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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
Dealing with disaster in Afghanistan
Dealing with disaster 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

Dealing with disaster in Afghanistan

Originally published in Boston Globe

The Taliban takeover of Kunduz in Northern Afghanistan this week is the visible part of an insurgency iceberg that has grown larger, more destructive, and more threatening to the Afghan coalition government and to the Obama administration’s Titanic-like exit strategy.

Kunduz is the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban since the United States entered the country in 2001. The setback crowns a year in which the United States and NATO were down to a total of 13,000 support forces, Taliban attacks and civilian casualties reached a 14-year high, and the Islamic State reared its ugly head in the country.

The UN Mission has tracked a doubling of civilian casualties since 2014, mostly the result of insurgent attacks, to more than 50,00. The Pentagon also has reported a 50 percent hike over last year in Afghan military and police casualties, with 4,100 killed and 7,800 wounded in the first six months of the year.

The International Crisis Group has long argued that US combat support personnel should not effectively disappear from the battlefield. The draw-down means they essentially can only be called upon in emergencies, like the one that has brought in special forces after the fact in Kunduz. The Afghan military and police simply have not reached the point of combat self-sufficiency.

In Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah’s coalition government has been in office for a year, but it has failed to unify its principal security operations. The commander of international forces, General John Campbell, has, like his predecessors, said the Afghan military and police are not yet ready to secure the country on their own.

At the same time, the government and its Western allies have opted — mistakenly — to bolster their defenses with an expanded Afghan Local Police (ALP) force that is about one-third effective — because it comes from the local community and has decent leaders — and two-thirds brutal, ineffective, and counterproductive.

The ALP’s performance began to worsen after US Special Forces monitors departed in 2013. In some of the Kunduz districts that are dominated by ethnic Uzbeks, local Pashtun elders refused to collaborate with the ALP. In February, a corruption scandal reportedly linked Kunduz police officers to Taliban and criminal gangs, and anticorruption actions have not reversed longstanding provincial and local government failures there.

The ALP thus became more of a problem than a solution, in Kunduz and elsewhere, and the Taliban spring offensive should have prompted far greater preparations by the ANSF for more Taliban attacks. Now it needs to bolster its forces in an effective way, and it needs to have Western combat support available to back it up.

The destabilizing aspects of the Kunduz disaster go beyond Afghanistan itself, with the presence of Central Asian militants in Taliban units threatening to spread the insurgency across the region. For the Afghanistan coalition government, the Obama administration, and Congress, there are critical decisions to be made now.

First, the Afghan coalition government should coordinate its security structure under an empowered minister of defense. It should build on the Afghan army and national police, incorporate the decent faction of the ALP, and dissolve the abusive bulk of this militia.

Second, the promised reforms to deal with corruption have to be far more evident than they have been to date in the country’s provinces beyond Kabul.

Third, the Obama administration has to call a halt to scheduled further withdrawals of US and NATO forces. It must restore sufficient combat support for the ANSF until there is no question about the Afghans’ capacity to fight on their own.

Finally, the only plausible way to end the conflict is through negotiations, a political resolution and reconciliation, the necessary condition for a safe and orderly US exit. But unless the steps outlined above are put in place — and the Taliban is willing to make concessions and Pakistan presses it to do so — that goal cannot be reached.