The following article was shortlisted but not finally selected by the Geneva-based Oslo Forum as part of its 2021 Peace Writer Prize. A longer draft was initially published by Global Insights earlier this year soliciting further suggestions for how peace could be attained in Afghanistan, but in a manner that benefits the large majority of ordinary Afghans and not simply the Taliban or the Kabul regime. More than 100 comments were received from all over the world, some of which have been incorporated below.
Ever since fighting first broke out in this mountainous and desert country in the summer of 1978, ordinary Afghans have found themselves manipulated by self-serving politicians, power-hungry warlords, abusive insurgents and drug traffickers. (The U.S. first became involved with military support for Afghan guerrillas in 1979 – See Global Insights article on the suspected KGB murder of American ambassador Adolph Dubs). The Afghans also have been betrayed by outside powers with their own geopolitical agendas and, even if well-meaning, policies that have consistently failed.
Based on numerous discussions and insights by concerned Afghans, experienced international aid specialists and other observers, two journalists with over four decades of reporting in Afghanistan explore the possibility of a peace process that could finally offer Afghans a genuine voice in their own political future. This approach features the formation of a non-factional interim administration leading to truly free and fair elections coupled with an internationally backed and cost-effective economic stimulus package – a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan – with an emphasis on livelihood creation benefitting all Afghans.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” attributed to Albert Einstein.
This quote attributed to one of the greatest thought leaders of the 20th century aptly describes the manner with which the international community has repeatedly dealt with Afghanistan. Ever since fighting broke out in July, 1978, the country has been embroiled in an exhausting war that shows no signs of resolution. The US-led NATO withdrawal without ensuring a viable long-term peace solution has only accelerated the prospects of an even more devastating civil war.
Over the past 20 years, much has been achieved in Afghanistan in the form of education, health care, women’s rights, agriculture, plus a vibrant civil society and press. Yet while over one trillion dollars has been spent in western military and development aid, billions have been wasted, much to corruption. Since the United States-led invasion of October 2001, Washington has channelled 978 billion dollars into a military intervention that has not only largely failed, but exacerbated insecurity and divisions. It has also got in the way of effective economic development. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians, western and government forces, as well as insurgents, have been killed or injured.
President Biden’s decision earlier this year to pull out all U.S. combat troops, together with NATO, with 11 September 2021 as his final deadline has severely undermined Afghanistan’s prospects of peace. It has basically given the Taliban a green light to do what they want. At this time of writing, the Taliban have been taking control of more and more districts either through direct assaults or through negotiated intimidation of Afghan government security forces. While some observers are already talking about the impending collapse of the Ashraf Ghani regime, the Taliban do not appear to have the means to take – and hold – Kabul, and may be simply strengthening their position for future negotiations.
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Much will depend on what the international community does, including providing enough financial support to ensure that the salaries of Afghan police and military are paid on time. Many security personnel have complained that corrupt government elements have been siphoning their pay. Sometimes, too, it arrives weeks or months late. This has prompted members of the security forces to drift away or to join the Taliban. (See article on the abandonment of a nation)
As matters stand, the Doha initiative has been going nowhere. With Washington’s “let’s wash our hands and get out” approach to the future of Afghanistan, the process over the past year has granted few if any favours to ordinary Afghans, particularly women and youth. Instead, the talks have sought to accommodate non-representative factions, notably the Kabul regime and the Taliban, in which few have any trust. While numerous rural Afghans, notably in Pushtun areas, may be open to a Talib takeover, this has more to do with war fatigue and a desire for a return to peace combined with genuine law and order.
As the overwhelming majority of Afghans are only too aware, both groups respond more to their own control interests with little regard for the people. Neither is interested in power-sharing. As predicted, too, the Taliban, not unlike the mujahideen of the 1980s and 1990s, are in the process of imploding with divisions amongst the Peshawar and Quetta shuras, but also inside commanders. As of May 2021 two dozen Afghan political groups, some encouraged by foreign backers, have announced their own peace proposals indicating a lack of faith in Doha, but also lack of unity amongst themselves. Most, however, seek to push themselves.
The Taliban, estimated at 70,000-80,000 fighters, are probably the most powerful they have ever been since the NATO intervention. Ever since Biden’s decision to pull out U.S. combat troops, they have made significant gains. While the insurgents do not hold any major towns, they are seeking to present a position of strength to take advantage of the U.S. decision through increasingly brutal assaults against civilian targets. Yet the Taliban, too, have suffered severe losses. (No accurate figures are available despite some US or government claims that over 100,000 have been killed). Nevertheless, it is known that American drone attacks in the past have taken their toll, contributing to a leadership vacuum and ironically killing the very counterparts needed for negotiation.
Also similar to the mujahideen, the Taliban are not a homogenous movement. They are split into different factions with their own ambitions. Various militants, jealous of the way Talib delegates in Doha have grown comfortable with their salaries and per diems, now smell the prospects of an endgame. This is making it more difficult for Islamabad – the Taliban’s primary supporter – to assert control. Already burdened by three million Afghan refugees, the Pakistanis would rather oversee a smaller group of Talib factions, similar to the six exile mujahed parties they imposed during the 1980s in Peshawar.
As for Kabul, the regime is rife with corruption and lacks credibility. The fact that Ashraf Ghani, who is considered arrogant and out-of-touch, ‘won’ the disputed 28 September 2019 elections with 50.64 per cent does not legitimize him as president. With so many Afghans disillusioned by the electoral process because of political manipulation, corruption, or outright threats, including assaults against the press, only 1.6 million amongst Afghanistan’s 9.7 million registered citizens voted. At least six million did not bother to register. According to final tallies, Ghani received 923,592 votes – less than one-tenth of registered Afghans – which can hardly be construed as a mandate. (See article on lucrative mining deals involving the president’s brother)
His predecessor Hamid Karzai was hardly better which helps to explain why so many Afghans have lost trust in the presidency. One trait of the different western-backed Kabul regimes over the years has been to allocate budgets to projects – as well as family and friends – but never really check whether they have been completed. Politicians are aware of this and consider the government a milch cow as long as the aid continues, encouraging corruption.
Afghans need to believe that they have a future
There is little to suggest that conditions in Afghanistan are conducive for peace, or the development of a viable economy that will create jobs and improve livelihoods. Economic growth is especially critical in rural areas where an estimated 74 per cent of Afghans live. Afghanistan will only succeed if better prospects for the future are offered and involve leaders genuinely accountable to the people.
A new political and economic vision is needed. Greater regional autonomy, including the direct election of provincial governors, is a possible model, based, for example, on the Swiss cantonal system. The Kabul-centric rule imposed by the December 2001 Bonn accords has never lived up to the limited promise it once held. What the Swiss model offers is the possibility of Kabul assuming responsibility for portfolios such as foreign affairs, interior, and finance, but with greater provincial decision-making more in line with local conditions and interests.
As journalists who have reported the Afghan conflict for over 40 years, we have witnessed again and again how outside powers have arrogantly (or naively) sought to control events or impose their own visions on Afghanistan. Based on input provided by concerned Afghans and foreign observers, this essay outlines suggestions for a more realistic long-term solution that does not sell Afghans down the river. A majority of this country’s 39 million people (UN estimate, 2020) are genuinely peace-loving. Moreover, such a proposal would help place Afghanistan and its potential role as an international crossroads for trade and communications between East and West, North and South, on the path to a more sustainable future. This would not only serve the interests of Afghanistan but the region and the world.
Overall, the key is to actively engage and inform all Afghans. They need to be convinced that a representative transitional process will not only help bring an end to insecurity, but will lead to significant dividends through the creation of an ambitious but accountable economic stimulus plan.
Time for a Marshall Plan that should have happened in 2002
What is needed is the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs throughout the country from Kabul to the smallest hamlets in the Hindu Kush. Employment and infrastructure resources will prove far more cost-effective than wasting even more billions of dollars on counter-insurgency efforts. Even without NATO, government forces are likely to continue fighting as long as the West supports the Afghan military and police, particularly their salaries. This may have to include a continued if not symbolic NATO presence on the ground, including air or drone support. History, however, shows that this will almost certainly lead to a protracted and bitter stalemate. When the Red Army withdrew in February 1989, the PDPA regime staved off the mujahideen for three years, only to collapse when funding ran out.
Afghanistan is far different today than during the Talib period. Whether the Taliban like it or not, the clock cannot be turned back. Investment in education has yielded significant results. Adult literacy, while still low by world standards particularly amongst women, is now over 43 per cent compared to less than 19 per cent during the 1980s. (See article on women as a possible solution for peace) Over nine million children are in school, including 3.5 million girls, including in traditionally conservative tribal areas which used to oppose female education. However, another 3.5 million, mainly girls, are not. Talib insistence that they run their own schools would almost inevitably discriminate against girls. Nationwide education, which is supported by UNICEF, UNESCO and other donors with teacher salaries even in Talib zones paid by Kabul, should be non-negotiable. It is critical that such development gains be expanded, and considered pre-conditions for any future western support.
Afghans are now better informed with access to outside information through social media and foreign broadcasters. In many parts, too, rural infrastructure improvements are impressive. Bamiyan is thriving with exceptional potato crops, while one million Helmand families are now farming a previously barren desert drawing water from deep aquifers with Chinese-supplied solar pumps. These advances are largely due to Afghan and international organizations such as the Swedish Committee and Aga Khan Foundation and smaller NGOs such as the International Foundation of Hope, AfghanAid and MADERA which have successfully engaged local populations with grass-root initiatives. What the country now needs is a broad-based Marshall Plan with resources allocated contingent upon cessation of hostilities and ongoing collaboration, something which – as various experienced Afghan hands had suggested at the time – should have been the focus of western engagement since 2002. (See a journalist’s personal reflection on 40 years of war in Afghanistan)
The international community needs to firmly – and loudly – reaffirm its commitment not only to a workable peace process, but also a tangible economic stimulus package in the form of a specially tailored Marshall Plan. It must act both as arbiter and a donor that prioritizes transparent social engagement and promotes private investment and trade. There is also an urgent need to liberate young people from permanent warfare. Nearly 64 per cent of Afghans are under 25 (UNFPA estimate). They are not responsible for the mess bequeathed to them. Most young Afghans were not even around when the Taliban took Kabul in 1996. Yet many, particularly boys, consider their homeland a hopeless case and are seeking to emigrate. Access to social media coupled with constant contact to expatriates has enabled them to see the ‘bright lights’ on the outside.
Western resources must be used to generate an effective economic future for all, not to prolong a senseless military stand-off. Nor should the West assume that current political players, or their offspring, be automatically granted the right to rule.
A proposal for genuine long-term peace
Our proposal based on numerous suggestions and other forms of input received outlines three main points: the establishment of an interim administration, overseen by an international entity; free and fair elections; and the implementation of a robust economic stimulus package that features long-term development aid and private investment. Afghanistan is not without significant potential: mineral resources, traditional and drip-irrigation farming, eco and cultural tourism, transport, and communications. As a country, it has far more to offer than many realise, provided the country can cease fighting and prioritize economic growth.
This three-tiered approach would require the support of the United States, European Union, UK, Canada, and Australia, as well as Russia, Iran, India and the Gulf countries. Afghanistan, for example, should have been a point of discussion, if not rapprochement, at the recent Biden-Putin talks in Geneva. Both countries have an interest in Afghanistan returning to peace. In particular, Pakistan must be incentivized to cease its underhanded support to the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, and elements of al Qaeda and ISIS. Additionally, Western powers must compel Pakistan and India to stop using Afghanistan as a proxy playground for dispute.
Clearly, a major obstacle will be how to attract the Talib rank and file. The current Talib leadership will go out of its way to ensure that the movement’s current military gains serve as a pivotal negotiating tool. While certain hard-line Talib factions are unlikely to concede, local commanders might be persuaded if they can offer their local constituencies something other than war, such as infrastructure jobs (e.g., road construction and maintenance), storage depots for fruit and vegetables, or better education for their children. There is no shortage of ideas by Afghans and international experts on what needs to be done to improve the quality of life, particularly in tribal areas where the Taliban enjoy a significant base. Furthermore, an end to the fighting could also ensure protection for Afghanistan’s cultural heritage which is being currently destroyed by a combination of fighting and looting. (See Jolyon Leslie article on the destruction of cultural heritage)
Overall, a new approach is needed, but much will depend on whether the West is still willing to help and not simply walk away.
The first step: a non-factional interim administration
Afghans need to be reassured that the most effective way to emerge from their imbroglio is to start with a clean slate. Any form of power-sharing between Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban is unlikely to work; all signs point to inevitable collapse due to power grabs, factional suspicions and bickering. One only need glance at past failed attempts to establish any degree of unity at the central level. Even if littered with political landmines, a more viable option is the establishment of a non-factional transitional government involving 25-30 respected and diverse Afghans drawn from all over the country.
The international donor community should insist that in return for financing the stimulus plan, an international group, potentially led by the Swiss, oversee the appointment of an interim administration. Given current divisions, it is unlikely that Afghans can do this on their own. No officially designated government politicians or Talib representatives would be included in the interim government unless they present themselves as non-partisan individuals.
Highly competent Afghans are not lacking, and the transitional cabinet should not only represent different regions but also different tribal and ethnic groups and professions, such as teachers, religious leaders (Ulema), entrepreneurs, lawyers, farmers, and civil servants. All members must agree not to participate in the first elections. To set a standard, at least one third should consist of women (only four are participating in the Doha talks) to guarantee gender gains in Afghanistan. This will almost certainly provoke hard resistance amongst traditionalists, but the international community needs to insist on this point as a condition of its economic stimulus package. (See article on Afghanistan photo book by Whitney Azoy from the pre-war days)
International oversight: Switzerland with UN support
The overall process could be overseen by neutral Switzerland, which has had a previous conflict mediation role during the Soviet-Afghan war, with the United Nations providing institutional support. Accordingly, the Bern government would appoint a respected chief mediator and host the talks in a neutral location, such as the Swiss Alps. Establishing personal relations with, and amongst, Afghans will be critical in the negotiations. While some might regard this as naive, tea-drinking represents a crucial aspect of negotiation amongst Afghans while informal long mountain walks might just lead to the type of breakthrough needed to end the gridlock amongst the factions. (See article on war and peace in Geneva in the time of COVID)
Previous oversight experiences such as Paddy Ashdown, who dealt with Bosnia-Herzegovina, or a Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the UN’s transitional administrator in East Timor provide good examples. Given the broad respect that many Afghans, including the Taliban, still have for the International Committee of the Red Cross, a current or former ICRC senior leader could prove to be a suitable top negotiator. Scandinavian countries or other international organizations well known to Afghans might also be worth considering. For obvious reasons, such a role should not be assumed by anyone perceived as representing the U.S. or a NATO country.
Corruption-free and fair elections
The proposed 12-month transitional period would lead to elections. Past polls have been marred by corruption and irregularities, so it is imperative that the new Independent Electoral Commission be overseen to avoid such abuses. Above all, the Commission must not come under the auspices of the President’s office. The process must ensure that all Afghans of voting age, including refugee populations, are properly registered. In addition, a functional database of Afghanistan’s 22 million tazkeras (identification cards) needs to be established to ensure that voters can be automatically cross-checked to weed out fraudulent registrations.
Equally crucial is a credible public information campaign involving local press and international media groups such as BBC Media Action and Internews. Ordinary Afghans need to be convinced that they can trust the new electoral process – and the international community. They also need to be warned of politicians seeking to buy votes or otherwise undermine the electoral process. (See article by Charles Norchi on international law of the seas regarding Switzerland and Afghanistan)
Once elected, it would be up to the new government to introduce constitutional reforms, such as a parallel judicial system involving both republican and sharia courts. To impose reforms based on negotiations between only the Kabul regime and Taliban without involving ordinary Afghans would be a mistake. Another suggestion for dealing with former warlords and other political or resistance figures from the past is to create an advisory Upper House of Dignitaries, or Elders, where they will receive the respect they desire but stand removed from the everyday running of the country.
New opportunities with eco-reliance
A robust economic stimulus package is critical to help turn Afghanistan around by creating jobs in sectors, such as mineral extraction, farming, road and rail construction and other infrastructure. Western donor countries much prioritise creating local employment rather than relying on outside contractors. While a degree of insecurity can expect to continue, a broad array of economic initiatives capable of generating massive employment opportunities is fundamental toward achieving lasting peace in Afghanistan.
The private sector must be encouraged to invest in the country. Obviously, this will require a level of stability. Nevertheless, efforts to incite serious investment should begin now. In particular, it would be key to encourage export-import opportunities with neighbouring countries, such as: the TAPI gas pipeline running through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India; the tripartite Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan (TAP) power project; the modernizing of transport networks connecting neighbouring countries such as Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, China, Tajikistan, and Pakistan, plus the planned CPAC 573-trans-Afghan railway connecting Central Asia with the Arabian Sea.
A new stimulus plan in Afghanistan should be regarded as an opportunity to develop more eco-resilient and disaster risk reduction approaches, such as building back better in earthquake areas, or paying local villagers to reforest mountains and hillsides as well as build and maintain roads. They should be supported to establish solar and other sustainable energy installations, develop tourism infrastructure, undertake replenishable aquifer mapping for water as has been done in Iraq and northern Kenya or introduce drip-irrigation to make more land available to young, aspiring farmers, including in Talib zones. As a source of pride for ordinary Afghans, emphasis should be placed on what they can offer the rest of the world should peace and stability be achieved.
A primary objective would be to encourage people to remain in rural areas rather than migrate to the cities in search of non-existent jobs that contribute to overcrowding and poverty. Many NGOs have already introduced such initiatives, but it is now up to the international community to scale-up with innovative programmes and increased investment. Quick fixes, however, will not work. We are looking at a long-term process that requires sustained commitment and resources from the global community. Ordinary Afghans deserve a chance to extricate themselves from this un-ending war and to embrace a promising new future. Failing to support them will continue to provoke a corrosive political and security instability of detriment not only to Afghanistan but the world.
Edward Girardet and Peter Jouvenal have worked together since 1980, often in Afghanistan, but also elsewhere in the world.
Global Insights Magazine editor (www.global-geneva.com), Edward Girardet is a Swiss-American foreign correspondent and author with over 40 years experience covering wars, humanitarian crises, and development worldwide. He first began reporting Afghanistan three months prior to the December 1979 Soviet invasion. He has written and edited over half a dozen books, including the Crosslines Essential Field Guides to Afghanistan and Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan considered a ‘classic’ by the New York Review of Books. He is currently based in France near the Geneva border.
Peter Jouvenal is British television producer, cameraman and former hotelier widely regarded as one of the most informed journalists regarding Afghanistan. He has covered Afghanistan ever since the start of the Soviet occupation in early 1980 when he travelled overland from London to first report the war as a freelance photographer. Apart from Afghanistan, he has covered numerous conflicts and humanitarian situations, including those in Liberia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, the Balkans and the Middle East. He is currently based in the UK.