Nothing seems to be working well in the conflict-ridden Afghanistan despite passage of ten years of international assistance to put the country back on its feet by restoring peace and stability. To the contrary, the conflict in Afghanistan, which before the international intervention in October 2011 was confined within the borders of the country, has now spilled over into the entire neighbourhood, and is threatening the stability of Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia. What can be seen after a passage of 10 years of counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan is a stalemate in which neither the Taliban are able to overrun and evict NATO forces stationed in the country, nor the latter is in a position to rollback the Taliban-led insurgency.
Initially relying upon massive kinetic force to eliminate the Taliban phenomenon in Afghanistan, the international community finally realized the futility of such approach, which has not only proved to be expensive, but also ineffective and counter-productive. Since 2008, fresh efforts are being exerted by the international community to find a negotiated peaceful settlement. This approach was partly driven by a growing domestic opposition in the Western countries where pessimism has become the hallmark of NATO’s heavy handed approach, and partly by war weariness within the NATO capitals. However, peace efforts in Afghanistan remain an illusion so far, and the killing of Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the Afghanistan High Peace Council, in September 2011 has dampened whatever hopes there were of any negotiated settlement.
Issues in Peace Talks in Afghanistan
An analysis of peace efforts in Afghanistan points towards an incoherence in policy options and approaches being pursued by various stakeholders in Afghanistan. Firstly, there is an increasingly yawning divide within the Afghan state and society regarding holding peace talks with the Taliban. A significant portion of the Afghan population, especially non-Pushtuns and women, are against holding talks with the Taliban. This has created split within the Afghan state and society, with prominent Afghan politicians and government officials taking a definitive stand against President Hamid Karzai, who supports such an arrangement. Mr. Karzai attempted to assuage the concerns of those Afghans opposed to peace talks with the Taliban by appointing a Tajik and former Mujahidin leader, Ustad Rabbani as head of the Afghan High Peace Council. However, the killing of Rabbani on 20 September 2011 undoubtedly strengthened the hands of these anti-Taliban elements and weakened Karzai and his supporters. Mr. Abdullah Abdullah, a prominent leader of non-Pushtun Northern Alliance said soon after the killing, “This is a lesson for all of us that we should not fool ourselves that this group [the Taliban], who has carried out so many crimes against the people of Afghanistan, are willing to make peace.”
Secondly, from the outset, the US and NATO preconditioned the holding of peace talks with the Taliban by putting some key demands, such as the acceptance of Afghan constitution, laying down of arms and ending their armed resistance, and dissociating themselves from Al-Qaeda. At the same time, the US wanted to weaken the Taliban before holding any peace talks in order to speak from a position of strengthen. Hence, NATO pursued a “Fight and Talk” strategy aimed at weakening the Taliban.
Thirdly, an important aspect of current NATO’s policy is the “reconciliation and reintegration” strategy, under which NATO attempted to woo the foot soldier and middle ranking Taliban into its fold through “reconciliation” and offering them monetary remunerations. The reintegration aspect of the strategy was to be pursued at a later stage, which was directed at the leadership of the insurgent groups, and based on separating the “soft” Taliban from the “hard” one. Such a strategy could mean that the US would hold talks with a “selective” brand of Taliban, and leaving those out who have disapproved and shown extreme resistance to the NATO so far.
Fourthly, the current insurgency in Afghanistan is led by five militant groups, prominent among them being the Mullah Omar-led Taliban in the Southern Afghanistan; Haqqani Network led by Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani in southeast; Gulbudin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami; and Jamaatud Dawa Wal Sunnah in eastern Afghanistan. NATO is currently pursuing a policy of “divide and rule” by attempting to co-opt some of the insurgent groups by talking to them, while sidelining the others it viewed as more hardliners. A militant commander of the Haqqani Network, alluded to this NATO strategy, when he stated on 24 October 2011, “This is not the first time the US has approached us for peace talks. The Americans had made several such attempts for talks which we rejected as we are an integral part of the Taliban led by Mullah Mohammad Omar.” The commander stated, “We [meaning the Afghan insurgent groups] are united and our goal is to liberate our homeland Afghanistan from the clutches of occupying forces.” He further stated that the Haqqani militant group will not take part individually in any peace talks with the US, and “they [the Americans] would not be able to find a possible solution to the Afghan conflict until and unless they hold talks with the Taliban Shura.”
Fifthly, while NATO claims to have significantly weakened the Taliban-led insurgency since January 2010 in its military operations, including incessant and regular night raids, the security gains however remain fragile and irreversible. While NATO has been able to clear some of the former strongholds of Taliban from their presence, such as Kandahar and Helmand provinces in southern Afghanistan, the insurgents withdrew without putting up any significant resistance. However, the long-term success of NATO’s efforts hinged upon putting up a “government-in-a-box”, which remains challenging due to inability of the Afghan government to rein in corruption and provide good governance to the Afghan people. The Taliban have in the past shown resilience in not only surviving such NATO onslaughts, but have managed to stage a comeback when situation is rife for them. The Taliban understands that NATO’s stay in Afghanistan has limitations and sooner or later they have to leave the country. In the words of the Taliban, “You [NATO] have the watches, we have the time.” NATO also realizes that the Afghan people have limited patience, and sooner than later they would question the presence of its troops in Afghanistan if they fail to provide them with security.
Strategic Divergences among Stakeholders
One of the most important failures of various stakeholders in Afghanistan, namely the US, NATO, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia and Russia is to develop a strategic and operational convergence and coherence on identifying common grounds regarding a political solution to Afghanistan. On this account, one finds a lack of effort on the part of the US and NATO to engage the regional stakeholders. It was seen that relations between Afghanistan and US-NATO since 2009 have worsened considerably to the extent that both the sides have publicly castigated each other for being responsible for the debacle in Afghanistan. While NATO held Karzai responsible for the burgeoning corruption and bad governance in the country, the latter hit back by describing NATO’s reconstruction and rebuilding policies, as well as its current military strategy as flawed.
Similarly, relations between Pakistan and US-NATO nosedived during 2011, with each side blaming the other for failures. While the US complains of Pakistan’s inaction to eliminate semi-sanctuaries of Taliban on its side of the border, Pakistan blames the US for a lack of commitment and deployment of insufficient troops in Afghanistan to fight a burgeoning insurgency. The US President, Barak Obama’s historic speech on 22 June 2011 to initiate the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan beginning July 2011 and complete the total withdrawal by 2014 was viewed in Pakistan as sufficient proof of NATO’s disengagement from Afghanistan in the near future. Pakistan also criticized NATO and Afghan Government for allowing the Pakistani Taliban to establish sanctuaries in Kunar and Nuristan provinces in Afghanistan from where they are conducting cross-border raids into Pakistan, and attempting to destabilize Pakistani territory which has recently been cleared of Taliban presence by the Pakistan Army. Pakistan has also objected to the US of turning a blind eye to India’s increasing sphere of influence in Afghanistan, and its signing of “strategic partnership” with Afghanistan, which has allowed India to play a greater security role in the country.
The US-Iran relations continue to remain hostile, with both the countries accusing each other of undermining their security and supporting each other’s enemies. The US accuses Iran of arming the Taliban, while Iran blames the US of supporting Jundullah and Mujahidin e Khalq terrorist organizations who are attempting to topple the Iranian Government. Russia while remaining supportive of NATO’s role in stabilizing Afghanistan, has expressed serious concerns at NATO’s inability to stem Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, which in recent years have spilled over to northern Afghan provinces that border Russia’s soft underbelly, the Central Asian Republics. A gradual rise in militant activity in Central Asia is deleterious for Russia’s long-term security and stability. Russia has also complained about NATO’s inability to stem the cultivation and trafficking of poppy in Afghanistan, since a major portion of the drug is transported to Western Europe via Central Asia and Russian territory. Similarly, the US efforts to seek five permanent military bases in Afghanistan continues to remain a matter of serious concerns among all the neighbours of Afghanistan, who wants the US to withdraw its troops from country as soon as the conflict is over.
In order to reach a peaceful settlement, some concrete steps need to be taken by all the stakeholders in Afghanistan in order to put down an effective negotiation mechanism in place. It is through such a mechanism that all the stakeholders, including the entire gamut of Afghan insurgent groups, would be able to reach a political settlement:
Firstly, a ceasefire needs to be reached between the warring sides and an end to armed hostilities. During this time, neither NATO nor the Taliban should extend their physical presence or militant activities nor violate such the ceasefire.
Secondly, any peace efforts should involve all the Afghan insurgent groups. NATO and Afghan Government should abandon the “pick and choose” policy, since all the Afghan insurgent groups maintain strongholds in specific areas of Afghanistan and do not operate evenly through the length and breadth of the country. An engagement with one insurgent group and exclusion of the others could mean that the conflict would continue to rage in some parts of Afghanistan, and these leftover insurgent groups could try to jeopardize peace efforts by continuing to conduct attacks against the Afghan government, civilians and NATO forces.
Thirdly, no preconditions should be set for any peace talks and the agenda of peace talks should be kept as open and broad as possible. Instead, such preconditions should be discussed on the negotiating table and agreed upon through dialogue between the warring sides.
Fourthly, a conducive environment need to be established for peace talks through employing media in order to create a consensus among the Afghan population regarding the vitality of a peace deal. It is understood that a temporary end to hostilities would itself create a positive reaction and generate optimism within the general public. This would also have a positive effect on the insurgent groups since they are also aiming to win the public opinion through their actions.
Fifth, all the stakeholders, including NATO, Afghanistan and Pakistan, should express their sincerity and seriousness to such a process. Pakistan needs to convey its seriousness to the Taliban, and its attachment to a long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan. All the stakeholders, especially the US and NATO, should allow the Afghan government to own and lead the peace talks, and should in no way attempt to influence its outcome by dictating its terms and conditions.
Sixth, the insurgent groups need to show sincerity to a peace process by appointing their interlocutors and an address where they could be approached. Given the contours of insurgency in Afghanistan, it remains unclear about the exact location of its top leadership. Hence approaching the Taliban has become a difficult task. Soon after the assassination of Ustad Rabbani, President Karzai stated, “We cannot keep talking to suicide bombers, therefore we have stopped talking about dialogue to the Taliban until we have an address for the Taliban … until that day we have said we will be talking to our brothers in Pakistan to find a solution to the problem that we have.”
Seventh, immediate efforts should be placed on addressing humanitarian crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Due to the conflict millions of people have been displaced internally (IDPs) in both the countries, apart from facing food shortages. One of the first steps should be to rehabilitate these IDPs and provide them with basic needs.
Eighth, any peace deal should require a long-term commitment by international community to Afghanistan and Pakistan in terms of economic and institutional reconstruction and development.
Peace negotiations have always proved to be an arduous and time-consuming process, which gets further complicated if there are multiple parties to the dispute. Peace could also be attained through a continued and sustained process of engagement, which leads to confidence building among the stakeholders and paves the way for a peaceful and negotiated settlement.
Afghanistan remains the ground zero of terrorism. It remains embroiled in the throes of conflict since four decades, and has come to destabilize the entire region. Situated on the confluence of South and Central Asia and Middle East, Afghanistan borders the energy resource-rich Central Asia and Middle East, and shares a border with China and Pakistan and proximity with India. The war-torn country has both the catalyst to destabilize the entire region if it continues on the path of instability, and also offers an immense potential to integrate the three important regions if peace comes to prevail in this war-ravaged country. The world has a huge stake in the stability of this land-locked but geo-strategically important country, and the stakeholders should put their heads together to reach a political settlement which heralds into a viable and stable Afghanistan.