of conflicts.” 

Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate for Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Previously he has worked with several developmental organizations in post-2001 rehabilitation efforts in Afghanistan. Opinions expressed in this article are personal. Comments and follow at @Saberibrahimi

The article was originally published in the ToloNews. Photo credit: ToloNews.

Some Lessons from Colombia’s Peacemaking Process for Afghanistan

Said Sabir Ibrahimi and Marta Bautista Forcada

In December 2016, the Colombian government entered into a historic peace agreement with the FARC-EP (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo), an ideological left-wing armed group, and ended a half a century conflict. Concerted efforts by national and international actors led to the success of the signing of the agreement. Thousands miles away, in Afghanistan, we are faced with another chronic 40-year conflict. The current phase of the Afghan conflict, that is the Taliban insurgency, started after the US intervention in 2001 that overthrew the Taliban’s theocratic regime and established a quasi-democratic system.

After 18 years of bloody war between the Afghan government (supported by the US) and the Taliban, stakeholders are now seeking a political solution. Rigorous negotiations are underway between the Taliban and the US, while the intra-Afghan dialogue is yet to begin. The question is: are there lessons from Colombia’s peacemaking process for Afghanistan? The two countries are distinct, with stark differences in the ideology of the two militant groups, the capability of governmental institutions, and the direct involvement of the US as a third party in the Afghan war. Nonetheless, Colombia’s peacemaking process offers lessons in areas such as the ripeness of the moment, creating regional and international consensus, having a manageable agenda, and an inclusive process.

The Ripe Moment

The “ripeness of the moment” is key to starting peace negotiations. This is when sides to a conflict have reached to a military stalemate and are “locked in a conflict from which they cannot escalate to victory.”[1] The Colombian government and the FARC-EP had reached a military stalemate and the moment for negotiations was ripe after half a century of conflict and past attempts to peacemaking. While the FARC-EP was in a weaker military position, a military victory against the FARC-EP was deemed impossible in the near future.[2] The amount of pain inflicted upon the Colombian society was immense. There are nearly 8.5 million victims of the armed conflict: about 7.5 million forced displacements, more than 260,000 dead, and over 45,000 disappearances.[3] These numbers do not include the thousands of others who have suffered from other form of violence such as the narco related deaths.

In Afghanistan, too, the moment is ripe: there is a military stalemate along with a great amount of pain inflicted upon the Afghan society. The number of casualties in the past four decades is much higher than in the Colombian context. Since the 1970s, the country has gone through the Soviet occupation, an armed insurgency between the communist regime and the mujahideen(holy warriors), the Afghan civil war between mujahideen factions, and now the Taliban insurgency. The death toll resulting from the Soviet invasion totals to over a million followed by thousands of casualties during the civil war.[4] Since 2009, as much as 100,000 civilians have been killed and injured.[5] This number does not include the losses of thousands of Afghan security and defense forces, the international troops, and the Taliban. The Taliban have vowed to continue to incite more violence during the upcoming elections, due in September 2019.

Regional and International Consensus

To a large extent, the international community played a positive role in Colombia’s peace process and there was an international consensus. Namely, Cuba and Norway, as guarantors, and Venezuela as the logistics facilitator, played especially important roles.[6] The United Nations constructively facilitated localized conversations about the prospects of peace and mobilized donors to fund peacebuilding projects. Meanwhile, regional support for left-leaning armed groups was in decline, which encouraged the FARC-EP to choose politics over militancy.

In Afghanistan, there is some degree of international consensus. Major stakeholders such as the US, Pakistan, China, Russia, and Iran, have said that they want a peaceful Afghanistan, but the challenge is that they want it in their own terms.[7] While Pakistan, as the main sponsors of the Taliban, has helped the US in the talks with the armed group, the fear is that Pakistan-India rivalry and complex US relations with regional actors could create obstacles to peace. There is also an international support for Islamist insurgency,[8] and like the FARC, the Taliban do not seem to shy away from funding their jihad through the narco-economy and support from sympathizers in the Islamic world.[9]

The international community needs to reach an agreement on Afghanistan with measures that can include:

  • For the international community, including the US, EU and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to diplomatically pressure and persuade Pakistan to play a positive role and does not let India-Pakistan rivalry sabotage the Afghan peace process;
  • For the US, China, Russia, and Iran, and other actors, to treat Afghanistan as an area of cooperation; and
  • For the Islamic countries to play a more proactive role in condemning violence in the name of religion and curbing insurgency financing.

A Manageable Agenda

A focused agenda that is centred on a few key issues is vital to starting peace negotiations.[10]  In Colombia, parties focused on creating an intensive agenda that included five main thematic areas: (1) comprehensive rural reform, (2) political participation, (3) ending the conflict — ceasefire and economic inclusion of the ex-combatants (4) tackling the illicit drug issue, and (5) the justice element of the deal.[11] In Afghanistan, the US-Taliban delegations have been working on a framework: (1) counterterrorism assurances by the Taliban, (2) withdrawal of the US troops, (3) initiation of the inter-Afghan dialogue, and (4) a permanent ceasefire. On the other hand, a framework between the Afghan political elite and the Taliban is missing. Although the past informal intra-Afghan dialogues such as the ones in Moscow and the most recent one on 7-8 July 2019, hosted by Germany and Qatar in Doha,[12] could assist in generating such an agenda.

The Afghan authorities maintain that the red line is the Constitution, which is based on Islamic jurisprudence[13] and guarantees rights for men, women, minorities, and a democratic system. However, the Taliban see the Constitution as one imposed by the Americans. They demand the annulment of the constitution and the reestablishment of the Islamic system, possibly the Islamic emirate. Colombia’s focused agenda was a product of compromise between the two sides that focused on addressing the root causes of the conflict. The government accepted to address underdevelopment and land dispossession issues.[14] In return, FARC-EP softened its positions from overthrowing the government and establishing a socialist system to securing a political status and development incentives for underdeveloped rural areas. While the Afghan government has shown some degree of flexibility by offering a ceasefire and recognizing the Taliban as a political group, the Taliban are yet to display compromises.

The Participatory Element

The peace agreement in Colombia is internationally considered to be inclusive.[15]Although Colombia’s peace talks started in secret in Cuba and with no more than six participants from each side,[16] space eventually opened for greater participation. Women organizations represented 20% of the government’s delegation and 43% of the FARC-EP’s delegation in the negotiations.[17] In another instance, a total of 60 victims were invited to discuss the provisions of what is currently point 5 in the Final Agreement regarding the victims of the conflict, which includes the design of a transitional justice system.[18]

Drawing from Colombia’s experience, the number of delegates in the negotiations should be narrowed down to a few capable representatives, but it is vital that the victims and other groups including women and minorities are included in the process. The parties need to ensure the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) by tangibly including Afghan women in the negotiation table as well as a gendered approach. Additionally, Colombia held a plebiscite to gain domestic legitimacy but the “no camp” prevailed.[19] A referendum in Afghanistan, because of the lack of resources, of electoral capacity and of time, is not advisable.


There are clear socio-political differences between Afghanistan and Colombia: notably, Colombia being a Latin American Catholic majority country and Afghanistan an Asian Muslim majority country; there are ideological differences in the two insurgencies; Colombia having a relatively more functioning state, especially in the justice sector; the Colombian government being in a more stronger military position when negotiations with FARC-EP began; and the presence of the US military as a third party to the Afghan conflict. Nonetheless, lessons can be drawn from the similarities in the nature of the two conflicts and the process of peacemaking. In Afghanistan, parties should realize that the moment is ripe for making peace and a military solution. Secondly, stakeholders should see how an international consensus was created in Colombia and how that lesson can be replicated in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the international and external dimensions of the conflict are equally important.  Thirdly, Afghanistan should determine a manageable agenda with goals to address the root causes of the conflict. Finally, stakeholders must ensure participation of a capable negotiating team that includes voices of women, minorities and the victims.

Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation working on Afghanistan project. In November 2018, Sabir was a Visiting Scholar to AREU in Kabul. Sabir holds a Bachelor’s in Political Science from Fairleigh Dickenson University, New Jersey, and a Master’s in Global Affairs from New York University. He has also worked with a number of non-governmental organizations in Kabul.

Marta Bautista Forcada has graduated with a Master’s degree in Global Affairs from New York University. She has worked for several non-profit organizations including Amnesty International and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). While working at NYU’s Peace Research and Education Program (PREP), she conducted peace field-research in Algeciras, Colombia, studying the perceptions of the 2016 peace agreement among FARC-EP ex-combatants. Bautista holds a Bachelor’s in Political Science from University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain.

This essay was originally published in AREU. Photograph credit: Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images

[1] The Timing of Peace Initiatives: Hurting Stalemates and Ripe Moments1 I William Zartman, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

[2] Segura, Renata, and Mechoulan, Delphine. 2017. Made in Havana: How Colombia and the FARC Decided to End the War. New York: International Peace Institute, February 2017.

[3] Unidad para la Atención y Reparación Integral a las Víctimas. 2019. Reporte General Desagregado por Hecho. [ONLINE] Available here:[Accessed 6 June 2019]

[4] The Atlantic. 2014. The Soviet War in Afghanistan, 1979 – 1989. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 19 May 2019].

[5] UNAMA. 2018. Afghanistan Annual Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: 2018. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 19 May 2019].

[6] Segura, Renata, and Mechoulan, Delphine. 2017. Made in Havana: How Colombia and the FARC Decided to End the War. New York: International Peace Institute, February 2017.

[7] Rubin, Barnett. Everyone Wants A Piece of Afghanistan. Foreign Policy. March 2019.

[8]The New York Times. 2019. Saudis Bankroll Taliban, Even as King Officially Supports Afghan Government. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 10 July 2019].

[9] Politico. 2019. The secret story of how America lost the drug war with the Taliban. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 10 July 2019].

[10] Pillar, Paul R. Negotiating Peace: War Termination as a Bargaining Process. Princeton University Press, 1983. JSTOR,

[11] Benavides Vanegas, Farid Samir, and Borda Guzmán, Sandra. 2019. Introduction: The Peace Agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP, or the elusive peace. Revista CIDOB d’Afers Internacionals, n.121, p. 7-18. April 2019. [ONLINE] Available:…/AFERS%20121.pdf [Accessed May 31, 2019]

[12] France 24. 2019. Afghan-Taliban talks conclude in Qatar with ‘roadmap for peace’. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 10 July 2019].

[13] Haress, Ghizaal. Why the Taleban Should Read the Afghan Constitution. Afghanistan Analyst Network.

[14] Herbolzheimer, Kristian. 2016 Innovations in the Colombian Peace Process. Oslo: Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center, June 2016. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed May 31, 2019]

[15] Catalina Ruiz-Navarro. 2019. Analysis: The inclusion of a gender perspective in Colombia’s peace Agreement: past, present, and future. Relifweb. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed June 4, 2019]

[16] Ibid.

[17] Bigio, JamilleVogelsteinRachel B. 2017. Women’s Participation in Peace Processes: Colombia. Council on Foreign Relations. December 15, 2017. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed June 6, 2019]

[18] Herbolzheimer, Kristian. 2016 Innovations in the Colombian Peace Process. Oslo: Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center, June 2016. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed May 31, 2019]

[19] BBC Mundo. Colombia: Ganó el “No” en el Plebiscito por los Acuerdos de Paz con las FAC. [ONLINE] Available: [Accessed July 11, 2019]

Russia’s Envoy for Afghanistan “Spoke Highly” of Hanif Atmar, One Presidential Hopeful

There are several Afghan political leaders who will be running for Afghanistan’s next presidential elections which is scheduled for June 2019 – although the elections might be delayed as Afghanistan is also dealing with a peace process. Among the many candidates are current president, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, incumbent president’s former National Security Advisor, Mr. Hanif Atmar, and current Chief Executive Officer (equivalent of a prime minister position) Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, both competing against the incumbent president.

Russia’s Envoy for Afghanistan, ambassador Zamir Kabulov, is scheduled to meet with his American counterpart, ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, in Turkey on Friday February 22. In interview with Anadolu Agency Kabulov has expressed optimism about the Afghan peace process in which Russia is playing a role. Thus far Russia has hosted several dialogues in Moscow. The two recent ones were a meeting held in Moscow, one in November 2018 where the Taliban, representative of the Afghan High Peace Council and several regional countries, and a second meeting was held among several Afghan political parties and elite with the Taliban in early February.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency Kabulov “spoke highly” of Mohammad Hanif Atmar who is considered as one of the top contenders.  Kabulov has said that “everyone in Afghanistan knows that this is a prominent politician with a broad base of political support. He has one undeniable advantage: he held high positions in both the government of Hamid Karzai and the current administration. He is brilliant, by Afghan standards, top manager, who knows the problems of Afghanistan and knows how to deal with them.” He added that “Atmar also has good relations with Washington.”

Perhaps Ambassador Kabulov’s assertion is true as Mr. Atmar is a recognized face in the Afghan politics, but so are Dr. Ghani and Dr. Abdullah. Praising or endorsing a presidential hopeful in another country can be perceived as interference to the country’s sovereignty. Given Russia’s history of middling in the elections of liberal democracies from Europe to the United States, perhaps Mr. Kabulov should stay out of the Afghan internal politics. In order to support stability and democracy in Afghanistan the international community should focus on bringing peace to the country. A peace that can serve not only Afghanistan’s interests but in the words of Mr. Kabulov ” the security interests of Russia’s and its allies.” Let Afghans vote and elect their own future leader.

Photo credite: AP

Trump Gets the Accounts of Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan Wrong


US President Donald Trump’s unique brand of historical analysis — whether referring to events that happened yesterday or decades ago — is often understood as part of his post-truth appeal to the political base that supported his 2016 election campaign.

But whoever he was attempting to impress with his infamously inaccurate take on the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the beginning of the year, the comments went down a stink in the South Asian country.

In 1978, the communist factions Khalq and Parcham, backed by the Soviets, conducted a coup in Afghanistan, assassinated then-president Sardar Daud Khan, and massacred his family.

The country was renamed the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA). The coup set in motion a cycle of violence from which Afghanistan has arguably never recovered.

Trump, however, had a different take. At a January 2 cabinet meeting he described the invasion as follows:

Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. Russia. … The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. (The Soviet Union) was right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight. And literally they went bankrupt; they went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union. You know, a lot of these places you’re reading about now are no longer part of Russia, because of Afghanistan.

The statement earned scathing responses from Afghan President Ashraf GhaniForeign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, and former national intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil, as well as several informed retorts from Afghan ambassadors.

One of the best of these came from Waheed Omar, the country’s Ambassador to Italy, who offered a short history of foreign meddling in Afghanistan via neighbouring Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), an institution that many Afghans blame for the emergence and sustained presence of the Taliban.

The USSR’s Cold War ambitions in Afghanistan set the stage for nearly two decades of internecine fighting and the emergence of the Taliban. Map by Matthew White.

Afghanistan’s communism disaster

Afghanistan has been invaded repeatedly throughout its history, most recently in 2001 by US-led coalition forces that Trump is now keen to pull out of the country completely.

In an article for Mangal Media, Mohammed Harun Arsalai, co-founder of Documenting Afghanistanexplained why the expansion of Soviet-backed communism into Afghanistan marked perhaps the most cataclysmic of all foreign interventions in the country.  

Once these (communist) factions were in control they began summarily killing just about anyone they remotely suspected of being in opposition. Going to the Masjid too often was enough for them. They were also killing each other. The mass, violent repression and extrajudicial killings that the communists were carrying out pushed Islamic groups in Afghanistan into militancy. But it wasn’t until the wanton killings starting in 1978 that the Mujahideen went from being an underground resistance movement to a popular resistance movement.

In December 1979, the Soviet Politburo’s inner circle, fearing then-president Hafizullah Amin’s potential disloyalty, decided to invade Afghanistan. After a week of heavy fighting, the Soviets killed Amin, took over Afghanistan, and installed Babrak Karmal as the DRA’s new Soviet-backed leader. Karmal would eventually resign in 1986, by which point over a million Afghans had been killed and more than six million were estimated displaced by the fighting. 

Finally, in 1988, the DRA, USSR, US and Pakistan signed accords to end the war in Afghanistan, and the Soviet troops’ withdrawal began. In 1989 all Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, effectively conceding defeat.

Soviet troops returning home from Afghanistan. Photo from RIAN archive. Featured on Wikimedia Commons.

President Trump’s statement, “the reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia” is simply wrong. 

In a 1980 speech, US President Ronald Reagan — a man Trump uses as a benchmark to measure himself against — called the invasion an extremely serious threat to peace, given the threat of further Soviet expansion in Southwest Asia.

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Sri Lanka, M. Ashraf Haidari, noted after Trump’s comments that “even Russia” would not support his left-field interpretation of the invasion.

The chaos unleashed by the Soviet invasion — and the flow of weapons from both Moscow and the West into the country —  laid the ground for decades of violence and the arrival in power of the Taliban in 1996. 

The legacy of the US’s own invasion of Afghanistan, meanwhile, is a giant, bleak-looking question mark.

The conflict has become more complicated and intense as the Taliban insurgency grows in strength and fighters nominally loyal to ISIS have ramped up attacks on civilian targets in parallel.

Since airstrikes first began in October 2001, Afghanistan has never been as insecure as it is now.

Eighteen years, trillions of dollars, and thousands of lives later, the US government is now rushing to leave a war that it cannot win, while Trump is blustering bigly.

Photo credit: The White House.

This article was originally published in Global Voices Online. Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Afghan Affairs, which takes no institutional positions.

Can Qatar Enhance Its Mediation Efforts in the Afghan Peace Process?


Qatar has emerged as a conflict resolution actor in the international arena attempting to mediate political solutions from Lebanon to Sudan, and even for Afghanistan, albeit with mixed results. In 2013, at the request of the US and the Taliban preference, Qatar allowed the Taliban to open their so-called political office in Doha. While the Afghan government never officially recognized the office, the office remained as the de facto address for the group, besides their sanctuaries in Pakistan. In 2014, the US and the Taliban agreed to a prisoners’ swap in which one US serviceperson was exchanged for five Taliban members released from Guantanamo Bay. Doha would facilitate official and unofficial dialogues between the US, the Afghan government, think tanks, and the Taliban for years to follow. However, Qatar would mainly act upon the request of the US or the Afghan government and not take on a proactive mediator role in the Afghan peace making efforts.

Afghanistan has been subject to a chronic conflict for over 40 years; the memories of many Afghans from the Arab world are from the spread of religious puritanism and the Arab fighters who rushed to help in the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. When the Soviet troops withdrew, mediation efforts failed and the Afghan civil war began over power-sharing in the newly formed Islamic government. By the mid-1990s, the Taliban faction prevailed and controlled most of the Afghan territory, establishing the Islamic Emirate, recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Taliban regime hosted al-Qaeda, who had launched terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001 which led to the US retaliation. The US intervention in the country ultimately ended the Taliban regime and established a new, somewhat-democratic system that is recognized overwhelmingly by a majority of the international community.

But the Taliban made a comeback with sanctuary, training and logistical support by Pakistan, financial support from the Gulf countries, and the illicit economy and extortion inside the country. From 2001 to 2017, the US spent more than $130 billion dollars on reconstruction and creating institutions – this was accompanied by 2,500 casualties of US servicemen and women, and Afghans paying the biggest price of all by losing around 50,000 civilians and thousands of security forces. The region, then, also suffered from illicit drug trafficking that led to more addictions across the region and economic downturns, especially with Pakistan needing an IMF bailout. This grave reality-check brought some consensus for a political solution in Afghanistan. Challenges still remain with the Taliban not wanting to enter into talks with the Afghan government, and gaining support from unusual partners such as Iran and Russia, complicating a regional consensus.

At the same time, Doha enjoys a great degree of good relations with a majority of the parties involved in the Afghan affairs. Pakistan, as the main sponsor of the Taliban, enjoys friendly relations with Qatar. Islamabad and Doha have entered into a strategic security partnership and economicties for many years. Furthermore, Qatar enjoys close relations with Iran. During the Gulf crisis and Saudi led blockade, Iran was one of the first countries that supplied necessary food items and most importantly gave airspace access to Qatari air traffic. Doha has also maintained cordial relations with Moscow, although they had their differences over Syria. Russia continues to remain neutral in the Gulf crisis and offered civilian assistance to Qatar. In return, Doha proposed Foreign Direct Investments in Russia. In March 2018, after a visit by the emir of Qatar to Moscow, Qatar Airways announced that it plans to purchase a 25% stake in Russia’s Vnukovo Airport.

Additionally, Qatar is a close strategic ally of the United States. The peninsula is hosting the largest US military presence in the Middle East. There are some 11,000 US military personnel based at the US Combined Air Operations Center in Al Udeid Base, which serves as the main source of airpower and logistics for operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and several other countries in the region. Doha and Washington also enjoy economic and cultural ties. Qatar hosts branches of some top American educational centers in Doha, including the Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University, and Brookings Institution, and there are robust economic ties between the two countries. During the Gulf crisis, while the White House initially sided with the Saudis, it later toned down its stance and offered to play a constructive mediator’s role. The US has also expressed appreciation for Qatar’s role in facilitating peace talks with the Taliban.

Kabul-Doha relations are limited, but Qatar has helped the country with small-scale developmentaland education projects, as well as participating in international fora on Afghanistan. On a number of occasions, Qatar has offered to mediate between the Afghan actors of the conflict and condemned militant attacks. However, Qatar does not have an embassy in Kabul and operates through its Islamabad embassy. The Afghan government recognizes Doha’s role in the mediation process and curtailing Taliban financing. Kabul has said it welcomes positive peace efforts that are “genuine and tangible.” Afghanistan’s embassy in Doha has even advocated for forging closer economic and cultural relations between the two countries.

Doha can play an instrumental role in creating a regional consensus around the question of Afghanistan and mediating between the Afghan elements. At the very least, Doha can act as an influential balancer. Qatar with its good standing with regional actors can influence Pakistan, Iran, and Russia and the prospects of a regional consensus towards ending the war. Doha can also use its leverage over the Taliban and encourage the group to enter direct negotiations with the Afghan government and agree to a ceasefire – a proposal that was raised by the Afghan government in August. Establishment of Qatar’s diplomatic mission in Kabul can also help in this regard. Overall, Doha can play a more prominent role in Afghanistan by proactively participating in diplomatic efforts and positively influencing the actors. This way Qatar can gain international recognition for its contribution to international conflict resolution efforts that can lead to ending a chronic conflict and boost its soft power in the global arena. But it still remains to be seen whether Qatar will, in fact, take on a more prominent role in the Afghan peace process.

Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate for Afghanistan‑Pakistan Regional Project at New York University‘s Center on International Cooperation. Opinions expressed in this article are personal. Stay in touch on twitter @Saberibrahimi