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Afghanistan Peace Deal Must Prioritize Democracy

The recent announcement of plans for a peace deal between the United States and the Taliban has brought what has been called “America’s forgotten war” back to the headlines. Yet to secure meaningful peace, it is critical that the negotiation process and any resulting settlement preserve and extend the (albeit limited) democratic gains made over the past nineteen years—or risk a return to the dark days of Taliban rule.

If the Taliban abides by the terms of the proposed deal, the United States is expected to draw down troops from 13,000 to 8,600 over five months. The Taliban will then negotiate with the Afghan government as part of an intra-Afghan dialogue to discuss the future of the country. As negotiations unfold, our experts offer an analysis of what the process should look like to ensure that the democratic gains made in the country over the last nineteen years are not jeopardized.

According to a statement released by the Taliban, the terrorist group is prepared to scale back aggression in favor of peace negotiations—but there is no guarantee that the Taliban will abide by the terms of the deal, and questions of power-sharing between the Taliban and the Afghan government remain unresolved. The peace deal may also herald the reintegration of the Taliban into the mainstream of Afghan politics—a development that could severely undermine progress made on improving human rights and taking steps toward establishing democratic institution.

The following key elements must be included in any permanent settlement if Afghanistan is to have any hope of achieving genuine peace and democratic progress:

1. Including women in the negotiation process is vital to creating a representative government.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan has seen a notable uptick in women’s participation in the public sphere. With each year, more and more Afghan women are pursuing higher education, entering the workforce and obtaining scholarships abroad—impressive milestones given the education, work and travel bans imposed on women from 1996 to 2001.

Women’s rights activists fear that peace negotiations with the ultra-conservative Taliban could open the door to a severe regression in women’s rights. Although Taliban negotiators have sought to portray the militant group as more female-friendly than in the past, women continue to face significant discrimination in Taliban-controlled areas. Women and other marginalized groups must be included in the peace talks and intra-Afghan dialogues to safeguard women’s rights and create a representative government.

2. Political leaders must unite around democratic ideals.

On February 18, the Independent Elections Council announced the re-election of incumbent president Ashraf Ghani; however, opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah also declared victory and vowed to establish a parallel government. Despite their political differences, Ghani and Abdullah agree on the importance of protecting civil and women’s rights as well as upholding the constitution.

If the various political camps remain pitted against each other, progress towards achieving these ends will be complicated. Furthermore, the absence of a strong, united government will stymie the formation of an inclusive team to negotiate with the Taliban. For the good of the country—and ultimately, for their political survival—they must work together to ensure that the fragile democratic gains that have been made are not trampled by a resurgent Taliban.

3. The U.S. must commit to protecting Afghanistan’s democratic institutions, and ensure that troop withdrawals coincide with the Taliban’s demonstrated adherence to the terms of the peace deal.  

As a peace deal emerges, the terms and timeline of the drawdown in U.S. forces remains unclear. According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the U.S. will limit troops to 8,600 if the Taliban demonstrates a commitment to stability in the coming months. A complete withdrawal is even feasible if the reduction in violence continues long-term. In order to ensure that the gains for women and other minorities in the country are protected and that the democratic nature of Afghanistan’s constitution remains intact during the upcoming peace talks with the Taliban, the U.S. should exert caution when downsizing forces and should reconsider the drawdown if there is backsliding from the Taliban or if they regain political power.

It’s important to note that negotiations could last for months, if not years—particularly between Afghanistan’s many ethnically-divided interest groups. Beyond a reduction in violence, any peace deal is not likely to succeed if the government is not able to take meaningful steps to address the underlying social, political and economic issues that leaves Afghanistan vulnerable to a reprise of Taliban rule. It is vital that the U.S. remain committed to fortifying the nascent democratic institutions that have cost so much in blood and treasure to build—and which are vital to ensuring that the country does not become a haven for terrorism once again.