Lack of unity in Afghanistan complicates survival of peace deal
Barçın Yinanç - ISTANBUL
The peace accord signed between the United States and the Taliban is at a critical juncture, according to NATO’s former civilian representative in Afghanistan. The deal foresees negotiations to be undertaken between the Taliban and the Afghan government. “There cannot be a healthy negotiation process when the Afghan government is in disunity,” said former Turkish foreign minister Hikmet Çetin.
Wrong timing complicates the survival of the Afghan peace deal. U.S. pullout from Afghanistan can come at a heavy cost.
What is your prediction regarding the peace deal? Do you think it will work?
It looks very difficult. There are no Afghans in the deal. One of the features of the deal is the talks that are supposed to take place between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But the signing of the deal has come at a very critical moment.
Abdullah Abdullah, one of the candidates for the presidential elections that were held last year, has filed serious objections regarding fraud. The election commission has just recently declared that Ashraf Ghani won the elections with 50.6 percent of the vote. The difference is too narrow, and Abdullah said he would not accept the result. In fact, two swearing-in ceremonies took place. Unfortunately, the peace accord was signed in the midst of a complicated situation in Afghanistan.
Would you say that the timing of the deal proves to be one of its weaknesses?
I think it came at the wrong time. It was wrong to finalize the deal before there was clarity on who would come to power in Kabul.
You said there are no Afghans in the deal; what do you mean by that?
The deal just says there will be talks with the Afghan government; nothing more. Since the times when the Taliban ruled the country, Afghan women have paid huge costs. Currently, all women’s organizations are up on arms. It is not clear whether women will again suffer under the Taliban. There is no sign in the deal about women’s equality. What will be the consensus about women’s status in the talks that will be conducted with the Taliban? How will the Taliban be represented in the joint government? The deal came at a time when there is no unity among Afghans. I really hope this complicated situation will not lead to fighting. There are many powerful ethnic groups and warlords behind Abdullah.
Why do you think a peace agreement became possible after 18 years?
It has been clear for a long time that a political solution is the only solution. There will be no winner in this war. When I worked in Afghanistan as the civilian representative, we prepared a report underlining the need for a negotiated settlement. Everybody agreed, but it became problematic when we started dealing with the details. For instance, there was a suggestion of separating the ideological Taliban from the non-ideological one; the ones fighting in the field versus the unemployed youth. We objected to that, saying it would not work until talks were conducted with the leadership. Negotiations started but they were never completed. The presidential system was wrong for Afghanistan. A system based on having a president and prime minister would have worked better. Under the present constitution, all ministers are supposed to have a vote of confidence. Votes can be bought, and other countries start meddling. The constitution is not in line with the characteristics of this region.
It seems the U.S. eagerness to get out as soon as possible played a role in finalizing the deal.
[U.S. President Donald] Trump promised a troop pullout, and he wanted to deliver that before the presidential elections in the United States.
From what I see, even if the Taliban were to come to power, Trump is not going to object to it. There seems to be a feeling of, “Let’s just get out regardless of what happens afterward.” But the West bears responsibility for what Afghanistan turns out to be after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union. [Moscow] just said, “Our job is over,” and handed Afghanistan to the mullahs and the Taliban. My fear is that they will again leave Afghanistan to its fate, and there could be a return to the Taliban period. This is possible because Trump thinks it’s not his job to deal with that part of the world; he wants to deliver on his promise of a troop withdrawal. But this might come at a heavy cost.
What could be that cost?
The Taliban could come back to power.
Yes, but at the end of the day, the Taliban are also Afghan.
Yes, but their governance is a bloody, backward and radical one. The Taliban have a Wahhabi ideology. Starting with women, Afghanistan might face a much bigger problem.
You fear Afghanistan might be left to its fate. But some might say, maybe it could be better if this was indeed the case, since the presence of foreign forces has not helped the country.
I don’t say foreign forces should not get out. Foreign forces should leave. But it is important what they leave behind.
There was too much emphasis given to the military process all this time. Billions of dollars were spent, yet no significant step was taken for the economic and social development of the country. The whole world is in Afghanistan but it still remains the world’s poorest country and the least developed in terms of women’s rights or education.
If the Afghan people hadn’t been disappointed, things could have turned out differently.
After 18 years, the United States and NATO forces failed to defeat the Taliban. How come?
Obviously, the Taliban are supported from outside – not directly by official governments, but by foundations and whatnot. It is a complicated situation; the members of the same Pashtun tribe are divided by the [Afghan-Pakistani] border.
Pakistan has always been accused of supporting the Taliban.
Afghanistan has always suffered from foreign intervention. It has always been like this throughout its history. If there had been emphasis on the political solution, if more money had been spent on the economic sphere, if there had been negotiations including the Taliban, and if the withdrawal were conditional on certain red lines like women rights, things could have been different.
Was this an intentional choice, or did it stem from, particularly, Western ignorance due to their lack of understanding of the region and its cultural codes?
The West does not really know the region, but no foreign intervention has come up with a solution. Look at Iraq, Syria and Libya. Everyone has a finger in Afghanistan – Iran, India, even Russia in the north. The United States lost in Vietnam, and took its revenge on the Russians in Afghanistan, but the cost was paid by the Afghans.
Do you think Taliban might have changed?
It might have understood that it cannot do certain things. Taliban is also tired. But still, once a young man from Taliban had told me, “We chose death, the foreign soldiers chose to live. Those who have chosen to live cannot deal with those who chose death.”
But the key in the period ahead is for the Taliban to see a stable government as its interlocutor. There cannot be a healthy negotiation process when the Afghan government is in disunity. Currently the peace deal is at a critical juncture.
What are the lessons to be learned for NATO?
There should be a common budget for such a mission. In addition, the caveats and the restrictions member states pose on the use of their force created many difficulties. More flexibility is needed for such missions.
WHO IS HİKMET ÇETİN?
*A former parliament speaker and foreign minister, Hikmet Çetin was appointed in 2003 as NATO secretary general’s first senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, the highest-level political representative of NATO in this country. He served two consecutive terms until 2006.
*Earlier in his career, Çetin was elected in the 1977 general elections from the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Between 1978 and 1979 he served as minister of state and later as deputy prime minister.
*He became an MP in 1987 from the Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP). He became the secretary general of SHP and was elected in 1991 for the third time.
*Çetin served as foreign minister between 1991 and 1994. He retook his seat in parliament in 1995 and served as the parliament speaker from 1997 to 1999.
*Since 2013, Çetin has been a member of the Global Leadership Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation established to make available the experience of former leaders to today’s national leaders.