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Dealing with brutal Afghan warlords is a mistake
Dealing with brutal Afghan warlords is a mistake
Afghanistan's Peace Process Will Be Long, Incremental and in Need of a Mediator
Afghanistan's Peace Process Will Be Long, Incremental and in Need of a Mediator
Op-Ed / Asia

Dealing with brutal Afghan warlords is a mistake

Originally published in The Boston Globe

As Washington rolls out its latest troop surge in Afghanistan, all eyes are on the violent south and east of the country to see whether the additional military muscle will bring stability. But outside observers are looking in the wrong place: They ought to focus on the backroom deals the United States is preparing to make with some notorious warlords, as these will determine the long-term effectiveness of President Obama’s strategy.

While the White House has paid lip service to the importance of good governance in Afghanistan, the reality is that co-opting violent warlords is at the heart of a plan that will likely result in further instability. One of the warlords who may soon star in the new US efforts to rebrand fundamentalists as potential government partners is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a brutal Afghan insurgent commander responsible for dozens of deadly attacks on coalition troops. As a mujahedeen commander during the civil war in the 1990s, Hekmatyar turned his guns on Kabul, slaughtering many thousands of Afghans, with his militias raping and maiming thousands more.

Three decades of warfare in Afghanistan have produced a multitude of warlords and commanders. Institutions have been supplanted by abusive powerholders, who maintain their control through violence, patronage, corruption, and external backing. There was a real opportunity to fundamentally change this dynamic after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but it was squandered. Instead of rebuilding institutions, and focusing on the rule of law, the United States tried to build peace on the cheap, subcontracting power to many of those abusive warlords who had been marginalized by the Taliban. These same warlords have now seized on their reprieve with a vengeance.

A list of power brokers in Afghanistan today reads a bit like a who’s who of commanders responsible for atrocities during the civil war. While warlords like Afghanistan’s current co-vice presidents Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Karim Khalili have reinvented themselves as powerful officials, Hekmatyar chose a different path. After a brief stint as prime minister before the Taliban charged into Kabul, Hekmatyar, founder of the powerful Hizb-e Islami political party, retreated to Iran in the mid-nineties, only to resurface in 2001 when he declared his opposition to the US military engagement in Afghanistan.

Although once backed by the CIA with scores of millions of dollars in arms, and a favored client of both the Saudi and Pakistani intelligence services during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, Hekmatyar’s anti-U.S. stance made him the target of a CIA drone attack in 2002, and earned himself a place on a list of designated global terrorists in 2003. He is now believed to shuttle between hideouts in Pakistan’s mountainous tribal areas and in northeast Afghanistan.

In the past year or so Hekmatyar, a charismatic Pashtun Islamic fundamentalist, has begun to raise his profile, granting several interviews with major news outlets and stepping up the tempo of his political propaganda. He has put a lot of effort into restyling himself in a more acceptable guise - as a strong moderate fundamentalist with Afghanistan’s best Islamic interest at heart. This despite his own claims that he plotted with the Taliban to foment a deadly attack that killed 10 French soldiers in August 2008, just one of several violent assaults on coalition troops and Afghan government that he has claimed responsibility for in recent years.

And there are increasing signals that Karzai and the United States are willing to cut a deal with him. Karzai has been the most explicit. He has publicly stated that he would be willing to talk to Hekmatyar and even offer him a position in government if that would help end the fighting in Afghanistan. Washington has been more circumspect, but the signs are there: Senior US officials have indicated that they might be open to a political deal with the insurgent commander. Some interpreted the US release last summer of Hekmatyar’s son-in-law and former Hizb-e Islami spokesman, Ghairat Baheer, who spent years in captivity at the prison in Bagram, as a sign that an agreement might, indeed, be in the works.

Doing deals with Hekmatyar, or others like him, is a mistake. Similar accords across the border in Pakistan have repeatedly failed. Such appeasement deals give vulnerable Afghan populations little incentive to stand up to the insurgents, especially if they believe that those insurgents have the upper hand. They would send a message that terror pays dividends. And for Kabul and Washington to negotiate from a position of apparent weakness would make long-term political solutions all the more elusive.

Instead of entering into alliances of convenience with the most undesirable of local powerholders, the international community, and the Afghan government, would gain by holding warlords like Hekmatyar accountable for past abuses, and ending the climate of impunity that has allowed so many of them to flourish within and outside government.

Speech / Asia

Afghanistan's Peace Process Will Be Long, Incremental and in Need of a Mediator

Speech by Laurel Miller, Program Director for Asia, at the United Nations Security Council Arria Formula Meeting on the Peace Process in Afghanistan.

Distinguished speakers and participants, thank you for the opportunity to join you for this discussion today. 

As all the preceding speakers have emphasised, a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan would be the best way to advance peace and prosperity in that country and contribute to security beyond its borders. But it goes without explaining that peacemaking is hard, and more often than not it fails. As an independent observer, I can perhaps best contribute to this discussion by highlighting a few key risks and realities that are important for those supporting an Afghan peace process to reflect in their policies and diplomacy, if the process is to have the greatest possible chance of success.

First, if the peace process succeeds – in other words, in the most optimistic scenario – the process will result in a government of which the Taliban are a substantial part, and which is structurally different than what we see today. What exactly the Taliban share and the structural changes will be can only be determined through negotiations, but trade-offs have to be expected. To anticipate otherwise would be to hope for Taliban surrender and there is no sign of that.

If and when the Afghan parties begin substantive negotiations, their starting positions are likely to be very far apart on the most fundamental questions of the political system and what kinds of democratic features it will and won’t have as compared to the existing system. Either there will be compromises on these questions or there will not be a negotiated settlement – in which case, the bloodshed will continue, with or without a foreign troop presence, and Afghanistan’s economic prospects will remain stunted.

One policy implication of this reality is that it is more important to focus support on the peace process than on specific outcomes. This isn’t to suggest that supporting countries abandon their own values. But it is to say that without placing an end to the bloodshed, to the human toll, at the apex of desired outcomes in the nearer term, other desired outcomes – rights, justice for victims, democratic features – are unlikely to be realised over the longer term. If the mantra “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led” means anything, it should mean that members of the international community will support the outcomes of Afghan peace negotiations without imposing their own redlines.

Another policy implication is that, if a negotiated settlement materialises, promoting its implementation will require providing financial support to a government that includes the Taliban. This is a reality that may be difficult to absorb for some parliaments and publics of countries that have been at war with the Taliban for two decades.

A second reality I’ll highlight concerns timing constraints on the peace process. As I’m sure is well-known to this group, peace processes generally are lengthy, often years-long affairs. In Afghanistan’s case, the relatively straightforward U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February took nearly a year and a half to negotiate, after years of quiet preparatory steps. The more complex topics to be negotiated among Afghans will not easily be amenable to quick resolution. An incremental approach to negotiations, in which compromises are gradually accumulated, building toward the most difficult issues would offer the best chance for the parties to evolve their positions and acclimate their constituencies to compromises. This kind of approach takes time.

The U.S.-Taliban agreement, however, has shortened the time horizon for talks. It’s not hard to imagine some flexibility on the agreement’s May 2021 deadline for a full withdrawal of all foreign forces and other non-diplomatic personnel, particularly considering that none of the other deadlines in the text have held so far. And, it is theoretically possible that the Biden administration will revisit elements of the deal or interpret some of its requirements more stringently; such modifications could extend the withdrawal timeline. Regardless of any Taliban flexibility or stiffened American conditionality – or even U.S. abandonment of the deal, though I don’t expect that – the withdrawal provisions have undoubtedly shaped Taliban expectations. The withdrawal timeline was a big win for them, and they had insisted on that win up front, before commencing talks with other Afghans. It is unlikely Afghan talks can be sustained if that win is not sustained. And, unfortunately, it is also unlikely that talks would continue after a full withdrawal. The timeline may be somewhat elastic, but probably can’t be stretched very far.

I mention the timing issue in part because some have been understandably frustrated with the dramatic urgency of U.S. diplomacy over the last couple of years and may be hoping for that to change. I cannot predict what the Biden administration’s approach will be. But I can say that objective analysis of the options available will have to treat the U.S.-Taliban agreement as a ‘fact on the ground,’ and will have to resolve the tension between the timing expectations that it created and the benefits of an incremental process. 

Finally, I’ll conclude with a practical suggestion for Security Council members’ consideration. A missing feature in the peace process so far is an empowered, impartial mediator. It is difficult to see how the parties will be able to bridge the substantial distance between their starting positions without such help. Several governments have informally played a mediation role in the process so far, but this ad hoc approach is less likely to be effective as the talks get more difficult.

A Security Council imprimatur for a mediator would be helpful. Such an imprimatur would reflect the common interests of council members in a stable Afghanistan that contributes to regional stability and provides no safe harbour for transnational terrorists. It would also signal the clear backing of key countries for the peace process – countries whose support will be needed not only to keep the process on track but also to create conditions for effective implementation of any results.

Over the next two months, while the future direction of U.S. policy cannot be certain, the crucial task will be to keep the Afghan talks, currently stalled, on life support. After that point, a push to put in place a mediator could help re-energise the process.

Thank you.