Afghans opt for reconciliation, will Canada join them?

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has famously said the US can’t get out of its wars by capturing and killing its way to victory,[i] and in Afghanistan Canada and NATO will have to learn that you can’t train your way out of a war either.

(The following first appeared in the current issue of Mondial, the publication of the World Federalist Movement in Canada. There are three additional commentaries – by Peggy Mason, Simon Rosenblum, and Fergus Watt – offering a range of views and perspectives on Canada’s role in Afghanistan after the July 2011 withdrawal from combat operations – available here.)

Canada’s announced transition out of combat and into training has the potential to be a constructive shift, but on three conditions: if it recognizes that military victory in Afghanistan is not an option; if training builds a national security force that respects human rights and humanitarian law and demonstrates that the country is moving seriously toward the rule of law; and, above all, if training is accompanied by a diplomatic surge to end the war.

When the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade considers any new peace support operation it asks a series of questions to help it decide whether the mission is in fact feasible and worthy of support. One such question is, “will [the military mission] take place alongside a process aimed at a political settlement to the conflict?” [ii]

It is a key question for the planned training mission because without a robust diplomatic process in pursuit of a political settlement to the war, training becomes little more than a cynical exercise in setting Afghans up for war without end. That is particularly so since Prime Minister Harper has already insisted that “it has always been our position that [talks with insurgents are] part of an eventual solution, and that it’s not simply military action alone.”[iii]

Yet, there is little evidence that Canada is actively encouraging political contacts with the Taliban. A February story in the New Yorker did report that finally the US Administration has begun engaging Taliban representatives to indicate US support for a serious negotiation process between willing elements of the Taliban-led insurgency and the Karzai Government.

There are also welcome signs that NATO,[iv] as well as the American Administration, is shifting toward support for negotiations. A major new report on “negotiating peace”[v] in Afghanistan is aimed at an American audience and encourages increased Administration support for reconciliation initiatives. Prepared by a Taskforce chaired by Lakhdar Brahimi and Thomas R. Pickering, two distinguished diplomats, with Brahimi having been the coordinator of what he now admits was the flawed Bonn Process in 2001-2002, the report concludes that “the best moment to start a political process toward settlement and reconciliation is now.” It adds that “simply co-opting senior-level Taliban into joining the Kabul regime is unlikely to bring peace to Afghanistan.” Instead, “reconciliation with the insurgents will eventually have to involve creating a broader political framework to end the war.”

A particularly fine report by Matt Waldman and Thomas Ruttig of the “Afghanistan Analysis Network” – both Waldman and Ruttig have extensive Afghan research records as well as experience with civil society in Afghanistan – acknowledges that while there is no panacea for ending the war in Afghanistan, there is a broad range of steps available to alleviate conflict and heighten the prospects for peace. They point to measures like military de‐escalation, mediation, dialogue and confidence‐building measures, and track II and III diplomacy efforts – all of which, they say, “could increase the prospects for a negotiated outcome.” [vi]

Steve Coll, author of the New Yorker piece, made the key point when he said “it is past time for the United States to shift some of its capacity for risk-taking in the war off the battlefield and into diplomacy aimed at reinforcing Afghan political unity, neutrality, civil rights, and social cohesion.”[vii]

The same goes for Canada, which has from the beginning of the Afghanistan mission followed a strategy that subordinates political reconciliation to military operations. It turns out that Afghans also feel those priorities should be reversed. The 2010 survey of Afghans conducted by The Asia Foundation[viii] shows an extraordinary level of political sophistication inasmuch as Afghans say that they increasingly support the pursuit of negotiations with insurgent groups, even as their sympathy for the insurgents and their aims and methods is in significant decline.

In 2010 83 per cent of those questioned in a comprehensive survey “support the government’s attempts to address the security situation through negotiation and reconciliation with armed anti-government elements,” up from 71 per cent a year earlier.

In the same period, sympathy for the insurgents with whom negotiations are sought dropped by 16 percentage points, from 56 per cent in 2009 to 40 per cent in 2010. A population that is losing sympathy for the Taliban is increasingly interested in negotiating with them, suggesting that Afghans are comfortable with the notion that the pursuit of peace requires that you talk with your adversaries – those with whom you have the deepest, most fundamental differences. Indeed, they have the radical idea that prospects for peace are better at the negotiating table than on the battlefield.

Ottawa should be paying attention.

eregehr@uwaterloo.ca

Notes

[i] Erika Niedowski, “US cannot kill its way to victory, says Gates,” The National, 7 December 2007. http://www.thenational.ae/news/worldwide/americas/us-cannot-kill-its-way-to-victory-says-gates.

[ii] DFAIT, “Canada and peace operations” site (National Governments: Canada’s Role), modified 140510, http://www.international.gc.ca/peace-paix/act_gov.aspx?lang=en.

[iii] Jonathan Montpetit, “Canadians would let Taliban leaders get to Kabul peace talks,” The Record, Waterloo Region, Canadian Press, 23 October 2010. Also at http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/Canada/20101022/Canada-Taliban-101022/.

[iv] Robert Dreyfuss, “NATO Backs Taliban Peace Talks, The Nation, 14 October 2010. http://www.thenation.com/blog/155399/nato-backs-taliban-peace-talks.

[v] Lakhdar Brahimi and Thomas R. Pickering, Afghanistan: Negotiating Peace, The Report of The Century Foundation International Task Force on Afghanistan in Its Regional and Multilateral Dimensions, The Century Foundation Press, New York, 2011. http://tcf.org/publications/2011/3/afghanistan-negotiating-peace.

[vi] Matt Waldman and Thomas Ruttig, “Peace Offerings: Theories of conflict resolution and their applicability to Afghanistan,” Afghanistan Analysis Network. http://aan-afghanistan.com/index.asp?id=1464.

[vii] Steve Coll, “US-Taliban talks,” The New Yorker, 28 February 2011. http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2011/02/28/110228taco_talk_coll#ixzz1EcY07c7Q.

[viii] “Afghanistan in 2010: A Survey of the Afghan People,” Key Findings, The Asia Foundation. http://asiafoundation.org/country/afghanistan/2010-poll.php

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