The United States, Afghan, Qatari, and Pakistani governments have all voiced their support for the opening of a Taliban office in Doha in order to promote peace negotiations. Some consider transforming the Taliban from an armed insurgency into a legitimate political group to be the critical first step in the Afghan peace process. However, to date, reconciliation efforts have stalled and focus more on rhetoric rather than substance.
There is no concrete evidence that Taliban leadership is either worn down or desperate to reach a peace agreement. Attempting to secure his legacy as a peacemaker, Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants to reach an agreement before the end of his term in April 2014. Because the Taliban have also cooperated somewhat with this principle of reconciliation, it is not immediately clear why the current approach has achieved nothing.
The answer is that the Doha peace process has been riddled with unrealistic expectations, and remains hopelessly inconsistent. Such reconciliation efforts without strategy and clear objectives reflect a hook without bait – while encouraging, these talks are doomed to fail without significant reform. Only with realistic expectations, a coherent strategy, national solidarity, and lots of patience, will reconciliation stand a chance of materializing.
Where We’ve Been Thus Far
The reconciliation offer requires three specific things from the Taliban: ending violence, breaking ties with al-Qaeda, and accepting the Afghan Constitution. The fourth, less advertised condition is the acceptance of a residual ISAF element in Afghanistan post-2014. At a recent summit in London, British, Afghan and Pakistani leaders set a six-month timeline to reach a peace settlement.
But substantive results are unlikely to emerge until after the 2014 Afghan Presidential elections. This is the single most important date in the reconciliation process and will set the tone for future debate. A six-month deadline to reach an agreement is not only unrealistic, but also damaging to the credibility of the process.
A more realistic approach to the peace process would be both accepting that this dialogue will take a long time and recognizing the importance of Afghan national consensus on the issue. Key stake-holders should focus efforts on reaching internal consensus between now and mid-2014, when the elections will take place. With reconciliation playing a significant role in Afghan political dialogue leading to the elections, the next president should enter office with a clear mandate on how to tackle engagement with the Taliban. Any further wavering will increase the likelihood of infighting amongst regional powerbrokers and warlords.
Negotiations are also unlikely succeed until the majority of Coalition Forces leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014. Why would the Taliban want to reconcile with the Afghan Government on the eve of ISAF’s withdrawal? Still in control of significant swaths of land across the country, the Taliban will be hesitant to strike a deal until it becomes clear that Afghan security forces can maintain control without ISAF support.
Lessons Learned and Relearned
The most opportune moment for reconciliation has likely already passed. The Bonn negotiations, which took place immediately following the Taliban’s swift defeat in late 2001, failed to peacefully incorporate Taliban loyalists into the new government. At that point, the Taliban were the defeated foe and their long-time enemies, now at the forefront of Afghan politics, circumvented any reconciliation efforts.
When the Taliban re-emerged as a significant threat between 2006 and 2009, Coalition COIN strategy focused more on marginalizing the Taliban through the "clear-hold-build-transfer" model, and did not pay enough credence to reconciliation efforts.
Additionally, the Afghan-led reconciliation process is fractured. While Afghan security forces are more focused on reintegrating individual insurgents willing to give up the fight, President Karzai’s reconciliation program is focused on reaching a deal with the Taliban core leadership. This is not a "grand bargain" with the Taliban, but rather a presidential appeal to Afghan nationalism in an attempt to erode Pakistani influence on the Afghan Taliban’s senior leadership. The result of the two incongruous approaches has been failure.
A Change in Direction is Required
For the peace process to work, it must change course. First, there must be national solidarity and consensus on the peace platform. The current plan, though basic, does not have widespread support among loyal Afghan opposition parties, such as Afghan Mellat, Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan, or Jamiat-e-Islami. In fact, the process appears monopolized by a small group of Presidential Palace senior aides, rather than made transparent in order to seek buy-in from a wider sector of Afghans.
Second, we must understand the influence of external regional and international players on the Taliban as well as the Afghan government. Finally, the lead negotiators will need time to develop the proper relationships between opposing parties; this role is probably best handled by a group of mediators, supported by the key western stakeholders and accepted by all sides. All indicators point toward limited progress between now and the April 2014 Afghan elections.
The current Afghan government faces opposition from all the major ethnic groups in the country. Most ‘loyal opposition’ parties and leaders – some of which are presidential contenders – are missing from the negotiating tables; these are the political parties featuring moderate Afghan party leaders who have worked with NATO over the past twelve years. By ignoring the "loyal opposition" parties, reconciliation officials are also excluding from the negotiation table the largest segment of the Afghan population – the youth. Afghan political leaders are increasingly paying attention to the youth-movement in an effort to "get the vote" from the most dynamic – and potentially volatile – segment of the population.
Part of the reconciliation process must start inside urban centers, where the majority of the population and the biggest opposition to the Taliban live. Only with a national consensus on reconciliation will the peace process move to a stage in which the Qatar office can start delivering results. This will take time and considerable trust-building measures.
While Pakistani support to the Taliban is an undeniable issue, the fact remains that poor governance from the Afghan government and deficiencies in the Afghan security apparatus make areas of the country vulnerable to insurgent (as well as criminal elements) influence. If the Qatar peace process is to work, all involved must understand that the peace terms can only be Afghan-generated. External entities can facilitate the peace process but cannot set the terms. One of the challenges for the reconciliation process is that few possess the patience to approach it as a long term process. Many hours of deliberation and countless cups of tea will be required to build the trust and goodwill necessary to start the reconciliation process and a vital – to the ultimate peace – drop in violence.
In order for the international community to support the peace process and help it move forward, the Taliban must be better understood. Although the Taliban are most often associated with their strict adherence to Shari’a Law and violent insurgent tactics rather than their Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic efforts, they have pursued basic diplomatic solutions in the past and may still be open to such activities. Twelve years of conflict
since the end of the Taliban’s regime have made it difficult, but not impossible, to leverage Taliban diplomacy in future negotiations.
Ultimately however, no reconciliation can start unless there is pause in the carnage supported by the Taliban senior leadership. Similarly, there must be a willingness on the part of the Afghan government to adhere to some form of cease-fire. The negotiating parties must be willing to compromise, as concessions are essential for both sides to achieve realistic goals.
A Way Forward
The most important thing the United States can accomplish on reconciliation this year is to give up on the idea that reconciliation will be accomplished this year. Only by realizing how far the reconciliation process is from the end goal can the U.S. avoid doomed-to-fail quick fixes that reinforce hopelessness. The U.S. must see reconciliation in the context of the political transition that will come after the mid-2014 Afghan Presidential elections. A good first step toward national reconciliation will be the commitment of each candidate to making the peace process a key element of their platform and laying out their plan to achieve lasting peace during their term.
With this more modest understanding of 2013 as the year to begin a real dialogue rather than expect results on reconciliation, there are three key components that set the table for future breakthroughs.
First, international engagement must be persistent and consistent rather than episodic and occasionally even working at cross-purposes. More specifically, this means committing to the Doha process, which is the closest credible option for most Afghan factions, and having permanent international staff working with the parties, rather than visiting delegations. Similarly, clarity of purpose from these engagements would be useful, as the Coalition and the Afghan Government send conflicting signals on whether insurgent groups are considered the "enemy" or, albeit "upset," brothers.
Second, the United States and its allies must recognize that real reconciliation in Afghanistan requires the involvement of all parties, not just the false binary of the Karzai Government and the Taliban. Talks must include other armed resistance groups, as well as the loyal opposition (i.e. parties and individuals who choose political means of opposing government policies without violence) which has consistently acted as the Afghan government’s conscience and challenged the carnage caused by the fighting between the government and insurgents. Given that this latter faction probably represents a substantial majority of Afghans and aligns most closely with priorities of the international community, reconciliation must not further marginalize them.
Third, much of the 2014-2019 Presidential term should set the conditions for reconciliation. In effect, the new Afghan President should be sworn in with a national agenda and a mandate to push toward a potential breakthrough during their time in office. But reconciliation should not be attempted at all costs. In other words, unless there is real intent to stop the violent insurgency in earnest, the idea of negotiations is absurd. For example one cannot expect positive results on reconciliation efforts when civilian casualties are going up significantly. According to the U.N. data, 3,092 civilians were killed or wounded in the Afghan conflict between 1 January and 6 June this year, with children accounting for 21 per cent of all civilian casualties.
Ultimately, true reconciliation will take generations to materialize. Abandoning the current failed ‘foolosophy’ in favor of a more realistic – but much longer term – approach is a good first step in our collective "12-step process" to reconciliation recovery.
Ioannis Koskinas was a military officer for over twenty years and now focuses on economic development projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Dr. Kamal Alam specializes in 21st century relations between Arab states, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.