The South Asia Channel

An inclusive peace

An inclusive peace

Afghan history shows that peace is only as wholesome as the interest of the peacemakers involved. In 1988, then-president Mohammad Najibullah tried to present the Geneva Accords — which were supposed to bring peace after the Soviet war — as a symbol of national unity, and his administration as a nationalist movement. Instead, the mujahideen were excluded from the peace process, and several government officials, including one of Najibullah’s top generals, Abdul Rashid Dostum, were on the verge of switching allegiances. The president’s efforts fell short because they were not inclusive, and because Najibullah underestimated the threat posed by elements within his own government. The Accords eventually dissolved into the blur of civil war.

These same mistakes were repeated by the mujahideen when they took power in 1992. Families around the country celebrated when Najibullah’s regime fell in 1992, and Sibghatullah Mojaddedi was selected to be the first president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan. (My father went so far as to name his new-born grandson after the new president). It was deemed a mujahideen victory, and those associated with Najibullah’s regime were at the very least excluded from the new government. Many were forced to flee for their lives.

Unfortunately, the newly achieved peace — won by force and dealt exclusively amongst the mujahideen victors– didn’t last very long. A civil war soon broke out amongst the same mujahideen factions whose collective victory we had been celebrating.

The exclusiveness of both of these failed peace efforts presents lessons for the peace process today. While they are a central element, talks with the Afghan Taliban are only the tip of the iceberg in a comprehensive, meaningful peace for Afghanistan. There are other groups, equally as essential to a holistic Afghan peace, that must also be included. An Afghan-led approach to the peace process that pragmatically acknowledges the realities of the political scene in Afghanistan and engages all groups with equal scrutiny must be pursued with one common denominator shared by all: Afghanistan’s national interest.

Over ten years of foreign intervention, war and power struggle, and with Karzai’s final term coming to an end in 2014, each stakeholder in Afghan peace has their own political goals and interests that he believes are worth fighting for. The United States will want to leave with dignity, Karzai will seek to assert Afghan sovereignty and establish his legacy, the Taliban will want to capitalize politically on their gains on the battlefield, and opposition groups will grapple to retain their power as political space is made for the Quetta Shura.  But ideologies and political interests aside, realities must be central to this process to avoid past mistakes that resulted in civil war.

For one, despite their controversial policies, the Afghan Taliban is a political group and military force to be reckoned with.  Scores of foreign forces have failed to contend militarily with the Taliban to their desired extent for the past decade. In retrospect, the willingness (and now almost eagerness) shown by the U.S. and NATO to reach a political settlement with the Taliban takes us full circle to where we were over 10 years ago — the U.S., with the assistance of Northern Alliance militias armed with U.S.-supplied weapons and cash, pushed the Taliban from power in Kabul.  The Taliban were not reconciled at that crucial point, or allowed any political space, and their ability to revive themselves as a substantial military threat was underestimated. 

Now, they have in a sense gained the upper hand in the battlefield, maintaining a stalemate with the Afghan National Army and foreign forces. With the establishment of a shadow government across much of Afghanistan, and plans to open a diplomatic office in Qatar, the reality now is that the Taliban are an Afghan political group. They are bringing that upper hand to the negotiation table. This could not be exhibited better than by their announcement Thursday to suspend the peace talks with the U.S., which shows their ability to take advantage of opportunities to assert their control of the situation.

Secondly, the Taliban are not the only group that needs to be reconciled. The peace process must bring in the Taliban on equal terms, while also leveraging the potentially violent reactions of groups who staunchly oppose any reconciliation with the Taliban. These opposition groups make up mainly ethnic minority groups headed by former Northern Alliance commanders whose militias fought against the Taliban and each other during the civil war. They were heavily supported financially and militarily by the United States in 2001 to oust the Taliban, and today, some fill ministerial and other government positions, arguably bestowed by Karzai as a means of subjugation. Others are regional strongmen with de facto rule in their respective areas.

These are some of the same figureheads who nurtured the civil war in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and achieving some level of power is still in each group’s agenda. These groups comprise a viable threat as they are well-armed, financially sound, and many hold positions of power — positions they will fight to retain as hostility rises at the talk of Taliban negotiations.  The former head of the Afghan National Directorate of Security, Amrullah Saleh, now represents the recently formed United Front in its campaign against the Karzai government and Taliban reconciliation. He was recently quoted in an interview saying, "Fighting is not a very sophisticated path. It’s easy. And (so is) recruiting people to fight in this country where unemployment is more than 50 percent. To believe that only one group can fight is naïveté."

These opposition movement leaders have made brazen moves in a bid to gain support in the build-up to talks with the Taliban. Most notably,in January, 2012, they met with four members of the U.S. House of Representatives in Germany in a meeting not condoned by the U.S. State Department, to discuss a controversial agenda that included discussion about how to decentralize power and consolidate the opposition’s regional power, a move that would potentially divide the country into north and south.  The meeting was condemned by the Afghan government as an unconstitutional move against Afghan national unity, and was an embarrassment for the United States.

Efforts should be made and sustained to reach out not just to the Taliban, but to all groups that have a stake in Afghanistan’s political future, hostile or otherwise, on the same level. This includes non-Taliban insurgent groups such as the Haqqani Network and Hizbi-Islami Gulbuddin. An Afghan-led process is the best route to peace in Afghanistan. Though compromised in his ability to lead the peace process due to the U.S. negotiation efforts in Qatar and the denial of the Afghan government by the Taliban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai must strive to be diplomatic and inclusive in consistent efforts to initiate a sincere peace process.  His sporadic attitude toward talking to the Taliban — ranging from support to hesitation – is indicative of his attempts to control the peace process in order to reassert his legacy and sovereignty. Consistency in his efforts to unite all groups and foster an Afghan-led process should be his focus.

However, Karzai’s ability to make headway is restricted — first of all, the U.S. may trump his efforts; and secondly, the Taliban and other opposition groups may refuse his invitations to talk in order to make a political statement showing their rejection of the Afghan government. These factors make it difficult for the peace process to be effectively led by the Afghan government. Karzai should reach out to each group equally, initiating and maintaining unconditional dialogues. Peace is built on a foundation of trust.

In order to include all groups on an equal level and provide a platform for the voices of ordinary Afghan citizens-who are undoubtedly the biggest proponents of peace — a traditional Loya Jirga could be organized and held by a neutral entity, or a coalition, at a neutral location. The agenda would be pre-set and focused around specific objectives geared toward peace. The organizers and location would need to be neutral to reduce the risk that it would be boycotted by the very groups it would seek to bring in. A national, sincere discussion through traditional Afghan dialogue that places all groups on a level playing field is the country’s closest chance to achieve peace. This would be the beginning to a process cleansed of the divisive nature of political manoeuvrings.

If abused by opportunists with divisive political ambitions and interest, the fragile peace process in Afghanistan will result in nothing more than another hollow attempt that precedes yet another civil war – a fear that haunts Afghans.  Realities must be accepted by all groups in order to make political space for one another, groups who would otherwise start fighting, or keep fighting, if they are denied. It would be an unfortunate repeat of history if the results of this peace deal do not bring celebrations to every Afghan household, regardless of their background.

Hamdullah Mohib served as a senior aide to Dr. Ashraf Ghani during the 2009 Afghan presidential elections, and is now studying for his PhD at Brunel University.