How to Fix Afghanistan’s Broken Peace Process

The country's new president has breathed fresh life into talks with the Taliban. But can he broker a deal that his people will get behind?


For the past five years, the Afghan government has sought a peace deal with the Taliban without much to show for the effort. But in the 10 months since President Ashraf Ghani has taken office, the long-stagnant peace process has shown new sparks of life. Negotiators have quietly, sometimes secretly, met with the Taliban’s political leadership in neutral locations such as Qatar, Norway, and China. These first efforts were tentative — talks about talks — but most recently, on July 7, members of the Afghan government and Pakistani Taliban reportedly met in Islamabad to talk about how to end fighting in Afghanistan. The meeting was “warm” and “positive,” and the pre-dawn meal the sides shared was pervaded by “a sense of celebration,” a Pakistani official with knowledge of the talks told Reuters. Another round is planned after the holy month of Ramadan.

While the talks have yet to yield anything substantial, they are a signal of the new Afghan national unity government’s renewed dedication to resolving this conflict. (It’s one priority where there has been progress while other core tasks, such as formation of a new cabinet, have floundered.) Now, it looks like Ghani is creeping, however slowly, closer toward the political settlement to end fighting with the Taliban that for so long eluded his successor, former President Hamid Karzai.

But achieving a peace that will end the 13-year war between the U.S.-backed government and the Taliban will only come about if the political solution reached is one that the Afghan people are willing to support — a peace agreement over which they feel ownership. And for Ghani to do that he has to fix the problems that plague the current peace process and the body tasked with its implementation: the High Peace Council.

Since June 2010, the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) has provided the road map for national reconciliation. Introduced by Karzai, with the backing of 1,600 delegates from around the country, the APRP provides a road map for national reconciliation and the demobilization of Taliban fighters ready to return to their communities. To execute this vision, the APRP established a 70-member High Peace Council made up of members of parliament, former fighters from all sides of the conflict, and leaders from civil society. Alongside this body, the APRP created 34 Provincial Peace Committees, the members of which are appointed by provincial governors, to facilitate the reintegration of Taliban fighters at the local level. But at the end of this year, the APRP will expire, and it’s on Ghani’s shoulders to chart the path that will follow.

The core APRP implementing body — the High Peace Council — has operated without a clear mandate since its founding. It was never established whether it is meant to bring the conflict parties to the negotiating table as a neutral mediator or, when formal talks begin, if it is supposed to negotiate on behalf of the Afghan government. Its members have alternatively served in both roles over the past five years. Most recently, council members participated in the meetings in Qatar, Norway, and China; in the consequent talks in Islamabad, a council member attended but as part of a broader delegation of government representatives.

Impartiality is critical for the success of a mediating body, but how can impartiality be maintained if council members are alternating between roles as mediators and government negotiators, let alone are intimately entwined in the country’s half-century of conflict? Of greater issue is that the reconciliation program excludes those most intimately affected by the war, those who will ultimately be responsible for implementing the final accord.

Leaving political actors — many marred by corruption scandals or allegations of war crimes — alone to negotiate peace accords in secret doesn’t work. Conciliation Resources, a London-based nonprofit, conducted a study of 83 peace agreements signed between 1989 and 2004, finding that only one-third of the negotiations included representatives from unarmed, affected communities. But for those negotiations that did, the risk of returning to conflict was reduced by 64 percent. Without meaningful inclusion of Afghan civil society, the agreement won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on. Quantitative analysis of 182 peace agreements by the International Peace Institute, a New York-based think tank, found that women’s participation in peace negotiations — as mediators, negotiators, witnesses, and signatories — increases the durability of those agreements. Such accords are 20 percent more likely to last at least two years and 35 percent more likely to last for 15 years.

It’s now incumbent upon Ghani to articulate a clear plan for the next iteration of the peace talks that breathes new life into the process, while addressing its most critical issues. In this case that means deciding what role the High Peace Council is actually meant to play. It also means including underrepresented stakeholders — such as community-based organizations, human rights defenders, academics, women, and traditional leaders — in an attempt to reach a peace agreement defined by a sense of true national ownership.

Mediators frequently mythologize the inclusion of women and civil society in peace negotiations as complicated and problematic. Peace negotiations are precarious, and mediators, always in private, have offered a litany of excuses for exclusion, suggesting that additional actors will destabilize talks or claiming that they don’t have the authority to expand the guest list or that the time for inclusion is during the implementation phase rather than during the negotiations themselves. But these leaders are often the individuals who have relentlessly advocated for peace and equality since long before the Taliban fell, as well as those doing the difficult daily work of holding communities together in spite of the war. They are, in a sense, Afghanistan’s peace constituency.

They can also prove the difference between talks that go nowhere and the end of a war.

In the Philippines, for example, when negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a rebel group seeking autonomy for the Moro people, reached an impasse in May 2010, the government organized a national dialogue to convince the parties to return to the table and negotiate an accord for which there would be broad popular support. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front insurgency had been fighting since the 1960s, and its leaders didn’t think its constituencies would support a deal. Putting the question of a possible peace to local, regional, and national representatives from all sides of the conflict, however, revealed widespread support for reaching a political resolution to the war. The findings were made public and distributed to all the negotiating parties and the mediators, ultimately leading to a resumption of the negotiations. This process was credited with generating broad-based ownership and understanding of the peace process throughout the country, as well as providing concrete recommendations for provisions of the final accord.

The High Peace Council has rhetorically committed to engaging women and civil society in the Afghan peace process. It even went as far as signing a memorandum of understanding with more than 60 Afghan civil society organizations in May 2013, which was meant to pave the way for more intentional partnership. But local and regional consultations have been ad hoc at best and have been seen as relevant exclusively for provincial-level reintegration and grievance-resolution efforts — interventions designed to take place parallel to the national-level political reconciliation negotiations. The two tracks are not designed to meet or interact.

As Ghani reconceptualizes the road map to peace, this must be rectified.

First, it’s well past time for a national dialogue on reconciliation — one focused not just on the physical development needs of an impoverished country, but on the real and legitimate political grievances that undergird this conflict. Afghans, from the districts on up, must be formally engaged and asked what they think about the future of their state. The agenda for the national-level peace talks is the same agenda that should guide these consultations. The space can and should also be used to air local grievances and devise locally relevant strategies to advance districts and provinces toward peace. In that way, it would dovetail the provincial-level reintegration efforts with a more inclusive national reconciliation process. Critically, this dialogue can move forward even while the official peace talks are stalled.

Second, more women need to be involved. Only nine of 70 current council members are women — not enough to comprise a critical mass. In the original formulation of the related Provincial Peace Committees, there were hardly any women until now-deceased Chairman Burhanuddin Rabbani issued a directive ordering provincial governors to ensure no less than three women members on the committees of 25 to 40 people. Women members, as part of their official duties, have negotiated directly with insurgent commanders, facilitated the release of hostages, and helped build a peace constituency in their provinces through community engagement, awareness raising, and local mobilization. Yet, still, they are excluded by their male counterparts from primary forums of decision-making within the committees themselves, restricted from access to actors at the national and international levels, and often are made to carry out their activities without access to the resources that have been set aside to fund the reintegration program.

Afghan women are excluded from peace talks for the same reason that women are consistently excluded from peace negotiations around the world. It is the result of an underlying belief that the way to end wars is to gather together armed actors and get them to agree to a cessation of violence, followed by power- and wealth-sharing arrangements they find to be suitable enough to induce them to concede to peace. These actors are privileged over those individuals and communities that have remained peaceful in times of war, and this results in the prioritization of the interests of those who used violence to destroy a country, rather than the interests of those who worked tirelessly to build peace.

An Afghan woman from Kandahar put it best when she said to me, “If the roots have a problem, the tree will not grow. Our tree is sick. We need to work to remove root causes [of conflict], like corruption, and bring women into the peace process. Then the branches will grow fruit and leaves, and it will be beautiful.”

Photo credit: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, July 9, 2015: The name of the late chairman of the High Peace Council is Burhanuddin Rabbani. An earlier version of this article misspelled his first name as “Burnahuddin.”

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