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How to end the war in Afghanistan?

Today, the New York-based Century Foundation International Task Force has released its final report on political negotiations in Afghanistan. While on the surface much of it seems relatively anodyne, it goes further than other prominent reports in describing the outlines of a potential settlement, and proposes a high-level peace process led by a neutral party. ...


Today, the New York-based Century Foundation International Task Force has released its final report on political negotiations in Afghanistan. While on the surface much of it seems relatively anodyne, it goes further than other prominent reports in describing the outlines of a potential settlement, and proposes a high-level peace process led by a neutral party. More importantly, it represents the final result of a yearlong process of extensive consultations in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. As a result, the report has already generated discussion in diplomatic circles, not least of all because of the speculation as to whether Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN representative in Afghanistan and one of the task force’s co-chairs, might be appointed as the international peace envoy whose creation the report advocates.

The task force’s second co-chair was another diplomatic heavyweight, Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador to the UN. The rest of the task force is a notably international group that includes Franscesc Vendrell, a former EU representative in Afghanistan, Afghanistan expert and author Steve Coll, and members from Turkey, Russia, Germany, France, Spain, Japan and China.

"It’s a cross-section of experts and former leaders in the field," said James Dobbins, the U.S. representative to the Bonn conference that set up Afghanistan’s current government structure and a task force member. "And the report probably has the most exhaustive set of consultations in terms of countries and officials talked to. I think those are the two elements that makes this somewhat unique."

In Afghanistan, the task force met with President Karzai and the group of former Taliban who now serve a frequent consultants and commentators in Kabul, including former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Mullah Zaeef. They also met with Pakistan’s ISI, civil society groups, and Taliban-connected figures in Pakistan, and with senior officials in India, Dushanbe, Beijing and a number of other countries and capitols in the region.

Of course, it has become a generally accepted truism that Afghanistan’s conflict requires a "political solution," and there has been much sound and fury to that effect over the past year. Over the summer, President Karzai held a ‘Consultative Peace Jirga’ and subsequently constituted a High Peace Council intended to facilitate political reconciliation. The United States has long been supportive of the idea of reintegration, whereby former Taliban fighters might be granted conditional amnesty and returned to the fold, and has recently given positive signals on a reconciliation process as well for high-level insurgents.

This word ‘political’ here, however, obscures the fact that, as currently constituted, the U.S. and Afghan effort remains a solution whose primary instrument is a counterinsurgency strategy pursued by the U.S. military and its Afghan proxies, and one in which insurgents are required to accept the current political order. This is not much different from an offer of surrender. As Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network wrote on Tuesday: "Why are we pretending there is a peace process when there is none?"

Advocates of negotiations, though a disparate group, thus have in common the basic belief that the current structures for reconciliation are inadequate and only a genuine process with a high-level mandate for real compromise will have a chance at achieving a political settlement that ends the war.

"Given the very visible peace infrastructure in place in Kabul at the moment, some people harbor the illusion that it’s all in place and we’re just waiting for the Taliban to bite," said Michael Semple, a regional expert and fellow at Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. "The significance of the Brahimi-Pickering report is that, while giving all due respect to the Bonn political order, the architecture in place is never going to give a reasonable chance of the kind of process that will lead to a settlement."

The report calls for an "international facilitator," for Afghanistan peace, noting, "such a third-party actor can broach sensitive issues regarding possible negotiations without undermining the relevant players’ respective negotiating positions." While the report offers the possibility of the role being filled by a multilateral organization, such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, it argues for a single individual of "sufficient stature," backed with a mandate from the Security Council.

It’s a role similar to that played by the Spanish diplomat Diego Cordovez in the 1980s in brokering the Geneva Accords that led to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, though today the situation is complicated by the fact that the current conflict is not one between rival superpowers and their proxies, but incorporates an array of non-state actors and regional players. Moreover, there is already an existing UN mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, which the task force sees as too closely linked with the Karzai administration to serve as a facilitator for talks. "I think that this is not a process that can be handled from Kabul," said Dobbins, "and I think the head of UNAMA has a full time job in Kabul."

The report delineates the outlines of a possible settlement on both domestic and international levels, making some recommendations that are likely to be controversial, especially coming from a consensus report from a group that included former diplomats from Russia and China. In addition to the "total and permanent eviction of al Qaeda from the country," the report acknowledges the Taliban’s demand of the withdrawal of foreign forces and argues that the "willingness of [International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)] troop contributors, and particularly the United States, to accept a phased withdrawal will thus be an important component of any political settlement." In place of ISAF, the report suggests a UN peacekeeping force empowered by the Security Council to enforce the settlement and monitor violations, one in which "no belligerent party to the conflict would sensibly be included in the force," but that might include ISAF members seen as less involved in the conflict, such as Turkey.

The report goes on to consider some of the hard compromises necessary within Afghan domestic politics, such as a power sharing arrangement in the central government, possibly with control over various ministries and the security forces portioned out: "the Taliban will almost certainly make it a condition of an agreement that their former enemies not have a monopoly on coercive power."

Semple points out that this sort of power sharing is already consistent with Karzai’s oft-maligned approach to governance, whereby armed factions have been integrated into the government by offering some of their more palatable members positions. "For example, when you get Hazaras or Uzbeks coming on board they don’t nominate [Rashid] Dostum or old Hizb-e Wahdat warlords, they nominate people from their communities," said Semple, naming an Uzbek warlord and a Hazara mujahideen party. (Of course, it’s worth remembering that Karzai’s term will be up in 2014, something that may very well precipitate the kind of constitutional revision that the report suggests may be a part of a future peace settlement.)

The question is whether the Taliban are willing to talk. The report, based on extensive consultations with current and former members of the Taliban, suggests that they’ve demonstrated a greater pragmatism and openness than is generally ascribed to them, but notes that "the true intent of the Taliban and their willingness to engage seriously in a political process cannot be discerned prior to actual engagement.

"I just see wishful thinking on their part, without any real basis," said Marvin Weinbaum, who served as an Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst at the State Department from 1999 to 2003, and who is currently a scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute.  "Nobody has seriously spoken to the people who would conclude a grand bargain. The people they spoke to are the people who could deliver reintegration."

Skeptics of negotiations like Weinbaum don’t see any potential common ground to be reached by a peace process that engages the top Taliban leadership, and worry that such a process could eliminate any chance of splitting off reconcilable elements of the insurgency. "We saw this when we tried to negotiate with them in the late 90s. They always felt that time was on their side, and secondly that God was on their side and that they didn’t need to make any compromises," said Weinbaum. He also questioned whether, in the event of a collapse of a power sharing agreement, the Taliban would honor commitments to break with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. "If that brought on a civil war, they’re going to be looking for support wherever they can get it," Weinbaum said.

Semple counters that official rhetoric can be misleadingly bellicose. "The information war is a very important part of the conflict, and I anticipate that they will sustain that until the guns go silent," he said. "There are significant differences in intent and orientation within what is known as the Taliban movement now, and this idea of opening of dialogue in the Brahimi-Pickering report is about giving a chance for the pragmatic wing of the Taliban to prevail."

Could Brahimi fill the role of the international facilitator that the report suggests? The question was considered settled back in the fall, due to opposition from former Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke and UN representative in Afghanistan Staffan di Mistura who saw such a person usurping their own positions, as well as from current ISAF commander General David Petraeus. However, with Hoolbrooke’s death, and both di Mistura and Petraeus slated to leave their posts, the space has opened up. Brahimi is said to be willing to consider taking up the position, but only with direct and unambiguous support from the U.S. government.

"I think that if you go through the numerous qualifications that Brahimi has, that’s the checklist of the things you would want," said Semple. He noted that Brahimi had dealt with the Taliban regime during the 90s, and had met Mullah Omar six times. "The important part of this is that a figure like Brahimi would enjoy the confidence of all the key actors in this conflict."

If talks do go ahead, much of the initial progress will surely need to be kept secret, and real results could take years to emerge, a lesson from efforts to end the Soviet-Afghan war. According to Cordovez’s memoir Out of Afghanistan, by the spring of 1983 Soviet and Pakistani negotiators made substantial progress on a draft settlement in Geneva. Yet a long succession of political and domestic factors and other contingencies-such as the untimely death of Yuri Andropov-as well as the slow maturation of elite and public sentiment on all sides, meant that no agreement was reached until 1988.

Of course, by that point, extremist and centrifugal forces in Afghanistan-both within the government and the mujahideen-had accelerated to the point where civil war and a total fragmentation of the country were nearly inevitable. To the victors went the bitter spoils of years of war and conflict that have yet to end.

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