History unlikely to repeat itself, says leading political scientist

Despite repeated calls from Afghans and their international partners for a reduction in violence, the Taliban has failed to listen and has steadfastly stated violence will end once an Islamic system has been established.

In an op-ed in Foreign Policy on Tuesday, Barnett Richard Rubin, an American political scientist and a leading expert on Afghanistan said that even then the group has not defined “Islamic system”.

Instead, the Taliban has stalled the talks by refusing to budge on procedural matters, including that relating to jurisprudence to be referred to in the event of disputes.

Rubin says that to get the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire, “they will most certainly have to be given something substantial in return.

“They will want further guarantees from the United States that it will complete its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and lift sanctions imposed on the Taliban,” he said.

With regards to the Afghan side, Ruben said they may want to install an interim government that includes representatives from both sides.

Should this happen, an interim government would preside over a political process to determine what the Doha agreement calls a “roadmap” for Afghanistan’s political future. As he pointed out, the idea of an interim government has been discussed in Kabul but has sparked controversy.

“There is precedent for interim governments in the practice of peace processes in general and in Afghanistan, but the history of Afghanistan also shows the risks inherent in such measures,” said Rubin.

Looking back at Afghanistan’s history of interim governments – after the Bonn Agreement in 2001, and another from 1991 to 1992 – Rubin said the end result had marked a new stage of war rather than a transition to peace.

The 2001 move was implemented after the ousting of the Taliban while the 1991 interim government came after the Soviet withdrawal and the then-president Mohammed Najibullah’s resignation which ultimately led to civil war.

As Rubin said, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has cited these events as a warning.

Addressing an event hosted by the US Institute of Peace and the Atlantic Council in June, Ghani said: “Dr Najibullah made the mistake of his life by announcing that he was going to resign.”

“Please don’t ask us to replay a film that we know well,” said Ghani.

In Rubin’s opinion, Ghani’s take on the issue is warranted.

Rubin wrote: “The Geneva Accords of April 1988 provided for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan by February 15, 1989. As a first step toward stabilization, they also required the end of US aid to the mujahideen by May 1988, but the United States refused to implement that provision without a commitment by the Soviet Union to stop military aid to the Afghan government.

“The Geneva Accords made no provision for a political transition, but in 1989, after the Soviet Union withdrew, Moscow began a dialogue with the United States about a UN-sponsored political settlement and conditions under which both sides would end military assistance. Najibullah and his Soviet backers argued that the process should start under the incumbent (him), who may leave at the end.

“The United States, mujahideen, and Pakistan insisted that Najibullah resign at the start and be replaced by a UN-mediated interim government. The Soviet Union agreed after the failed coup by hard-liners in Moscow in August 1991 that triggered the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December. Just before the state’s demise, in September 1991, both sides had agreed to end military aid to their proxies by January 1992, with an interim government to take over from Najibullah on April 15 that year.

“Mujahideen leaders in Pakistan rejected that agreement, though, and mutinous militias blocked Najibullah from flying to India under UN escort. The security forces fractured, and war started inside Kabul. Out of the resulting chaos came the Taliban,” Rubin stated.

But he said that today, there are some elements in place that would prevent a 1992-style collapse in the event of an interim government coming into power.

Rubin said that first, aid would continue to be provided, second, the negotiation process has been more transparent and third, the armed opposition is united and engaged in negotiations.

“In the 1990s, the mujahideen—also at war internally—refused to meet with representatives of the Kabul regime, making the creation of a power-sharing interim government impossible.

“This time, the Taliban also refused to meet the Afghan government before its February agreement with the United States on troop withdrawal, but they are now engaged in direct negotiations with representatives of the government.”

Rubin also stated that this time around, the parties to a potential interim government are meeting directly in Doha, and the Taliban have developed a unified command structure opposed to the factionalized group that undermined the mujahideen.

Another issue that differs now, against 1992, is that Afghanistan now has a constitution and three functioning branches of government – even if “rule of law remains weak”.

Rubin also pointed out that Afghanistan is a member of the United Nations and a party to many international agreements. “Any transition should seek to assure the continuity of the legal identity of the state and its institutions, especially the security forces,” he wrote.

“In other words, the prospects for an interim government are better this time than in 1992. What is left is for the parties to, first, make clear the means by which each of the parties will commit to an agreement internally.

“Any agreement to modify Afghanistan’s current political arrangements should take existing institutions as a point of departure. For instance, the constitution provides for an interim government in Article 67, which outlines procedures in the case of the death, resignation, illness, or impeachment of the president. To depart from these constitutional lines of succession, the formation of a new interim government could be approved by an emergency loya jirga, a customary institution codified in the Bonn Agreement. The Taliban would likewise use their own institutions to ratify it. The agreement would also have to include, as did the Bonn Agreement, the structure and personnel of the interim government, provisions for all armed forces to come under the authority of the interim government, and the legal framework under which the interim authority would operate,” Rubin wrote.

He stated that for a transition to take place, under current circumstances, it would make sense to specify the legal framework as the current constitution with appropriate modifications to accommodate the agreement on the interim government.

But he warned the Taliban may reject such a proposal since it implies the acceptance of the existing constitution.

However, Rubin noted that one former Taliban official suggested that the group might accept a modified version of the constitution of 1964, on which the current constitution is based.

He also stated that any interim government agreement should also note, as did the Bonn Agreement, that “the Interim Authority shall be the repository of Afghan sovereignty, with immediate effect.”

He said counterterrorism obligations of the Taliban, laid out in the Doha agreement as well as those of the current government, could become obligations of the interim government.

“The United States would also have to agree with the interim government that all bilateral agreements remain in effect, subject to updates reflecting changed conditions in the country,” he said.

In conclusion, Rubin stated that both sides have so far rejected any mediator or international facilitation, “but they will find it difficult if not impossible to negotiate and implement such a complex agreement without it.”

He warned however that if there is no progress in the talks, “the United States could simply disengage.”

“The United States is unlikely to break up like the Soviet Union, but it is certain to be distracted by the [COVID-19] pandemic and numerous domestic crises. The process might be different than in 1992, but the result could be similar if not worse. It is urgent to get these negotiations moving,” he said.