Talking About Talks: Toward a Political Settlement in Afghanistan
Asia Report N°221
26 Mar 2012
This summary is also available in Dari and Pashtu.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
A negotiated political settlement is a desirable outcome to the conflict in Afghanistan, but current talks with the Taliban are unlikely to result in a sustainable peace. There is a risk that negotiations under present conditions could further destabilise the country and region. Debilitated by internal political divisions and external pressures, the Karzai government is poorly positioned to cut a deal with leaders of the insurgency. Afghanistan’s security forces are ill-prepared to handle the power vacuum that will occur following the exit of international troops. As political competition heats up within the country in the run-up to NATO’s withdrawal of combat forces at the end of 2014, the differing priorities and preferences of the parties to the conflict – from the Afghan government to the Taliban leadership to key regional and wider international actors – will further undermine the prospects of peace. To avoid another civil war, a major course correction is needed that results in the appointment of a UN-mandated mediation team and the adoption of a more realistic approach to resolution of the conflict.
No matter how much the U.S. and its NATO allies want to leave Afghanistan, it is unlikely that a Washington-brokered power-sharing agreement will hold long enough to ensure that the achievements of the last decade are not reversed. A lasting peace accord will ultimately require far more structured negotiations, under the imprimatur of the UN, than are presently being pursued. The Security Council should mandate Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to appoint a small team of mutually agreeable mediators as soon as possible to ensure that critical stakeholders are fully consulted and will remain engaged in the negotiations process. The unequivocal commitment of the Security Council, which includes among its members Pakistan (through December 2013), will be vital to this endeavour. Consultations on preparations for the appointment and organisation of the team and the appointment of an individual to lead it should begin immediately with the aim of having the team in place well before the security transition is completed.
So far there is little evidence that any of the parties to the conflict recognise the urgency of the situation. Instead of a sequenced roadmap that would prioritise domestic reconciliation and include basic political reforms, accompanied by a multilateral meditation effort, the Afghan government and its international backers have adopted a market-bazaar approach to negotiations. Bargains are being cut with any and all comers, regardless of their political relevance or ability to influence outcomes. Far from being Afghan-led, the negotiating agenda has been dominated by Washington’s desire to obtain a decent interval between the planned U.S. troop drawdown and the possibility of another bloody chapter in the conflict. The material effect of international support for negotiations so far has been to increase the incentives for spoilers, who include insurgents, government officials and war profiteers of all backgrounds and who now recognise that the international community’s most urgent priority is to exit Afghanistan with or without a settlement.
The government’s efforts to start negotiations have been both half-hearted and haphazard. Amid fundamental disagreements over the very meaning of reconciliation, the process appears focused on political accommodation with a phalanx of unsavoury powerbrokers. The rhetorical clamour over talks about talks has led to desperate and dangerous moves on the part of the government to bring purported leaders from the three main insurgent groups – the Taliban, Hizb-e Islami and the Haqqani network – to the negotiating table. This state of confusion has stoked fears among ethnic minorities, civil society and women that the aim of Karzai’s reconciliation policy is primarily to shore up his constituency among conservative Pashtun elites at the expense of hard-fought protections for Afghan citizens. A thorough reassessment of Karzai’s national reconciliation policy, the role of the High Peace Council and the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) is urgently needed. The program has faced staunch resistance from local security officials mistrustful of participants’ motives, and its impact has been minimal at best.
The Afghan government must include all relevant domestic stakeholders in the negotiation process rather than the current amalgam of warlords. A small team of designated negotiators with demonstrated expertise in national and international affairs should be selected to shape the agenda. The government’s negotiating team should reflect the country’s diversity – linguistically, ethnically, religiously and otherwise – and should include representatives from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and the National Security Council (NSC). The inclusion of members of the political opposition – conservatives and progressives alike – will be crucial to the team’s success. Kabul should also ensure that a settlement is fully inclusive and protective of all citizens’ rights. Greater transparency in the conduct of negotiations and more vigorous public outreach to the political opposition, ethnic minorities, women and a wide range of civil society actors will be critical in winning back the confidence of citizens in the negotiation process.
Confidence-building measures should not be limited to simply winning over Taliban support for negotiations but rather focus on ensuring the broadest buy-in for a settlement. Any deal that appears to give preferential treatment to the Taliban is likely to spark a significant backlash from the Northern Alliance, Hezb-e Islami and other major factions. A deal that aims at simply appeasing the Taliban could also lead to defections within government institutions, particularly the security forces. As dramatised by the widespread violence prompted by the burning of several copies of the Quran at the military base in Bagram in February 2012, all indicators point to a fragile political order that could rapidly disintegrate into a more virulent civil war, if the Afghan government and international community are unable to arrive at a more sustainable approach to settlement that moves beyond carving up the spoils of government.
External actors can act as either spoilers or facilitators of any internal negotiation process. While the negotiation process must be Afghan-led, any settlement would need substantial assistance from a neutral third party. The UN, aided by input from regional and other bodies such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), has a crucial role to play. The UN Secretary-General should use his good offices to expand consultations with Kabul and key regional and extra-regional players, particularly the U.S., Pakistan and Iran, on the formal appointment of a mutually acceptable panel of mediators who are internationally recognised and respected for their knowledge of both international and Islamic law and regional political realities.
In the coming years, the government is likely to face even greater challenges to its legitimacy, as regional and global rivalries play out in its backyard. Ultimately, the success of any settlement will depend on Kabul’s ability to set the negotiating agenda and ensure broad participation in what will certainly be a lengthy multi-step process, as well as on the insurgency’s capacity to engage in a dialogue that focuses as much on political settlement as on security concerns.
Ensuring that the next presidential election, at the end of Karzai’s term in 2014, results in the peaceful transfer of power will be critical. Any attempt to extend his term would trigger an irreversible constitutional crisis and widen the appeal of armed resistance. No later than May 2013 – a year before the election is constitutionally mandated – the parliament must amend the constitution to clarify the rules of succession and define in detail the parameters of presidential authority, from the opening of the campaign to certification of polling results. Electoral reform must also be undertaken within the coming year in order to prevent another clash over the authority of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and guarantee maximum participation in the polling process.
Constitutional reform is also essential to build support for a sustainable settlement. The current political system is fundamentally out of step with the diverse nature of Afghan society and at odds with the need to reconcile improved governance with local self-determination and broad access to the levers of power and justice. Imbalances among the executive, legislature and judiciary and the need for devolution of power from Kabul to the provinces must be addressed. Change of this sort cannot be implemented under the impetus of any single, decisive conference. A half-baked power-sharing arrangement between the ruling government and elements of the insurgency through a one-off consultative Loya Jirga (Grand Council) or under the aegis of yet another U.S.-led and externally manufactured international gathering will never adequately address the current anomalies in the constitution.
To work toward creation of a fully inclusive, transparent negotiation process that respects the country’s diversity and is protective of the rights of all citizens
To the President and Parliament of Afghanistan:
1. Conduct a thorough reassessment of the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) and initiate reform of the High Peace Council; ensure that the monitoring and evaluation team publishes in Dari and Pashto every quarter a report on program, joint secretariat and council activities that includes a thorough assessment of expenditures as well as policy and implementation challenges. Consider discontinuing the APRP program if, by the end of its funding cycle in 2015, participation remains low and insecurity high in areas where the program has had historically low buy-in.
2. Appoint a small negotiating team with the aim of building trust between the parties and fostering a structured, sustained dialogue. Members of the government team should be drawn from the National Security Council, Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and Afghan civil society and include women, ethnic minorities, civil servants experienced in local governance and economic issues and jurists with demonstrated expertise in international and Islamic law. Input on nominees should be sought from relevant branches of the executive as well as from parliament. Relatives of sitting office holders and individuals with active links to armed factions should not be considered.
3. Conduct greater public outreach on government plans for reconciliation to ensure that a broad spectrum of citizens contribute to shaping the negotiating agenda; consider supporting a nine- to twelve-month program of nationally supported television and radio programs focused on seeking public input to the peace process, as well as providing support for structured community dialogues to take place at the local level.
4. Conduct domestic consultations on planning for a constitutional convention to take place upon the signature of an internationally-guaranteed accord; devise a plan to hold a national referendum on constitutional reforms recommended under the aegis of the constitutional convention.
To recommit to Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and principles of non-interference, make explicit support for an Afghan-led negotiation process and coalesce behind one UN-organised mechanism for engaging Afghan partners in that process
To the members of the UN Security Council, regional partners and major donor countries:
5. Use the remaining time before completion of the NATO withdrawal at the end of 2014 to:
a) work with the UN to identify a mediation team that can effectively engage the Afghan state, insurgent leaders, regional actors and the international community;
b) conduct consultations with relevant governmental bodies on engaging in negotiations under the rubric of a UN-mandated facilitation effort; and
c) apply restraint in the initial phase of negotiations to ensure buy-in to the process by the Afghan government, political opposition and insurgent groups.
6. Give more vigorous support to regionally-backed cooperative arrangements by holding consultations on the design and architecture of a consultative mechanism that includes regional actors (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, India and bordering Central Asian states) and other external players, eg, NATO, Russia, China and the U.S.
7. Adopt a Security Council resolution mandating the Secretary-General to appoint a team to be responsible for designing a multi-stage mediation process and undertaking consultations on the negotiating agenda with the leading parties to the conflict well before the completion of the security transition; the negotiating team should be under the direct guidance and management of the Secretary-General but should liaise with and draw on the resources and capacities of UNAMA to advance a coordinated negotiation process.
8. Conduct a thorough assessment of the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program to determine specific benchmarks for continued financial contributions to it, including improvements in vetting, monitoring and oversight; consider defunding the program at the end of its life-cycle in 2015 if no demonstrable progress is made in these areas, and an internationally-backed political settlement that includes a robust plan for reintegrating and rehabilitating insurgent force has not been reached.
To the UN Secretary-General:
9. Initiate consultations with Afghan government leaders on the role of the UN following NATO withdrawal; seek counsel particularly from the permanent members of the Security Council and key regional actors, especially Pakistan and Iran, about the design of a UN mediation team, led by a designated envoy, to facilitate negotiations.
10. Appoint a mediation team composed of internationally-respected diplomats, scholars and jurists to facilitate the negotiations process by no later than March 2013; members should include a balanced mix of men and women and should be recognised for their demonstrated experience and expertise not least in regional politics. The team should consist of five to seven individuals under the chairmanship of a designated envoy selected by the Secretary-General.
11. Empower and resource the UN team to mediate negotiation of an agenda that addresses economic, legal and political concerns of the leading parties to the conflict and arrives at a political settlement that includes:
a) a constitutional reform exercise;
b) mechanisms for monitoring and enforcing implementation of the accord and for regular assessments of those mechanisms; and
c) solid financial and political guarantees from key international players that resources for monitoring and enforcement will be available for a minimum of five years following signature of the accord.
To advance electoral reform so that the Afghan government enjoys a stronger democratic base and consequent legitimacy
To the President and Parliament of Afghanistan:
12. Repeal the February 2010 presidential decree on elections; initiate consultations on electoral reform within the legislature with a view to adopting reforms to the electoral law that: give the lower house a measure of approval over the appointment of the Independent Elections Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission, while clarifying the roles and responsibilities of both bodies; mandate an overhaul of the voter registry; and take such critical first steps as mapping and delimiting local constituencies based on population data regularly gathered by the Central Statistics Office.
13. Adopt a constitutional amendment that clarifies the rules of presidential succession so that the provisions for interim governance are strengthened in the event that the president is incapacitated and/or compelled to resign and ensures that elections for his/her replacement can be held freely and fairly; amend the electoral calendar for the presidency, parliament and provincial councils to better reflect geographic challenges and other limitations.
To the members of the UN Security Council, regional partners and major donor countries:
14. Prioritise discussion of electoral reforms for the international conference in Tokyo in July 2012 and negotiate an agreement from the Afghan government to address problems with the electoral calendar before May 2013.
15. Condition aid for future Afghan elections on the repeal of the February 2010 presidential decree on the electoral law, rationalisation of the electoral calendar and an overhaul of the voter registry, to include a redrawing of electoral constituencies to make them more responsive to present-day demographics and geographic divisions.
Kabul/Brussels, 26 March 2012