The South Asia Channel

Fear and loathing in Afghanistan

U.S.-Afghan relations, rarely tranquil, are close to a crisis point. President Hamid Karzai, furious over how the opening of an Afghan Taliban office in Doha was handled, is refusing to resume dialogue with the United States about a bilateral security agreement until the Taliban meet with his officials. His calculation is that the United States ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

U.S.-Afghan relations, rarely tranquil, are close to a crisis point. President Hamid Karzai, furious over how the opening of an Afghan Taliban office in Doha was handled, is refusing to resume dialogue with the United States about a bilateral security agreement until the Taliban meet with his officials. His calculation is that the United States needs him more than he needs the United States.

President Obama is calling his bluff and floating the idea of a ‘zero-option’, a full withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014. The drawdown of foreign troops is already a growing source of anxiety for Afghans, who fear international abandonment, and adds to a sense of unpredictability for the country’s neighbors.

Unblocking the U.S.-Afghan impasse would reduce this uncertainty, and enable Afghanistan and its partners to focus on the key elements of its political transition: credible elections and national reconciliation.

The security and logistical challenges of holding elections in Afghanistan are huge. The recent passage of key election laws is welcome, but has not dispelled concerns that Karzai will seek to either delay or manipulate the elections to allow himself or his family to remain in power beyond April 2014, when his constitutional mandate expires.

The elections will undoubtedly be flawed, but they can still deliver results that are accepted as legitimate, if the government acts decisively to establish an effective, independent electoral system in line with the Afghan Constitution. The democratic transfer of power could be a legacy for Karzai.

But elections deliberately subverted could trigger unrest and undermine reconciliation, as well as alienate international donors and jeopardize continued western aid, which underpins the Afghan government, its security forces, and the gains made since 2001 in development and human rights.

Crucially, a new president with popular legitimacy, supported by the international community, could give momentum to the faltering peace process.

For years, the United States rejected talks with the Taliban in the belief that it could defeat them. Unable to outfight or outlast the insurgents, it now favors a political solution. The problem with that, however, is that at this stage of the conflict, enmity and mistrust between the parties is engrained, U.S. influence is diminishing, and the Taliban are gaining ground.

But the insurgents do have reasons to talk. Taliban leaders are fatigued from years of fighting, they fear a worsening conflict, and they are looking for international credibility. The withdrawal of Western forces removes their most powerful recruiting tool and an important source of unity. When the mujahedeen forced Soviet troops out of Afghanistan in 1989, the rebels fractured and fought amongst themselves.

Even so, hard-line elements of the insurgency fiercely oppose compromise; groups within the Afghan government, or central and northern political factions, fear losing power; and other groups fear losing rents from the lucrative war economy. Each of these groups may try to disrupt or derail any reconciliation efforts. The Taliban’s struggle for perceived legitimacy will also hamper the process: the movement’s office in Doha is reportedly closed.

The United States alone cannot overcome these challenges; they require international action. But what can the international community do to give political transition in Afghanistan the best chance of success?

First, it can build on the recent passage of the electoral laws to press for credible elections, with independent and empowered oversight institutions. It can support civic education initiatives and efforts to maximize safe participation in the polls.

Second, it can appoint a mediator for Afghan reconciliation. A conflict as complex, multi-layered, and deep-rooted as the one in Afghanistan cannot be resolved by the parties themselves. It requires a mediator that is trusted by the parties, up to the task, and preferably, backed by the United Nations. Most importantly, this mediator would help the parties establish what is so evidently missing: a structure for the talks. In other words, an agenda, principles, and a framework. The mediator would also work to reduce the mistrust that exists through confidential talks, involve regional states — especially Pakistan — and avoid Doha-style imbroglios.

Third, it should recognize that the priority is to enable Afghans to reconcile their differences peacefully — an objective which should inform regional engagement, too. The international community should not be center stage during this process, but it can help by supporting an inclusive national dialogue among Afghans about their aspirations for the future. Initiatives of this kind — including one supported by the U.N. in 2011 — should be strengthened and expanded. To be sustainable, any negotiated peace must reflect the will of the Afghan people.

The prospects for peace in Afghanistan are in the balance. What is required above all is a coherent approach to the 2014 political transition. The West must use its leverage to assert the primacy of politics over violence, which will require credible elections and a structured peace process. Each would reinforce the other and each would be a step towards peace. There is no time to lose.

Michael Keating is a Senior Consulting Fellow at Chatham House and a former deputy U.N. envoy to Afghanistan.

Matt Waldman is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Michael Keating is a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House and former U.N. deputy envoy to Afghanistan.
Matt Waldman is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House; he worked in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2012, including as a senior U.N. political officer.

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