Reorient strategy to prioritise the reduction of violence as a necessary precursor to create the conditions in which underlying political issues can be addressed. The persistence of the violence in Afghanistan, sustained by the thriving war economy and both sides’ demonisation of each other, precludes a meaningful political process. Concrete progress towards violence reduction can build momentum and confidence among the various parties to the conflict. A phased approach could explicitly align with, build upon and affirm President Ghani’s peace offer that the government of Afghanistan will deal with the Taliban movement as a political actor once it goes on ceasefire. This provides a viable platform around which to coordinate support for an Afghan-led peace programme. International support can add credibility, accountability and resources to President Ghani’s proposal and help it to withstand resistance and shocks. International actors in discussion with the President could elaborate criteria that a ceasefire or de-escalation of violence needs to meet before it is considered credible.
Agree a joint commitment by North Atlantic Treat Organisation command and the leadership of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces to reciprocate any credible Taliban ceasefire or de-escalation steps. This could help convince the Taliban of the reliability and breadth of commitment to de-escalation and provide a basis for joint planning for preparatory measures, and support and coordination mechanisms. Implementation measures could include conditional prisoner release, temporary de-listing of sanctioned Taliban and safe-conduct or security guarantees. Implementation support mechanisms could include an international working group led by an agreed third party to develop lists of potential prisoners for prioritised release and conditions for negotiations on temporary de-listing. Potential rewards and wider benefits of ending violence would then need to be communicated between the parties through existing channels and public diplomacy.
Support the establishment of locally agreed peace zones. These could set up temporary and territorially delimited cessations of hostilities while the terms of a more permanent ceasefire could be renegotiated and the zone potentially expanded, providing a 'ground up' foundation for de-escalation. Implementation measures that can incentivise participation could include compensating local groups that agree to de-escalate violence in the absence of a broader Taliban commitment – recognising the connections between local and national peace processes. This would include providing protection for participating local groups and leaders in the provinces against any retaliation from potential spoilers in the area covered, including from local authorities and government-affiliated strongmen with personal agendas. Parallel progress towards reducing violence at a national level could help protect local initiatives from centralised spoiling tactics.
Progressively isolate Taliban groups’ reliance on regional economic and political support. There is significant political will among Taliban groups to relinquish ties to their supporters in their respective cross-border regions. This could be capitalised upon through the development of a set of potential inducements for those groups committing to lay down arms that include not only the provision of livelihood alternatives but also local prestige and respect through the upholding of Taliban positions of influence in the community.
Increase support and resources for intra-Taliban dialogue in order to broaden cross-movement consensus to commit to de-escalate violence and explore key areas for mutual accommodation. This could be facilitated at the sub- national level by High Peace Council representatives in coordination with respected local interlocutors, bringing together for example neighbouring regional groups of Taliban towards a series of bilateral agreements.
Establish a hybrid International Contact Group to support emerging Track 1 peace talks comprising state and non- state membership to bridge gaps between short- and long-term peace objectives. A hybrid group could help to link mediation tracks, providing both international political leverage to support and advise the parties and a channel to connect negotiations to different communities. It can achieve this dual function through its composite membership. It can also provide technical support to advise on substantive agenda items.
Overcoming impediments to implementation
De-escalation requires a number of facilitative measures to overcome implementation challenges. These include building broader support for the violence reduction process among actors invested in the status quo or fearful of potentially detrimental change. Also, defining what is meant by ‘political actor’ in relation to President Ghani’s peace offer and how this may affect attitudes – of the Taliban and other political actors – to the de-escalation process. Moreover, identifying means through which Taliban operations might be visibly separated from those of Islamic State of Khorasan or other insurgent groups that do not intend to commit to de-escalation and that still may pose a credible threat to international security.
In addition, it will be necessary to develop protection measures for senior members of the Taliban movement who may be vulnerable to retaliation by hardliners for their cooperation in advancing the peace process. Further, in order to secure sustainable commitment to any peace process at the local level it will be important to develop alternatives to the Taliban’s regional political and economic support that are persuasive enough to incentivise total or partial shifts away from reliance on regional funding. And there remains the challenge of building Taliban trust in the High Peace Council or other government-affiliated interlocutors and being able to deliver on supporting financially and with security provisions any agreements that are reached between groups.
De-escalation measures also need to navigate forthcoming elections in Afghanistan. It is in the Afghan government’s interest to ensure that as much of the country as possible is able to participate in both parliamentary and presidential polls, but facilitating Afghan rural communities’ involvement could also bolster the Taliban’s local popularity. While Taliban groups control a significant proportion of the country, this is not a relative measure of their local popular support once levels of violence decrease. Taliban leaders need to consider other ways in which they might bolster their peacetime legitimacy. International donors could help, meanwhile, by making solid political and resource commitments to candidate vetting, providing technical and political support to speed up the vote-counting process and a clear statement of non- intervention after the presidential results are released.