Johnny Walsh examines the prospects for resolving two long-running conflicts that differ in many ways but also have subtle parallels

At the beginning of 2018, public hostility between US President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appeared to be one of the world’s most dangerous security challenges.  Mere months later, their diplomatic thaw is among the most popular moves either has made on the international stage.  These negotiations are in their infancy, with enormous obstacles remaining, but the shift raises the question of where else the Trump Administration could make progress through diplomacy that is unlikely through confrontation.  Afghanistan is a strong candidate.

Peace in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan has been at war almost continuously since 1978, when a Communist government took power in a coup.  The following year brought a nine-year occupation by the Soviet Union, followed by six years of civil war after the Soviets withdrew, six years of brutal rule by the Taliban regime, and nearly 17 years of conflict since the United States invaded in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  The conflict has caused immeasurable suffering and ravaged Afghanistan’s economy.  The democratic government that Washington established in 2002 faces endemic corruption, cannot pay its bills without foreign assistance, and suffers enormous casualties every year fighting the Taliban insurgency – one of the largest and most unified insurgencies in the world.  From this perspective, Afghanistan might seem unlikely ground for peace.

The past six months, however, have revealed significant support for peace on all sides.  In late February, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made the most forward-looking peace offer the Kabul government has ever given the Taliban.

The conflict has caused immeasurable suffering and ravaged Afghanistan’s economy

Pro-peace demonstrations broke out across Afghanistan over the next month.  Most remarkably, in JuneGhani and the Taliban declared a national ceasefire for the Eid al-Fitr holiday, a first in the 40-year conflict.  For three days, Afghan soldiers and Taliban insurgents across the country celebrated publicly together, demonstrating an appetite for peace among not only the public, but the combatants themselves.  There was not a single reported violation of the ceasefire anywhere in the country, though there were two bombings by the Islamic State, or ISIS, which was not party to the ceasefire.  In subsequent weeks, numerous press outlets reported that Washington was considering direct negotiations with the Taliban, toward the ultimate goal of a peace agreement.

The North Korea and Afghanistan conflicts are different in many ways, but do share discreet similarities.  Each is a long-stalemated conflict that military force is unlikely to resolve, involves international pariahs who want to mend fences with the United States, and in 2018 is experiencing a rare window of opportunity.  Having achieved some preliminary success in the North Korea discussions, the US may be able to apply some of its lessons in engaging the Taliban.

Key Lessons from North Korea

While Pyongyang and the Taliban have for decades been quintessential ‘rogue actors’, both rogues hope one day to gain international validation. This offers an opportunity for leverage by the United States.  President Trump’s willingness to engage North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has elevated the latter on the world stage, and created an opening to achieve long-standing objectives that Pyongyang could not accomplish through confrontation. The Taliban share this desire for better relations with the outside world, and reveal as much in their frequent public requests for an internationally recognized “political office” and relief from the stigma of UN sanctions.

The US has a large military presence in both South Korea and Japan and this has long been a source of anger to North Korea. Washington has kept Kim Jong-un engaged in the talks process by showing it is prepared to discuss his concerns about the US military presence in his neighbourhood.  The Taliban’s main goal is a drawdown of foreign troops from Afghanistan, and it may be open to major concessions if the US is willing to discuss – and ultimately to alter – that military presence as part of a peace process.  Mr Ghani and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both affirmed last month that any serious negotiation would necessarily discuss the status of foreign forces – a positive sign.

In June, Ghani and the Taliban declared a national ceasefire for the Eid al-Fitr holiday
In June, Ghani and the Taliban declared a national ceasefire for the Eid al-Fitr holiday

Direct negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang in 2018 built momentum that had been generally lacking during the 15 previous years of indirect communication. A similarly direct channel with the Taliban – which the Trump Administration has approved, according to The New York Times – would help the US convince the parties in Afghanistan that it sincerely seeks peace.

The Taliban share Kim Jong-un’s desire for better relations with the outside world

The North Korea process has made effective use of confidence-building measures. Mr Kim to date has released American prisoners, returned the bodies of American soldiers and suspended nuclear and missile tests. The US has suspended joint military exercises with South Korea and even hinted that is would be open to re-deploying US troops. Confidence-building measures are politically risky. In the Afghanistan process, they included the controversial 2014 prisoner transfers that brought home Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl – but they can build goodwill and empower moderates on all sides.  Possible measures now could include allowing the Taliban to open the political office they have long sought, lifting UN sanctions on select Taliban members, and seeking reductions of violence in the wake of the recent ceasefire.

It is far from certain the North Korea talks will yield a substantive breakthrough, but to get this far the Trump Administration has shown a willingness to break with convention and assume political risk to address one of the world’s most high-profile conflicts.  This may prove a helpful quality in a rare, fleeting moment of opportunity in Afghanistan.  The Korea peace effort has already broken important ground, and with the right bold gestures, Afghanistan could be next.

Johnny Walsh is a Senior Expert on Afghanistan at the US Institute of Peace.  He spent 2007-2017 at the State Department, much of that time as a senior staffer on the Afghanistan peace process

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