The South Asia Channel

Forging Policy for Peace After Karzai

With the withdrawal of most NATO troops from Afghanistan, the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, and the completion of a tumultuous change of government, the Afghan peace process is entering a new critical phase. The creation of the national unity government offers an important opportunity to galvanize the process, but ...

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

With the withdrawal of most NATO troops from Afghanistan, the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, and the completion of a tumultuous change of government, the Afghan peace process is entering a new critical phase. The creation of the national unity government offers an important opportunity to galvanize the process, but only if the new, reform-minded administration can tackle the challenges that have held back progress in the past by building greater public trust, clearly defining the role of the High Peace Council (HPC), and pursuing a strong regional approach.

The Afghan peace process began in earnest with the formation of the HPC in 2010. This government-appointed body — of which I am a member — is mandated to independently lead the country’s reconciliation efforts, including negotiations with leaders of the armed opposition. While the HPC has been able to promote dialogue and a narrative of peace within the country, progress at the negotiations level has been hampered over the past four years, mainly by former President Hamid Karzai’s inconsistent and unclear policy on reconciliation, as well as little support from Pakistan for it. As a result, there has been a lack of confidence and trust among ordinary Afghans in the peace process.

While Afghans in general want to see an end to the long cycle of violence and bloodshed that has plagued the country, they are wary of a political settlement with the Taliban, and have little knowledge of the HPC’s work. This lack of familiarity has fed the biggest misconception about the HPC: that it wastes millions of dollars only to release insurgents. This simply is not true. The HPC’s operational budget is relatively small, having never exceeded one million dollars. More importantly, the HPC has never considered it within its mandate to release prisoners, and has not done so. The prisoner releases were the work of a review committee set by Karzai.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the HPC’s role in the peace process has not been clearly defined. In principle, the HPC should play the role of a neutral third-party actor working between the government and armed opposition, as outlined by the Consultative Peace Jirga that approved its establishment four years ago. In practice, however, this role has been limited due to the great influence exerted by Karzai, which included intervening in HPC decision-making processes by taking over the strategic outreach to armed opposition groups, as well as the strategic communications to the general public for raising awareness. As a result, the Taliban doesn’t differentiate between the HPC and the Afghan government, and the public is not aware of the HPC’s work.

Yet even with these restrictions, the HPC has helped facilitate some openings for direct talks over the past two years, including the meeting held in Chantilly, France in 2012, under the auspices of Fondation Pour La Recherche Stratégique, a French government-sponsored think tank. Representatives from across Afghanistan’s political spectrum, including women — and, for the first time, representatives from the Taliban leadership and Hezb-e-Islami, an Islamist organization run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — came together for two days to discuss possible ways out of the conflict. (This required a great deal of coordination between the United Nations and the HPC to lift travel sanctions against certain individuals to allow them to attend the meeting.) But the progress was short-lived, as Karzai refused to acknowledge the proceeding and disengaged from it completely, effectively undermining the HPC and halting any further movement on multi-track initiatives. This happened while most participants, who were also prominent figures in Afghan politics, believed Chantilly was an important forum to formally initiate the first dialogue with representatives of the armed opposition.

Karzai’s monopolistic approach to reconciliation denied any role for the multi-track dialogues that are essential in the run-up to formal negotiations between the Afghan government, the Taliban, and other armed opposition groups in the country. The HPC, as a result, has become more of a symbolic institution than one actively helping to drive the peace process.

Karzai’s strong emphasis on ensuring sole ownership over the process seems to have been based on a fundamental misreading of the insurgency, which has a strong regional and international dimension, and whose leaders have always indicated that they would not negotiate directly with the Karzai government. In denying offers from third parties to facilitate credible and constructive "track 2 plus 1" proceedings — involving not only the parties to the conflict, but other major national and regional powers — the previous administration inadvertently set back the chance for peace.

To change this, the HPC needs to have a much more clearly defined role as a third-party actor in the peace process; one that is articulated to the Afghan public and key players. It also needs to have more autonomy to pursue a sustained multi-track process. The goal would be to bring together key actors both within and outside the Afghan government, including representatives of the Taliban, to exchange views on specific peace and reconciliation agenda items and to help set the structure for formal talks. The result would be a more inclusive peace that takes the needs and views of a wider range of Afghan society into consideration, and recognizes the concerns of particular groups, such as women.

The necessity of including relevant regional actors in the peace process, such as Pakistan, India, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, cannot be overstated. The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan is closely entwined with the situation in Pakistan, so it is imperative that reconciliation efforts also kick-start a substantive dialogue between the two nations. Building consensus and cooperation with other countries in the region, who need a stable Afghanistan for their own economic and security interests, would go a long way toward furthering constructive dialogue with Pakistan, whose support has been confined to official statements rather than tangible actions.

Establishing peace is not easy, nor will it happen overnight. But the ongoing security transfer from international troops to Afghan forces and the continuing insurgency make the process even more important. The main rationale for the insurgency — fighting the so-called occupation by foreign troops — is becoming a moot point with the upcoming completion of the transition, but the violence continues, indicating that there are other forces behind it. Coupled with this is the fact that the armed opposition itself is not monolithic: It has fractured, and some of its members are joining for economic reasons rather than ideological ones.

Even with these challenges, the HPC has been able to make some headway initiating space for dialogue. These openings were not capitalized upon in the past, but the new Afghan administration under President Ashraf Ghani, dedicated (as it seems) to transparency and accountability, has the opportunity to change this. The first step it should take is to complete a thorough review of the peace process to date — an action which will send an important signal to the country of the government’s will to end the violence through dialogue.

Amir Ramin is a member of the Afghan High Peace Council and the deputy chief executive officer of the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program. He is also a member of Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness, a group of Afghan professionals advocating for change, and has previously served as a political officer with the European Union’s Special Representative and Head of Delegation for Afghanistan.

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