There's No "I" In Afghan Endgame
There's No "I" In Afghan Endgame
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Op-Ed / Asia

There's No "I" In Afghan Endgame

Talking about talks with the Taliban may still be all the rage in Washington, but in Kabul the silence has been deafening. Ever since Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura said last month that it was suspending its "pointless" dialogue with the United States, the Afghan capital has been bracing for the worst. Spring is traditionally the start of the fighting season in Afghanistan, and confusion around reports last week of a failed suicide attack plot at the Ministry of Defense headquarters have set Kabul on edge. Whatever tune the White House is singing these days, Afghans know talk of war and peace is as cyclical as it is seasonal.

This became all the more clear last week after the European representative for the armed faction of Hizb-e Islami, the group led by former Afghan prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also called off talks with the U.S. Hizb-e Islami's about-face only a few months after the group sent a delegation to Kabul in December to meet with U.S., NATO, and Afghan officials comes as little surprise to those familiar with Hekmatyar's protean power plays. The one-time warlord from Kunduz has been playing cat and mouse with Washington and Kabul for years. As the International Crisis Group pointed out in a recent report on political settlement in Afghanistan, Hizb-e Islami's proposed 15-point peace plan sounded good on paper when it was first presented last year, but persistent internal rivalries within Hizb-e Islami doomed the scheme from the outset.

Negotiations with insurgent groups stand little chance of success without more vigorous and structured support from the international community. The debacles of the last couple months have amply demonstrated that neither Kabul nor Washington is likely to be in a position in the near term to strike a deal on their own with the Taliban or Hizb-e Islami. With NATO's withdrawal now only about two years away there is a real risk that security will further deteriorate, especially as political competition among Afghan elites becomes more heated -- and possibly more violent -- ahead of the 2014 presidential elections. The United Nations will effectively be tasked with filling the void left by the departing international troops. A lasting peace accord that guarantees that the achievements of the last decade are not reversed will require the U.N. to undertake structured negotiations and to appoint a team of mutually agreeable mediators.

The challenges facing the U.S. and Afghan efforts at peace negotiations were, of course, predictable and possibly even avoidable. But President Hamid Karzai, despite his impassioned calls at the National Consultative Peace Jirga two years ago for "upset brothers" in the insurgency to lay their arms and adhere to the constitution, has adopted a policy of passive-aggressive resistance to calls for reconciliation. If he's not firing angry salvos at Doha or Washington one day, the next he's galloping off to Saudi Arabia like an Afghan Don Quixote in search of a peace neither he nor his government have demonstrated any genuine interest in pursuing. Although the Afghan government has of late shown a little more chutzpah in its foreign policy and domestic dealings, it is doubtful that it would take any action at all if it wasn't under so much pressure from Washington.

The Karzai administration has, meanwhile, cleverly inveigled the international community into funding the $784 million Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP), in the hopes of convincing low-level insurgent fighters to lay down their arms.  So far, a little more than 3,000 fighters have signed up for the program, which offers insurgents a small stipend for three months, and a chance to get taken off ISAF's capture/kill list. According to ISAF officials, there is also a proposal on the table under the rubric of the program to pay so-called big name commanders $1000 a month to cool their heels.

But, the vast majority of those who've signed on to the program are non-Pashtuns in the north -- hardly a ringing endorsement for the success of the U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign in the south. Then again, no one should be surprised that APRP hasn't emerged as a panacea. After all, all that has been on offer is a fistful of dollars, a flimsy paper guarantee of security and an invitation to once again live life on the margins, where there is no assurance and little evidence that the Afghan government will protect its citizens.

None of this points to a swift or tidy end to the conflict. The U.S. and NATO are not going to single-handedly extinguish insurgent safe havens in Pakistan, bring peace to the Pashtun belt and clean up corruption in Kabul while playing "Let's Make A Deal" with the Taliban. Traditional powerbrokers associated with the Northern Alliance are poised to make sure that doesn't happen and there is no shortage of potential spoilers among regional actors such as Iran. A deal with the Taliban alone will never be enough to secure the peace in Afghanistan. It will take much more than talks about talks to arrive at a political settlement.

The rhetoric around reconciliation must be backed up by real and sustained action by the international community. The 9/11 attacks had global implications; they were not just a singular event in American history. Negotiations aren't likely to amount to much until the United States gets over its allergy to U.N. intervention in what are perceived to be strictly American affairs. The U.S. will require just as much help from the Security Council in ending its military engagement in Afghanistan in 2014 as it did with starting it in 2001. No matter how badly the U.S. and NATO want out of Afghanistan, a "responsible end" to the war will warrant sustained support from the international community for many years to come.

Podcast / Asia

The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s foreign relations and what the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul says about the threat from transnational militants in Afghanistan a year into Taliban rule.

On 31 July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul. Zawahiri appears to have been living in a house maintained by the family of powerful Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. His death came almost a year after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban routed the former Afghan security forces and seized power. The Taliban’s uncompromising rule over the past year has seen girls denied their right to education, many other rights and freedoms curtailed and power tightly guarded within the Taliban movement. The Afghan economy has collapsed, owing in large part to the U.S. and other countries’ freezing Afghan Central Bank assets, keeping sanctions against the Taliban in place and denying the country non-humanitarian aid. Levels of violence across the country are mostly down, but Afghans’ plight is desperate, with a grave humanitarian crisis set to worsen over the winter. The Taliban’s apparent harbouring of Zawahiri seems unlikely to smooth relations between the new authorities in Kabul and the outside world. 

This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s broader foreign relations after Zawahiri’s killing. They discuss what his presence and death in Kabul mean for U.S. policy and what they say about the threat posed by transnational militants sheltering in Afghanistan. They look into how countries in the region are seeking to protect their interests in Afghanistan, including by engaging with the de facto Taliban authorities, and how those countries – particularly Pakistan, which has faced an uptick of violence in the past year – view the danger from foreign militants in Afghanistan. They also look in depth at Washington’s goals in Afghanistan a year after the withdrawal and what balance it should strike between engaging the Taliban or seeking to isolate them. Just over a year after the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, they reflect back on Washington’s decision to pull out troops. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, check out Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.

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