Efforts to end conflicts in Afghanistan and Myanmar are ongoing, but in neither country do prospects for positive change look bright in the near term.
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Efforts to end two major conflicts in India’s neighbourhood have become intense. To the east, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has produced a diplomatic opening with Myanmar’s military leadership over the weekend. The Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s army is known, took charge of the nation in a coup in early February and has cracked down hard on protestors since.
To the west, a peace summit on Afghanistan, seeking to end decades of conflict there, was also scheduled to take place in Istanbul over the weekend. It had to be postponed given the Taliban’s refusal to join any such peace conference until all foreign forces leave Afghanistan. Although the US and NATO have agreed to leave Afghanistan before September 11, the Taliban has refused to budge.
The Taliban wants to denude Kabul and its international supporters of the last bit of their declining military leverage before the talks begin. Scepticism about the Taliban’s willingness for peace has been high ever since the Trump Administration in the US began engaging with it in the summer of 2018.
Political forces in Myanmar worry that the ASEAN initiative will only legitimise the coup and give the military leadership time to consolidate. Similar concerns were expressed when the US and the international community began to negotiate with the Taliban over the heads of the elected government in Kabul.
It is arguably easier to produce peace settlements between states by finding compromises where possible, finessing difficult issues where necessary, glossing over complex problems with diplomatic language that can be interpreted in different ways, and kicking the can down the road on the most complex issues.
Those general techniques are indeed much harder to apply when it comes to civil wars. The stakes for warring parties within a nation are much higher. One element is to gain dominant control over the state. The fear of the winner taking all is real and power-sharing arrangements are difficult to negotiate and implement.
More often than not, civil wars have their origin in either sharply divergent perceptions about organising and governing the society or in deep ethnic, religious, regional and linguistic cleavages. Unlike states that can negotiate in a cold-blooded manner about interests, near-term and long-term, and find ways of reconciling them, partially or in full, political passions drive civil wars and it is hard to step back and accept solutions that do not meet the original demands.
No two civil wars are the same. The context and issues at hand in Afghanistan and Myanmar are indeed different. But both have a long history. The sources of the Afghan conflict go back to the late 1970s; since then we have seen different phases of the conflict — the rise and fall of a left-wing government, Soviet occupation and the jihad against it, the chaos that followed the Russian retreat, the 9/11 attacks, and the US military intervention that is now drawing to a close.
Although the crisis in Myanmar appears recent, the tension between civil-military relations is not new. Back in 1988, the army annulled the huge mandate won by Aung San Suu Kyi and unleashed massive repression. Political reconciliation was found at the turn of the 2010s, but the uneasy coexistence of the last decade has broken down.
While all civil wars are different, there are at least three common themes in any effort at peace and reconciliation. The first is about ending violence. In Afghanistan it has been near impossible to get a resurgent Taliban to agree to stop its attacks on government forces or the civilian population. It has certainly stopped violence against the US forces, but it appears determined to push for a complete military victory.
The ASEAN initiative in Myanmar calls for an immediate cessation of violence and utmost restraint from all sides. The opposition demanding restoration of democracy might find this rather ironic, since it is the army that is employing violence and has shown scant restraint. As in Afghanistan, so in Myanmar, persuading the main perpetrator of violence to stop is not easy.
The second theme in the ASEAN initiative — “constructive dialogue among all parties” to “seek a peaceful solution” — is also common to all peace processes. But getting the parties to move towards productive engagement is easier said than done. The Taliban found all kinds of excuses to delay a dialogue with the Kabul government that it always saw as illegitimate. So far, it has avoided one. In Myanmar, the army might be ready to engage the opposition in a prolonged dialogue and defuse international pressure; but it will be hard for the victims of the coup to accept a dialogue on the army’s terms.
That leaves the final theme of the peace process — the role of third party mediators. The Afghan conflict, as we mentioned before, has long been internationalised. All major powers, including regional actors and neighbours, have acquired stakes in the way the Afghan conflict is resolved.
Most of them are involved one way or another in the various formats of the peace process. The external actors are unsurprisingly divided on the nature of the solutions. This unfortunately makes the construction of an internal settlement that much harder.
In Myanmar, the ASEAN has set the ball rolling by agreeing that a special envoy will be traveling to the region and will engage with all parties to the conflict. It remains to be seen the kind of terms that Myanmar might set for the visit and the dialogue with the opposition.
Peace diplomacy, however, is reinforced by carrots and sticks. The US is hoping that the Taliban will moderate some of its hardline positions given its need for significant international economic assistance for reconstruction, political legitimacy as well as the awareness of the costs of winning power in Kabul in opposition to the US and the West. In Myanmar, too, the international community will hope the military would want to avoid the risks of political isolation and economic punishment.
But how the Taliban and the Myanmar army calculate these costs and benefits could be very different. Both have long experience of surviving external pressure and enduring sanctions. They can also bet on the unsustainability of external pressure over the long-term and hope to exploit the differences among the major powers.
What matters in any civil war, in the ultimate analysis, is the balance of forces between rival forces or a fundamental rethinking of positions by the warring parties.
Few civil wars have seen the kind of massive external effort to change the internal dynamics as in Afghanistan; but to no avail. In Myanmar, it is not clear how far the international community might go. Nor is there evidence of fresh thinking among the stronger parties in the two nations. The prospects for positive change in Afghanistan and Myanmar, then, do not look too bright in the near term.
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 27, 2021 under the title ‘An unquiet neighbourhood’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.
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