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The Sheraton Hotel in Doha, Qatar. Photo: Alex Sergeev.

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A Donor’s Guide to the Afghan Peace Process

Negotiations to end the world’s deadliest war continue behind closed doors. How can Afghanistan’s donors—or anyone else—tell whether diplomacy is working?

Published: 18 November 2020

Authors: Graeme Smith

Representatives from many of the world’s richest countries will join a video call this month to discuss their ongoing investments in Afghanistan, the scene of the deadliest war on the planet. Early reports suggest that donors may cut their budgets for development and humanitarian assistance, in part because of the global pandemic but also because they have no idea what kind of Afghan government will emerge from peace talks.

Donors’ hesitancy to commit more long-term funds would be understandable. For decades, they have been pouring billions of dollars into Kabul with the goal of building a state apparatus that would bring peace and democracy, marginalizing the Taliban insurgency. That did not work, and now the international community is trying something different: peace negotiations with the Taliban.

Foreign ministers from major donors loomed over the two negotiating teams at the 12 September opening ceremony for the talks, their faces projected on a video screen in one of the largest ballrooms in Qatar. Delegates from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, including members of the government and political opposition, saw familiar partners when they squinted at the billboard-sized screen: Western diplomats whose handshakes, in the past, guaranteed funding for their government.

But the ministers were not speaking exclusively to their friends on the Republic team. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of the only high-level dignitaries permitted to attend in person because of COVID-19 restrictions, turned to directly address the Taliban when he delivered his comments about U.S. aid to Afghanistan: “You should keep in mind that your choices and conduct will affect both the size and scope of future U.S. assistance.”

Other ministers made similar comments, warning that they would consider supporting the peace process, and whatever new political dispensation that results, only under certain conditions. They spoke in sweeping terms about women’s rights and reductions in violence.

The lofty pronouncements created some practical challenges for the working-level diplomatic staff assigned to follow up. Later the same afternoon, as the two negotiating teams went behind ornate brass doors at a five-star hotel in Qatar to start talks, both sides declined to invite foreigners into the room. On that day, and for the next two months, the Taliban negotiated with their opponents without formal assistance in the room from outsiders. Foreign diplomats are trying to support the talks, but Afghanistan’s donors are mostly relegated to the sidelines1.

With such limited engagement in official channels, how are donors supposed to evaluate the “choices and conduct” of peace negotiators from a distance? Assessments of some kind will be necessary before talks finish; even with a third-party facilitator or mediator, peace negotiations usually require years. Donors cannot stop funding in the meantime without endangering the state. As my colleagues Nigel Roberts, Khalid Payenda and Eliza Urwin concluded in a recent ODI Lessons for Peace paper: “The major imponderable for donors is the Taliban.”

As they ponder, here are a few things worth considering. These indicators may offer clues about the health of the process even as the talks continue behind closed doors.

Discipline of communications

The difficultly of monitoring a peace process in the absence of day-to-day news about the negotiations can be a symptom of its success. If the two sides are exchanging proposals without the details appearing in the media, that suggests a degree of trust between the negotiating teams and self-discipline within them. Even more remarkable are the occasions when the warring parties agree on the text of public statements, as witnessed several times in recent months with parallel announcements from Republic and Taliban spokespeople.

Civilian deaths and injuries

Peace negotiators often say, “You have a thousand bad days, until you have one good day.” The Taliban have signalled that the really “good day” for ordinary Afghans, when the two sides agree on a full ceasefire, should wait until future stages when they have secured progress toward their political objective of an ‘Islamic system’. Still, the U.S. government claims that the Taliban agreed to unspecified measures that would reduce violence during negotiations. As noted by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, that part of the Doha process remains secret: “According to the Department of Defense (DOD), the Taliban lowering violence levels ‘is a component of the Taliban’s broader commitments in the [U.S.-Taliban] agreement,’ although it does not appear in the published text.”

So how should outsiders evaluate the many bad days, the terrible incidents that continue despite talks? Counting the dead and injured remains important, to give equal weight to the human lives affected by war, and to reveal trends in a situation with tens of thousands of violent incidents annually. The best source is the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), whose human rights teams confirms incidents with three separate sources, relying on 11 field offices in the provinces. UNAMA’s consistent methodology allows for year-on-year comparisons going back a dozen years.

You have to rewind the clock eight or ten years to find a period of time when Afghanistan was less dangerous for civilians. UNAMA’s figures show civilian casualties decreasing 30 per cent during the first nine months of 2020, as compared with the same period a year earlier. Of course the pace of carnage remains horrific, and escalating violence in the second half of 2020 will make the final numbers for the year less positive—but, still positive. Critics of the process parse the numbers for negative trends, but the big picture is that this year’s diplomacy has correlated with less civilian harm.

Shifting battlefield tactics

The decrease in civilian casualties does not guarantee that peace talks had any direct effect on the ground, but analysts can draw inferences from patterns of violence. With the US-Taliban agreement in February, international air strikes declined by 84 per cent as compared with the previous year. The Taliban sharply reduced their bombings in urban areas, resulting in a 32 per cent reduction in civilian casualties inflicted by the Taliban. Both sides appear to be scaling back the kind of attacks that affect each other the most emotionally. The Taliban have not repeated their truck bombings of cities; on the other hand, it is becoming less common to see pictures of dead children killed in U.S. air strikes. This could suggest—theoretically—that the conflict parties are wary about stepping over some kind of invisible line, with an attack that causes so much outrage that it disrupts talks.

The downside of this shift in tactics has been a flurry of small bombings and targeted assassinations, which inflict fewer casualties but still leave people feeling terrified. This large number of less-deadly attacks has driven up the raw number of “incidents” counted by some organizations, leading to claims about "a level of monthly armed opposition activity never seen before.” The effects of that activity should not be minimized. While not invading cities, the Taliban do appear to be seizing rural territory.

Battle deaths

Another way of measuring conflict intensity is battle deaths. This includes everyone killed in the war, including civilians and combatants on all sides. The two best monitors are the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), which recorded violent conflicts since the 1970s, and the newer Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) database. Uppsala takes a more conservative approach, estimating approximately 30,000 battle deaths in 2019, while ACLED looks at a more expansive set of inputs and noted more than 40,000 battle deaths during the same period. These are rough estimates based on public reports, and some analysts doubt their usefulness. Still, early numbers for 2020 from ACLED suggest that thousands fewer people are dying on the battlefields this year.

Internal displacement

Besides losing lives and limbs, Afghans are also being forced to flee their homes. The United Nations tracks the number of internally displaced people, which often serves as a marker of the conflict’s severity. In the first ten months of 2020, the UN says that conflict displaced an average of 28,600 people per month. That represents a human wave of suffering, but down significantly from monthly averages in 2016 (56,200); 2017 (42,600); 2018 (32,100); and 2019 (38,600). If those numbers continue to fall, it may be related to understandings reached in Doha. (Migration out of the country also declined sharply in 2020, something of particular interest to European donors.)

Negotiators’ endurance

Both sides of the negotiations have continued to exchange ideas for two months, despite a lack of visible progress toward agreements. From a distance it’s hard to judge the endurance required to keep working on the details of a text, when your friends continue dying on the front lines and your constituency includes skeptics of the process. Even more commitment will be required to stay at the table despite the political crosswinds of a new U.S. presidency and potential further pullouts of American troops.

These yardsticks of success will not be easy to satisfy. Peace negotiators will not always have influence over what their side does—especially on the battlefield—and sometimes a war gets worse before it gets better. It may not be the fault of diplomats if they are instructed to walk away from talks, or if a military commander does something hundreds of kilometres away that blows up the process. Obstinacy by the negotiating teams could also generate frustrations that spark a return to full-throated war. Still, if positive annual trends continue on these six indicators, there is a good chance the talks are headed in the right direction. Donors may find something in Doha that is worthy of their investment.

1 To date, the only formal linkage between Doha and the upcoming donors’ conference has been the visit by Ambassador Janne Taalas of Finland, Special Envoy to the 2020 Afghanistan Conference, who met both teams on 7 November. The Republic side was already familiar with his messages, but it was the first occasion for the Taliban to hear from a consortium of Afghanistan’s financial backers about their expectations. “Taalas presented to the representatives with messages on key principles outlining the modalities of future international support,” a statement said. The Taliban reacted by signalling that this marked the start of a conversation, not the conclusion.