Finishing the job by starting to talk in Afghanistan

The coming months will no doubt bring some extravagant pleas from certain Afghan and NATO politicians that Canada not follow through on the commitment to withdraw its combat forces from Afghanistan in 2011, but an effective antidote to such pressures is available in beefed-up diplomacy.

“You have to finish the job,” says Ahmad Wali Karzai – head of the Kandahar provincial council, half brother to President Hamid Karzai, controversial politician, entrepreneur with rumored links to the drug trade, and survivor of at least one assassination attempt.

“What we are fighting is not only the enemy of Afghanistan. This is the enemy of the world. This is the enemy of every human being so don’t leave us alone,” Wali Karzai told a Canadian journalist. “You have to be committed to what you promised. You cannot leave in the middle and say, ‘I’m packing it in’.” [i] He warns that the Taliban are already claiming victories in the face of planned departures of international troops.[ii]

Canada’s Ambassador William Crosbie, on the other hand, points to other Taliban with a less triumphalist outlook: “I know myself, through our own contacts with Taliban, commanders who want to lay down their arms, and what they say to us through third parties is we’re tired of fighting. ‘We know we can’t win. We want to come back to our families but who’s going to protect us from the other insurgents; who is going to protect us from the Afghan security forces [and] from ISAF?’” [iii]

A widely-respected and clear-thinking realist in the diplomatic community in Afghanistan, Amb Crosbie was speaking of amnesty or reintegration prospects, but he also told the Canadian Press that reconciliation is key to resolving the Afghan conflict. To be sure, he urged caution and the need for diplomacy to meet strict conditions, and in particular he emphasized the importance of process in any talks. A reconciliation or peace process focused only on the Karzai Government and the Taliban leadership is “a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Because it is “process [that] will determine the outcome,” he said, for there to be an outcome that serves the interests, and has the confidence, of all Afghans it must necessarily come out of a process that involves the broad cross-section of Afghans. He told the Canadian Press that a constructive process must:

-be internally inclusive and involve all ethnic groups, as well as women: “It has to be a reconciliation among Afghans to come back to build the future of their country in a way that each ethnic and women’s group feels it respects their interests;”

-involve the international community, especially in winning the cooperation of Afghanistan’s neighbors: “The Afghans are never going to have peace or reconciliation in their country unless the neighbors support the future we’re trying to create.”

-be given time – especially since “the government is in a weak position, particularly in the south”

Canadian NGOs have long been similarly encouraging political dialogue that extends to regional actors, engages all sectors of Afghan society, is thorough or comprehensive enough to convincingly address the full range of grievances, and that is also supported or guided by the UN. Back in 2008, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs recommended that Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan – diplomatic, military, and development – be specifically oriented toward creating “conditions favorable to a peace process.” It asked Canada to make “a concrete commitment to promote…broad-based negotiations,” nationally and in local communities, and to “encourage dialogue among all sectors of Afghan society and all communities of interest, and thereby help to establish conditions conducive to peace negotiations.”[iv]

For Canada to take up that challenge with some renewed energy would be one of the best ways to deflect pressures to continue combat operations.

By now, the main argument against talks with insurgents is one of timing, or “ripeness” – the point at which the parties conclude that they are in a “mutually-hurting stalemate” from which they all want to escape. But because the insurgency is now strong and ascendant, the argument goes, that ripeness will not be present until the insurgents are beaten back through intensified action on the battlefield and more persuasive enticements to individual insurgents to defect.

The Ambassador’s analysis of war weariness among some Taliban, confirmed by separate direct conversations with Afghans close to insurgent communities, suggests the situation is probably not so far from a hurting stalemate, and, in any case, intensified military action is not having the desired effect of downgrading the insurgents. Furthermore, the timing argument easily becomes an argument against negotiations in principle, opposing talks with either an ascendant or a retreating Taliban. On the one hand, some argue there is no point in talking to an ascendant insurgency because it will be disinclined to compromise; on the other hand, others will be just as insistent there is no need to negotiate or seek compromise with retreating insurgents.

There are also few prospects for large-scale defections through amnesty programs.[v] “Peace cannot come to Afghanistan through the junior Taliban,” says a former Taliban governor who did in fact defect. Peace efforts “will bear no fruit if the Taliban leaders are not involved and listened to…Peace will not come to Afghanistan until you speak to the Taliban leaders and show sincerity,” he said.[vi]

The UN Secretary-General’s 2009 report on mediation also questions the “hurting stalemate” theory, saying it has “turned out to be costly for all concerned, since opportunities for early resolution [are] lost and…stalemate[s] sometimes lead, instead, to intractability.” The Secretary-General says the hurting stalemate “concept has now been reformulated to take into account the role that third parties can play in cultivating and fostering ripeness at an early stage through the introduction of new ideas, skills, resources, and creativity.”[vii]In other words, creating the conditions for constructive negotiations is at least as much a matter of diplomacy as it is of coercion.

What’s needed now is a third party with some of those new ideas and creativity. Waiting is not likely to produce a better outcome. In fact, as has been argued in this space before, there is little evidence to support the idea that delaying the pursuit of talks will produce negotiating advantages for the Government of Afghanistan and its international backers. The opposite is just as likely to happen; the longer talks or the active pursuit of them are delayed the greater the likelihood that powerbrokers on both sides will be drawn to backroom deals to divvy up power among themselves. No one is talking about a quick process – a comprehensive peace process involving all sectors of society in pursuit of enough national consensus to end the fighting is a time consuming enterprise, and it in turn is simply the prelude to a generations long effort to build a reasonably just and participatory society.

eregehr@ploughshares.ca

Notes

[i] Bill Graveland, “‘Don’t leave us alone’; Afghan president’s brother asks Canada to extend mission,” The Toronto Star, 6 July 2010. http://www.thestar.com/printarticle/832775.

[ii] “Taliban rule out peace talks with NATO,” Mail Online, 1 July 2010.http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1291080/Taliban-rule-talks-Nato-Why-winning.html.

[iii] “Canadian ambassador worries Taliban talks ‘going too far, going too fast’,” The Globe and Mail, Canadian Press, 05 July 2010. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/asia-pacific/canadian-ambassador-worries-taliban-talks-going-too-far-going-too-fast/article1628408/?cmpid=rss1.

[iv] Canada in Afghanistan: Report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development; Chair, Kevin Sorenson, MP (July 2008, 39th Parliament, 2nd Session).

[v] Steve Coll, Interview with National Public Radio, “Should the US try to Negotiate with the Taliban,” 29 June 2010. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128196663.

[vi] Sayed Slahuddin, “Ex-Taliban governor sees little hope for Afghan peace,” Reuters, 6 July 2010.http://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKSGE65S0AY._CH_.2420.

[vii] Report of th Secretary-General on enhancing mediation and its support activities, UN Security Council, 8 April 2009 (S/2009/189).

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