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As Afghanistan moves towards peace, international donors must learn from past mistakes

Written by Ashley Jackson, Mark Bowden, Mareike Schomerus

Following a week-long ‘reduction in violence’ during which insurgency-related deaths were drastically reduced, on Saturday the US and the Taliban signed a pact which paves the way for long-awaited intra-Afghan peace talks to begin. 

At the same time, international donors are preparing for a major pledging conference, likely to be held this November, which should signal their willingness to support a sustained and meaningful peace process.

Peace talks have taken place, and accords been signed, on a number of occasions in Afghanistan’s recent history. All have failed. Drawing on new research, three experts from our Lessons for Peace project reflect on what donors must learn from past experiences to change the way they approach this next crucial stage in supporting peace in Afghanistan.

Frequently asked questions

Ashley Jackson: Listening to Afghans should be the first step

Part of the problem is that the international community has largely regarded the Taliban as beyond the pale and irreconcilable. This stance has always been contradictory, driven by external perceptions and domestic politics rather than ground realities. Donors have imposed counterterror restrictions and banned NGOs from providing material support – all the while funnelling increasing amounts of aid to Taliban areas, where NGOs would be required to negotiate with the Taliban in order to gain access.

The US-Taliban deal has significantly changed these dynamics, and the Taliban are no longer seen as irreconcilable. Yet I am not at all optimistic that donors have learned the right lessons. More broadly, there has been a need to sell the idea of success in Afghanistan at all costs. This has led to simplistic narratives about the conflict, which in turn created deeply flawed approaches that fuelled corruption, rentier politics and violent conflict.

The pressure to sell a narrative of success persists. There is a very real concern that donors may now feel forced to cast the Taliban in a more positive light, for example, in order to support the ongoing political process. That would be tragically short-sighted. Now more than ever, the international community needs to take a cold, hard look at the mistakes they have made since 2001. The first steps may lie in simply listening more to Afghans and supporting independent research to understand their ground realities.

Frequently asked questions

Mark Bowden: a development dialogue must run alongside the peace process

The US-Taliban pact is a welcome step forward towards developing a peace process by resolving the fundamental obstacle of a continued US troop presence.

It has been reached at a time of serious political crisis within Afghanistan over the disputed presidential election results. One of the first challenges will be to ensure the intra-Afghan dialogue, which is set to begin on 10 March, is inclusive and recognises the current political and social fractures within the country. The international community must work in a more unified way to ensure the dialogue does not fall victim to these political differences.

The withdrawal of US troops will result in Afghanistan’s second economic transition. Past experience from Afghanistan and Iraq showed dramatic decline in international assistance immediately following troop withdrawal. This remains a particular concern for Afghanistan, which has extraordinarily high levels of aid dependence. The next biennial inter-ministerial aid conference is scheduled for later this year and it is unlikely that current levels of assistance will be maintained.

The longstanding conflict in Afghanistan has led to more poverty with little economic growth. Many of Afghanistan’s economic problems arose in the last transitional period as a result of confusion between peace processes and development activities. Donors must avoid making the same mistakes this time around and carefully consider how best to support peace that delivers benefits to all Afghans.

The recent agreement also provides a major development opportunity. Taliban control or contestation of about 60% of Afghanistan’s land area has had a major impact on internationally funded development activities. Donors unable to monitor their assistance have increasingly restricted their programmes, meaning services such as healthcare in Taliban areas continue to be less well supported. The rural-urban divide has also deepened.

It is therefore vital to establish a development dialogue with the Taliban that runs alongside the peace process. A dialogue should avoid the pitfalls of incentivisation and focus on a common commitment to open up access to improved services and protect and prioritise the restoration of national infrastructure.

Frequently asked questions

Mareike Schomerus: new pact leaves most crucial issues untouched

The moment a deal is signed is both exhilarating and dangerous: exhilarating because it suggests both closure and a new beginning; dangerous because the photo opportunity euphoria makes it easy to forget the challenges of a post-peace deal future.

The signature moment between the US and the Taliban might look exhilarating, but our new research on other peace processes reminds us it has none of the characteristics of what today is considered a workable peace deal: a result of and a further path towards inclusive, collaborative and restorative processes.

An ideal peace process creates a political and economic landscape that is inclusive, works with or creates broad popular legitimacy of everyone negotiating the deal, reduces incentives to use violence and makes sure that political conflict can happen without violence.

That is normally a long way from what is actually happening. Why? Because giving up power is difficult and because a peace deal usually cannot hide the fact there are other agendas in the mix that do not just go away, including those of by international actors, as our research on donor interventions in Afghanistan shows.

A US-Taliban peace deal that focuses primarily on US withdrawal leaves most issues that are crucial for people in Afghanistan untouched. It does not resolve power struggles internal to Afghanistan, nor does it answer what Afghan’s economy will do without the influx of US military spending.

We know from other peace processes that their highest value lies in the avenues they open up for peaceful interaction to address how power and resources are shared, whose voices are considered when causes of violence are discussed, and what happens with those whose livelihoods during the conflict depended on violence.

A simple withdrawal agreement does not offer this and whether the US-Taliban pact opens up routes for further internationally-supported dialogue that benefits all Afghans is unclear. What we know for now is only this: the moment of the signature is exhilarating and dangerous.