By Ben Acheson
Imagine for a second that you are a member of the Taliban. Let’s say you are in your early thirties so you were an impressionable teenager in 2001 when, in your opinion, US troops flooded into your country under the cover of aerial bombardments that you didn’t know were possible. Life as you knew it was ripped apart. You left education to join the jihad. Fast forward 16 years and you are now somewhat of an ‘elder’. You’ve lost countless friends, colleagues and family members. You’ve lived day-to-day for 16 years, constantly on the move, unable to trust anyone and forever wary of the whirring-in-the-sky. All you’ve ever known is the fight against what you see as foreign invaders and their Afghan stooges – many of whom would kill you in an instant if they had the chance.
Yet things are looking up. Life is easier since most US forces left in 2014. You control territory again and still have sponsorship from neighbouring states and other backers. Then the Afghan Government, which you see as a mere collection of disingenuous and corrupt warlords that would collapse the second international backing stops, asks you to come to the table to talk peace. Yes, you are tired of war but cannot admit it openly for fear of reprisals from the hawks in your movement. Even if peace was possible – could you trust the Afghan government? The same officials responsible for their war strategy also seem to be responsible for making peace – so isn’t their peace strategy just an extension of their war strategy?
It doesn’t seem genuine and there is no offer on the table. Nobody has outlined what would happen to you and your fellow fighters. Would there be power-sharing? How would you make a living? Who would protect you from retributive attacks by ethnic rivals? Could you trust the Afghan Security Forces who you fought for so long? What would happen to US forces? There would have to some form of agreed withdrawal – which to you seems unlikely given that President Trump just approved an increase. So when the Afghan Government tells you to “come to peace” it seems that what they really mean is “surrender and ask forgiveness”. What would your answer be? The point is that ‘peace’ has for too long been synonymous to ‘surrender’ in Afghanistan. Since 2001, the insinuation has been that peace will come when the Taliban lay down their arms and reintegrate into Afghan societal structures and institutions, i.e. surrender. For 16 years, military action has driven efforts in Afghanistan, largely on a year-by-year basis. Both Afghan and international actors have been striving for the ‘win’, i.e. comprehensive defeat of the Taliban. The underpinning assumption was that the Taliban could be beaten out of existence or weakened into surrender. Likewise the Taliban has rejected any legitimacy for the government and clings to the reintroduction of the Islamic Emirate.
Making surrender a condition for peace is a flawed assumption. Insurgent ideology cannot be defeated with conventional military action and pressure can never reach tipping point as long as the Taliban enjoy sanctuary and safe-haven outside of Afghanistan. In any case, fighters willing to die for their cause will do exactly that before they surrender.
Despite being widely, if reluctantly, recognised that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, the surrender-narrative still prevails. The assumption is now that only military pressure will to force the Taliban to the table. This is another flawed assumption. It is more likely to prompt resentment and entrenchment. Even if more bombs and bullets did push the Taliban to the table, forcing someone to negotiate when they are not ready or willing will only make them unlikely to be open to compromise or able to stomach the costs of peace. So what do we do instead?
The first pre-requisite for any genuine Afghan peace process is reshaping the surrender-narrative. The term ‘peace’ itself must be reclaimed so that it is no longer viewed with suspicion or equated to surrender and weakness. Those who are hostile to it become comfortable with it. A desirable concept of peace must dominate public space and monopolise the public mind-set so it is ingrained as the eventual – and only – way forward. If peace is the primary issue in the public’s mind and the goal they desire then once negotiations do begin, a step towards the enemy will be seen as a response to a public demand and not an act of desperation, betrayal or surrender. There must be efforts – on all sides – to help people see that negotiating does not mean forgiving or forgetting the past, but being pragmatic about the future. It means that parties try to understand opponent’s interests and attempt to meet them without sacrificing their own. It does not represent surrender.
Also critical is to ensure that a peace process is not seen as an effort to return life to the way it was before war. Peace must be framed as a process of enhancement for both sides, not as an antagonistic clash of parties where one loses and one wins (or both lose). It must be marketed as a process of mutual gain for both sides, not a zero-sum game. No matter how difficult it will be to stomach, peace must involve the creation of something new that benefits everyone.
Including the Taliban.