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Success in Afghanistan: how to define it, how to make it happen
Success in Afghanistan: how to define it, how to make it happen
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
Speech / Asia

Success in Afghanistan: how to define it, how to make it happen

Speech by Nick Grono, Deputy President (Operations), at Policy Dialogue conference sponsored by the European Policy Centre, Brussels, 2 April 2008.

As the other speakers have focussed on the role of the international community, I intend to focus on those other critically important players, namely the Afghan government and Afghan institutions.

I agree with those speakers that there is not a military solution to Afghanistan’s problems. I also agree that there must be a political solution. But I don’t think that political solution is one of doing deals with the Taliban. There is a middle course. And that is to do what we and the Afghans have said that we would do for the last six years, but haven’t. We need to implement the strategy that the Afghan government has already signed up to – namely building governance and rule of law.

Too often in Afghanistan, when something doesn’t go right, straight away, we say it won’t work, or the Afghans won’t do it, so we need a new strategy. I’m beginning to lose count of the “last chances” for Afghanistan, and the number of new strategies I’ve seen over the past few years.

Let me give you just one example – the auxiliary police. Eighteen months ago the view of the Afghan government and many internationals was that there weren’t enough police in the South, so what we should do is create an auxiliary police – giving former militia a crash 10 day course in policing, and then letting them loose on the local population.  When this scheme was announced, Crisis Group expressed the strong view that this was abandoning all pretence of a professional institution in favour of handing out guns and uniforms to men with ten days training and doubtful command and control. "But we must do something NOW" was the resounding response. Now the programme has been deemed a failure, many of the men (and their uniforms and guns) never seen again. And in its place new ideas for militias and "auxiliaries" and "community defence" are being floated. Crisis Group is once again told there is not time to concentrate on building national institutions. "We must do something NOW". Imagine if that year that had already been lost had been spent training properly field levels leaders in the south and pushing deep reform through the deeply corrupt Ministry of Interior?

So what do I mean when I say governance and rule of law are the key? These are the buzzwords of international development these days – and to be honest it’s not always clear what we mean when we throw these phrases around. And I often think that those tasked with implementing them don’t have a clear idea of their objectives.

But let me explain what these mean in the Afghan context, and why they are so important. Because that will assist us in understanding how to get there.

Afghanistan has faced sustained conflict for almost 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 re-empowered warlords, 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.

Sarah Cheyes, a former reporter for American radio, who now runs an NGO in Kandahar, neatly summed it up, saying “In Afghanistan, the exercise of power remains personal. There are no institutions; there are only powerful men.”

The result is festering grievances, and an alienated population that turns against those believed responsible for the abuse – be they warlords turned governors, the government in Kabul, or the international forces who support them.

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

The international community reinforced this pattern of grievance and impunity back in 2001-2002 with our desire for a quick cheap war followed by a quick cheap peace. To achieve this we outsourced the fighting and stabilisation operations to discredited and, at that stage, largely disempowered warlords and commanders. The attitude was that they may be bad people, but at least they are our bad people. Then, with Western and Afghan government support, they entrenched themselves in their former fiefdoms and reverted to their old practices of human rights abuse, corruption, drug production and localised violence.

Some will say that  yes, mistakes were made, but we have to deal with our current reality.  But we shouldn’t give up on our strategy of institution building – the fact is that it’s not so much that it has failed, but we have hardly tried.  We were complicit in the creation of a highly centralised state for an historically decentralised country. We backed President Karzai’s desire to create a weak legislature. We largely supported his efforts to ensure political parties had no role in the system. The really important elements of a decentralised, and representative government, such as provincial and district councils, lack any power, or don’t even exist.

And finally, uncertainty about the strength and duration of the international commitment has encouraged the President Karzai and his government to turn to patronage as a means of ensuring they have a durable support base. So senior appointments, such as governors and police chiefs, are made not on basis of competence, but loyalty to those in power. This naturally leads to corruption, and fuels the cycle of grievance.

So what needs to be done. In very simple terms, we need to hold the Afghan government  and the international community to commitments they have already signed up to.

We need to commit to the long haul.

We need to emphasise institution building and accountability over favoured individuals in every area if stability is to prove sustainable in every area.

We have to learn from lessons of the past. Already most international talk for the next Presidential and Parliamentary elections focuses on who will win. Instead the international community needs to focus on ensuring a robust complaints and oversight mechanism while the Afghans decide the who wins.

The international community should use its control of the purse strings to persuade the government to act in the best interests of its people. This means accepting accountability, particularly at the local level, where improving representative institutions and service delivery is most needed to win hearts and minds.

It is vital that there is increased consistency and that we demand mutual accountability – both of the international community and Afghan government – to what has already been agreed.

Thank you.

Op-Ed / Asia

There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Washington’s latest idea of a transitional government would be worse than the dysfunctional status quo.

If there is one thing the United States should have learned after two decades in Afghanistan, it’s that there are no quick fixes. That has proved true for the war, and it’s true for any possibility of a negotiated peace. But faced with the decision whether to comply with a May 1 deadline for pulling out all troops under a deal the U.S. government signed with the Taliban in February 2020, Washington is now searching for a shortcut to an Afghan political settlement. There isn’t one.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has delivered to the Afghan government and Taliban a draft Afghanistan Peace Agreement—the central idea of which is replacing the elected Afghan government with a so-called transitional one that would include the Taliban and then negotiate among its members the future permanent system of government. Crucial blank spaces in the draft include the exact share of power for each of the warring sides and which side would control security institutions.

At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a letter that soon leaked, saying it was “urgent” to “accelerate peace talks” and move “quickly toward a settlement.” The letter states that the United States has asked Turkey to host a high-level meeting between the Afghan sides “in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement.” The letter also references a U.S.-proposed 90-day reduction in violence (a concept short of a cease-fire) while diplomacy continues—which suggests that Washington knows an agreement within weeks is unlikely.

Chances that Taliban leaders or Ghani would agree to anything like the U.S. draft peace agreement are vanishingly small. But if they do, the result will be worse than this gambit failing.

Chances that Taliban leaders or Ghani would agree to anything like the U.S. draft peace agreement are vanishingly small. But if they do, the result will be worse than this gambit failing.

For the Taliban, the draft has too many hallmarks of the existing government setup: It includes a commitment to holding elections and keeping in place the constitution devised under U.S. auspices in 2004 until a new one is written. The available evidence of Taliban thinking points to their rejecting any arrangement that would make them appear co-opted into a system they have long opposed in exchange for a partial share of power.

For Ghani, the proposal is premised on him relinquishing power. That brutal fact, plus the rough-edged tone of Blinken’s letter, has whipped up a political tempest in Kabul. Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh reacted most bluntly, saying Afghanistan would “never accept a bossy and imposed peace.” Ghani knows that the main Afghan enthusiasts of the transitional government idea are his political opposition and the country’s former mujahideen, who sense opportunity to gain power as it is parceled out.

In the unlikely event the new U.S. peace plan materializes, the power-sharing arrangement it envisions would be prone to collapse. A body comprising multiple factions plus the Taliban—at a stage of the peace process before they’ve even begun to hash out core issues that divide them—would be less functional and less stable than the fragile government in place now. The hard work of negotiating the structure of a future Afghan state will not be eased by prematurely erasing the current one. And if a fractious transitional government fails, the cease-fire the U.S. plan promises would evaporate with it.

The U.S. proposal reflects a boiling over of Washington’s frustrations with Ghani. The Afghan leader’s critics have accused him of obstructing a peace process that has sapped his government of its already tenuous authority. The past several Afghan elections have been bitterly contested, the country’s politics are deeply corrupt, and service provision is increasingly limited to population centers, with the Taliban insurgency operating freely throughout much of the countryside.

The U.S. proposal reflects a boiling over of Washington’s frustrations with Ghani.

But however much Ghani has contributed to slowing the process, dismantling the elected government is unlikely to hasten peace. The Taliban have not moved any faster. It took over a year of bilateral negotiations and numerous U.S. concessions for the Taliban to sign a four-page agreement spelling out a tight timeline for U.S. and NATO withdrawal and more ambiguous Taliban promises to prevent Afghanistan being used as a launching pad for terrorists. And the Taliban remain coy about details of the political vision they seek to realize. Official Taliban statements that their movement will accept some degree of power sharing are contradicted by internal messaging emphasizing victory and ascendance.

After delays for which the United States was as much to blame as any other party, Afghan talks finally commenced last September in Doha, Qatar. They’ve progressed haltingly, at least in part because the parties are waiting for a new U.S. government to signal whether it will stay committed to a process the previous one catalyzed.

The slow pace now clashes with the deadline for withdrawing foreign troops. That’s a problem the U.S.-Taliban deal caused by decoupling the withdrawal timetable from any requirement of progress in negotiations. But it’s also a problem that can’t be solved by demands to speed up the hard slog of reaching a political settlement.

It will be difficult to get the peace process in Doha to produce results, but it’s too soon to jettison a process that has taken years to set up and has only just begun. Instead of promoting a new plan that has almost no chance of being accepted and that would further weaken the Afghan state, Washington should put its energy into testing whether the Doha process can be made to work.

It will be difficult to get the peace process in Doha to produce results, but it’s too soon to jettison a process that has taken years to set up and has only just begun.

This should include rallying the regional powers, especially Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and India—who all have links to actors in the Afghan conflict—around generating momentum for the existing process. A high-level meeting of this group, which Washington has asked the United Nations to convene, is a good idea, but these stakeholders need a better peace plan to coalesce around than the new U.S. proposal.

If the United States wants to give the talks a real chance, then it will need to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond May 1 to maintain leverage for forging a settlement and to forestall a downward security spiral that would spike the process.

Ongoing talks would provide the best argument Washington could make to regional powers, especially Pakistan, for why they should help pressure the Taliban to let the deadline slip.

But if talks break down—as they probably will, given how divided the parties are and how rarely peace processes succeed—then it will be better to have even a dysfunctional Afghan government still standing than to have replaced it with a stopgap transitional one whose existence would not survive the end of negotiations. And if the Biden administration plans to pull out U.S. forces soon, then it’s better not to risk leaving such wreckage behind.


Program Director, Asia
Senior Analyst, Afghanistan