February 22, 2019

After four decades of war that began with the Soviet invasion in 1979, a political settlement in Afghanistan is finally possible. That was the consensus among a group of leading experts on the country who took part in an ICWA panel discussion on Friday about the latest developments in negotiations with the Taliban and the promised withdrawal of the US forces.

“Is peace possible? Yes. Is it probable? No,” said Richard Olson, former US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan who served as the American lead on initial Afghan peace negotiations during his tenure in 2015 and 2016. Now a legitimate peace process is underway amid the expected withdrawal of at least some US troops after a costly, 17-year American-led campaign.

The key condition among the warring sides is stalemate: “None of the parties, including the Taliban, believe they can win militarily,” added Olson, who also served as US ambassador to Pakistan.

Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham agreed. “The Taliban actually wants stability in Afghanistan; they don’t want someone new coming in,” he said about preventing Afghanistan from again providing ground for international terrorism and extremism.

But a functioning peace will depend on the continued presence of at least some US or other troops supporting the Afghan government, he added. “What’s crucial is that the military capabilities that need to be performed are carried out, whether by US forces, Afghanistan’s or those of other allies.”

Although US President Donald Trump has promised the United States will withdraw all troops from the country, few believe that will happen. Afghanistan’s former Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said the US withdrawal, in whatever form it takes place, will be key for determining the country’s future.

“The US withdrawal from Afghanistan should not set the conditions for peace,” he said. “Peace needs to be inclusive, legitimate and systemic.”

The discussion comes at a pivotal moment, with US negotiators in talks with the Taliban in Qatar this week.

But despite the relative optimism about conditions for a political settlement, the panelists agreed that amid massive challenges—including the need for new incentives to wean large swaths of the country from lucrative Taliban-led opium cultivation—the future remains unclear.

ICWA Program Director Hashim Wahdatyar, who moderated the discussion, said a lasting peace would also depend on the ability of international forces to successfully train Afghan security forces. That has eluded them so far. In any case, he added, preventing civil war requires the continued presence of at least some international troops on Afghan soil for the foreseeable future.

Watch the panel discussion:

Photo: (left to right) Hashim Wahdatyar, James Cunningham, Richard Olson and Ali Ahmed Jalali.
Svetlana Nekrasova | www.svetanekrasova.com)