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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
U.S. Bombing of Afghan Drug Labs Won't Crush the Taliban
U.S. Bombing of Afghan Drug Labs Won't Crush the Taliban
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

Afghan policemen destroy poppy fields in Badakhshan province, one of Afghanistan's top opium producers, on 9 August 2017. NURPHOTO/Mohammad Sharif Shayeq
Commentary / Asia

U.S. Bombing of Afghan Drug Labs Won't Crush the Taliban

U.S. aerial bombing of drug laboratories in Afghanistan will solve neither the country’s Taliban insurgency nor its drugs problem.

On 21 November, the U.S. military began major airstrikes against what it described as Taliban drug labs in the north of Helmand province of Afghanistan. Yet a coercive counter-narcotics campaign will solve neither the country’s poppy boom nor the Taliban’s profiting from it, which has long depended to an extraordinary extent on very local dynamics.

It is no secret that the Taliban bankrolls its operations in part by drug money, with estimates of its annual share of the multi-billion-dollar illicit drug economy ranging from tens to a few hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars. The staggering 87 per cent increase in Afghanistan’s opium production in 2017, as reported by the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) this month, also means more profits for the Taliban.

But it would be naïve to say the Taliban is fighting because conflict helps it gain control over the profits of the drug trade, or that Afghanistan’s drug production boom is because of the Taliban. The criminal economy thrives on weak state institutions, systemic corruption and poverty, while the insurgency represents, fundamentally, a political challenge. These are separate phenomena with distinct histories and different solutions.

The Taliban’s involvement in the opium economy today is in stark contrast to its complete proscription of narcotics as un-Islamic in the past. Ironically, its willingness now to earn from the opium trade is part of its broader evolution that includes increasing pragmatism and the relaxing of some of its religious puritanism and cultural conservatism.

The Taliban’s involvement in the opium economy today is in stark contrast to its complete proscription of narcotics as un-Islamic in the past.

In summer 2000, when the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan, the movement’s late leader Mullah Omar issued a decree banning opium production and trade before the poppy cultivation season began. Even though this was not a formal fatwa, or religious ruling, stunned U.S. and UN officials reported from Afghanistan in the spring of 2001 that the Taliban had almost totally eliminated the cultivation of opium in the areas under its control. That year, Afghanistan’s opium production hit rock bottom, in stark contrast to the preceding two decades, when the country had been one of the world’s largest suppliers of illicit drugs. The UN described the ban as “one of the most remarkable successes ever” in the fight against narcotics.

The key to the ban’s successful implementation was its religious justification, I have heard repeatedly during field work among Afghan farmers and Taliban officials who followed the eradication campaign in the east and south of the country, where opium cultivation was most widespread. For years, clerics had debated the religious status of drug production and trading, and half-heartedly attempted a gradual prohibition. Sceptics within the Taliban deemed the absence of a conclusive ruling on the issue as insufficient to deprive impoverished people of their major source of livelihood. But in the end, the Taliban built consensus among local community leaders that since the use of any addictive drug was haram, or forbidden in Islamic law, so were activities that brought drugs into use, including the cultivation, production and trafficking of narcotics.

Mullah Omar’s effective prohibition in 2000 came amid growing pressure on the Taliban regime from the international community. Yet, those who worked closely with him are adamant that he was not driven by external pressure or the desire to earn international recognition, like some other Taliban leaders. His intense personal conviction tilted the balance on the drugs issue, as it did on other controversial decisions that followed, including the destruction of the Buddha statues of Bamiyan and the Taliban’s refusal to deport Osama Bin Laden. In any event, the Taliban felt its successful ban on drugs was unappreciated by the international community.

Opium cultivation resumed as soon as the Taliban regime fell. When the movement returned in the form of insurgency in 2003 in the opium heartland, it was limited in scale and could raise funds to sustain itself by capitalising on the anxiety about a long-term U.S. presence among Afghanistan’s neighbours and anti-Americanism in the Persian Gulf countries. As the insurgency grew larger, it needed more funds. The Taliban had to mobilize revenues domestically, including from poppy production, especially after the drawdown of international troops and the strengthening of the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 diverted the attention of its Gulf-based backers. Local commanders who took control of territories where opium production and trade were booming could not resist the lucrative business.

The decision to use poppy money to advance jihad is endorsed by some prominent Taliban clerics.

The decision to use poppy money to advance jihad is endorsed by some prominent Taliban clerics. Some argue that circumstances, specifically the “American occupation”, make it permissible, since defeating the greater evil requires embracing the lesser evil of drug money. Another rationalisation is that since the Taliban does not officially rule the country, it has neither the responsibility nor the ability to stop drug production or trading, which cuts across government and insurgency-controlled areas. If it cannot be stopped totally, the argument goes, why should the Taliban deny people under its control a profitable livelihood and risk losing support for its jihad. Also at work is a tacit logic that these drugs mainly harm infidels, and as long as infidels occupy Afghanistan or support the occupation, the Taliban need not care about their lives.

Despite these justifications, the Taliban’s embrace of the drug trade is limited both horizontally, with a small minority secretly involved in it, and vertically, since the involvement is mainly taxing, rather than running or controlling the trade. A small number of commanders in major opium hubs are involved in all stages of the drug trade. But there is no systemic involvement. The group is not the only player in this business, narcotics are not the Taliban’s institutionalized business, and without drug money, the movement would not fall apart.

The bulk of the Taliban – fighters, and commanders in non-poppy growing areas as well as leaders who do not deal with finances – are in the dark about the movement’s relationship to drugs. No one asks how the fighting is funded, and the finance chiefs and those who collect drug-related incomes try to keep the opium returns secret, since involvement with drugs is still ideologically unacceptable for many members. The rank and file dismiss as lies reports about Taliban participation in the drug trade that appear in Afghan and international media and in propaganda by the Islamic State group.

Nevertheless, the Taliban profits from the drug trade and in doing so opens itself to the charge of being profit-driven, rather than motivated by a political vision. Some Taliban leaders understand the negative impression this creates in the international arena. In November last year, the Taliban’s political emissaries in Qatar sent a message to the international community through independent Afghan political activists: if the government imposes a ban on drugs in its own areas, they said, the Taliban would return to a complete prohibition.

Soaring opium production is largely a symptom of rampant corruption on the state side, and the failure of the Afghan government and its international backers to give farmers viable new ways of earning a living.

Aerial bombing is a deadly new turn in coercive counter-narcotics operations. U.S. officials have hailed it as an effective element of the new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia, part of a multi-pronged approach in fighting the insurgency. They claim the airstrikes have already had an impact on the Taliban, something that is difficult to measure on ground independently. It is also unlikely to weaken the Taliban financially, not least because its sources of funding are so diverse. The bombing campaign is much more likely to benefit the movement in other ways. This is because most drug labs being targeted are the primary livelihood of ordinary people, and are usually located in populated areas. Destroying them with no provision for alternative sources of income, and the probable killing of civilians in the process, will increase popular support for the Taliban. Accounts from areas affected by the bombing already indicate the airstrikes have mainly hurt civilians and their livelihoods rather than the Taliban.

The aerial bombing is also not going to help neutralise Afghanistan’s opium boom. Soaring opium production is largely a symptom of rampant corruption on the state side, and the failure of the Afghan government and its international backers to give farmers viable new ways of earning a living. Corrupt government officials and pro-state elite have long participated in the opium economy on a greater scale than any non-state actor.

The transformative reforms needed to tackle these challenges can only come through resolving the insurgency, which in turn can only be resolved through a political settlement. Dismissing the Taliban as a drug-running, criminal enterprise is not the answer. The group stands for a cause that has a popular resonance in non-marginal segments of society, and it is these genuine constituencies and popular roots that account for its continued survival, not the opium boom.