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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
Afghanistan: Growing Challenges
Afghanistan: Growing Challenges
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

Commentary / Asia

Afghanistan: Growing Challenges

Political fractures continue to weaken the Afghan National Unity Government as the Taliban insurgency expands and an Islamic State affiliate strengthens its foothold. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to continue to provide technical support to the negotiating process and take measures to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Rising insurgency and a fraught political transition are exacerbating an already pervasive sense of insecurity about Afghanistan’s future. Since the 2014 international military drawdown, the resurgent Taliban has fast expanded its presence countrywide. The Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), an affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also has a foothold, albeit limited and mainly in some eastern districts. Two-and-a-half years after it was created to prevent the bitterly contested 2014 presidential election from plunging the country into turmoil, the National Unity Government (NUG) is beset with internal disagreements and dysfunction that undermine the capacity of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) to counter the insurgency. The government’s ability to confront significant governance, economic and humanitarian challenges also is weak. Civilian and military casualties as well as the numbers of conflict-displaced and those in need of urgent humanitarian assistance continue to grow.

Rising Insurgency

After the transition to Afghan security forces in 2014, the thinly stretched ANDSF has been battling a growing insurgency on several fronts. According to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) only 57.2 per cent of 375 districts were under government control or influence by 1 February 2017, an almost 15 per cent decline since end-2015. According to the Special Inspector General, 6,785 Afghan forces were killed and another 11,777 wounded from January to November 2016, significant losses at a time when security forces are struggling with personnel retention. The UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) also reported a 3 per cent increase in civilian casualties (3,498 killed 7,920 wounded) in 2016 over the previous year. The number of high profile attacks in Kabul also was higher during the first three months of 2017 as compared to equivalent periods in previous years. On 21 April, Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers attacked an Afghan army base in the northern Balkh province, killing over 100 military and other personnel and injuring scores more. The army chief and defence minister both resigned the following day. Two attacks in March targeted police stations and a military hospital, killing 73 and wounding over 240 people.

Preventing the loss of more territory to insurgents, particularly during the anticipated spring offensive, is an urgent priority, notably in order to limit the scope of ungoverned spaces that could be exploited by regional extremists and transnational terror groups. With 8,400 troops already based in Afghanistan, the U.S. military leadership has requested a few thousand additional troops, a step that – if approved – would boost ANDSF morale and potentially could help blunt the insurgents’ offensive. But countering the growing insurgency also will depend on continued robust international financial and technical support, including honouring commitments made at NATO’s July 2016 Warsaw summit to advise, assist and train Afghan forces and provide them with annual funding of up to $4.5 billion until 2020.

Tackling the security situation also will require addressing widening internal disagreements and political partisanship that permeate all levels of the security apparatus and have undermined ANDSF command and control structures. Intra-governmental divisions likewise have impeded implementation of reforms necessary to mitigate the effects of corruption, nepotism and factionalism in the Afghan National Army (ANA) and particularly the Afghan National Police (ANP). Such weaknesses and overall government dysfunction played a major part in the 2016 Taliban advances in Kunduz city in the north, the siege of Lashkargah and Tirin Kot cities in the south, and, in March 2017, the Taliban capture of Helmand’s Sangin district.

Regional Neighbours

Amid ambiguity about the Western will to remain engaged, Afghanistan’s neighbours are more aggressively promoting what they perceive to be their own national security interests. This most notably is the case of Pakistan, whose relations with Afghanistan continue to be strained. Islamabad remains unwilling to facilitate talks between the Taliban and Kabul, and continues supporting its Afghan proxies, allowing them to recruit, fundraise, as well as plan and conduct operations from safe havens inside Pakistan. Pakistan in turn accuses Kabul of at best turning a blind eye, if not actively supporting, Pakistani tribal militants conducting cross-border attacks from Afghan territory.

No internationally-led negotiations will work unless there is a consensus among Afghans, both those backing and opposing the government, to pursue a negotiated peace rather than continued conflict.

Deteriorating bilateral relations have had other consequences. In 2016, Islamabad forcibly repatriated more than 550,000 Afghans (including 380,000 registered refugees) as relations with Kabul deteriorated because of heightened Taliban attacks in Afghanistan and cross-border attacks by Afghanistan-based Pakistani tribal militants. In February 2017, after a major terror attack on a Sufi shrine in southern Pakistan which was claimed by a Pakistani Taliban faction reportedly based in eastern Afghanistan, Pakistan closed its two main border crossings with Afghanistan – Torkham and Chaman – for over a month. It also conducted mortar and other military strikes on the bordering provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar. Though it has since reopened the crossings, Pakistan has begun to fence the border, a move certain to aggravate tensions insofar as Kabul does not recognise the Durand Line as the international boundary.

There are further complicating regional factors. Closer ties between Kabul and New Delhi, which has offered a $1 billion aid package and MI-25 combat helicopters to Afghanistan, are viewed as provocative by Islamabad. Iran long has been suspected of providing military hardware to some Taliban factions, a stance motivated partly by animosity toward the U.S. and more recently by the desire to counter IS-K. Russia also recently has upped its involvement, reaching out to the Taliban and, according to senior U.S military officials providing them with some military support, and proposing to lead a new negotiation process which could further complicate Afghanistan’s security dynamics.

Peace Negotiations

No internationally-led negotiations will work unless there is a consensus among Afghans, both those backing and opposing the government, to pursue a negotiated peace rather than continued conflict. External actors can lend a hand, through facilitation and other support, but the impetus has to come from within. In this context, the European Union (EU) and its member states should continue their technical and financial support to an Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process in its upcoming 2017-2020 EU Strategy for Afghanistan.

A second precondition for successful negotiations is for the U.S., still the most powerful and influential foreign actor in Afghanistan, to settle on a comprehensive political strategy. While the Trump administration’s Afghan policy remains a work in progress, there are clear indications it will maintain its presence in Afghanistan and likely enhance its military support. But it still must address the question of the optimal format and composition of the talks. The Quadrilateral Consultation Group comprising Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the U.S. has been dormant since the May 2016 U.S. drone attack that killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor. Russia’s efforts to bring together Pakistan, China, Iran, India, and most recently Afghanistan, are more promising insofar as they include all regional stakeholders. But Washington declined Moscow’s invitation to participate in the process, concerned that Russia’s outreach to the Taliban, including some military support, could endanger U.S. stabilisation efforts and endanger the lives of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Given the U.S.’s key role, its absence clearly would be to the detriment of the process. The EU should continue providing technical support to a negotiating process that has broad Afghan support, which the Moscow-led process currently lacks even with one of the principal stakeholders, the Taliban.

A third essential element is for Pakistan to become convinced that its interests would be better served by a political settlement in Afghanistan than by continued Taliban insurgency. This will require international efforts both to pressure Pakistan to shift course and to facilitate constructive dialogue between Islamabad and Kabul. The U.S. role will be central, including by conditioning continued military support to Islamabad on Pakistan working with Kabul to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table and rethinking its support to the Taliban’s Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network, now fully integrated into the insurgency’s command structure. While the U.S. is best placed to pressure Pakistan to reverse its support for Afghan proxies, the EU and member states should use trade and diplomatic ties with Pakistan and financial assistance to Afghanistan as leverage to persuade them to peacefully resolve their differences.

The Humanitarian Situation

Afghanistan suffers from one of the most protracted humanitarian crises in the world. In 2016, which witnessed some of the worst fighting since the U.S.-led intervention in October 2001, 646,698 persons were internally displaced due to conflict, compared to 70,000 in 2010; this added to the roughly one million conflict-displaced in previous years. 2016 also saw one million Afghan refugees and migrants forced to return home from Pakistan and Iran. The EU’s plan to deport back home some 80,000 Afghans whose request for asylum was rejected will further strain Afghanistan’s capacity. More broadly, both Kabul and the humanitarian community, including UN agencies, estimate that 9.3 million people, or almost one-third of Afghanistan’s population, will be in need of humanitarian assistance this year. As security continues to deteriorate and both Pakistan and Iran force more refugees and migrants to return, the humanitarian crisis likely will worsen.

The overall humanitarian crisis is putting enormous pressure on Afghanistan’s already stretched public services and infrastructure, especially in urban centres, where 70-80 per cent of internally displaced and returning refugees tend to settle; most are jobless or under-employed, with little or no access to health care or education. Countrywide, as many as 1.57 million face severe food insecurity. Women and girls are often the worst off given the country’s socially conservative nature. Addressing the humanitarian emergency will require continued, robust and long-term international, including EU, economic assistance. While the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) should persuade Pakistan and Iran to end the forcible deportation of Afghan refugees and migrants, the EU and member states also should at the very least slow down deportations as security continues to deteriorate in Afghanistan.