The need for a peace process in Afghanistan is clearer with each passing month. Despite many positive changes, ten years of international involvement has been accompanied by mounting violence and escalation by NATO forces and the Taliban, and victory for either government or insurgents seems unlikely. The United States and its partners seek to transfer security responsibility to the Afghan government by 2014, yet there are concerns about the quality, unity and costs of Afghan security forces and armed irregular forces. A succession of governance crises has undermined two elections and paralyzed most avenues of institutionalized politics. Security transition will thus occur alongside a challenging political succession and destabilizing economic situation, as security and aid inflows, and the economy, shrink.
Efforts to date
Pursuit of a negotiated solution is not new. Several informal “track II” channels, and unofficial meetings sponsored by Saudi Arabia produced little during 2008-2009. In February 2010 the arrest of Taliban deputy Mullah Baradar was widely interpreted as an assertion of Pakistani influence over any nascent process. At the London and Kabul conferences in January and July 2010 “reconciliation” was adopted as Afghan government policy, and endorsed by a Consultative Peace Jirga held in June 2010. The policy obscured differences between the government’s pro-talks position, and that of the United States, which escalated special military operations and pushed the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) to entice lower and mid-level insurgents from the struggle. In its first year the program has not had a strategic impact, logging a few thousand reintegrees mainly in the North and West, with varied motivations and ties to the insurgency. The Afghan government has pursued private and public outreach with neighbouring countries and insurgents through a 70 member High Peace Council appointed in September 2010. One of these “Afghan-led” channels turned out to be a hoax in November 2010, foreshadowing the deadlier imposter that killed High Peace Council Chairman Burhanuddin Rabbani on 20 September 2011.
Doubts and Objections
Despite the need, there are doubts about the chances of achieving a settlement and concerns about its implications. Many assert that the Taliban are uninterested, either due to absolutist ideology or perception that they can wait out the US drawdown. While the existence of “moderate Taliban” that will compromise easily on the presence of NATO forces is indeed questionable, a current of leaders potentially interested in talks has been demonstrated through contacts from 2007-2008, more recent “pre-talks”, statements such as Mullah Omar’s Eid messages, and evidence from field commanders. The assassination of Chairman Rabbani does not indicate the impossibility of negotiation: escalation does not demonstrate a rejection of talks and in many conflicts it accompanies preparations for them. However, present conditions and policy do not favour pro-talks currents in the insurgency.
A second doubt is that Pakistan will prevent effective negotiation to preserve its influence over the outcome. Increasingly Pakistan’s policy elites perceive that its interests lie with a stable Afghan government – potentially including the Taliban – that can protect Pakistan’s interests. Pakistani hostility, rather than being absolute, is part of a vicious circle driven by uncertain prospects for a settlement that would accommodate Pakistan’s concerns, and might diminish should those prospects improve. Furthermore, even if such a change in Pakistani security policy is necessary to achieve a settlement, it is certainly not sufficient to make such a settlement last. Therefore an intra-Afghan settlement needs to be concluded.
The idea that such a settlement will involve sharing power with the Taliban draws considerable opposition. Factions that historically opposed the Taliban, or represent minority communities that particularly suffered under its rule, warn that including them would ignite renewed civil war. In addition, various civil society actors fear the consequences for newfound democratic institutions and individual rights. The worst outcome from the point of view of all these groups is a closed deal between the regime and the Taliban – precisely the route pursued by Kabul prior to the Rabbani killing in the eyes of many.
The Way Forward
While there is increasing awareness of the desirability of a negotiated solution, the process is blocked by mistrust, incoherence, and insecurity. It is not enough to wait for the military situation to bring the actors to the table. The process must build confidence among them that a negotiation offers a possible route to security and some core goals, strengthening pro-dialogue arguments among hard-liners. The pre-negotiation can address lack of confidence through empowered and effective third party engagement, support for parties to be more effective negotiators, and proposals for a procedural and substantive negotiating framework. Time is needed to establish consensus among and within the parties and establish the practical measures to facilitate negotiations.
Afghans see the participation of the United States is crucial because of its control over the withdrawal of NATO forces. Linking drawdown and transition to a cease-fire framework and verification of Afghanistan’s non-use for terrorism will be the backbone of a settlement. Security will continue to be a paramount risk, given the incoherent actors and many spoilers, and the difficulties inherent in security support in Afghanistan. Creative use of armed cease-fires, cantonment, joint monitoring and third party support will be needed.
Equally important will be reassuring other stakeholders that the process will not generate renewed conflict, through mechanisms to include these political and social interests and address root causes such as governance, ethnicity, and gender. There is a range of ways to expand inclusion through representation by civilian politicians, consultation in civil society assemblies, or direct representation of civil society members in negotiations. Civil society should also consider how actively to pressure for certain processes, and what lines of organization will be effective. Monitoring, verification, and problem-solving institutions will be needed, and may be an avenue for including civilian actors.
Power-sharing provisions are one way to create confidence over the longer-term, but can also exclude weaker civilian parties, produce spoilers, and steer politics towards extremists. However, power-sharing can be broader than including war leaders in the executive, encompassing a wide range of institutions that distribute decision-making powers rather than concentrating them in a narrow elite. Power-sharing and reform need not be mutually exclusive; linking them can broaden the potential terms of a settlement and reassure more potential signatories. In this sense, all the phases of a peace process are linked and need to be considered in advance. That is why, as doubts about a negotiated settlement may weigh the heaviest, it is so important to imagine options that may overcome these barriers.