Baku steps up as Eid cease-fire offers ray of hope for Afghanistan’s future
This week the International Contact Group (ICG) on Afghanistan met in Baku, Azerbaijan. Established in 2009, it is a forum used by the international community to coordinate assistance for Afghanistan. It meets twice a year, bringing together 60 countries and several NGOs, all committed to the development of the country.
A couple of things stand out about this meeting in Baku. First, the choice of Azerbaijan is no coincidence. Recently, Azerbaijan has prided itself in hosting important meetings of international significance. Baku is making a name for itself as a “Geneva” in the South Caucasus by hosting diplomatically tricky gatherings. For example, it hosted three high-level meetings between US and Russian military commanders, most recently in February.
Azerbaijan has shown a commitment to Afghanistan’s development. Last year, Baku played a key role in launching the Lapis Lazuli transit corridor. This network of road, rail and shipping will connect Afghanistan to European markets and play an important role in the country’s economic development.
In December, Azerbaijan also hosted the seventh ministerial conference of the Heart of Asia — Istanbul Process. While the ICG is a global forum, the Heart of Asia — Istanbul Process is a regional forum devoted to improving Afghanistan’s economy and political development.
So it is no surprise that Baku was also keen to host the latest meeting of the ICG.
The second issue that stands out was the focus during the lead-up to the meeting on the need for a peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Much of the press coverage ahead of the ICG gathering focused on the idea of a political settlement. This is a view that is now becoming mainstream thinking in the international community regarding the 17-year-old war (or, depending how one counts, 39-year-old war).
In recent months there have been positive signs from Afghanistan regarding the possibility of a political settlement. In February, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political group in the country, saying: “We are making this offer without preconditions in order to lead to a peace agreement.”
Although the Taliban response to Ghani’s proclamation was muted, the recent three-day Eid cease-fire showed signs of willingness from both sides of the conflict to entertain a political settlement. The images of Taliban fighters celebrating Eid alongside Afghan governors and military commanders were quite extraordinary.
It is important that the international community rallies around the idea of a political settlement in Afghanistan. The goal of any counterinsurgency campaign is to allow those who have legitimate political grievances the ability to address them through a political process rather than through violence. Ultimately, this will create the enduring stability and security that the international community wants for Afghanistan.
If the insurgency in Afghanistan ever ends, it will be through a political settlement between the government and the Taliban.
You can no more fight your way out of an insurgency than you can drink yourself out of alcoholism. If the insurgency in Afghanistan ever ends, it will be through a political settlement between the government and the Taliban.
Even in his speech last year when announcing his new strategy, US President Donald Trump alluded to an eventual political settlement “after an effective military effort.”
Now might be the best time for a serious peace effort. Despite what one might read in the press, the Taliban are nowhere near as strong as they were in 2001. At that time, outside of a small rump of territory run by the Northern Alliance in northeast Afghanistan, the Taliban controlled 90 percent of the country. Today, according to the most recent quarterly report to Congress by the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, it has “control or influence” in an area containing only 13 percent of the country’s population.
This is not to say that the military campaign is going swimmingly for the Afghans, the US or the international community. After so many years of fighting there is eroding support in the US for the war. The Afghan military has proven to be gallant but suffers from a crisis in recruitment and retention. The so-called unity government in Kabul is far from being united, and political and economic corruption remain endemic.
However, even with all of these challenges, much has been accomplished in Afghanistan since 2001. The goal in the country was never to make it perfect, or a Switzerland in the Hindu Kush. Success will be achieved when there is a stable enough Afghanistan — that is, when it is able to manage its own internal security to resist the re-establishment of the terrorist bases that were there before. Nothing more and nothing less.
While a political settlement is desired, the international community needs to manage its expectations on what any negotiated settlement might look like. Even if the Taliban and the government come to some sort of agreement, there will always be some form of insurgency in the Pashtun heartland of southern Afghanistan.
This is not defeat. This is the reality. After all, the UK fought a counterinsurgency campaign against the Irish Republican Army inside its borders until the mid-1990s. India, arguably the world’s largest democracy, continues to fight multiple insurgencies inside its borders.
While the recent Eid celebrations are cause for cautious optimism, more and meaningful confidence-building measures, such as localized and short-term cease-fires and prisoner exchanges between Kabul and the Taliban, are needed.
It remains to be seen whether the political will for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the international community truly exists. This is why meetings of the ICG are so important.
The Afghan people have a long way to go, but recent developments are certainly promising.