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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
Taliban Factionalism Rises After Mullah Omar's Death
Taliban Factionalism Rises After Mullah Omar's Death
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

Taliban Factionalism Rises After Mullah Omar's Death

Originally published in The Interpreter


The recent confirmation of the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the symbolic leader of the Taliban, has added fresh uncertainty to Afghanistan's fledgling peace process. 

There were already signs that Taliban unity was under stress, and the internal disagreements that have emerged since the announcement of Omar's death have raised concerns that the insurgency could further dissolve into warring factions. These developments raise the daunting prospect of trying to broker peace with a movement at war with itself. 

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani enjoyed a minor breakthrough in his long efforts to negotiate an end to the insurgency when his team sat down with Taliban officials for talks in Pakistan on 7 July. His government went into those negotiations knowing that some in the Taliban rejected peace talks and would probably break away from the main group.

Earlier this year, Afghan intelligence estimated that 10% might switch their allegiance to ISIS or other hardline factions if they saw their leaders negotiating. Some Western analysts guessed an even higher percentage would defect, refusing to die on sun-baked battlefields for leaders who talked in air-conditioned hotels.

In fact, the talks may have had an even more profoundly destabilising effect. The Taliban published a statement supposedly signed by Omar in support of peace negotiations on 15 June, but internal opponents of the talks tried to undermine the process by questioning its authenticity. They complained that the process had been 'hijacked' by Pakistan and demanded that Omar back up his statement with proof of his existence.

The top Taliban leadership was eventually forced to confirm suspicions that its reclusive leader had died. Omar's former deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, was appointed to succeed him on 31 July. Though the Taliban arranged displays of support for Mansour in the following days, and many field commanders have pledged allegiance to him, the movement seems divided. Tayyeb Agha, head of the political commission, resigned on 4 August due to tensions with Mansour and reports are emerging of fighters quitting en masse to join more extreme groups.

This latest turmoil in the insurgency comes after months of escalating conflict between militant factions. Two databases maintained by Western security analysts show that armed clashes between insurgent groups have tripled or quadrupled since 2013, as infighting has spread to more than half of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

In previous years, the internecine battles were largely over money or historical grudges, often involving old feuds between the Taliban and the armed wing of the Hezb-e Islami political party which fought the Soviet Union in the 1980s. This year the conflicts have been concentrated in eastern Afghanistan, frequently pitting the Taliban against a variety of more extreme militants who seem less willing to entertain peace talks.

While battles against self-declared ISIS factions have grabbed most of the headlines, the Taliban have also fought Lashkar-e-Taiba (a Pakistan-based militant group), parts of the Pakistani Taliban and smaller groups such as Fidai Mahaz. A tiny faction such as Fidai Mahaz poses no military threat to the Taliban, but such groups are spreading propaganda – including a claim that Omar was poisoned – that could further undermine insurgency unity.

The dissent often focuses on the Taliban's recent forays into politics, and the degree to which some groups feel the movement's hardline ethos is being undermined. The Taliban is discovering that it's easy to rally fighters with a battle cry, but more difficult to transform an insurgency loosely based on opposition to the status quo into a coherent political organisation with a vision for the future. Shortly after the Taliban admitted Omar's death, the central leadership of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an occasional ally, formally swore allegiance to ISIS.

Such losses seem likely to escalate in coming weeks as field commanders decide where their loyalty rests. Before this recent leadership crisis, Pakistani intelligence had been telling Western diplomats that Mullah Mansour commanded about 40% of insurgent fighters in Afghanistan. His biggest rival, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a senior member of the leadership council, held sway over perhaps 20%, with the remainder controlled by lesser commanders. Those percentages almost certainly involved many guesses, and probably reflected an inclination to exaggerate the importance of Mullah Mansour, who is considered an ally of Pakistani intelligence

Whatever his actual degree of authority, Mansour has been pushing to consolidate his hold in recent days. Mullah Zakir has formally disavowed any conflict with him, and the first public statement from the new leader was carefully lukewarm on the peace talks, an apparent effort to mollify all sides. 

Mansour has the advantage of controlling power levers such as the Taliban media and intelligence apparatus; the latter selects assassination targets and allegedly coordinates with Pakistani security. If he succeeds in uniting the main factions and fending off challenges from rival insurgent groups, it could eventually help with peace negotiations by giving the Afghan government a single major interlocutor.

But nobody knows how much of Taliban logistical support in the field comes from the central leadership. One theory is that most fighters operate close to their homes and depend more heavily on illegal taxation and other local revenue. If correct, the field commanders may have some latitude to decide to support Mansour, shift their allegiances to groups such as ISIS or break away completely and start new careers as bandits or warlords.

For peace negotiators, the nightmare scenario would be a splintering of the insurgency into a thousand sharp pieces.