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April 2010

“Even if all essential parties are interested in a negotiated settlement, getting to yes is no sure thing.”

Afghanistan’s Rocky Path to Peace

J Alexander Thier

t is a hallmark of intractable conflicts that ments and uphold them. Further, the content
the distance between the status quo and of an agreement or series of agreements, as well
the conflict’s inevitable resolution can appear as the process by which any accord would be
unbridgeable. Such is the case with today’s established, is uncertain. And even if all essential
Afghanistan. parties are interested in a negotiated settlement,
For the first time since 2001, when the US-led getting to yes is no sure thing.
intervention in Afghanistan began, a serious pros-
pect exists for political dialogue among the vari- Peace—who wants it?
ous combatants, aimed at the cessation of armed Winston Churchill said “to jaw-jaw is always
conflict. Over the past few months, and high- better than to war-war,” but jaw-jaw is not always
lighted by a conference on Afghanistan held in easier. In Afghanistan, the process is not off to
London on January 28, 2010, signs have emerged a promising start. Already, US Secretary of State
of a concerted and comprehensive effort to engage Hillary Clinton has all but ruled out negotiat-
elements of the insurgency in negotiations, recon- ing with the Taliban’s senior leadership. She told
ciliation, and reintegration. National Public Radio in January that the United
In London, Afghan President Hamid Karzai States is “not going to talk to the really bad guys
repeated a previous offer to negotiate with, and because the really bad guys are not ever going to
reintegrate, not only low-level foot soldiers renounce Al Qaeda and renounce violence and
and commanders of the Afghan insurgency, but agree to re-enter society. That is not going to hap-
also its leadership, including the Taliban chief pen with people like Mullah Omar and the like.”
Mullah Muhammad Omar. Karzai went further by Meanwhile, President Barack Obama took full
announcing that he would in the spring convene ownership of the war in a December 1, 2009,
a national peace jirga, a traditional Afghan assem- speech at the US Military Academy. The president,
bly, to facilitate high-level talks with the insur- after having sent 21,000 additional troops to
gency. Karzai expressed hope that Saudi Arabia Afghanistan in the first months of his presidency,
would play a key role in this process. ordered another 30,000 soldiers into the theater—
Eight and a half years after the invasion, amid a place he called the “epicenter of violent extrem-
rising insecurity across Afghanistan and with ism,” where “our national security is at stake.” By
a continuously expanding international troop the summer of 2010, the international presence
presence in the country, the prospect of a negoti- will amount to about 135,000 troops, with the
ated settlement with some or all elements of the United States contributing 100,000 of them.
insurgency is enticing. However, a successful path Obama’s announcement came nine days before
toward sustainable peace in Afghanistan remains he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, but it
far from obvious. Fundamental questions persist was no peacemaker’s gambit. Rather, he sent the
about the willingness and capability of key actors, troops to undergird a robust new strategy aimed
inside and outside Afghanistan, to reach agree- at displacing the insurgency from key population
centers. While this surge of forces may eventually
create more propitious conditions for a negoti-
J Alexander Thier is the director for Afghanistan and Paki-
stan at the US Institute of Peace. He is the editor and coauthor ated settlement, it may in the near term have the
of The Future of Afghanistan (USIP, 2009). opposite effect.
132  •  CURRENT HISTORY  •  April 2010

Even so, it is time to take seriously the idea of ity were established and international forces
political reconciliation in Afghanistan, to weigh the withdrew. Other Karzai allies—such as his two
prospects for arriving at such an outcome, and to warlord-cum vice presidents from the Northern
consider the obstacles in the way. If we cannot even Alliance, Muhammad Fahim and Karim Khalili—
imagine how reconciliation might be achieved, it represent constituencies that have fought the
will be impossible either to prepare the way or to Taliban since 1994 and are not keen to see them
determine whether the path is worth traveling in gain any power.
the first place. Other potential opponents of a peace deal
Is the conflict in Afghanistan ripe for resolu- include civil society organizations that have
tion? In a conflict, after all, reaching a settlement pushed for human and especially women’s rights
can be very difficult even when the key players in the post-Taliban period. Allowing the return of
have decided that they want it. Every war has its Taliban-style gender apartheid policies, even in
own logic—and its own economy. limited sections of the country, would be anath-
Peace in Afghanistan will require the stars to ema to these groups and the vocal international
align. Several constellations of actors will have constituency that supports them.
to participate to secure a lasting peace. These
include the “progovernment Afghans”—that is, Men with guns
along with the government itself, those opposi- And what about the insurgents? The three
tion groups that are not fighting the government; major groupings—Mullah Omar’s Taliban, directed
the insurgents (themselves composed of at least from sites in Pakistan; the Haqqani network; and
three major groupings); the United States and its Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami—are not a
partners in the International Security Assistance monolith, and may treat the prospect of negotia-
Force (ISAF); and regional powers like Pakistan, tions differently. This differentiation is often seen as
Iran, India, and China. Also in the mix are several a good thing, because parts of the insurgency might
spoilers—groups that likely will never want sta- split off from the rest. But recalcitrant actors might
bility. These include Al Qaeda, Pakistani radical also try to sabotage the process. Also, even a suc-
groups in solidarity with the Afghan insurgents, cessful settlement with one group will not under
and the drug traffickers who move 90 percent of these circumstances end the insurgency.
the world’s illicit opium. The harder question, though, is why the insur-
In any case, do the progovernment forces want gency would sue for peace if it believes it is win-
to reconcile with the Taliban? Karzai, who sees his ning and the Americans are preparing to leave.
future and his legacy hinging on a political settle- Considering the Karzai government’s continued
ment, has been a strong advocate for such efforts, loss of moral authority, the insurgency’s still large-
and he is using his executive power and personal ly safe haven in Pakistan, and an ongoing decline
prestige in support of them. He is backed by large in public support for the war in NATO countries,
segments of an Afghan society that is bone-tired the insurgents might easily decide to wait out the
of war and is likely willing to accept significant next few years, meanwhile waging a very effective
compromises in exchange for stability. guerrilla campaign.
Many, however, including some close to But several factors could conspire to change
Karzai, may be much more ambivalent. Assume their calculus. The first is the war itself. Obama’s
for a moment that a deal means conceding to deployment decisions will essentially double the
the Taliban control over some part of southern number of forces in the country this year. The
Afghanistan. The people around Karzai who gov- Afghan security forces are also growing—and
ern these provinces, who operate construction some are getting better at their jobs. The bigger
and road-building enterprises, and who profit force numbers, moreover, are accompanied by a
from the drug trade would under such a settle- new counterinsurgency strategy, one that looks
ment lose their power and their cash cows. likely to produce effects more lasting than those
Two of the enterprises that generate the most generated by the Bush administration’s “economy
profit are transport—essential for supplying of force” strategy, which involved too few troops
international forces—and private security, in the to secure territory won through battle.
form of companies that guard convoys, bases, NATO also seems finally to have figured out
and reconstruction projects. These multibillion- how to reduce Afghan civilian casualties, depriv-
dollar industries would wither rapidly if stabil- ing the insurgency of a key propaganda asset at a
Afghanistan’s Rocky Path to Peace  •  133

moment when militants are killing more civilians and Mir Muhammad, the Taliban’s “shadow gov-
than ever. The United Nations estimates that in ernors” for two Afghan provinces.
2008 the Afghan and international military forces Pakistan has come under increasing pressure
killed 828 civilians, and the insurgents killed from the Obama administration to confront the
1,160. In 2009, the numbers were 596 and 1,630 Afghan Taliban, with senior US officials report-
respectively. edly telling the Pakistanis that if they do not
The war on the Pakistani side of the border, act within their own territory, the United States
involving drone aircraft, has also been stepped up, will. Islamabad is also grappling with an internal
and both the Pakistani Taliban’s top leader and his struggle against militants who are determined
replacement have been picked off in such strikes to overthrow the state, and it has learned some
in recent months. It is unclear whether guided hard lessons after getting burned by extremist
missile attacks have been used against Afghan fires that it has stoked in the past. That said,
insurgent targets in Pakistan as yet, but certainly Pakistan is unlikely to abandon its longstanding
the capability exists. patron-client relationships with groups that it
If all this adds up to a change in military still considers strategic assets. But it might use
momentum, popular attitudes might change, cost- its leverage to help force a political outcome in
ing the Taliban support and increasing the num- Afghanistan.
ber of people willing to inform or even fight The United States, despite some hedging,
against them. seems to view an Afghan political settlement
Increased credibility of Afghan and interna- that includes the Taliban as a possible ele-
tional civilian efforts also could have an impact ment of its plan to draw down US forces. In
on public opinion. While most Afghans do not early 2009, the Obama administration’s focus
support the Taliban, they have had little incen- was almost exclusively on “reintegration,” or
tive to risk their necks for a coaxing insurgents off the
government widely viewed battlefield, rather than
as corrupt and ineffective. Pakistan’s attitude toward the use “reconciliation,” which
If the Afghan government implies a broader politi-
of militants as a strategic asset in
and its international part- cal settlement with insur-
ners can present a compel- Kashmir and Afghanistan is changing. gent leaders. According to
ling, plausible alternative a March 2009 statement of
to the Taliban, backed by Obama’s new Afghanistan
significant new investments in delivery of ser- and Pakistan strategy: “Mullah Omar and the
vices and good governance, the environment Taliban’s hard core that have aligned themselves
will become less hospitable for the insurgents. with Al Qaeda are not reconcilable and we can-
The Afghan government and NATO have also not make a deal that includes them.”
launched a massive new reintegration effort It appears that eight months of bad news from
intended to lure insurgent soldiers and low-level Afghanistan, along with declining support for
commanders off the battlefield. If this program the war among the US public and some soul-
succeeds in demobilizing combatants and safely searching deliberations, softened the administra-
reintegrating them into society, prospects for tion’s stance toward the prospect of negotiations.
defeating the rebels would brighten. In his December West Point address, Obama
said, “We will support efforts by the Afghan
The pakistan factor government to open the door to those Taliban
And finally, the insurgency would be dealt a who abandon violence and respect the human
heavy blow if it lost its sanctuary in Pakistan. rights of their fellow citizens.” And in January
The Taliban recruit, train, fundraise, convalesce, of this year, just days before the London con-
and maintain their families there. For years, the ference, General Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s
Pakistani government has denied that the insur- handpicked commander of the ISAF, said, “I
gent leadership was present in the country, but believe that a political solution to all conflicts is
this has begun to change. In February, the govern- the inevitable outcome.”
ment arrested Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghanistan’s neighbors and other regional
operational commander of the Afghan Taliban. powers also have a say in the process—or at least
The Pakistanis also arrested Mullahs Abdul Salam a veto. Pakistan, Iran, India, Russia, and Saudi
134  •  CURRENT HISTORY  •  April 2010

Arabia have all contributed to Afghan instability aid to Kabul—despite itself having the highest
over the past three decades, supporting various number of poverty-stricken people in the world.
warring factions (while also at times supporting Pakistan feels threatened by India’s relationship
peaceful development). Afghanistan is a poor, with Afghanistan, and so continues to maintain a
mountainous, landlocked country with a weak hedge in the Taliban.
central government, and while it is difficult to Many believe, as a consequence, that the road
control, it has always been too easily destabilized to peace in Afghanistan runs through Delhi.
by the predations and manipulations of larger Yet, if Afghan stability is held hostage to a com-
powers. An agreement among regional actors to prehensive accord between Pakistan and India,
promote mutual noninterference in Afghanistan’s we can forget about it. In the near term, ways
internal affairs would be necessary to secure the must be found to mitigate Pakistan’s concerns
peace. about India and Afghanistan. The resumption
Efforts to reach such an agreement are ham- of comprehensive talks between Pakistan and
pered by regional and international rivalries India—which were tabled after a Pakistan-based
that drive the desire to intervene. Pakistan, extremist group carried out a November 2008
the most significant of the regional players, massacre in Mumbai—could provide a critical
backed the Taliban in the 1990s in order to end outlet. Also, because of brutality and overreach-
Afghanistan’s civil war, open trade routes to ing by the Pakistani Taliban and other groups in
the newly independent states in Central Asia, the past few years, Pakistan’s attitude toward the
and secure a friendly government in Kabul. use of militants as a strategic asset in Kashmir and
This strategy worked for a while, but the Afghanistan is changing.
Taliban regime proved so odious and extreme Iran’s potential role also remains ambiguous.
that Pakistan found itself, on September 11, Tehran has supported the Karzai government,
2001, on the wrong side of a provided some develop-
great conflict engulfing the ment assistance near west-
region. Every war has its own logic— ern Afghanistan’s border with
The Pakistani security Iran, and was a strong foe
establishment, though it and its own economy. of the Taliban. It has also
cooperated with the US inva- acted consistently to combat
sion of Afghanistan, has the opium trade, which has
found it difficult to completely break with its for- helped create an estimated 4 to 5 million Iranian
mer clients, and has allowed the Taliban sanctuary addicts—a massive public health crisis.
in Pakistan. Thus Pakistan serves simultaneously On the other hand, Iran is encircled by US
as the primary supply route for the ISAF and as the forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it faces con-
base for the insurgent leadership. tinuing confrontation with the United States over
its nuclear program. A settlement in Afghanistan
The indian presence would allow the United States to concentrate more
Why this untenable balancing act? The on dealing with Iran, and would free up US military
Pakistani military and its intelligence apparatus assets as well. Tehran might prefer to see America
still feel surrounded by India. Pakistan has lost bogged down in a costly conflict.
three or four wars to India (depending on how
you count them). India’s superiority in economic Art of the deal
and conventional military strength, combined Prevailing on key parties to agree to a peace
with Pakistan’s unresolved border issues with both deal will depend heavily on the shape of the deal
India (Kashmir) and Afghanistan (the Durand itself. Last year some starting positions were aired,
Line), keeps Pakistan’s guard up. Islamabad is but both sides effectively demanded the other’s
also facing a severe domestic militancy crisis that capitulation. The Afghan and US governments
has cost thousands of lives—and, in Baluchistan, called on insurgents to reject Al Qaeda, lay down
a simmering separatist insurgency that, Pakistan their arms, and accept the Afghan constitution.
charges, receives Afghan-Indo support. The insurgents demanded withdrawal of foreign
India for its part maintains strong relations with forces, removal of the Karzai government, and
the Karzai government and is training Afghan civil revision of the Afghan constitution to create a
servants and providing hundreds of millions in “true” Islamic republic.
Afghanistan’s Rocky Path to Peace  •  135

Each of the three primary parties—the Afghan to the United States represents an even greater
government, the Taliban, and the United States— national security concern—will make pulling out
would enter negotiations with their political sur- entirely a risky endeavor.
vival depending on one condition. For Kabul, For the Obama administration, the one com-
the condition for survival is just that—survival. pletely sacrosanct condition for a peace deal
In other words, the Karzai government will not with insurgents is a firm, verifiable break with Al
make a deal requiring it to step down or hand over Qaeda. Al Qaeda was the reason for going into
power. Such a prospect appears to Kabul far worse Afghanistan to begin with, and this issue will
than the status quo; in addition, the likelihood of prevent US withdrawal until it is addressed. But
the government’s catastrophic collapse seems dis- can the Taliban break with Al Qaeda? The two
tant enough to ignore. entities grew up together, and so did their lead-
For the Taliban leadership, the condition is ers—fighting the Soviets, ruling Afghanistan from
the withdrawal of foreign forces. The Taliban’s 1996 to 2001, and since 2001 returning to the
success today relies not on ideology, but rather fight, against the Americans. They have shared
on resistance to foreign occupation and Karzai’s foxholes, and reportedly have established family
corrupt puppet regime. It would be hard for the ties through marriages.
Taliban, perhaps impossible, to accept some sort The Taliban have made an effort to suggest
of accommodation with Karzai—but it is nearly they would rule without Al Qaeda. In November
unimaginable that the Taliban would accept any 2009, they released a statement claiming that the
agreement that does not include the fairly quick “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan wants to take con-
withdrawal of foreign forces from the Taliban structive measures together with all countries for
heartland, and their timeline-based withdrawal mutual cooperation, economic development, and
from the entire country. Between this Taliban [a] good future on the basis of mutual respect.”
demand and the US desire to withdraw, a pleas- But would a ban on Al Qaeda in Taliban-controlled
ing symmetry exists. But Afghanistan’s fragility territory be verifiable? After all, international ter-
and that of neighboring Pakistan—a country that rorist cells continue to operate in Pakistan, where

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136  •  CURRENT HISTORY  •  April 2010

the United States has resorted to an all-but-official were in contravention of the constitution or the
drone war because of the lack of local cooperation terms of the peace agreement.
and the inaccessibility of the territory. There is also a real possibility that combatants
on all sides of the conflict who have committed
Up for discussion war crimes and atrocities will not be brought to
Aside from these core conditions, everything justice. Evidence from many conflicts suggests a
is to some extent negotiable. Some groups in sustainable peace is unlikely without such reck-
the “progovernment” camp have for years sup- oning.
ported changes to the 2004 constitution and to Even so, the real issue in negotiations is not like-
Afghan law that would increase power sharing, ly to be the rules themselves, but rather who makes
decentralization, and strengthening of Islamic and enforces them. Power sharing is the firmament
strictures. Many conservative political leaders, of all peace processes, and changing the Afghan
mostly former mujahideen figures, would love to political system will have to involve sharing power.
see an increased role for Islamic law, or sharia. A What exactly would a power sharing arrangement
political and legal map that allows for regional look like? Would the Taliban (and other groups) be
variation might make sense in such an ethnically given control over certain provinces? Would they
and geographically segmented country. help fill out the ranks of the Afghan national secu-
Meanwhile, a process of political reconciliation rity forces? Would they be guaranteed a number
with the Taliban could be used not only to mol- of ministries or seats in the parliament? Or would
lify the insurgents, but also to address tensions they simply be allowed to compete for such things
still lingering from the civil war, as well as per- in a (quasi) democratic process?
ceived inequities among Afghanistan’s regions and Peace accords that have been reached in Bosnia,
ethnicities, which continue Burundi, and Northern
to cause conflict. Addressing Ireland, to name a few exam-
these tensions and inequities Most Afghans have had little ples, spell out such arrange-
should be a key focus of the incentive to risk their necks for ments in great detail. In the
upcoming peace jirga. end, it is even more difficult
The United States, its a government widely viewed to implement such complex
Western allies, and the UN as corrupt and ineffective. provisions than to agree on
would come under serious them.
political fire if a deal with Neighboring coun-
the Taliban meant abandoning Afghan women— tries will also be looking for certain guarantees.
whose privations under the Taliban have served Pakistan wants its allies to succeed, and wants to
to rally international support for the intervention be a key player in the peace process itself. Afghans,
since 2001. But any legal changes that threatened including perhaps the Taliban, will resent a strong
Afghanistan’s gains in human rights would likely Pakistani role in the process, but no process will
be limited and subtle, at least on paper. Since we take place without Pakistan. And unless Pakistan
are not talking about a deal that would put the nudges the Taliban to the table by denying them
Taliban in charge of the national government—in sanctuary, the insurgents can always, if the pres-
the near term, at any rate—little danger exists that sure gets too high in Afghanistan, retreat into
the constitution would be changed to ban outright Pakistan, where they can go to ground and wait
girls’ education or women’s access to employment. out the United States for a few more years.
To be sure, an accommodation with the Taliban Iran, Russia, and the Central Asian states for
might accelerate the steady erosion of rights that their part will want guarantees that the Taliban and
Afghan women have experienced in recent years. other groups will not harbor or export militancy.
Indeed, the democratically elected parliament All the neighbors are likely to agree on one thing—
passed a family law last year—signed by President that Afghanistan should be neutral, eschewing alli-
Karzai—that sanctioned, among other things, ances with any of the regional powers.
marital rape under certain circumstances. And if,
after the ink dried on an agreement, the Taliban Can it happen here?
imposed an unofficial ban on female employment Even if all the parties are willing to negotiate,
in provinces that they controlled, no ISAF offen- and sufficient space exists to reach a viable agree-
sive would likely be triggered, even if such a ban ment despite all the red lines, achieving resolution
Afghanistan’s Rocky Path to Peace  •  137

will still be enormously challenging. Between and

among the various actors there is a fundamental
lack of trust, and talks this year will occur amid an
Make an
intense military campaign. It is unclear whether
either the Karzai government or the insurgent
leaders have the wherewithal to discipline their
own constituencies. Strong leadership will be
needed on all sides both to craft an agreement and
to achieve buy-in for unpopular concessions. Public Diplomacy education at USC:
The profusion of players, motivations, condi- Two-year Master of Public Diplomacy
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