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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
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
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

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.

Contributors

Program Director, Asia
LaurelMillerICG
Senior Analyst, Afghanistan
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