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Global Risk Insights

Global Risk Insights

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Can Afghanistan Avoid Civil War?

A deal has been recently struck in US-Taliban peace talks and progress towards long term peace seems increasingly possible. However, with a likely NATO withdrawal and recent election results, there continues to be a substantial risk to the country’s security and the likelihood of descent into civil strife.

Election result confirmed yet disputed

Last month it was announced that Ashraf Ghani had been successfully and legitimately re-elected as Afghanistan’s president. Ghani received 50.64% of the vote while Abdullah Abdullah, his main political rival and his chief executive officer, received 39.52% of the vote. Abdullah heavily disputed the legitimacy of the result and the entire electoral process, forcing a recount.

The recount has posed a potential threat to the delicate position of the peace talks between the Taliban and the US. Abdullah has declared that he is setting up a parallel government of his own, spelling danger for the intra-Afghanistan negotiations which will take place between the Taliban and the government after the start of the withdrawal of NATO forces. A fractured government and a potential for a ‘Ghani-Abdullah’ power struggle may allow for a united Taliban to gain the upper hand in negotiations.

Outcome of US-Taliban talks and beyond

The deal made between the US and Taliban delegations in Doha, Qatar on the 21st of February focused on a 7-day ‘reduction in violence’ in return for the withdrawal of US troops. The two parties agreed to several ‘good-faith’ transactions to ensure a de-escalation in the use of arms. One of these agreements was for the Taliban to commit to a ‘7-day nationwide reduction in violence’ before the US signed the deal on the 29th of February. Further conditions to the agreement included possibilities of releasing insurgent prisoners as long as safe havens for transnational terrorism was prohibited throughout Taliban territory.

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US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, claimed that once the deal was signed, intra-Afghan negotiations would begin and would “build on this fundamental step to deliver a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire and the future political roadmap for Afghanistan.”

However, the US-Taliban talks have not involved any Afghan government officials at any stage. It has led to fears that the US could prioritize a simple military withdrawal over a complex political settlement, which in turn could risk the humanitarian and socio-political gains that have been made since 2001.

Direct talks are supposedly going to begin between the Afghan government and the Taliban since the US confirmed the deal two weeks ago. Yet, problems have immediately arisen, with Ghani refusing the release of Taliban prisoners that were supposedly promised by US negotiators. Hence, observers have repeatedly raised concerns about what sort of political arrangement will be able to be negotiated to ensure an end to the insurgency and armed conflict which will satisfy both the Taliban and Kabul.

Regional interests

Several factors now provide Iran with an opportunity to gain influence. Firstly, Soleimani’s replacement, Ismail Qaani, has extensive experience and knowledge of Afghanistan and the Taliban, which will strengthen Quds forces in their activity in the country. Secondly, NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan signals removal of a physical US presence which Tehran will most likely capitalize on. Thirdly, intra-Afghan talks that are likely to be fractious and chaotic will position Iran well to gain diplomatic influence among the competing groups.

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Pakistan, who has had a close relationship with the Taliban, will be monitoring any strategic moves Iran makes to gain influence with the group. Islamabad played a crucial part in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and will hope the intra-Afghan talks will prove productive in finding a long term solution to the governing of their western neighbour. A close relationship with a government in Kabul has for a long time been a strategic desire for Islamabad with regards to its rivalry with India. Both Iran and Pakistan want to secure stability for their neighbor, but mistrust between the two may cause clash points further down the line.

China and Russia, who also share a border and history with Afghanistan respectively, have their interests in how the intra-Afghan talks play out. Strategic rivalry between China, Russia, and the US will mean Beijing and Moscow will be attempting to take advantage, economically, politically, and militarily while the US is bogged down in what could be a complicated troop withdrawal.

Future outlook

Primarily, the US will want to make sure they get some sort of return on the length of time, investment, and loss of life since 2001. Having secured this deal with the Taliban, the US will now concentrate more on efficiently removing forces from around the country over the next 14 months. Trump is keen to see an end to the Afghanistan war and anticipates a timely US withdrawal will prove popular amongst the electorate with the presidential election coming up later this year in November.

In the short term, the intra-Afghan talks will commence, but a neutral host must be decided upon. Germany, Norway, Qatar, Uzbekistan, and Indonesia are currently the frontrunners to provide for these talks however, the respective governments are presently vying for the political benefits hosting such a negotiation could give them. This may cause an unnecessary delay to what are already going to be extraordinarily complex and sensitive negotiations. Considering the COVID-19 international crisis, Afghanistan will also be dealing with containing the outbreak that is prevalent on its western border with Iran. The ongoing political crisis in Kabul could further complicate any challenges involved in this effort.

A critical question that now must be confronted is: what form will a united Afghan government take, and how will it approach talks with the Taliban? For the talks to be productive and result in a long term solution, the government must be seen as legitimate and supported by Afghan citizens. How long this will take is unknown, but the longer the country does not have a unified government, the longer the talks may be delayed. There is a risk that if the negotiations proceed too quickly, the divergent ambitions of the Ghani and Abdullah governments will cause significant damage to any authority the elected government still has in reinforcing their negotiating position against other actors.

In the medium term, there is ample concern that the uncertainty that typifies the Afghan political situation will lead to an armed conflict between the competing factions. It is well known that there is deep mistrust between the Taliban and the current Western-backed government, and this will prove a significant barrier throughout the talks. If talks breakdown between both parties or within each party and progress seems unattainable, violence and further conflict are likely.

By Charles Williams via Global Risk Insights

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