Tag Archives: reconciliation

Thoughts on talks with the Taliban

I wrote a piece for the UN Dispatch after the Taliban agreed to open an office in Qatar and negotiate with the United States. The complete article is located here, but I am also reproducing some of the excerpts in this post.

Taken as is, this momentum is a positive development. But…the biggest challenge to the effort is choosing the parties to the negotiation. The Taliban have so far completely sidelined the Afghan government and have indicated that they only want to talk with the United States. They are participating not as an insurgency, but as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the country’s legitimate government – attempting to negotiate the withdrawal of the occupying foreign forces.

And so Afghanistan’s High Peace Council is sitting idle as the Taliban initiate talks with the USA. Also excluded are Afghanistan’s civil society and political groups.

[Snip]

Given all of this, nobody should expect that negotiations can completely end the Afghan conflict because high-level talks cannot remedy smaller-scale, localized conflicts motivated by tribal competitions, personal rivalries and the opium trade.

[Snip]

…the international community and the Afghans must first harmonize the dissonance in their respective objectives. The international community’s main hope from the negotiations is a semblance of peace to allow them an honorable exit, while Afghans also want some form of reconciliation involving justice for the victims of the Taliban’s humanitarian and political crimes. Reconciliation would involve prosecution and punishment, and the Taliban are not negotiating to put themselves in jail or on trial.

[Snip]

Reconciliation has to be a process, and processes take time. This means that by the time negotiations turn into reconciliation, the international community will likely have moved on from Afghanistan. Reconciliation processes always carry the latent possibility of failure; that likelihood is even greater in non-inclusive processes such as this one. Given this, what are the contingencies for when peace and reconciliation don’t work and conflict erupts once again? What are the safeguards that can dis-incentivize the temptation to go violent? These questions are important because, while no one wants the Taliban to dominate the country, the insurgent group is not negotiating to obtain a status of secondary importance in the future of Afghanistan.

[Snip]

…surprisingly, Pakistan seems to have looked the other way as the Taliban negotiators and their families were flown out to Qatar. Could this be a tacit change in Pakistan’s strategy? If so, what are its new demands? And how do they square off against the interests of its arch-rival India and those of China, whose stakes in the country have been increasing?

Iran, Afghanistan’s western neighbor, has its own reservations about the idea of Taliban returning to Afghanistan’s mainstream and about the American demand of keeping about 30-40,000 soldiers in Afghanistan…. The problem with Iran is not its reservations but the fact that nobody wants to make it party to the negotiations, essentially giving it license to pursue any and all means to safeguard its interests in Afghanistan.

[Snip]

A lot is at stake on this flawed, failure-prone initiative. Think of it this way: if the Taliban can produce a stalemate fighting NATO and Afghan forces, they can do a lot more when the Afghans are left on their own.

Karza ditches the Taliban, wants to talk to Pakistan – initial thoughts

In an incredible moment of lucidity, Karzai seems to have finally realized two things that much of the rest of the world — and his Afghan opposition — has been telling him for a pretty long time. In a meeting with a group of religious leaders, Karzai said the following:

Where is [Mullah Omar]? We cannot find the Taliban Council. Where is it? A messenger comes disguised as a Taliban Council member and kills, and they neither confirm nor reject it.

And this:

Who is the other side in the peace process? I do not have any other answer but to say Pakistan is the other side in the peace talks with us.

Karzai

Photo source: BBC Persian website.

His favorite expression for the Taliban had always been “angry brothers,” with whom he had insisted that Afghanistan should reconcile. He had held his ground in the face of stiffest criticism from his political opposition and the barrage of assassination of high-level government officials, senior security officials, his own brother and, most recently, his chief peace negotiator. That he has now turned against his “angry brothers” is a huge change from him.

This step from Karzai will radically alter the equation for everyone — Pakistan, the Taliban, the Afghan opposition, the United States, Iran, KSA, India and the Afghan people. But what does it exactly mean for the various actors involved in the picture? As of this writing, there hasn’t been any official reaction from any of these parties; that said, here’s a preliminary attempt at making sense of it all.

The “Northern Alliance”:

Karzai’s political opposition, which had doggedly opposed any talks with the Taliban, has scored a huge victory by having one of their longstanding demands recognized. But not only that, Karzai’s recognition of Pakistan as the real party to any settlement has affirmed their perennial suspicion toward Pakistan and its security institutions. So their victory is both political and moral.

Bolstered, they will likely amp up their opposition toward Pakistan, which they have always seen as interfering in Afghanistan’s internal matters and always backing anyone but them.

Taliban:

The Taliban have been behaving like the spoiled child that gets the candy but still maintains the nagging, unreasonable behavior. The UN Security Council removed about a dozen Taliban members from its blacklist, and Karzai had maintained an open embrace with a bag of goodies at the end of one arm in exchange for the Taliban dropping their weapons. This despite the carnage they wreaked in the country in the last few years. So the Taliban have been scoring international points and making domestic inroads by assassinating key leaders and expanding their presence across Afghanistan.

But by refusing to treat them as a legitimate party to negotiations, Karzai has ostensibly withdrawn the golden handshake. The terms of the previous offer are no longer valid — Taliban leaders won’t get (what amounts to) amnesty in exchange for peace and they likely won’t get to participate in the political process. (Those were huge concessions that Karzai had made even before getting to the negotiating table!)

The Taliban will now have to do their bidding through Pakistan, with whom they have always had a love-hate relationship — they have continued to receive needed help and support, but have always resented Pakistan.

The Afghan people:

The biggest losers of the whole reintegration/peace/reconciliation/negotiation saga, the Afghan people, will be watching President Karzai intently for his next moves. The previous peace process was not inclusive – Karzai had convened a rubber-stamp loya jirga to give himself the green light on negotiations. Three-day jirgas are hardly any substitute to serious, inclusive national debates about such issues of immense importance. In true democracies, hand-picked jirgas can’t make effective foreign policy or decide matters relating to serious national crimes and injustices.

Karzai had not consulted the broader Afghan public about reconciliation and, perhaps purposefully, not set out any clear and definite parameters for reconciliation, expected outcomes and the extent of concessions.

Pakistan et. al.:

Karzai handed Pakistan a victory by accepting unconditionally and decisively their longstanding demand that they be recognized as the principal party to any future settlement in Afghanistan. It is unclear who Karzai will get to negotiate with in Pakistan — the ISI-military side or the civilian government. And it is unclear how sincerely, if at all, Pakistan will engage in any talks. However, although the Afghan recognition of their role is important, the Pakistanis really covet the same acceptance from the United States.

And they will view Karzai’s concession as an important step to that end. Regardless, Pakistanis area already feeling better in their strategic calculus vis-a-vis India, which will be watching everything warily.

Iran, which had just started to cultivate ties with the Taliban, will also need to reassess its policy. They have historically been close to the Hazara/Shia and the Tajik camps and will likely continue to press their side. KSA — whose diplomats left Kabul last week and whose proxy now has the rug snatched from under its feet — has lost much of its status as the arbiter that could bring the Taliban to the table and broker a deal.

Moving ahead…

Naturally, talks with Pakistan are radically different from negotiations with the Taliban. If Pakistan chooses to oblige and negotiate a settlement, they will have obligations under international law. Whether Pakistan will choose to honor any final settlement and what the world can do to enforce those obligations in case of noncompliance is a different matter.

Because of the different nature of this ‘peace process,’ the Afghans will need to do new soul-searching. A broad national consultation will need to take place to determine what the nation is ready to give in exchange for peace, and what they hope to realistically gain from negotiations. Perhaps a little less urgently, the Afghans will need to decide whether they will continue to fight the insurgency indefinitely and how to handle justice issues related to Taliban’s crimes during and before the insurgency.

And Karzai’s success won’t just be determined by the domestic support of his policies. He will also need to have serious international backing. But that’s not guaranteed, given that he just left the United States high and dry by abandoning the trilateral peace process.

Karzai’s Reintegration Program IS Beginning to Work…Kind of

I wrote a post some time ago in which I noted the growing number of fighters joining the government’s reintegration program and asked whether the program is really working.

Well, it is…kind of.

Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports that there’s been an increase in the number of anti-government fighters willing to lay down their and reintegrate.

British Maj. Gen. Phillip Jones, the NATO military command’s director for reintegration, said there has been a “significant uptick” in interest among insurgents in laying down their weapons. He said that more than 40 groups of fighters, amounting to a few thousand men, are in negotiations with the Afghan government.

There’s apparently been so much interest, in fact, that the Kandahar governor is asking for a breather:

In Kandahar province, a hub of Taliban activity that has been a focus of U.S. military operations, the governor is taking the extraordinary step of urging insurgent leaders to delay their surrender.

“We are not prepared the way we should be,” said the governor, Tooryalai Wesa, who has been approached in recent weeks by emissaries for mid-level Taliban leaders. “We are telling them to wait a little bit.”

The lack of preparation Governor Wesa talks about includes funding restrictions from USAID, slow or incompetent implementation of the program from the Afghan government, delay from inter-ministerial coordination, etc. (Read more on this in the WaPo article.)

And then there is the issue of weeding out false claimants — people who claim they’re fighters only to get the benefits of the program.

Perhaps the most complicated and important of all is the question of justice: should we really be rewarding these people, many of whom have been involved in killings or otherwise illegal activity, instead of prosecuting them? This concern is raised primarily by civil society organizations. But in a different incarnation, Karzai’s political opposition is asking why we should invest so many resources in buying off Taliban fighters instead of rewarding peaceful, law-abiding Afghans.

But for now these questions are ignored in favor an attempt at a swifter path to peace through the reintegration program. But that’s not working too well either.

Is Karzai’s reintegration program beginning to work?

Lately, there has been a flurry of news reports about Taliban fighters and other insurgents laying down their weapons and joining the ‘peace process.’ The ‘reintegration’ reported in the media is happening primarily in Afghanistan’s northern provinces — Faryab, Jawzjan, Takhar, Balkh, Kunduz, Baghlan and others — but there have also been cases in the South.

Defections in the south of the country might be because of the massive surge that appears to have created some space for peace. Coalition forces are hinging their efforts on the surge, hoping it will turn the tide.

However, defections in the North are more significant because they represent an apparent reversal in the rapid growth of militancy in the once-peaceful region.

Compared to the overall size of the insurgency, defection numbers are trivial — a few here, a dozen there — and the trend might just be anecdotal, but the element key in this phenomenon is the timing, to which there are two dimensions.

  1. It comes in the wake of last year’s peace jirga, the creation of the High Peace Council, Afghanistan’s reaching out to Pakistan and other efforts part of a Western-backed attempt to revive Karzai’s floundering peace offer to the Taliban, originally extended in the early years of his time in power. The defections might be a sign that the plan is finally working.
  2. It is wintertime in Afghanistan, and traditionally militants take a break to sleep away the months of heavy snow, iced roads and subzero temperatures that can seriously hamper their mobility and operational capability. The hibernation might just have been sweetened by the benefits of the reintegration program, which promises former militants amnesty, skills training, cash-for-work schemes and protection against reprisals from other militants for defection.

So, is the reintegration working? Or are the defections motivated by the perks only?

The answer could be anyone’s guess, although right now the consensus seems to be on the side of reintegration skeptics. One would hope, somewhat wishfully, that the winter break, the perks of surrender and the surge will work in synergy to lead the war to a critical turning point.