European Institute of Peace

A first Afghan peace deal: A pilot for a path out of conflict?

After 40 years of conflicts in Afghanistan, seeking out a partner and taking a step toward ending the violence takes courage. There have been precious few moments that held out the prospect of peace but, since September 2016, one has arisen.

The experience of living with and through violent conflict is counted in decades rather than years in Afghanistan. People have had no choice but to shape their lives around conflict and insecurity. For this reason, when the first ever peace agreement in Afghanistan was announced in September 2016, it was viewed as a pivotal moment; a chance to show that there might be another — difficult, but ultimately more peaceful — path out of conflict.

In early 2016, the idea of pursuing a peace deal was being floated behind closed doors by senior officials inside the Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. It was never going to be straightforward. There’s a long list armed groups operating outside of the Government’s control; groups whose fighters and leaders are also Afghans and whose actions and positions cannot be neatly and easily extricated from their relationships with a wider network of families, communities, peers, and followers in the country. The agreement with Hizb-e Islami, under the leadership of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was the first of its kind.

It was — and still is — seen as a test case; a signal that it was possible to reach an agreement with groups that are opposed to the Government. Hizb-e Islami agreed to break ties with terror organisations and to respect the Afghan constitution, including equal rights for men and women, in return for immunity, amnesty, full political rights, the release of prisoners, and the integration of its fighters into the national defence and security forces.

The contentious agreement was a risk to almost everyone involved. It left President Ashraf Ghani open to public and political accusations of championing impunity. For those in the international community supporting the deal, it risked undermining their broader advocacy agendas on justice and human rights; and for Hizb-e Islami, it required a very public reversal of their red line against the continued presence of international troops in the country. It took political courage on all sides.

But getting an agreement was just the start. It’s one thing to enter into a deal and quite another to translate intentions into new processes, relationships, and actions. The ambiguity of language necessary to make a peace deal possible is often the same characteristic that makes its implementation so precarious. And that is before factoring in the administrative, technical and human resources that have to be found to take on the additional work of operationalising what was agreed in a text.

In order to give the agreement the best possible chance, in 2017, the European Union provided funding for the ‘Afghanistan Peace Support Initiative’ (APSI), comprised of the European Institute of Peace and swisspeace together with Afghan national partners. Those partners brought national expertise and sound political knowledge while the EIP and swisspeace contributed their wide experience with peace processes and mediation from across the world. Since 2017, the consortium has served as the go-to hub for technical advice and operational planning for the Afghan authorities involved in implementing the Hizb-e Islami Agreement and searching for ways to bring others into a peace process. “After 40 years of war, people are tired,” says Ryan Grist, from APSI, as we spoke over the phone from an office in Kabul. “They are literally calling out for peace.”

The members of the APSI team have been welcomed by the civil servants in the High Peace Council (HPC) and the Joint Implementation Commission (JIC) who are facing the long and delicate task of leading the implementation of the Agreement. The APSI tracks down the experts and expertise requested by the JIC and the HPC, which can range from how to reintegrate armed fighters into security services to how to begin the process of dealing with the past and exploring ways to heal old wounds.

The success and sustainability of this and any future peace agreements rests on securing acceptance from among Afghan society. This is why, in addition to the technical implementation, the JIC and the HPC have carved out time to work with the APSI to help to rectify some of the deficiencies of the agreement by reaching out to young Afghans, women’s groups, groups representing minority communities and civil society across the regions in order to canvass their opinions and ideas on the implementation of the Agreement and other avenues for peace.

It’s easy to be dismissive when it comes to peace efforts in a context like Afghanistan. Protracted periods of destruction and trauma — the inevitable by-products of the use of force — are not easily forgotten. But neither is the farsightedness and courage that it takes to try for pockets of peace after decades of war.

Rahim Khurram, a former architect and now Project Officer for the APSI, is in his fifties. He has spent most of his life in Kabul and, like many Afghans, has witnessed violence and conflict throughout. But he has also witnessed the determination and resilience of its citizens. “I still believe that with that positive energy and courage, we can rebuild this country into the pleasant and peaceful place that I remember from my childhood,” he says.

Interviews and article by Terri Beswick.