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Charting the Path Ahead for Afghanistan: Achieving a Widely Acceptable End State

By Gullalai Achekzai, Dr Alema, Mohammad Haneef Atmar, Kobra Dehqan, Nisar Ahmad Ghoriani, Mohammad Shakir Kargar, Ruqia Nayel, Najiba Quraishi, Dr Mobarez Rashidi, Mohammad Aleem Saaie, Dr Mohammad Jalil Shams, Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, Farukh Leqa Unchizada, Dr Mohammad Qasim Wafayezada, and Sharifa Zurmati.

This paper encapsulates the perspectives of a committed cohort of Afghan politicians, technocrats, human rights advocates, and women rights and civil society activists concerning the prevailing situation in Afghanistan. It outlines our recommendations for both national and international collaboration aimed at forging an end state that garners wide approval among the Afghan people, while concurrently ensuring that the country does not evolve into a sanctuary for global terrorism and other security threats. 

A man and woman, each carrying a small child, walk down a bridge next to a street.
Kabul, Afghanistan - June 8, 2011

THE DETERIORATING SITUATION  

As the complex and interlinked crises of Afghanistan grind on, its current situation, future prospects, and spillover effects become more uncertain, dangerous, and harder to contain. 

The humanitarian crisis is deepening with disastrous consequences.  The international response is increasingly constrained not only by the Taliban’s policies and their ban on women’s work, but also by a huge shortfall in funding.  The latter is partly a consequence of the former.

The widespread poverty and food insecurity of the overwhelming majority of the population is an indicator that – despite some reportedly “positive” economic signs – the country’s economy remains fragile, and fails the poor.  The economic woes of Afghanistan are further exacerbated by a wide array of contributing factors, such as the continued exodus of the remaining cadre of technocrats; capital flight; restrictions on the banking sector; a lack of transparency and accountability of Taliban leaders in managing national revenue and public finance; and an unevenly enforced ban on poppy cultivation that fails to address critical issues of alternative livelihoods, drugs stockpiles, processing, trafficking, and demand reduction.

Denying Afghan girls and women the right to education, work, and participation not only removes them from public spaces, but also endangers the health and socioeconomic wellbeing of the entire population, putting the future of the country at risk. Arbitrary detentions and disappearances, mainly targeting those associated with the Islamic Republic; crackdowns on media; and religious restrictions imposed on minorities are but a few examples of the Taliban’s misrule in today’s Afghanistan. 

It is for this reason that, despite its grip on power for more than two years now, the Taliban regime has not gained legitimacy as a government or acceptance from wider Afghan society or the international community.  While Afghan civil society is fragmented, and the non-Taliban political community faces challenges of unity and credibility, the fact remains that legitimacy and acceptance will not come for as long as the Taliban continue to shun intra-Afghan negotiations and an inclusive political settlement.

On the security front, the sole focus of the Taliban’s counterterrorism efforts on Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) – albeit with mixed results – shows deliberate selectivity, which allows other major networks, including Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), to build operational infrastructure and lethal capabilities. Continued warnings from credible Afghan and international sources, including the UN Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, about the growing threats of these networks should not be ignored, if the regional and international community is to avoid future security disasters. 

On the other hand, this current trend of Taliban selectivity in targeting terrorist groups carries the potential to exacerbate mistrust, fuel major power rivalries, and spark proxy confrontations within the region. Despite their alignment and symbiotic relationships with the Taliban in mounting a collective insurgency against the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and its NATO partners over the past two decades, these terror networks have historically pursued distinct country or regional objectives for their acts of terrorism beyond Afghanistan. For instance, Al Qaeda's focus has primarily been directed against the West, while groups like LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) have targeted India, TTP has focused on Pakistan, IMU and the Nassra Front have targeted Central Asia and Russia, and ETIM has aimed at China. The Taliban's covert or overt cooperation with external actors, coupled with the ensuing selective counterterrorism efforts, may soon lead major powers to believe that their own national security priorities are being undermined by their rivals' collaboration with the Taliban.  

AN ACCEPTABLE END STATE 

Moving forward, we believe that tactical “engagement” and wishful “normalization” approaches will not take Afghanistan out of the crises it faces today.  If the two-plus past years of Taliban rule is the example to go by, we are likely to see increased threats of terrorism, instability, organized crime activities, humanitarian catastrophes, economic stagnation, human rights abuses, and forced migration.   

We are steadfast in our belief that a fair and widely embraced intra-Afghan political accord is the sole means to halt the declining trajectory, and to establish the groundwork for an end state that secures acceptance from the Afghan people and garners support from the regional and international community.  In our view, such an end state should be founded on the following overarching principles:

  1. Fundamentals of the country. Afghanistan’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, rule of law, neutrality, and peaceful co-existence are to be ensured by national and international commitments.
  2. Rule of law.  Afghanistan must be governed by a constitution ensuring both Islamic and universal values and upholding fundamental rights and freedoms for all men, women, and children of the country.
  3. Legitimate governance. The government's legitimacy at both national and international levels should be derived from the free will, votes, and active participation of all Afghan citizens, including women and men. This legitimacy should be upheld through its commitment to universal values and Afghanistan's international obligations.
  4. National inclusivity and reconciliation.  National inclusivity is to be achieved through free and fair elections. Nevertheless, to further the goals of national reconciliation, it is essential to institute a legal framework for seat allocation in all branches of transitional and future elected governments for the underrepresented segments of the population, especially women, Ulema, and minorities. A credible Islamic scholars' institution is to be established within the state's architecture to advocate for and safeguard the fundamental rights and freedoms of all people in Afghanistan.  The country's security institutions are to foster national inclusivity and reconciliation by incorporating both the Taliban and trained security personnel from the former Islamic Republic to serve the nation. 
  5. National security. Sustained collaboration between Afghanistan, the region, and the international community is to ensure that the country remains free from terrorism, narcotics, and organized crime.  
People walking down a dirt road in between buildings.
Bagram, Afghanistan (June 9, 2011)

INTRA-AFGHAN SETTLEMENT  

We believe that the failure of the Doha-based peace negotiations has been a key factor behind the ongoing crises of the country. Therefore, a well-designed and truly supported process of intra-Afghan peace negotiations, aimed at reaching an inclusive political settlement, may be the only viable way to achieve the desired end state and lasting peace in Afghanistan. 

The Taliban, who have so far avoided any meaningful engagement with fellow Afghans on the country’s political future, will have to heed our people’s overwhelming demand for peace, security, and legitimate governance, and honor their own obligations to participate in intra-Afghan negotiations. The Taliban should remind themselves of the commitment they have made to engage in talks with “the Afghan sides” in the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan (known as the Doha Agreement, which was finalized in February 2020). 

The Taliban’s supreme leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzadah, has publicly expressed a commitment to uphold the Doha Agreement – for reasons that are not limited to religious precepts.  There have also been voices from other Taliban leaders in support of the agreement and women’s rights issues. On the latter, these statements have contradicted their leader’s.  Despite evident differences, the stakes are high for Taliban leaders. They link the Doha Agreement to their paramount interests, which encompass personal and regime security, the lifting of sanctions, access to the country's assets and reserves, international collaboration, and the potential for recognition.

Undoubtedly, the Taliban have strong incentives to keep the Doha Agreement alive. However, as is the case with counterterrorism, their interpretation is selective. Taliban leaders have so far evaded the commitment to intra-Afghan negotiations, which is the fundamental element to achieve a genuine political settlement as envisioned in the Doha Agreement. Unless this obligation is fully implemented in good faith, it will be hard to maintain any credibility in the Doha Agreement or in any other political process that may involve the Taliban and the regional and international community.

The purpose of intra-Afghan negotiations is to establish transitional and permanent governance and power-sharing arrangements for an acceptable end state, as well as to conceive a roadmap for key components, benchmarks, and timelines.  We propose the reinstatement and reconfiguration of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), established by the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and previously endorsed by the international community and engaged by the Taliban in the earlier intra-Afghan peace talks. This renewed HCNR should be tasked to effectively represent non-Taliban Afghans in the negotiation process. In collaboration with the United Nations (UN), the reform initiative should focus on empowering a new generation of Afghan politicians and civil society leaders, both women and men, possessing the capability and credibility to instill trust and confidence among the Afghan people in the HCNR and the intra-Afghan peace negotiations.

In this context, the UN can and should play a key role, particularly in facilitation and mediation of the intra-Afghan negotiations, and build regional and international consensus and support for it. The UN can work with five Host Countries (Germany, Norway, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, and Qatar), or other willing country partners, to convene a credible intra-Afghan process on a rotating basis.  

Two young people walk arm in arm along a dirt path, one of them holding an umbrella above both of their heads.
Kabul, Afghanistan

A MULTI-PRONGED INTERNATIONAL STRATEGY 

A broad international consensus, expressed recently at a meeting of influential regional and international actors (led by the UN Secretary General in Doha), and in the recent UNSC’s resolution to mandate a mission for an “independent assessment and provision of recommendations for an integrated and coherent international approach” (led by Ambassador Feridun Sinirlioğlu), has created a major opening for a robust international diplomatic effort.  Such an effort should be led by a multi-pronged strategy for Afghanistan in order to be able to help move the country in the direction of the end state.  In our view, the following priorities must be addressed in this strategy: 

  1. Review of the Doha Agreement. There should be a thorough review of the Agreement by its parties to ensure that its obligations, including the intra-Afghan negotiations and an inclusive settlement, are fulfilled.  If the Taliban fail to meet their obligations, the U.S. will be justified in withdrawing from the Agreement. On balance, it is the Taliban who benefit more from the currently selective enforcement of the Doha Agreement. 
  2. Regional and international consensus and cooperation. The UN-led international consultation on Afghanistan initiated in May 2023 in Doha is an excellent opportunity for strengthening regional and international consensus and cooperation.  In this context, Ambassador Sinirlioğlu’s mission is crucial and must benefit from a wide and in-depth consultation with Afghan political and civil society actors, including women and youth, both inside and outside Afghanistan.
  3. Intra-Afghan negotiation and settlement. A UN-facilitated and mediated process should be launched as soon as possible, and it should be supported by the UNSC as well as by key stakeholders and regional actors.
  4. A true Islamic narrative.  The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and its influential members should play their role by mobilizing their diplomatic influence and religious institutions in support of (i) human rights, especially the rights of Afghan girls and women to work and education, and (ii) intra-Afghan negotiations leading to a political settlement. A robust and sustained engagement will surely lend support to the Afghan people’s voice and demands, encourage pro-reform voices among Taliban leaders, and create support within constituencies among the Taliban rank- and-file for a true Islamic perspective.
  5. Enabling Afghan actors with commitment to peace, human rights, and legitimate governance.  International support should be extended to political and civil society actors to play their role in the intra-Afghan talks and in a potential settlement. It may be necessary to create an enabling environment and operational space outside Afghanistan for these actors to achieve unity of purpose and effort. Bringing up a new and younger generation of leaders, both men and women, to the forefront of the process should be a priority, and a responsibility, of these actors.  Within Afghanistan, the international community must press the Taliban to allow a safe space for other political and civil society actors.
  6. Humanitarian and human rights engagement.  It is critical that the international community advocate more forcefully, and use its foreign policy tools, for human rights in Afghanistan, especially regarding girls’ and women’s rights to education, employment, and participation. Failure on the human and gender rights fronts would undermine the credibility of the international community’s commitment to the people of Afghanistan.  There should be a more proactive international community engagement with Afghan political and civil society actors inside and outside Afghanistan.  These independent actors and groups have valuable knowledge, networks, and resources and can contribute to better outcomes. 
  7. Accountability and Justice. The international law and justice architecture, including the role of the International Criminal Court (ICC), to which Afghanistan is a signatory, should be engaged to promote human rights and respect for international humanitarian legal standards in the country. Such a process should ensure investigations of past crimes, including violations of women’s rights, as a deterrence against impunity. The people of Afghanistan also deserve to witness accountability for the high levels of corruption and gross mismanagement over the past two decades that led to the failure of the Islamic Republic. This process should also draw on Afghanistan’s international obligations, including those under the UN Convention Against Corruption. 

We, the undersigned, and those we represent, are dedicated to engaging in consultations with all Afghans, both within and outside the country. We are also committed to collaborating with our regional and international partners to develop and implement this approach or any other in furtherance of the Afghan people's basic right to peace, prosperity, and a political system that upholds their rights and dignity.

By

  • Gullalai Achekzai, Former Senior Advisor to Afghanistan’s President on Women Rights and Commissioner of the Independent Election Commission,
  • Dr Alema, former Deputy Minister in the State Ministry for Peace, and women’s rights activist,
  • Mohammad Haneef Atmar, former Minister of Foreign Affairs,
  • Kobra Dehqan, former Parliamentarian and Advisor to the National Security Council,
  • Nisar Ahmad Ghoriani, former Parliamentarian and Minister of Commerce,
  • Mohammad Shakir Kargar, former Vice Chairman of the Interim Government of Afghanistan and Presidential Chief of Staff,
  • Ruqia Nayel, former Parliamentarian,
  • Najiba Quraishi, former Deputy Governor and women rights activist,
  • Dr Mobarez Rashidi, former Minister of Counternarcotics,
  • Mohammad Aleem Saaie, former Governor and Parliamentarian,
  • Dr Mohammad Jalil Shams, former Minister of Economy,
  • Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, former Defense Minister and Chief Peace Negotiator
  • Farukh Leqa Unchizada, former Commissioner and Deputy Chairperson of Afghanistan Anti-Corruption Commission,
  • Dr Mohammad Qasim Wafayezada, former Minister of Information and Culture,
  • Sharifa Zurmati, former Parliamentarian and Afghan Peace Negotiator.

The views expressed are the authors' alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2023, All rights reserved.

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