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Blazing The Bumpy Road To Peace In Afghanistan

Mohammad Mohaqiq: "The warring sides in Afghanistan need to reconcile with each other."
Mohammad Mohaqiq: "The warring sides in Afghanistan need to reconcile with each other."
KABUL -- Mohammad Mohaqiq lays claim to one of the more notable transformations in modern-day Afghanistan.

Having made a name for himself as a guerrilla commander who fought the Red Army in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s, Mohaqiq left the battlefield for the political arena, where he has become a key leader of the Hazara minority and just won a second term in parliament.

As a legislator, he once publically questioned the notion of the government negotiating with the Taliban. But on that issue, too, his ideas have evolved, and he is now ready to make his transformation complete -- from warlord to peacemaker.

"People who are fighting each other can make peace. People who have no problem with each other do not need to make peace," Mohaqiq says. "There is no need of peace with people who are not fighting the Taliban and people against whom the Taliban are not aiming their fight. That is why the warring sides in Afghanistan need to reconcile with each other."

Mohaqiq, as one of 70 members of the High Peace Council recently formed by the government to facilitate peace efforts, is now in position to help make reconciliation a reality. Joining him on the council are former Taliban, women, civil society representatives, and fellow former mujahedin leaders who fought the Soviets and, in most cases, the Taliban.

The thinking is that council members' years of informal contacts with the armed opposition will greatly aid the collective effort to forge a lasting peace. And unlike the past, this endeavor benefits from the international donors' support and funding.

Idea Gaining Traction

Shaida Mohammad Abdali is deputy national security adviser for President Hamid Karzai, whose previous calls for reintegrating moderate Taliban into Afghan society came under fierce criticism. Those criticisms have waned with the rise of insecurity in Afghanistan and falling Western public support for the war, and now the idea of bringing Taliban foot soldiers on board by offering them jobs and security, as well as calls to directly negotiate with fugitive Taliban leaders in Pakistan, is gaining traction.

Shaida Mohammad Abdali: "If the Taliban want an end to...foreign forces in Afghanistan, that can be best achieved by embracing peace."
Abdali says that the High Peace Council has been tasked with moving the peace process forward, while consciously avoiding zero-sum games that have sabotaged peace efforts in the past.

As an olive branch, Kabul has pushed for confidence-building measures such as the removal of nearly 50 Taliban members from UN blacklists. And the Afghan government is also taking steps to address one of the main sticking points in the effort to get the Taliban and allied insurgent groups to come together for peace -- the presence of foreign troops on Afghan soil.

According to Abdali, Kabul is eyeing 2014 as the time to take over responsibility for its own security and has already formed commissions to identify regions where it can start. Progress toward this goal, according to Abdali, could pave the way for the departure of Western forces.

"If the Taliban want an end to the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, that can be best achieved by embracing peace," Abdali says. "When the government and the opposition sit for talks and search for peace, and when the foreigners sense that Afghan security forces can protect this country and its people, they will be motivated to leave."

'None Of This Will Be Easy'

British Major General Philip Jones agrees. He heads the Force-Reintegration Cell behind the high blast wall of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Kabul headquarters. This office provides key support to the Afghan High Peace Council. He sees the lack of trust among Afghans as the major challenge to the peace process.

Major General Philip Jones: "It takes bold people with courageous hearts to step across into dialogue when they had been fighting for so long."
Jones, who is on his fourth duty tour in Afghanistan since 2002, sees the peace process as a human as well as a political process. His organization's main role is to help the High Peace Council to devise the mechanics of demobilizing fighters and supporting them to reintegrate into the economy and society. With a budget of nearly $230 million in donor pledges, the Afghan peace and initiative council has reintegrated hundreds of insurgents in just its first three months of its operation.

Drawing on the lessons of Northern Ireland, Jones sees Afghan peace as difficult but achievable.

"None of this will be easy," Jones says. "It takes bold people with courageous hearts to step across into dialogue when they had been fighting for so long. In many respects, for some people out there it is easier to keep fighting. But we all have been living the development of this Afghan peace process and people are still skeptical and criticize elements of it.

"But we very strongly believe this is a very earnest offer in reaching out. And it's an opportunity that doesn't come that often. We have come to a point in the conflict where there really is an opportunity for rapprochement, for peace. There is nothing about victor and vanquish; it is about coming to a settlement."

The Role Of Al-Qaeda

The key international diplomat facilitating such an Afghan compromise is UN special envoy Staffan De Mistura. He says that the conflict in Afghanistan can only be resolved by political dialogue among Afghans. He says the Taliban are Afghan political actors affected and influenced by Al-Qaeda.

Steffan de Mistura: "Transition should not mean abandonment."
"When they ask for the foreign military presence to leave, I am sure they may be thinking also about some kind of disconnection from the other foreign presence," he says. "That is, the foreigners from Al-Qaeda who are influencing them."

De Mistura has served in 18 war zones in a diplomatic career spanning four decades. He was in Kabul 22 years ago and saw how the reconciliation policies of Afghanistan's last socialist president, Mohammad Najibullah, failed in the wake of the Red Army's departure from Afghanistan. To avoid such an eventuality, he wants a Bonn II and a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan.

These initiatives would remove the failures of the 2001 conference in Bonn, Germany, when a transitional government was established but no Taliban were even invited. The Marshall Plan would address chronic poverty on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, where the Taliban are most active.

De Mistura calls for continued support to Afghanistan as Western forces prepare to begin a drawdown next year.

"Transition should not mean abandonment. It should still mean a commitment in the future of a stable Afghanistan which could be friendly to its neighbors and at the same time can [get] the neighbors to respect its sovereignty," he says. "Something along those lines could take place, especially if there is a frank, good dialogue with the Taliban."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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