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Talking About Talks: Toward a Political Settlement in Afghanistan
Talking About Talks: Toward a Political Settlement in Afghanistan
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Why Europe’s Plan to Send Afghan Refugees Back Won’t Work
Why Europe’s Plan to Send Afghan Refugees Back Won’t Work
Report 221 / Asia

Talking About Talks: Toward a Political Settlement in Afghanistan

A major course correction is needed if talks with the Taliban are to have any chance of delivering sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

Executive Summary

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 mediation 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, Hizb-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.

Kabul/Brussels, 26 March 2012

Op-Ed / Asia

Why Europe’s Plan to Send Afghan Refugees Back Won’t Work

Originally published in POLITICO Europe

There is no quick fix to the refugee crisis; in fact, a short-sighted response raises difficult moral and practical questions.

As the global refugee crisis dominates the political agenda and Europe considers repatriation of refugees to supposedly conflict-free parts of Afghanistan, they would do well to consider people like the Basharpals.

The Basharpal family — father, 38, mother, 37, and their four children — originally fled Afghanistan in early 2015 and made it to Norway. Last month, they were deported back to Afghanistan. As they awaited local resettlement, a bomb went off some 100 meters from their hostel.

When I spoke to Mirwais Basharpal early in September, he and his family were once again preparing to embark on the dangerous and illegal trip to Europe.

Afghan refugees make up the second-largest group of migrants in Europe. In 2015, approximately 200,000 Afghans — less than 4 percent of the 6 million Afghan refugees worldwide — arrived in Europe.

Faced with the biggest influx of migrants since World War II, the EU has drafted a plan to deport 80,000 Afghan asylum seekers back to Afghanistan. This is a politically driven response to a humanitarian crisis: an attempt to restrain rising xenophobia and the growth of right-wing political parties across the Continent. In May, the Austrian anti-immigration Freedom Party came close to winning the presidency. In Berlin state elections this past Sunday, Alternative for Germany (AfD) — a populist party that was formed only three years ago — cleared the 5 percent threshold to enter the state assembly.

The repatriation of asylum seekers and proposed resettlement programs by European countries raise difficult moral and practical questions in the face of continued insecurity, limited economic opportunities and the inability of the Afghan government to manage such high numbers of returnees.

Although the Afghan economy is struggling as international engagement winds down, what drives Afghans to leave their country is growing fear of conflict.

The global community is faced with two problems: finding a way to stem the tide of refugees and creating conditions for families like the Basharpals to return safely to their homes. In the case of Afghan refugees, the answer to both problems is the same: better security.

A survey last year by the Asia Foundation suggests that although the Afghan economy is struggling as international engagement winds down, what drives Afghans to leave their country is growing fear of conflict.

The security situation in Afghanistan remains extremely fluid. Provinces that were considered safe a few years ago are once again dangerous. The main highway heading north from Kabul, once one of the safest roads in the country, is now frequently attacked by the Taliban. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported a sharp increase in the number of civilian casualties in its annual report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict in Afghanistan. According to the U.S. State Department, “travel to all areas of Afghanistan remains unsafe.” They also warned that “extremists associated with various Taliban networks, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant–Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP), and members of other armed opposition groups are active throughout the country.”

With the latest gains by the Taliban, there is a widespread perception that security is deteriorating and militants of various groups are gaining ground. Over 30 percent of all districts in the country (116 of 384) are under serious threat, while 91 districts face a “medium threat” from insurgent groups, according to a recent Independent Directorate of Local Governance report. “Repatriation efforts are unrealistic and against the UNHCR Internal Flight or Relocation Alternative guidelines as evidenced from recent attacks in Kabul,” said Abdul Ghafoor, a prominent refugee activist in Kabul.

Unemployment stands at around 35 percent with an additional 300,000 to 400,000 young people entering the job market annually. Afghanistan’s small private sector — a mere 10 to 12 percent of the country’s official GDP — has been hit hard since 2014 with the reduction of aid and international contracts, causing thousands of Afghans to lose their jobs.

Europe’s current short-term, political, domestically inspired response to a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude is counterproductive.

There is strong evidence that repatriating Afghan refugees does not work. Returnees do not necessarily stay in Afghanistan once deported, as the Basharpal family shows. As Mirwais Basharpal put it, “There is no security. My children spent nine months in Norway and three years in Russia. They won’t be able to adjust here. I cannot return to my district in [the eastern province of] Nangarhar because of the Islamic State presence. I feel embarrassed to tell my relatives about our deportation.”

Refugee outflows on the scale of Afghanistan or Syria are the inevitable fallout of a failed state. There is no quick fix to the refugee crisis in Afghanistan or elsewhere, and Europe’s current short-term, political, domestically inspired response to a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude is counterproductive.

The international community needs to recognize that alleviating suffering is no substitute to preventing it. Triage in Afghanistan involves maintaining sufficient military and financial support to prevent security and the economy deteriorating more rapidly, and giving families like the Basharpals confidence that they have a future in the country in which they were born.