Last week’s Kabul Peace process, coming in the wake of a bombing in the capital that killed more than 150 people, brought together more than 20 countries aiming to restart peace talks and solidify regional agreements on terrorism. Looking to revive peace talks with the Taliban, who have been dormant since 2015, the conference passed in relative obscurity, exposing the differences between those present as much as any common ground. The Taliban rejected talks as long as foreign forces remained on Afghan soil. Regional tensions, particularly between India and Pakistan, and Pakistan and Afghanistan, provide a sticking point to any international agreement.
The causes of the conflict are numerous and differ between the parties involved. The invasion was instigated in the wake of 9/11, but the protracted nature of the conflict has exposed other issues. Legitimacy is an important problem, with the validity of the invasion, the Afghan government, international involvement, and the insurgency in question. Ethnic tensions in Afghanistan have been a significant contributing factor. The ambiguity of geography and climate have produced ethnic rivalries and porous borders with neighbouring states. Afghanistan’s major ethnic groups include Sunni Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Shia Hazaras. Dari, Pashto and Turkic languages are commonly spoken. Cultural gulfs exist between Pashtun and non-Pashtun areas; and between liberal urban cities and conservative rural regions, which accounts for 70 percent of the population. There are disputes over modernization and the place of Islam in society, which doubles as a more general dispute between rural and urban areas. There are significant socio-economic tensions in Afghanistan, which have been exacerbated by rising inequality. Average life expectancy at birth is 60, GDP per capita is US$590 and the adult literacy rate sits at 38 percent, 36 percent of Afghans live in poverty, 80 percent of poor people live in regional areas, and inequality has widened since 2005.
Questions of regional geopolitics are another root cause. Pakistan is arguably the country whose fortunes are most intertwined with Afghanistan, but it does not have good relations with the Afghan government, and its security services have been accused of supporting the Taliban. Pakistan wishes to keep Afghanistan from aligning with India and maintain a friendly regime in the country that will provide it with strategic depth. The US, NATO countries and others in the wider West have spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives in Afghanistan since their engagement to oust the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. China has both economic and security interests in the country, as do the Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Iran shares a border and has particular influence in Western regions. India has sought to exert influence in the country since 2001, while Russia has done so since the 1970s. The Gulf Arab states, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have all provided aid and support for particular factions.
The complex causes of the conflict outlined above suggest that a simple solution in Afghanistan is not viable. The failure of military means to bring about an end to hostilities reinforces this. Since the US invasion in 2001, the conflict between the Afghan government, its allies, and the Taliban has continued unabated. Afghanistan has experienced 40 continuous years of conflict. In that time millions have been killed and maimed, and many millions more displaced. The conflict has provided a fertile breeding ground for radical organisations and terrorist groups. Osama Bin Laden approved the 9/11 attacks in the Afghan city of Kandahar. Violence has bred more violence, and that fact shows no sign of changing. In fact, despite the US having spent $685 billion on the military side of the war by the time of its troop draw-down at the end of 2014, by June 2017, the Afghan central government controlled only about 57 percent of its territory. ISIS now operates in the northeast, Al-Qaeda maintains its presence, particularly on the border with Pakistan, and the Taliban is resurgent.
Where then to go from here? How to address 40 years of continual, devastating conflict, and rebuild society, psychologically, emotionally and physically? The only possibility for success is a comprehensive strategy that involves leadership from the top, mid and grassroots levels. There will need to be reform of governance structures to improve the legitimacy of the government. At the grassroots level, causes of conflict will need to be identified and resolved as best as possible. Reconciliation at the village level, where much of Afghanistan’s conflict is both caused and can be undertaken, is necessary. It is important to account for Afghan cultural nuances in any conflict resolution strategy. The use of the traditional Jirga as a national, district, community and village level dialogue and mediation mechanism, would be both culturally relevant and have greater legitimacy than other imported processes
A ceasefire, at the very least with the Taliban, should be the immediate goal. While fractures in the Taliban mean that they may not be able to negotiate across the whole group effectively, placing pressure on their backers in Pakistan means that certain groups may be brought into the fold. This could be done region-by-region or even village-by-village. At the international level, this will require negotiations or mediation by a party seen as relatively neutral i.e. Jordan. This will be essential for building trust, which has disintegrated. Peacekeepers could be utilized, sourced from Muslim-majority countries, but would be best operated outside the UN umbrella, which is seen as a US proxy by the Taliban. The Organisation for Islamic Cooperation may be the best vehicle for this.
Within the country, a political role would need to be found for a reformed Taliban. Parties will need to engage in constructive negotiations on constitutional and institutional changes, outlines for a Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program, and the securing of a monopoly on force for the central government. Decentralization will need to be negotiated and pursued, short of federalization. Workshops could be used to bring together technocrats, bureaucrats, Taliban community representatives, and members of the Ulema. These groups, established in each of Afghanistan’s 398 districts, would discuss the minutiae of reforms aimed at improving the ‘rule of law’, the legitimacy of governing structures under a unity government, development planning and the use of aid. Local community engagement down to the family level will be required. Dialogue, facilitated by local imams, will be crucial to discuss changes at the village level and should involve local NGOs.
One of the most important issues to be addressed is inter-ethnic conflict. High-level formal negotiations may be required to establish a power-sharing agreement initially, involving leaders from each key ethnic group, with quotas established for representation in government. Inter-ethnic group dialogue should be used to determine possibilities for development policy (i.e. economic, agriculture, infrastructure) as a method of building relationships and joint strategies across groups. This will draw on local knowledge of needs and interests. The most important work in addressing inter-ethnic conflict will be undertaken at the local level. It will be a long-term, perhaps generation-spanning process. Projects at the community level could be designed as an opportunity to reform relationships, which has been effective in other conflicts. Reconciliation will be a key component and will require input from informal Afghan community leaders, primarily elders or mullahs. It is likely that reconciliation will require a process of transitional justice to attain the truth about past abuses, ensure accountability for perpetrators of serious crimes, and help Afghans come to terms with the past.
Regional geopolitics must also be comprehensively considered. A mediated process involving Pakistan, India and Afghanistan will be required. US soft power in the region, both in terms of threats and incentives will need to be offered, particularly in regards to Pakistan. At this formal level, it will be important to strengthen existing agreements such as South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation. Given Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s need to stimulate their economies and development, economic linkages should be pursued. This should seek to strengthen Pashtun-majority areas on both sides of the border while maintaining the territorial integrity of both sides.
The approach to conflict resolution in Afghanistan proposed above is messy, arduous and fraught with risk. But given that the alternative is brutal and devastating conflict continuing for the foreseeable future, surely any other path that could produce a different outcome should be pursued. Putting the process in the hands of the people who have been hurt the most, i.e. Afghan civilians at the local level alludes to the possibility of a more lasting peace.