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Is A Negotiated Peace Possible In Afghanistan?

These men, who said they used to belong to the Taliban, voluntarily handed over their weapons and joined the government in Herat earlier this month.
These men, who said they used to belong to the Taliban, voluntarily handed over their weapons and joined the government in Herat earlier this month.
During a recent trip to Afghanistan, everyone was talking about the government’s peace talks with the Taliban and other insurgents. For the past few years, most Afghans have been saying that peace cannot be restored from the barrel of a gun but only by reconciliation with the insurgents and through their reintegration into society. Recently, many NATO politicians and senior generals have been cautiously echoing the same thought. Just this past weekend, the head of the British armed forces, General David Richards, said war with Al-Qaeda is not winnable and the Taliban can be only integrated though education and development.

But this consensus leaves unanswered some crucial questions. Why is now the right time for reconciliation and integration? Who exactly should the government reconcile with? And how can this be achieved?

Clearly, the longer the insurgency lasts, the longer Afghanistan faces insecurity and poor governance, the further hope for a better future fades away and the harder it will be to reconcile and reintegrate. The longer the war continues, the number of people who believe it can be won gets smaller and smaller.

Now that the international community is sending unmistakable signals that it intends to withdraw from Afghanistan, the pressure to achieve a settlement before that happens is increasing. The Afghan National Army and police force will not be able to withstand the insurgency if NATO and ISAF withdraw before a durable peace is achieved. In fact, the Afghan security forces are largely loyal to individual powerbrokers rather than to the institutions of a democratic state, so their collapse would likely be a matter of weeks, if not days.

At the same time, the Afghan powerbrokers, warlords, and drug kingpins become stronger and wealthier with each passing day, also making ultimate reconciliation and reintegration more difficult.

Four Insurgent Groups

In addition, it is clear that the insurgency consists of more than just the Taliban. In order to identify partners for peace talks, the Afghan government must clearly define the insurgency.

It comprises four groups: the Taliban, angry civilians, insiders within the power structures, and criminals.

Few are optimistic about the prospects of the Peace Council appointed by President Hamid Karzai.
Within this taxonomy, the Taliban itself can be broken down into three groups. First, there is a very hard-core group that fully identifies with all aspects of the goals and ideology of Al-Qaeda. Second, there are those who are devoted to the cause of a war (jihad) against foreign invaders but who do not necessarily identify themselves with Al-Qaeda. And the third group are the lower-level fighters who follow Taliban commanders out of a vague sense that it is the right thing to do and because they have no other livelihood alternatives. The government might be able to treat with the second and third groups.

The “angry civilians” group within the insurgency consists primarily of victims of injustices on the part of the government and security forces and those who lost loved ones in NATO or Afghan army military operations. There are also some who joined the insurgency to cope with poverty and a lack of economic opportunity. Others simply feel excluded from the governing system – mainly nationalists and Pashtuns. Just as the country’s powerbrokers hire “security” people and arm them, the insurgents recruit among this disaffected portion of the population.

But the next two groups are probably the trickiest ones.

First come the “insiders” – people entrenched in the government establishment and other power structures. They are powerbrokers, but many are also tied in with the network of drug lords. They play both sides at once, conducting a hidden insurgency against the government, NATO, and even against one another. Some of these insidious insiders owe allegiance to foreign countries, especially neighboring ones. They are part of a broad political and economic mafia in Afghanistan.

The fourth group is ordinary criminals who thrive in an environment of insecurity, lawlessness, and corruption. Such criminals feed the insurgency and even pretend to be part of it in order to protect their criminal activities.

Daunting Task

Obviously, identifying partners for peace talks and eventual reintegration is a daunting task.

And who should be conducting such talks on the side of the government? Few are optimistic about the prospects of the Peace Council appointed by President Hamid Karzai. It is headed by elements from the former enemies of the Taliban, mostly from the old Northern Alliance. It even includes individuals who have been accused of war crimes. It offers little that would attract insurgents to the negotiating table.

If the government intends to proceed with the Peace Council, it must be restructured and envoys selected that have a chance of winning the confidence of the insurgents. Karzai might choose from respected tribal and religious leaders, leaders from civil society, or even from among former Taliban officials who have already undergone reconciliation themselves.

Karzai must also appoint a prominent and trusted official to head the council and oversee the talks, giving them the status that they must have in order to succeed.

Any ultimately successful peace process must be conducted with honesty and transparency. The right insurgents must be identified and the right envoys named to treat with them. Local deals might jump-start the process and, on the district or provincial levels, power-sharing deals might be made. This could give momentum to the national-level process. But everything must be done openly and with integrity.

And, of course, it must be done with the dedicated political, economic, and logistical support of NATO and ISAF.

Akbar Ayazi is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.