“Istanbul Is a Testing Ground for the Afghan Peace Talks”: An Interview with Heela Najibullah

April 24, 2021

What is the future of Afghan peace talks? Will Afghans finally see peace in the war-torn country after two decades of war?
Heela Najibullah is an author and the daughter of former Afghan president Najibullah. Photo provided by the author.

The Afghan Peace Talks will resume in Istanbul, Turkey in May as a continuation of earlier meetings held in Qatar and Russia. Nihan Duran interviewed Heela Najibullah, daughter of former Afghan president Najibullah, a humanitarian worker and a peace researcher, on the past and present approaches to peace in Afghanistan, the continuing talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban who are supported by Pakistan and her proposal regarding the establishment of peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Q. In your book, Reconciliation and Social Healing in Afghanistan (2017), you shed light on the different attempts of peace-building in Afghanistan, particularly during the 1980s and the 1990s. What was different back then and why does it matter today?

The National Reconciliation Policy (NRP) was adopted in 1986 under the leadership of my father, Najibullah, and his government. At the international level, as the Cold War reached its peak, the NRP started gaining momentum in light of Perestroika. The new leadership in the Soviet Union was keen to end their “bleeding wound,” which is how they referred to their war in Afghanistan. The Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev was determined to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and found a natural ally in the cadres of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), who supported the idea of an independent, free, neutral, and sovereign Afghanistan.

Hence, the NRP as an evolving process was composed of international instruments such as the Geneva Accords in 1988 and the UN Five-Point Peace Plan in 1991. Recognizing the role of Pakistan in backing the Mujahideen groups, the Geneva Accords ensured an agreement between the Republic of Afghanistan and Pakistan with the Soviet Union and the United States as guarantors, which is still binding.

Q. Regarding past and present approaches to peace in Afghanistan, are there any major challenges that have persisted to this day?

The conflict in Afghanistan has been ongoing for more than 40 years. The division lines are no longer only ideological like they were during the Cold War, they are also ethnic and religious. The illegal trade of arms, drugs, and precious stones has also created strong and deep-rooted networks of criminals that also feed the conflict.

While the Geneva Accords guaranteed the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, they failed to achieve their main purpose of non-intervention and non-interference between two neighbors. Additionally, the agreement could not prevent the continuation of arms supplies from regional countries such as Saudi Arabia to the Mujahideen despite the two superpowers agreeing not to supply arms to their benefactors.

Q. What were the major loopholes in previous approaches to peace in Afghanistan in terms of their design and implementation?

The main loopholes of the peace process of the 1980s-1990s include: the lack of consensus amongst regional countries and the main conflict stakeholders in Afghanistan, the continued supply of arms to different parties in the absence of an international legal mechanism to oversee disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) and the end of the war despite the government’s call and eagerness for such a mechanism to be established, the lack of accountable mechanisms on the part of the guarantors, the lack of independent, neutral monitoring mechanisms overseeing and documenting the developments and implementation of the accords/peace process, the refusal of the Security Council upon the request of the Afghan government to provide peacekeeping troops for the duration of the interim government until the elections took place and the continuing double games by the Afghan conflict stakeholders vis-à-vis their geopolitical interests.

Q. In this respect, how do you evaluate the continuing peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar, Russia, and later in Turkey?

The current peace talks started with a lot of optimism in 2017; however, the process proved to have shortcomings in terms of following through. For example, the two-year process leading to the Doha Agreement excluded the Afghan government from negotiations and reduced its position to a passive observer while legitimizing the Taliban as a political group. The process was not transparent – neither the Afghan government nor the Afghan people know the so-called secret annexes of the Doha Agreement.

The mediator in negotiating peace, i.e., the United States, remains as one of the main conflict stakeholders in Afghanistan. The meeting in Moscow confirmed the fact that the participating countries and the stakeholders from outside and inside Afghanistan did not want the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan.

Q. Along this line, I would like to ask you how you think the conflicting interests of numerous global and regional actors in Afghanistan impact the peace process.

Your question points at the crux of the Afghan conflict – how the international community resolves its competing global and regional involvement in the Afghan conflict is key to finding a durable solution. History yet again has demonstrated that such competing interests have not only made the situation worse for Afghans but have also prevented the actors from obtaining their interests.

My father, former Afghan president Najibullah, believed that Afghanistan could serve as a neutral member state and could even go to the extent of becoming a demilitarized country provided there is international and regional consensus and a guarantee of non-intervention and non-interference on the part of the international community and the countries involved.

The tensions present amongst different communities and ethnicities are not only due to the Afghan socioeconomic and political structures, but are also due to the rifts that were created for political gains by the political elite which mostly served as proxies for regional and international players. Unless there is a regional consensus, the conflict will continue.

VIDEO: Afghan Peace Deal: Heela Najibullah, Author

Q. How do you think the perspectives of the Taliban and the Afghan government can be reconciled so as to bring peace to Afghanistan?

The parties need to see the commonalities in their positions and desires for a shared future in their country. Currently, positions of power dominate the discussions and the focus is on who will be the winners or the losers. It is a tit-for-tat moment in which the Taliban want to assert themselves as the winners of the war against the U.S. and the Afghan government.

What is common between the Taliban and the Afghan government is their desire for power; however, it must be explored if their wishes for a ceasefire, disarmament, integration of their forces into the Afghan security forces, truth commission, and other forms of transitional justice can be shared. Unless the two sides show flexibilities in moving away from their explicit and implicit “red-lines”, meaningful engagement ending in a peace agreement will not materialize.

I believe that the U.S. asked Turkey to host the conference not only because Turkey is a NATO member, but also because of its unique position as an Islamic country in the region and its historical friendship with Afghanistan.

In addition, reconciliation between the two sides will not be possible unless the Taliban get out of the influence of Pakistani security establishment. This can only be possible when the fuel for fighting is extinguished by the regional and the global powers providing guarantees for a ceasefire, peacekeeping forces, and no-interference and non-intervention on the part of the regional stakeholders.

Q. Drawing from your final remark, how do you view the Istanbul Conference next month? What possibilities do you think it might bring to the table?

I believe that the U.S. asked Turkey to host the conference not only because Turkey is a NATO member, but also because of its unique position as an Islamic country in the region and its historical friendship with Afghanistan. Every Afghan household remembers well that the Turkish-Afghan friendship goes back to Atatürk and King Amanullah Khan.

The upcoming Istanbul Conference, therefore, will be a testing ground in determining the future of Afghanistan and whether Afghans can finally have peace. Yet, whether Istanbul is a continuation of the Doha Agreement, in which the people of Afghanistan and the Afghan government were excluded from the peace negotiations and a top-down agenda was designed, remains to be seen.

Q. How should the international community approach the peace resolutions in Afghanistan?

The way the international community can approach the peace process is to stand by the Afghan democratic institutions and design a multilayered mechanism whereby guarantees must be made including peacekeeping forces for the upcoming years, which will allow the Afghan government to build consensus through democratic means, develop its economy, and give voice to the marginalized.

Islam was, is, and will remain the main religion of Afghanistan, the way Islam is the main religion in Turkey, but Muslim countries can also adopt progressive, democratic visions for their citizens instead of promoting religious extremism or handing power to such extremist religious groups. Afghanistan can find this balance if its current institutions are safeguarded, and international guarantees end the proxy wars.

So far, every conference about the future of Afghanistan that has been held since Bonn 2001 has brought together elites that have negotiated their way to power instead of bringing people-centered issues to the agenda such as transitional justice, a truth commission, the demands of the victims of the war, DDR, the rights of women, and, above all, the sovereignty and unity of Afghanistan as a nation.

Q. You have just highlighted the importance of the efforts to bring a people-centered vision into the existing approaches to peace in Afghanistan. Could you elaborate on this?

In my book, Reconciliation and Social Healing in Afghanistan: A Transrational and Elicitive Analysis towards Transformation, I have analyzed at length how countries that have embarked on a peace process have established countrywide mechanisms to engage with non-governmental organizations, civil society, and people impacted by war at the social, economic, and political levels.

Najibullah’s government had established a successful mechanism called the “National Reconciliation Commission” that was present with offices and staff at the district level. However, they did not have time on their side and were in a constant state of emergency. Today, Afghanistan is in a worse situation because it lacks a nationwide peace structure, mechanism, and narrative. The government’s efforts in this process are neither people-centric, strategic, or inclusive.

Q. What role do you think civil society and women can play in the peace process?

The role women groups and civil society have in Afghanistan is key in bringing sustainable reconciliation because women have been the survivors of the 40 years of Afghan conflict. They often bring issues to the table that are related to their survival and the future of their children, i.e., the future generations of Afghanistan. Therefore, their inclusion on the negotiation table is a necessity for peace.

Q. To conclude, what are your topmost proposals regarding the establishment of peace and stability in Afghanistan and how well do you think these are addressed in current talks, including the proposed Istanbul Conference?

Peace is not possible without a ceasefire, and time and space carved for trust-building. Hence my topmost proposals after the ceasefire would entail that time is given for the process to evolve, because peace cannot be rushed; space is provided for the participation of civil society and women, especially the victims of the war; an international, neutral monitoring mechanism is established to oversee the peace process; peacekeeping forces are present during the peace process especially when the U.S. military leaves and a government is elected; and a regional consensus on non-intervention and non-interference is established, respect for the Afghan sovereignty is maintained, and international guarantees are provided to hold those breaching the consensus accountable in accordance with the international law.

None of the above is achievable if the negotiating parties are not willing to negotiate sincerely and reach peace. In Istanbul, too, the Turkish mediator should ask the negotiating parties whether peace is a desired goal and what sacrifices they are ready to make for obtaining it.

*Heela Najibullah is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Zurich. She obtained her MA in Peace, Conflict Transformation and Security Studies from the University of Innsbruck and has a decade of experience as a humanitarian worker on migration issues with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Nihan Duran received her IB from the American Collegiate Institute, Izmir. She holds a dual degree in International Relations and American Culture and Literature, along with a minor degree in German Translation and Interpretation. She received her MA in International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University and Sciences Po, Paris. Currently, she pursues her PhD in Political Science and International Relations at Izmir University of Economics