The South Asia Channel

Reconsidering reconciliation in Afghanistan

Reconsidering reconciliation in Afghanistan

The last time I met with Burhanuddin Rabbani, he had just taken up his post as head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council. He was looking unusually fit and energized and was in a jocular mood, his dark eyes laughing as he regaled his visitors with witty appraisals of Afghanistan’s nascent peace process. President Hamid Karzai had taken his time in announcing the names of the High Peace Council members, officially announcing them in October 2010, and less than a month later Rabbani was already complaining that the Karzai administration had been dragging its feet on establishing an office for the council.

Holding court in the garishly ornate salon of his mansion in downtown Kabul, Rabbani bitterly joked about the then-recent revelations that the Afghan government and its Western backers had been duped into talking to a Taliban impostor. As details emerged of the Afghan government’s efforts to begin brokering a deal with a man they believed to be Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, a close adviser of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, it became clear that the Afghan peace process had a long way to go, and that the Taliban and its allies in the Pakistani military were prepared to go to great lengths to derail the peace process.

Mansour — it turned out — was not Mansour at all, but variously was believed to be a shopkeeper from Quetta, a Taliban spy, an agent of Pakistan’sintelligence services, or all of the above. The unseemly tale of subterfuge and betrayal was, Rabbani said at the time, a sign of the disarray in the Afghan government and the desperation in Washington to cut a deal that would quickly end America’s longest war. The ruse, the former Afghan president declared, was a stain on the peace process.

Rabbani was in rare form then, back in the limelight, relishing being at the center of Afghan politics again — the place where he always felt the most comfortable. Confident of his position and ever critical of those he called his allies, there was a sense of hope in Rabbani’s tone that somehow the four years he spent as president, presiding over the destruction of the Afghan capital in the 1990’s, would be erased as he spent his twilight years recasting himself as peacemaker. In many ways, Rabbani’s quest to burnish his troubled legacy was emblematic of the entire peace process itself, which has emerged as little more than a theatrical exercise in appeasing the vanities of powerful men.

One of a series this year of assassinations of high-powered Afghan politicians, Rabbani’s death at the hands of a suicide bomber in the heart of Kabul should send a strong signal to the Afghan government and its backers in Washington and London that cutting deals with the Taliban is not and never will be the solution for Afghanistan. For many, the death of Rabbani, one of Afghanistan’s most towering Tajik leaders, brings tragic punctuation to the pervasive sense of anxiety among non-Pashtun political factions and Afghan civil society actors that the international community is willing to jettison commitments made in the wake of the 2001 Bonn conference to support a model of multi-ethnic inclusive governance in favor of a Pakistani sanctioned quick and dirty deal with the predominantly Pashtun Taliban. The international community has done little to assuage these fears, only occasionally and often reluctantly ceding space to civil society in the reconciliation and transition process. Though a sustainable political settlement will without doubt entail prolonged engagement with a broad range of Afghans — from civil society activists, to political party leaders, women and youth groups, religious and legal scholars as well as members of the armed opposition — neither Washington nor Kabul has indicated any genuine interest in expanding the national dialogue on reconciliation since Karzai convened the Consultative Peace Jirga in Kabul in June 2010. Instead of expanding the national conversation about reconciliation, Karzai has narrowed the avenues of public participation by rewarding the mercurial, glorifying the venal, and making a mockery of the peace process by doling out dollars and divvying up patronage positions like a card dealer at a Las Vegas casino.

As a result, conditions on the ground in the wake of the U.S. military surge authorized by President Obama preclude the near term possibility of negotiating a sustainable political settlement in Afghanistan. With Karzai’s government in freefall, the insurgency gaining ground across the country, and ethnic divisions deepening, all signs point away from settlement and toward are invigoration of the conflict as NATO and the U.S. enter the final phase of the planned withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Although there is substantial support among Afghans for the cessation of violent conflict in the country, the elements necessary for a sustainable peace are far from being in place or agreed upon. While much has been made of attempts to broker a deal with the Taliban in the lead up to the Bonn II Conference on Afghanistan in December 2011 even Western diplomats involved in the negotiation efforts agree that contacts with Afghan insurgents have so far been insubstantial, amounting to little more than "talks about talks." Afghan government attempts to cut deals with factional leaders within the insurgency have been haphazard and while Pakistani military support for the insurgency remains strong there are few signs that the insurgents are anywhere near prepared to enter into negotiations.

There is also little evidence that the U.S. and its allies have succeeded in breaking al-Qaeda’s sway over the most radical elements of jihadist networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death in May 2011, there have been no signs that the Taliban is inclined to make a public break with al-Qaeda. Instead, there are stronger indications that Taliban and other Afghan insurgent leaders across the border in Pakistan view their perceived association with al-Qaeda as a strategic trump card critical to strengthening their position at the negotiating table. The Afghan insurgency’s backers in Pakistan’s military have concurrently managed to preserve their control over their Islamist Afghan proxies in spite of reported frictions among Taliban leaders over the movement’s longstanding dependence on the Pakistani militaryfor guidance and support. For Afghan jihadist Sirajuddin Haqqani and his network, in particular, the maintenance of their links with the Pakistanimilitary and al-Qaeda, the network’s strongest external source of support for nearly two decades, remains a strategic imperative.

The insurgency’s continued reliance on the Pakistani military and surviving elements of al-Qaeda, therefore, raise serious questions about the political import, and, indeed, relevance of the handful of recently reconciled Taliban involved in efforts to broker a deal with the Karzai government. By all accounts — including their own — this small cadre of reconciled Taliban is not as yet empowered to negotiate on behalf of the Taliban’s leadership council in Quetta, Pakistan. What’s more, it is becoming increasingly obvious that no matter how splintered Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura may have become in recent years, it is its very fragmentation that precludes the possibility of the Taliban making a definitive break with the Pakistani military and its other allies.

The attack on the U.S. Embassy last week and Rabbani’s assassination on Tuesday comes on the heels of news that the U.S. and its international partners have backed an Afghan plan to open a political office for the Taliban in the Gulf state of Qatar. It is also notable that within days of these events, the embassy of Saudia Arabia, a state which until recently was viewed as a potentially heavyweight broker in the negotiation process, has decided to pull up stakes and evacuate its staff from Kabul. The Saudi pullout may only be temporary, but it is an important harbinger of things to come as regional states around Afghanistan begin shifting their positions in the run up to the transition. The international community has a long way to go before it will convince states such as Iran, India, Russia and China that the U.S. prescription for peace in South and Central Asia is the cure for what ails the region.

If there is one lesson to be learned, it is that it is time for Washington and Kabul drop their illusions that unconditional appeasement of Taliban demands is the answer to Afghanistan’s problems. At the very least, the events of the last few months should put all concerned on notice: it’s time to rethink reconciliation and reintegration in Afghanistan. Until the Pakistani military withdraws its support for the Taliban and Haqqani network’s safe havens across the border, and until Karzai reconciles himself to putting his government back in order, political settlement will remain out of reach.

If the U.S. and NATO want to ensure the stability of the Afghan republic, more must be done to guard against the return of the Islamic emirate. A switch in orientation will necessitate considerably more high-profile Afghan and international investment in unsexy things like electoral and constitutional reform. Instead of spinning its wheels on cutting deals, the U.S. and its allies need to throw their backs into a whole of government approach that engages Afghans on all levels — not just a handful of powerful men. No amount of dealmaking will erase 30 years of entrenched conflict. Ensuring that the Afghan public is fully engaged in the peace process from start to finish is the only thing that will prevent the next civil war.

Candace Rondeaux is based in Kabul and is the senior analyst in Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group.