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The President's Take

Rare Breakthroughs in Afghanistan and South Sudan

In his introduction to this month’s edition of CrisisWatch, our President Robert Malley says hopes are rising for resolution of intractable conflicts in Afghanistan and South Sudan. The human suffering in Syria’s Idlib, however, is reaching unprecedented levels.

It is a rare occurrence in our line of work to witness one, let alone two, apparent breakthroughs in the quest for peace. Yet that is what we have seen this past month in Afghanistan and South Sudan, both of which have suffered from long, brutal and often seemingly intractable conflicts.

In the wake of the signing of the agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, I can think of no better words than those penned by my colleague, Laurel Miller, who has devoted many years in and out of government to this issue. “There’s plenty of blame to go around for how the situation came to this pass”, she writes. “And I can see why many people affected by the war would wish for better choices. Hope is not a policy recommendation, and I’m in the business of policy analysis and advocacy, but I’m hoping that the opportunity created by [the] US-Taliban deal is seized, that a sustained Afghan peace process follows, and that Afghan negotiators deliver peace for their people”. 

The deal is far from perfect, Laurel adds, but this much is true: the Afghan people finally got “a chance for a peace process and that’s why the next stage – intra-Afghan negotiations – matters most”. We have published our preliminary thoughts about how to make the most of those negotiations and will have much more to offer as talks proceed.

My colleague Alan Boswell has also spent years going back to South Sudan and rooting for its people. He expressed guarded but genuine optimism at the sight of President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar just beating their own 22 February deadline to strike a deal. In Alan’s words, “Kiir and Riek have agreed to form a unity government – on time – and after major concessions from both sides. This is a huge moment that may serve as the bookend for South Sudan’s long civil war”. There was caution from him too: “It’s just one point along what will be a very long journey”. Crisis Group’s reflections on this historic moment and how to sustain momentum toward peace can be found here.

Both cases highlight the importance of persistent, sustained diplomacy; the need for realism and compromise; and the crucial value of outside pressure and mediation. Of course, neither case, however hopeful, can wipe away the grimmer developments of the past month. None is more dispiriting than what has been unfolding in Syria’s Idlib province, where, in the face of a nine-month-old regime offensive, displacement is reaching levels unprecedented in the current conflict. Here, as in the two other cases, there are many parties to blame for the current dramatic situation – the Syrian regime, first and foremost, along with Russia and Iran; regional countries that saw Syria as a battleground for their proxy wars; and the U.S., including the administration in which I served. The priority at this point should be an immediate ceasefire as we explained in this recent publication.

Our friend and colleague Michael Kovrig has been unjustly detained in China for almost 450 days. His strength and resilience inspire us every day, and every day we work to secure his release. It cannot happen soon enough.