The South Asia Channel

It takes two to talk: reading the Century Foundation report

To paraphrase a former U.S. official: There are some knowns and some unknowns in the highly complex equation that would be a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. The Century Foundation report (read it in full here) on a possible negotiated settlement in Afghanistan identifies some of the unknowns (first of all what the Taliban might want to ...

Isam al-Hag/AFP/Getty Images
Isam al-Hag/AFP/Getty Images

To paraphrase a former U.S. official: There are some knowns and some unknowns in the highly complex equation that would be a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. The Century Foundation report (read it in full here) on a possible negotiated settlement in Afghanistan identifies some of the unknowns (first of all what the Taliban might want to achieve if they entered negotiations; the stress is on the "if", however), but does not add much to what hasn’t been known before about their position.

It also shows that some of what is generally considered to be a known — that the "international community" wants peace in Afghanistan — often looks pretty ambiguous at closer scrutiny. The strongest part of the paper is when it lays out how a mechanism could look like if and when the Taliban decide that they want to talk. But what really is needed now — and here the report is lacking again — are realistic ideas about how the Taliban can be persuaded to enter into such negotiations, other than by applying more and more force and hoping that this will weaken them sufficiently. That latter might even happen without achieving the first: From all what we see, more violence just makes them more stubborn and might close the door for negotiations for a long time.

In general, the authors of the report are right: The time to "start a political process toward reconciliation is now." But first we should not confuse talks with negotiations, and secondly acknowledge that this process might take years rather than months and go beyond the year of 2014. When its authors state that "a genuine peace can be reached well ahead of 2014," it already runs the risk of creating a false hope that it can be done just because "we" have set this pivotal date. A hasty deal that does not address core causes underlying the conflicts in Afghanistan, however, might even close paths towards a better, more comprehensive solution.

This is the real weakness of the paper. It is often too Western-centric and it mainly addresses the U.S. government and the U.S. public (and indirectly the Taliban). These two parties to the conflict are only half of the story. The other half is Afghan public opinion with which a political solution in Afghanistan will stand or fall, even if this is one stakeholder that is difficult to gauge and predict.

Let’s look at two of the report’s key sentences. The first one says that "the international community seems clearly to recognize that the war in Afghanistan will have a political rather than military solution." It has both "seems" and "clearly" in it, i.e. the authors aren’t really sure. And how can they?

I am sure that the "international community" (or let’s be honest here and admit that we talk about the West when we use this term) wants the war in Afghanistan to end — but even more it wants to get out of Afghanistan. The costs, both in soldiers’ lives and money, are becoming too high, and in Europe more than in the United States. Most European troops will be out by 2014, while the United States is currently talking to Karzai about keeping some bases, at least. Under this scenario it is a likely outcome that they get out indeed but the war continues anyway, in the form of a new round of "civil" (factional) war and fueled, not least, by exactly those bases which the Taliban would see just as an extension of the current occupation. They don’t care whether a U.S. President one day calls combat operations over and rebrands the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) into a pure training-and-mentoring mission. What some in the West might hope, though (and therefore Petraeus, the new King David of Mesopotamia, was brought over), is that the same happens like in Iraq: while the fighting continues, not much of it will appear on U.S. newspaper front-pages anymore.

Also the latest remark of Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, that the U.S. surge is working does not point into the direction that the United Nations — another crucial part of the "international community" — really gets the point of a political rather than a military solution. It also undermines another of the report’s assumptions, namely that the United Nations has sufficient credibility amongst all Afghans to be considered an honest broker. Not if it is seen as a U.S. mouthpiece.

And, by the way, many "ordinary" Afghans do not believe that "the Americans" want the war to end because they want to keep the mentioned bases. They assume that not all of this is about their country, but about Pakistan next door, its nuclear weapons and the West’s nightmare that "the mullahs" get a hand on them.

All in all, even when it comes to the "international community" and its desire for an Afghan settlement this is not really a given. We are still in the realm of hoping for the best and praying.

Also, the United States should not be the key mover in this process. Of course, the United States must be consulted and "take an active role in all the stages of the negotiating process but not in the driver’s seat. But the authors, proponents of realpolitik by profession, do not seem to expect that this is realistic.

The second key sentence which is from the paper’s executive summary states: "2011 can be the year when allies and adversaries reach the strategic conclusion that this war must end in a compromise peace, and commence the serious negotiations that will be required to achieve it." As we saw, "the international community" has not made the decision yet whether really to talk to the Taliban or just to keep trying to capture-or-kill them, hoping that this would make talking to them unnecessary. Correct, there is a lot of interest in talking about talking. The Taliban are a sexy political subject, and there might be another run to catch the biggest fish (the most prominent Taliban leader who wants to "talk"), as the much-described story about the Quetta shopkeeper pretending to be the Taliban’s military leader Mullah Mansour showed.

If the authors of this paper really believe – and what they write seems to indicate this — that "talking" (exploratory talks first that would lead to serious negotiations later) is necessary for a negotiated solution then they need to be more outspoken about whether they think that this current U.S. "double strategy" of fighting-while-pondering-whether-really-to-talk is helpful in the context. But they just lamely remark that there are "some within the insurgency who argue — along with some outside analysts — that ISAF’s growing success in eliminating the mid-level leadership in Taliban units will bring more radical and uncontrollable leaders to the fore," i.e those who do not have the slightest interest in talking but just want to wage jihad and go to paradise if necessary.

When it comes to the Taliban, we cannot even be half that sure about their willingness to talk under the current circumstances. They are the real unknown in this equation and we, as my Afghan Analysts Network (AAN) colleague Martine van Bijlert pointed out in her previous blog post on this issue, "are all guessing" about the Taliban without making much progress in knowing.

My guess is that many of the Taliban, on the personal level, want the war to end, too, to go home and lead a poor but honorable life. But in most cases they do not want to do this as long as there are foreign troops — including bases — on Afghan soil. And they have proved their endurance already.

But the authors of the report talk a lot about "signs" and "some" interest amongst insurgents to "talk" and even "in establishing a liaison office in a secure location"; Turkey is been publicly discussed as a venue for this. Correctly, they are hesitant when it comes to Hezb-e Islami‘s (HIG) "forward leaning" and a separate path of talks with longtime warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (which former HIG people close to the President might favor). Mullah Omar and the Quetta shura, as the strongest and most cohesive organization amongst insurgents, indeed represent "the central node of authority within" them and is therefore "the logical starting point for political dialogue." But with no Taliban political wing (although there is a Political Commission which the paper fails to mention) and no clearly visible Taliban negotiator(s) yet, much is left to be desired. (I have no doubt, however, that the Taliban are able to nominate negotiators that can speak for them — but only when they see that the time for such a step has come. And it hasn’t yet, from their point of view.)

Some of the authors’ assumptions about what the Taliban may want out of a political settlement sound Western-centric and even naïve: that the Taliban want to have ministries and governorships etc. and that we just have to think about a way that these allocations "cannot be revoked at will by the president." Where do these assumptions come from? From former Taliban living in Kabul now, perhaps. But do we really know whether they are able to gauge what the position of the Taliban leadership is? Or maybe from some active Taliban the Task Force talked to when it visited Pakistan (who only can have been selected with the consent of the host country, which already puts the independence of what they say in question; who they were exactly is secret, of course).

I have the impression that, on the Taliban’s side, it is much more about "hegemony" than direct "administrative" power. They want to be able to control and intervene when Afghanistan does not become "Islamic" enough for their taste, through something like the Guardians’ Council in Iran rather than through ministries. But again, that’s my guess. They have never indicated something like this. Furthermore, the reputation of the current government will preclude some of the more ideological or morally inspired leaders from wanting to share power with them.

When it is stated in the report that the division of power – or better: the lack of a culture of sharing power – is "at the heart of the conflict," that is to the point. Just that this is not only a Taliban problem. The same goes for all other Afghan factions, including those allied with the current set-up.

Another important point: Although the paper talks convincingly about the importance of other Afghan stakeholders in a negotiated settlement, it is not very clear about their intentions either. It correctly says that the Karzai government lacks a capable negotiation team – and still a clear strategy, one wants to add. The High Peace Council (HPC) is indeed a set-up which still needs to be turned into something useful, mainly by including civil society people who have experience in talking to Taliban and who are really interested in peace.

This interest is also assumed for the Karzai government in this paper. But is this really the case? A lot of people linked to the government or close to some of its members have become very rich exactly because of the current war. Do they really want to lose (or share, with a "reconciled" Taliban movement which at least in the past has been known for its stand against corruption) their incomes coming from the foreign-funded contract business, the drug economy and the smuggling in all its forms? They probably rather prefer living with the current level of violence which still is lower than the all-out "civil" (or factional) war of the 1990s and makes sure that big foreign money continues to flow in. As the Afghan proverb says, it is easier to fish in muddied water. Of course, the same goes for the factions allied to Karzai, some Taliban and maybe even some civil society people.

Looking at the list of the Task Force members, with Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi in particular – who hasn’t been the biggest proponent of civil society involvement before, during and after the Bonn conference (and even kicked out a delegation with this background because it would have raised the number of Afghan actors too much, from four to five) — and a handful of former U.S. ambassadors, I also have the suspicion that the talk about the involvement of other stakeholders might be lip-service and will be limited to the usual warlords again. Read, for example, the proposal in the report that the facilitator (which should be appointed to prepare negotiations) would "need to consult with the capitals" but only "may wish to seek the perspectives" of international agencies and NGOs (my emphasis). Characteristically, the consent of all "ethnic" groups is said to be required for negotiations. "Ethnic" groups, however, usually means their particular warlords and "parties." Where are "social" groups like women and civil society here? (Interestingly, the Bonn agreement is mentioned as a reference point in the paper but not the reasons for the failure of the implementation that had to do exactly with the lack of disarming the warlords and allowing them to take over the new political system.)

If civil society actors and other veto groups, i.e. ethnic minorities and anti-Taliban mujahideen, organized women, pro-democratic forces (some of those categories overlap with each other and there are even Pashtuns amongst them), are out-maneuvered and excluded again, like with another Loya Jirga where just fig leaf representatives will be invited to and some mujahideen leaders co-opted, this will create discontent in the longer term. Allied to each other, they would even represent a majority of the population and be able to effectively mobilize (including support abroad). This might lead to an Afghan protest movement which would possibly be able to stop any settlement.

The strongest part of the report is the one about the best mechanism for negotiations, including the role of a facilitator, in all its detail. No wonder, the task force represents a lot of diplomatic experience. But the problem is that we are not in a situation where negotiations could happen anytime soon and all we need is a good mechanism. First, you need a partner for talks.

However, the facilitator and his team could start working immediately, before real negotiations start – namely on creating a situation in which a real "broad national consensus on the wisdom of pursuing a political settlement" with the Taliban emerges in Afghan society (and it doesn’t yet, despite the Peace Jirga and the HPC which were too much stage-managed). The same is true for a number of issues the report raises as part of a process of negotiations including: reforming the electoral system, empowering the elected provincial councils and dealing with the narcotics issue (namely by de-linking the Kabul government from the drug economy). There is no reason not to start this work also now. Leaving these measures for later means postponing them until ruz-e qiamat (the day of resurrection – that’s what Muslims call the day of judgment). If one is a bit optimistic this negotiation process could even recover some moral high-ground which had been lost post-2001.

Some might argue that now, after these and other Western proposals, the ball is in Taliban’s court, that, as Secretary Clinton said in her speech at the Asia Society in New York on February 18, the Taliban need to make a "choice" now. But what if they are in a completely other game, or do not recognize our rules of this game? Does that mean that, if they reject Western overtures, they can be declared "intransigent" and outlaws, to be captured and killed? Or does that mean that we have to check and possibly work on our own assumptions? After all, as the paper recognizes, they "are undeniable a force in Afghan society."

Finally, a word about the person of the "facilitator." The report reads like a job description for former U.N. Afghanistan envoy Brahimi, who already had a stint in Afghanistan were he contributed to the unfortunate situation in which the country currently finds itself. Is the fact that he has publicly acknowledged mistakes sufficient to giving him another try to make good on them? What about the necessary trust, in particular amongst the Taliban and in Pakistan, such a facilitator must enjoy? Fresh faces are also needed on the international diplomatic level when it comes to the conflict in and around Afghanistan. Maybe, the facilitator should be from a country far away from Afghanistan; he also does not have to be a Muslim necessarily (but when from Indonesia, for example, why not?). The Bonn generation of diplomats can help the facilitator by stepping out off the limelight – and by giving him good advice without taking center-stage.

Thomas Ruttig is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, where a version of this post was originally published. He speaks Pashto and Dari. 

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