Who will sit at the Afghan negotiating table?

The news that the Taliban will open a political office in Qatar is rightly being welcomed as a watershed moment – even though it is a belated one, coming at the 10-year mark of the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan.  The
pressing question now becomes, who will get a seat at the negotiating table
that will finally be set? It’s a question that should be of keen interest to

Two years ago, an Afghan human rights advocate summed up the challenge of peace negotiations like this: “Peace will not come through a deal between warlords.” Speaking at a civil society conference (funded by the Government of Canada) in a Kabul hotel, she said, “There is no peace if women cannot be safe in their own homes. Political reconciliation is important, but human rights cannot be left out.”

President Hamid Karzai, who has welcomed the prospect of upgraded talks with the Taliban[i] (after questioning such talks last fall when his lead peace envoy was killed by
a suicide bomber posing as a Taliban peace envoy[ii]), and President Barak Obama have both reiterated a commitment to pressing human rights concerns by setting out three basic requirements for a settlement – a renunciation of armed resistance, acceptance of the Afghan constitution, including its provisions regarding the rights of women, and a clear termination of the Taliban’s ties to Al Qaeda.

That is an important start, assuming that these are three key goals for the negotiations, and not, as some have insisted, preconditions for them happening in the first place.  But
the durability of any agreement, as well as the formal status of human rights in a post-war Afghanistan, will depend to a significant degree on who is at the table when the new political framework is negotiated.

The Taliban will likely have little interest in a broad, inclusive table. They really want to talk only to the United States and thus will try hard to sideline even the Government of Afghanistan, in keeping with their view of the Kabul regime as merely a puppet of the West. And it is safe to say that human rights is unlikely to figure high on the Taliban agenda.

The primary goals that the Taliban have for negotiations are the establishment of an Islamic Government and the departure of all foreign troops, but the statement announcing the Qatar office added the important pledge that the new Islamic government “should not be harmful to anyone.”[iii]

The latter is a basic obligation of all sovereign states – that is, to prevent the use of their territory for launching injurious acts against other states. It is an obligation the Taliban Government of the 1990s failed to meet when it allowed Al Qaeda to conduct international operations from within Afghan borders. So, for this principle to be flagged and affirmed by
the Taliban in the run-up to what we have to hope will soon be substantive negotiations is a significant and positive signal.

Some analysts question whether any post-war Afghan regime, whatever the Taliban role in it, will have the capacity, even if they declare the will, to prevent international jihadis from establishing sanctuaries in eastern Afghanistan. While NATO and the US concentrate their
fight against the Taliban of the southern Provinces, ironically, the group that is most open to talks, the eastern provinces are increasingly being left to the Taliban-related but separate Haqqani network, along with other insurgent elements with links to al Qaeda and Pakistani groups.[iv]

While the primary focus of negotiations will be on strategic and national power-sharing questions, it is not clear that there will be anyone there to give attention to the interests of the Afghan people, notably the small but significant population of urbanized Afghans that have made huge gains economically and in civil and human rights since the removal of the Taliban regime in 2001.

There are Afghan civil society groups with a capacity and determination to speak for the rights and interests of Afghans, and an April 2010 civil society conference sponsored by the Canadian-led “Pathways to Peace” project arrived at a broad consensus on five core values that should guide an Afghan peace process:[v]

Accountability and transparency. Information about the peace process must be shared if it is to be accepted by the population and if it is to succeed in the long run.
Governments should ensure that the population knows who is involved in negotiations and what the key issues are.
Inclusivity. All sectors of society must be involved in peacebuilding: men, women, young, old, all ethnic and major tribal groups. Without such inclusivity, the peace
process will not be considered legitimate by all segments of the population and will not lead to lasting peace.
Transitional justice and rejection of impunity. Participants expressed frustration at
the extent to which individuals who have committed serious human rights violations enjoy impunity, continue to benefit from their criminal activities, and even participate in government. In peacebuilding, peace is one side of the coin while justice is the other.
Trust building. Trust lies at the heart of peacebuilding. First, all parties must
trust the process through which peace is being negotiated, and second, trust must be built among the communities in conflict. Third party mediators can play a central role in trust building.
Nation building.  Afghanistan is a land of many regions, languages and identities, but there is an overall sense of being Afghan. Genuine national unity will lead to peace among the communities, thus steps must be taken to strengthen it. Civil society can play a role in this national process by linking various parts and communities of Afghanistan together.

It is unlikely that the civil society community most directly involved in peacebuilding and in the best position to press for attention to these five principles in the negotiations will find a seat at any negotiating table. But the international community has a clear obligation to support that community with the resources, political and financial, that it will need in order to give effective voice to those core values. The Government of Canada, in partnership with Canadian civil society groups that have credible links to Afghan civil society, ought to be at the forefront of ensuring that the Afghan negotiations are an inclusive and principled pursuit of a durable ceasefire that sets the stage for the longer term task of building durable peace.



[i] “Afghan Leader Agrees to Taliban Talks and Office in Qatar,” Voice of America
News, 04 January 2012.  http://blogs.voanews.com/breaking-news/2012/01/04/afghan-leader-agrees-to-taliban-talks-and-office-in-qatar-2/.

[ii] “Karzai reviews Taliban peace strategy ,” The Times of India, 02 October 2011. hhttp://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/Karzai-demands-US-hand-over-Afghan-prisoners/articleshow/11386549.cms

[iii] Tom A. Peter, “Peace Progress? Qtar gives Taliban an office address,” the Christian Science Monitor Global New Blog, 03 January 2012. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2012/0103/Peace-progress-Qatar-gives-Taliban-an-office-address.

[iv] Mira MacDonald, “Taliban talks: the new mirage in Afghanistan,” Reuters, 18
June 2011. http://blogs.reuters.com/pakistan/2011/06/18/taliban-talks-the-new-mirage-in-afghanistan/.

[v] Pathways to Peace is a project of the Ottawa-based civil society network, Peacebuild. The full report on the Project is forthcoming. The “five core values” referred to hear are reported at: http://www.peacebuild.ca/themes-projects-arg-e.php.

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