Peace, Justice and Reconciliation in Afghanistan
Peace, Justice and Reconciliation in Afghanistan
The Unwinnable War: America’s Blind Spots in Afghanistan
The Unwinnable War: America’s Blind Spots in Afghanistan
Speech / Asia

Peace, Justice and Reconciliation in Afghanistan

Speech by Nick Grono, Deputy President of the International Crisis Group, delivered to a conference on Afghanistan at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, on 16 March 2011.  

When it comes to Afghanistan these days, it seems that almost everyone is talking about a deal with the Taliban, with the possible exception of the Taliban leadership itself.

For Western governments, the key motivation is a desire to pull out the bulk of their troops in the next three or four years. As a result, they are too willing to apply a logic that substitutes the imperative of a political settlement for a critical analysis of the motivations and interests of the key Afghan and regional actors. But failure to do the latter will almost certainly frustrate efforts to achieve the former.

Many key questions remain to be answered, including:

  • What is the desired end-state? Options range from a power-sharing deal between Pashtun elites to a settlement that defines a state that Afghans are willing to support and that neighbours can accept. The preferred end-state will largely define the participants and process in any negotiations.
  • What incentives are there for Taliban to do a deal given: (a) their safe haven in Pakistan and a seemingly limitless pool of recruits from Pakistani madrassas; (b) that whatever the claimed successes of the international military campaign, it is highly unlikely to result in the defeat or fatal weakening of the insurgency before NATO troops begin drawing down in significant numbers in 2014; (c) the Afghan government’s lack of legitimacy in the eyes of much of its population.
  • Should the West insist on the protection of important rights such as those of women, civil society, the media and religious and ethnic minorities over the likely objections of the Taliban and disinterest of the Afghan government, and if so how? If it is a choice between protection of such rights and a deal, what will give?
  • Should those responsible for past atrocities – many of them in positions of power in the government and the insurgency – be held accountable? If not, then what impact does such impunity have on the prospects for a sustainable peace?

It is this last question I want to focus on for the rest of this presentation.

Afghanistan has faced sustained conflict for over 30 years now. And the enduring paradigm is that of abusive power-holders preying on the local populations. The power-holders change – Afghan communists, Soviet military, mujahedeen, Taliban and now refurbished warlords and commanders - but the problem remains the same. The problem is that of highly personalised rule, a culture of impunity and abuse of large segments of the population based on tribal, sectarian or ethnic affiliation. Powerful individuals are repeatedly empowered over institutions

The result is festering grievances, and a disenchanted population that turns against those believed responsible for the abuses – be they corrupt district police chiefs, warlords turned governors, the government in Kabul, or the international forces that support them.

Far too little is being done to address these issues. Instead we – the international community and the Afghan government – continue to favour quick fixes, such as empowering discredited warlords and commanders, arming local militias, making deals and giving impunity to abusive power-holders. This all goes to fuel the alienation of the Afghans, who recognise the hypocrisy of such policies, and understand that they will continue to be the victims of these abusers.

Afghans see that today’s reality is not much different from that of the last 30 years – in that it’s still largely about powerful men with guns. They know all too well that those responsible for past abuses will not only not be held accountable, but will likely end up in positions of power.

This reality will not change until some of those responsible for the worst abuses are prosecuted. Given that counter-insurgency is about winning the support of the population, one would have expected that bringing to justice those who have wantonly and systematically killed Afghan civilians would be a priority for the Afghan government and its international partners. But that has not been the case to date.

The best option would be for the government itself to pursue some of the worst abusers. This would increase its legitimacy in the eyes its people and would send a warning to those in authority who believe they can continue to act with impunity. It would also undermine one of the claimed attractions of the Taliban – that it provides harsh, but fair, justice where none otherwise exists.

Unfortunately, there is absolutely no prospect of the government providing high-level justice. The Karzai regime has consistently opted for expediency over principle when it comes to accountability. Most notably, in early 2010 it surreptitiously resurrected an amnesty law that grants immunity to the warlords and to the brutal extremists who seek to supplant them. The law grants blanket amnesty to the perpetrators of some of the worst atrocities, forcing victims to negotiate their claims through the virtually defunct Afghan justice system.  The United States and most of its allies have been largely silent on this law. In fact, it appears that a desire for a quick exit by NATO has stifled all discussion of the critical need to link reconciliation with accountability and to tackle Afghanistan’s long-standing culture of impunity. But expediency will not promote stability.

Fortunately there may be another route to accountability, at least for those bearing greatest responsibility for recent atrocities in Afghanistan. Back in 2003, Afghanistan signed up to the International Criminal Court, and the court’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, is currently considering whether to open a formal investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the last eight years. Sweeping amnesty laws are not effective against ICC prosecutions.

This is a development that appears to have received little consideration in all the discussions of the transition. Those responsible for war crimes or crimes against humanity committed in Afghanistan since 2003 fall within the court’s jurisdiction, and the Afghan government has an obligation under international law to cooperate with the court. So do other signatories to the Rome Statute, such as the UK, France, Germany (in fact every EU member state), and the United Nations. On the safe assumption that all of the main insurgent groups have committed atrocities (including suicide bombings, systematic attacks on civilians, the execution of prisoners and so on), then there is a very real prospect of the court eventually issuing arrest warrants for Hekmatyar, the Haqqanis, and Mullah Omar, along with their key lieutenants. While there is no likelihood of these individuals ending up in the Hague anytime soon, such a development would make it difficult for any European state or the UN to participate actively in talks with such indictees, or even host them, given their obligations to cooperate the ICC.

So Afghans may, eventually and belatedly, see a very small number of those responsible for abuses against them brought to justice. Of course, if that does ever happen, it will be too late to enhance the legitimacy of the Karzai government, or the credibility of its international backers who have done so much to empower abusive power-holders in Afghanistan. In a less compromised world,  the Afghan government, encouraged by the US and its Western allies, would of its own initiative, prosecute some of the worst abusers, and demonstrate that there is a limit to impunity for those responsible for atrocities. This would also have the benefit of removing some of the biggest spoilers from the transition process, enhancing the prospects of a sustainable peace.

However, the dispiriting lesson of the last decade is that in Afghanistan, as in so many other war zones, the easy and short term option of impunity will likely trump the principled one of accountability, perpetuating the pattern of abusive power-holders. And the Afghans will continue to be preyed upon by their own leaders, while the West stands idly by.

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