2019: A Year of Missed Opportunities for Afghanistan
Dr Yatharth Kachiar

The year 2019 ended for Afghanistan on a more chaotic and disappointing note because of two major reasons: a) failure in achieving any major breakthrough in the ongoing peace process with the Taliban, specifically in relation to the ceasefire and intra-Afghan dialogue; b) lack of success in conducting a credible and undisputed Presidential election. Further, at the economic front, despite the Ghani government’s intensive efforts to surpass the geographical barrier of being a landlocked country by opening up various connectivity projects, including the lapis lazuli corridor, the progress in this area remained grim. According to a recent World Bank report, due to a huge gap between revenues and expenditure, the economy of Afghanistan still remains dependent on grants to finance 75% of its expenditure. The report also observes that in a post-settlement scenario as well, Afghanistan will need continued financial support from the international community.1

After more than 10 rounds of peace talks and despite repeated attempts and pressure by the US for a ceasefire, the only concession which the Taliban has given is a promise of a reduction in violence, and not even a temporary ceasefire. 2 What is still unclear is how the two sides will gauge the effectiveness of the Taliban’s assurance of a reduction in violence. In a span of a week itself, between January 1, 2020, and January 6, 2020, there have been 25 terrorism-related incidents in Afghanistan.3 The failure of the US negotiators to push the Taliban in accepting a ceasefire indicates the lack of leverage that Washington has over the armed group. President Trump’s impatience to stick with a particular course of action or policy for a long time has taught the Taliban well that they can easily wear out the Americans by merely waiting. Therefore, the US has no actual bargaining chip vis-a-vis the Taliban which can push the armed group for a ceasefire before the withdrawal of the US troops.

Moreover, it is important to understand that the Taliban’s refusal to agree for a ceasefire has more to do with the organizational structure of its rank-and-file soldiers. The success of a three-day Eid ceasefire declared by the Taliban in 2018 exposed the radical armed group’s weak hold over its soldiers. The widespread support received by the 2018 ceasefire astonished many within the Taliban leadership. According to some reports, “the hardline deputy leader and son of Mullah Omar, Mullah Yaqoob was particularly dismayed”. 4 The 2018 ceasefire showed that across Afghanistan including among the Taliban fighters, the demand for peace is far stronger than the ongoing war. The mingling of the Taliban soldiers with the Afghan population and defense forces gave the world a few rare glimpses of fraternity in the war-torn country. There have been reports that many Taliban soldiers did not go back to the fighting once the ceasefire was over.5 This is exactly the reason why the Taliban is continuously refusing a ceasefire before achieving any tangible outcome in the negotiations. For the Taliban, a ceasefire without the actual signing of the peace deal would mean losing the already gained momentum in the war as well as the psychological edge over the adversary.

The peace talks also failed to achieve anything concrete on the question of intra-Afghan dialogue. The Taliban have continuously refused to negotiate with the internationally recognized Kabul-based government of President Ghani. However, the unofficial delegation of opposition members from Afghanistan did meet the Taliban delegation in Moscow. The second round of these talks took place in Doha which involved a far diverse delegation from Afghanistan. The intra-Afghan talks provided an opportunity for both sides to find a compromising stance on divisive political issues such as the legitimacy of the constitution, the role of women and ethnic minorities, and armed forces. However, apart from being a positive step towards thawing the relations among Afghans, both the rounds of intra-Afghan talks did not yield anything tangible. Interestingly, during the Doha round of intra-Afghan negotiations in July 2019, among many other things, the Taliban delegation had agreed to bring down the civilian casualties in the country to zero.6 However, the gruesome attacks which the country has seen since July 2019 present a different story. That is why, while negotiating with the Taliban, it is crucial for the international community to devise a robust framework within which the sincerity of the claims made by the armed group can be assessed.

Further, the missed opportunity to conduct a successful, credible, and undisputed Presidential election in 2019 will have long-term consequences for Afghanistan. It was imperative for the country to unanimously choose a strong leader in the Presidential election who can lead the country in any future negotiations with the Taliban. The preliminary election results which gave the incumbent President a majority of 50.64% is disputed by the opposition candidates. The opposition members have been demanding the separation of clean and fraudulent votes. The preliminary results were already delayed due to technical issues, recounting of votes, fraud allegations, and protests by the opposition candidates. At present, the Independent Electoral Commission of Afghanistan (IEC) is dealing with thousands of complaints regarding the election result. Interestingly, it is only by a small margin of 12,000 votes which has allowed President Ghani to cross the threshold of the required 50% vote share. In case, the IEC decides to review the issue of non-biometric and fraudulent votes which are touted as approximately 300,000, then there is a high probability that President Ghani’s vote share will come down to below 50% and the election will go into a runoff. In any case, no matter the outcome of the Presidential elections, Afghanistan has once again lost the opportunity of forging a strong central government behind an undisputed leader. The divisive political environment which the country is facing at present is going to prove extremely costly for the idea of inclusive and democratic Afghanistan especially when the Taliban has consistently gained diplomatic, political, and military success in recent times.

The next year is going to be extremely crucial for the people of Afghanistan when it comes to preserving the political order which they have painstakingly built with the help of the international community since 2002. India with a significant stake in the stability of Afghanistan will be watching the developments in the country very closely. The ongoing escalation between the US and Iran has already made India’s extended neighborhood in the West more volatile. The confrontation with Iran might force the US President to reconsider his plans for troop reduction from Afghanistan. However, President Ghani has already issued a statement that under no circumstances Afghan soil will be used to wage a war against a neighboring country.

President Trump’s erratic foreign policy behavior makes it hard to gauge the intention and commitment of the US to continue the negotiations with the Taliban, especially at present when the American administration’s focus has shifted to Iran. If the troop withdrawal is the ultimate aim of President Trump, then he can do it with or without a peace deal as well. In the absence of strong American commitment to push the Taliban for a ceasefire and a settlement, there is a possibility that the armed group will continue to gain more territory making the entire process of reconciliation redundant.

In order to halt an absolute victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan and safeguard the gains made over a period of 18 years, it is imperative that the international community continue to provide economic and military support to the government in Kabul. Otherwise, Afghanistan under the complete control of the Taliban, or in a civil war-like situation will once again become the breeding ground for extremism and terrorism threatening the security and stability of the entire region.

  1. Afghanistan will Need Continued International Support after Political Settlement, Press Release, World Bank, 5 December 2019, URL: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2019/12/05/afghanistan-will-need-continued-international-support-after-political-settlement
  2. Taliban slams ‘baseless reports' of ceasefire plans, France 24, 30 December 2019, URL: https://www.france24.com/en/20191230-taliban-slams-baseless-reports-of-ceasefire-plans-1
  3. South Asia Terrorism Portal, URL: https://www.satp.org/datasheet-terrorist-attack/incidents-data/afghanistan
  4. Kate Clark, The Eid Ceasefire: Allowing Afghans to imagine their country at peace, Afghanistan Analyst Network, 19 June 2018, URL: https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/the-eid-ceasefire-allowing-afghans-to-imagine-their-country-at-peace/
  5. Daud Khattak, Why Are the Taliban Reluctant to Declare a Ceasefire?, The Diplomat, 13 August 2019, URL: https://thediplomat.com/2019/08/why-are-the-taliban-reluctant-to-declare-a-ceasefire/
  6. Yatharth Kachair, Intra-Afghan dialogue: A perspective, VIF, 24 July 2019, URL: https://www.vifindia.org/article/2019/july/24/intra-afghan-dialogue-a-perspective

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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