Reconciling Afghanistan

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut – 2010 was a grueling year of civilian deaths, corruption scandals and disputed elections in Afghanistan. I departed Kabul with a heavy heart on December 14. At the top of the stairs leading to my Dubai-bound flight, I gazed into the blanket of dust and ash covering the wartime capital, thought of friends who could not jet away to the safe and comfortable world, and shivered in the afternoon chill. Afghanistan’s future now resembles the weather in winter; obscure, foreboding, threatening disasters.

The current configuration of international engagement is coming to an end. The piecemeal process of transferring security from international forces to the Afghan security forces is set to begin this spring. Europe’s support for continued military engagement, long absent at the grassroots, has evaporated at the highest policy-making levels as well. Even the political mission of the United Nations is stepping further into the background, leaving the Afghan government to grapple with protracted and increasingly dire political crises. Relief organizations, having long ago abandoned hope of peace, are preparing to carry on in a country indefinitely divided into government-controlled and Taliban-controlled zones, with warlord fiefdoms and areas of bloody contestation between. Humanitarian space is shrinking. The violence must end, people say from Kabul to Washington, the violence must end. But how?

At the beginning of December, a group of prominent experts on Afghanistan released an open letter asking President Obama to support direct negotiations with the Taliban leadership based in Quetta, Pakistan. Many of the signatories to the letter are personal friends of mine and scholars and journalists I respect. Some, such as Joshua Foust of, are former opponents of negotiations who now believe there are no other viable alternatives for bringing the war to an end, or even reducing the level of violence.  “Military action may produce local and temporary improvements in security, but those improvements are neither going to last nor be replicable in the vast areas not garrisoned by Western forces without a political settlement,” they write. “Like it or not, the Taliban are a long-term part of the Afghan political landscape, and we need to try and negotiate with them in order to reach a diplomatic settlement.”

The signatories of the letter believe the Taliban leadership is willing to negotiate. Last October, Jeremy Scahill of the Nation interviewed several figures seen as unofficial representatives of the Taliban movement, including Abdul Salaam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, on the subject of negotiations. When Scahill asked about the Taliban’s political goals, Zaeef echoed the public statements of Taliban religious and political leader Mullah Omar. The movement is fighting for the expulsion of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and the return of its own vision of an Islamic state, he said, and it will not compromise on either point.[1]

How true that really is isn’t clear. The Quetta-based Taliban, like any other political organization, uses spin to maintain its desired public image. Its rigid public stances might be less rigid in private. Still, the Taliban leadership might be as extreme now as its regime in Kabul was a decade ago –conditions in presently Taliban-controlled areas indicate that’s the case – but, without actual dialogue, there’s no way to know what, if anything, the Taliban are willing to cede in the interest of stemming the bloodshed.

If talks with the Taliban are still possible at this late stage, they will be fraught with bitter political choices, unsettled grievances, legal binds and ethical dilemmas.

The High Peace Council

This summer, the Afghan government established a 70-member High Peace Council to facilitate talks with insurgent groups. Longtime Afghanistan analyst Martine van Bijlert, examining the council’s president-appointed membership, called the body “a reconfirmation of where the armed – and increasingly economic – power lies and where it will remain; of what kind of people are trusted by ‘the palace’, regardless of their impact.” Former militia commanders, ex-Taliban and loyalists of the president predominate. Only ten of the council’s seventy appointees are women, and just a handful of those are women with political clout or national activism experience. Civil society, the political opposition, youth and legal scholars are all either absent entirely or underrepresented to such an extent that they might as well be.

The public’s reaction of the list of appointees was one of revulsion, and Afghanistan’s remarkably freewheeling media tore the council apart for its inclusion of notorious human rights abusers. Newspaper columnist Idrees Daniel summed up the dismay and outrage when he wrote:

In the last three decades a handful of people, who are now very old, have taken it upon themselves to decide the fate of the Afghan nation. They have many benefits as “elder leaders” and when they lose their benefits or positions they work single-mindedly to recovering them. I don’t want to name any names, but people know who these folks are. For some reason when there is a high-profile position they assume that they deserve the position and they must acquire the position. Don’t they know that there are up to 30 million Afghans who have a right to determine the direction of their future too?

So far, the council’s role appears more ceremonial than substantive. But that may change, and the sheer existence of the council in its current form is itself an obstacle to peace. It has alienated large segments of the population and stoked public fears that any future political settlement will be made between unaccountable men responsible for atrocities. Thirty two years of war have taught Afghans that such agreements are short-lived and come at a high price in lives and rights.

Transparency vs. Trust

Negotiations between warring parties need to be conducted in an environment that allows all sides to speak freely and build trust out of the public eye. But Afghans, weary of rampant political corruption, have little tolerance for non-transparent processes of any kind, and Afghanistan is an information-poor country where rumors spread and mutate with dangerous velocity.

The obscure nature of current reconciliation efforts is a major public complaint and civil society groups have repeatedly called for greater transparency in official outreach to insurgents. It is difficult to see how these demands could be satisfied and, at the same time, trust built with any insurgent factions that might come to the negotiating table.

Still, the general public will view secret talks as illegitimate, as will the opposition-heavy incoming parliament. Key opinion-making constituencies, including opposition supporters, ethnic minorities, civil society, and the media sector, are also likely to assume, in the absence of information to the contrary, that their interests are being bargained away behind closed doors, and will respond with understandable resistance.

The Exclusion of Civil Society

The Afghan government has no mechanism for involving civil society in reconciliation efforts and seemingly no desire to create one.

Only a few civil society activists were delegates to the Peace Jirga, the government-sponsored conference ostensibly held to build consensus among all segments of Afghan society on reconciliation. If these activists hadn’t kicked up a media storm over their exclusion in advance of the event, they would have been omitted completely.

Civil society’s under-representation was all the more problematic because it meant fewer Afghan women, who have historically found civil society a more viable path to influence than politics, participated in the Jirga. In a blog post about the event, delegate and women’s rights activist Wazhma Frogh wrote:

Although civil society groups and women’s rights activists have been lobbying for inclusion of women’s concerns and perspectives in the scope and agenda of the Jirga, today’s proceedings didn’t reflect women’s concerns. The opening session was entirely occupied by men’s speeches and there was almost no mention of the importance to secure women’s achievements in the speeches of the leadership of the Jirga. The working groups were almost all led by men team leaders with women as administrative deputies.

Shutting civil society out will not help move reconciliation forward or bestow credibility on the process, but meaningfully including it could do both.

Throughout much of the country, local aid organizations and social associations have deeper roots in embattled communities than the government does. Civic activists, especially those who began their careers advocating for human rights and delivering aid to refugees during the civil war years, are capable of representing and reassuring distrustful populations in a way elected officials and former combatants are not.

Yet, these women and men with long records of devoted service to their communities have been sidelined in all important political processes over the past nine years. Thus far, reconciliation is not an exception to that trend.

The Question of Criminal Responsibility

The Taliban have committed serious crimes against civilians for almost two decades. So have members of the Afghan government and the High Peace Council.  Every family in Afghanistan can tell stories of grisly killings, mass graves, disappearances. Ordinary Afghans have spent years calling for perpetrators to be held accountable. The international community has largely ignored these pleas, while human rights abusers within the government have tried to destroy all possibility of criminal accountability for crimes of war.

Reconciliation talks would have to address the issue of justice at some point, and Taliban leaders would almost certainly demand immunity from prosecution as part of any ceasefire or peace deal. If granted, such a measure would violate international law and enrage vast swaths of the population brutally oppressed by the Taliban before late 2001, as well as communities targeted more recently. Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek leaders would likely then use Taliban amnesties to rally their supporters against the broader reconciliation process, hypocritical as that move would be for some of them.

Afghan civil society groups, for their part, are only now putting their reconciliation “red lines” into writing, but many organizations, from all ethnic groups and regions, have long taken the position that senior individuals responsible for serious crimes under international law should not be brought into the government. There are too many perpetrators in position of power as it is, they argue.

The Rest of the Insurgency

It’s unclear how much the Quetta leadership still speaks for the Taliban or, for that matter, what “the Taliban” means in 2011. The movement is more fragmented today than at any other time in its history, and the American policy of targeting mid-level Taliban commanders is partly responsible. By killing off older Taliban fighters, the U.S. has created hundreds of local power vacuums that have been filled in recent years by younger men who are less willing to heed Quetta’s directives.  Even if senior Quetta-based leaders were to sign off on a ceasefire or political settlement, splinter groups might keep fighting anyway.

And a deal struck with the Quetta Taliban would not necessarily extend to the other groups that comprise Afghanistan’s increasingly complex insurgency –the autonomous Haqqani network Taliban faction, the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar-led armed wing of Hezb-i-Islami, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and others.

A Vision for a Peace Process?

Though the international community is setting deadlines and eying its exit from Afghanistan, Afghans know that securing peace will be a long, slow process. They view a political solution as necessary, but see it as only part of the picture and are wary of hasty negotiations.

Barry Salam of the Civil Society and Human Rights Network, an umbrella organization of Afghan NGOs, laid out civil society’s position in an impassioned plea for an inclusive peace process at a conference sponsored by the Open Society Institute, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the International Center for Transitional Justice. To an audience of activists, politicians, UN representatives and diplomats, Salam said:

“Everyone wants peace, so why does civil society complain? Peace must benefit all groups in society. All children must have the same rights. Brining peace is a national process. It must have national legitimacy. There must be a consensus. There must be a national dialogue and people must know what the agenda of the peace process is, what the price of peace is, what benefits this will give to the citizens of the country. If people know all the aspects of the peace process, that will be a first step. Those who are in charge of the process must conduct surveys and consultations. There must be evaluation of the process all along the way and human rights must be protected every step of the way. Security does not mean only physical security; it means social and psychological security, reparations to victims of war and protection for most vulnerable members of society. ”

Diversifying the membership of the High Peace Council to include more women and men with non-violent backgrounds –from civil society, from academia, from the parliament and human rights commission– would be a modest first step toward realizing Salam’s vision.

[1] This part of the exchange is not in any of Scahill’s articles, but Scahill and I discussed it in person.