Afghanistan 2012: The Peace Problem

Dr. Richard Weitz (Credit: The Hudson Institute)

01/15/2011 – by Richard Weitz

Editor’s Note: In the first of four parts, Richard Weitz looks at the prospects and challenges for an Afghan peace process in 2012 and the reality of the 2014 target goal of withdrawal.  If it is not real now, what will 2014 magic bring that can not be seen in 2012?

One issue that is certainly on the President Barack Obama’s national security agenda this year will be how to end or substantially reduce the fighting in Afghanistan. The frustratingly protracted Afghan War has led influential people in Europe, the United States, and Afghanistan itself to ponder the prospects of negotiating a political settlement. Popular support for the war is falling in the United States, with mainstream defense analysts eager to reset a U.S. military preoccupied for more than a decade with counterinsurgency and counterterrorist operations.

The United States and its NATO allies are planning to withdraw almost all their military forces from Afghanistan by 2014 at the latest. The United States, by far the largest troop contributor to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF), withdrew 10,000 troops in 2011 and aims to redeploy 23,000 this year.  NATO forces are already transferring the leading combat role in various provinces from NATO to the Afghan National Security Forces as they continue to withdraw some of the forces they added during last year’s troop surge. In light of this impending withdrawal, NATO leaders and their Afghan allies have redoubled their efforts to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban while they can still muster considerable punch on the battlefield.

What will be the fate of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2012? (Credit Image of Taliban Flag: Bigstock)
What will be the fate of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2012? (Credit Image of Taliban Flag: Bigstock)

Senior U.S. officials have been cited in media outlets as saying that they hope to begin official talks with representatives of the Afghan Taliban soon. In an Newsweek interview last month, Vice President Joe Biden said that the United States would not consider the Afghan Taliban a threat if it broke with the more militant and globally oriented al-Qaida terrorist movement. On December 31, Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared that, “I am very happy that the American government has announced that the Taliban are not their enemies,” adding that, “We hope that this message will help the Afghans reach peace and stability.” A few days earlier, Karzai said his government would accept the Taliban establishing a liaison office in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and if necessary Qatar for the purpose of holding peace talks.


Most recently, on January 3, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid issued a statement affirming that his movement would consent in principle to establish a political office in Qatar if the United Nations recognized the Taliban as a legitimate opposition party and the United States released some Taliban members imprisoned at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. Vali Nasr, who served on the Obama administration’s Afghan-Pak team until his recent appointment as a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, described the Taliban offer to establish a political office as “akin to the Taliban forming a Sinn Fein—a political wing to conduct negotiations.”

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland welcomed the Taliban proposal to open a political liaison office in Qatar and said that it confirmed with the administration’s “fight, talk, build” strategy, laid out last fall by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her Senate testimony. “We’ve seen in many other conflict situations that you have to have a political address if you’re going to begin a political conversation,” Nuland added. “The Afghans themselves have said they are frustrated that the Taliban do not have a political address.” Nuland correctly stressed the need for the Taliban to accept Afghanistan’s post-Taliban constitution. The sincerity of the Taliban offer, the extent to which Taliban leaders support Mujahid’s statement consenting to engage in a peace process, and the degree to which those working at any formal office are empowered to negotiate on the Taliban’s behalf remain to be tested.

The prerequisites for starting negotiations are in flux. Until recently the main issue was how to move the unofficial talks occurring between Taliban and NATO representatives to a more formal channel. The parties only agreed in November that the Taliban could establish an office for its negotiating team in Qatar. Such an office is needed so that the Taliban’s interlocutors know they are talking to authorized representatives of the Taliban rather than self-declared but fake emissaries.  In the past, such false representatives have extorted large sums of money from the United States before being exposed.  Another false Taliban emissary, who may have been associated with a dissident Taliban faction, assassinated the head of the Afghan Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani. After that, Karzai himself insisted that, ”We can’t continue talking to suicide bombers… we have stopped talking about talking to the Taliban until we have an address for the Taliban, until we have a telephone for the Taliban.”

Even after a Taliban political office is established, the Taliban representatives will need guarantees for their safety if they participate in direct physical negotiations with the Kabul government and its foreign allies. The Taliban cited safety concerns as the reason they had to establish a political office in Qatar rather than in Kabul or elsewhere in Afghanistan itself. Conversely, safeguards are needed to prevent the Taliban office from serving as a propaganda font or mobilization center for the Taliban. Recognizing the office will in any case enhance the movement’s legitimacy, though this might be an acceptable concession if it accelerates actual negotiations and does not lead to endless talks in Doha while the Taliban waits out the withdrawal of most NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014.

In the Afghan context, the process of ending the fighting through persuading the insurgents to stop fighting is typically divided into two components—reconciliation and reintegration. Reconciliation entails negotiating peace deals with senior Taliban leaders who, for diverse reasons, might accept a compromise settlement. Reintegration refers to efforts to induce lower-level Taliban fighters, who might have joined the insurgency to earn money or for other non-ideological reasons, to lay down arms and rejoin the peaceful political process.

For several years now, Karzai has offered to negotiate with “moderate” Taliban leaders, renegade warlords, and other groups and commanders fighting his government providing they agreed to end their insurgency and accept the legitimacy of his government and the basic tenets of the Afghan constitution adopted following the Taliban’s defeat in late 2001. The Afghan government has also offered various forms of amnesty and other inducements to guerrilla fighters who pledge to cease fighting.

More recently, Karzai’s government has developed a comprehensive peace plan to include working with Pakistan and other potential regional mediators and convening a loya jirga, or council of elders, to promote Afghan reconciliation. In November 2011, for example, a Loya Jirga attended by more than 2,300 lawmakers, government officials, and other influential Afghans met in Kabul and endorsed peace talks with the Taliban.

Nonetheless, past efforts to induce many of the Taliban guerrillas to defect and some Taliban leaders to negotiate peace with the internationally recognized Kabul government led by President Karzai have repeatedly failed.

Thus far, the Taliban leadership has publicly rejected Karzai’s reconciliation overtures and denounced the reintegration process. Taliban leaders have demanded that all NATO troops leave Afghanistan as a prerequisite for starting the negotiations.  They greeted the inauguration of the June 2010 Peace Jirga with rocket attacks and suicide bombers. They later assassinated the head of the Afghan Peace Council and former Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, using a suicide bomber who pretended to be a Taliban emissary.

Taliban commanders have prevented their fighters from defecting by credibly threatening death to those guerrillas who seek to abandon their units and join the government. In addition, many former fighters who participated in earlier reintegrated schemes subsequently took up arms again because they did not receive adequate financial assistance, employment retraining, or protection.

The issue of whether to offer amnesty to former Taliban leaders and fighters who lay down arms has, as in other civil conflicts marked by widespread violence against civilians, proven controversial given the unease felt by many victims and their sympathizers. A common sentiment is that the perpetrators should pay for the past crimes, but such retributive justice could bring net losses to everybody if the Afghan conflict drags out longer than necessary.

A related fear is that the granting of amnesty will reinforce the sense of impunity felt by Afghan leaders. This concern extends beyond the issue of Taliban atrocities to encompass those crimes committed by various warlords, especially in the 1990s, as well as the pervasive public corruption that undermines good governance.

There ethical problems with accepting impunity, corruption, and an absence of the rule of law in Afghanistan, though these might be mitigated by studying and applying the lessons learned in other cases through the use of truth and reconciliation commissions. But these maladies also create practical problems. In particular, they encourage apathy among the Afghan people regarding the outcome of the war, sapping the support required to win a counterinsurgency war, and can even fuel the grievances that lead people to rebel against government authority in the first place, whether by joining the Taliban, a warlord, or some other armed group.

Both reintegration and reconciliation are at best difficult, partially effective, but essential complements to the intensified NATO military operations in Afghanistan. Despite the surge in troops and other resources entering Afghanistan, NATO forces and their Afghan allies acknowledge that they could not plausibly hope to kill or capture all the Taliban insurgents.

Both approaches present various opportunities and problems, though most concerns focus on the reconciliation element. Seeking to weaken the Taliban insurgents by dividing the movement’s less committed members from its hard-core supporters makes tactical sense, but the initiatives entail serious risks that must be understood and reduced.

Perhaps the most serious problem impeding reintegration and reconciliation thus far is the declining international support for continuing military involvement in the Afghanistan war.

On the one hand, the unwillingness of Western publics to make an enduring military commitment in Afghanistan comparable to that provided by the United States to South Korea and West Germany during the Cold War is driving their governments’ interest in a negotiated settlement. Many European governments have publicly announced sharp reductions in their military commitments in coming years to appease their publics, and the Obama administration is under pressure to do likewise. Perceived progress toward a peaceful settlement could even accelerate this process since it could lead their publics to want to minimize further deaths and casualties in a war that was about to end.

On the other hand, Western war wariness is contributing to the belief of many Taliban leaders that they need simply to keep fighting for a few more years until the Western publics compel their governments to withdraw their forces, which would place the weak Afghan National Army and National Police in a difficult situation.

The risk further exists that appearing overly eager to reach a negotiated settlement could deepen doubts about Western willingness to stay the course in Afghanistan, both among the Afghan people and in neighboring countries, such as Pakistan. The Taliban has long sought to convey the message to Afghans that they should not resist them because, while the Western troops will soon leave, the Taliban movement plans to stay forever. In addition, some members of the divided Pakistani security services argue that they need to maintain good ties with the Taliban since they will eventually return to power.

The best way to break this vicious circle is to turn the tide on the battlefield.

For this reason, NATO governments increased their combat forces in Afghanistan, through a temporary surge, to put more pressure on the Taliban. They have also redoubled their efforts to build a stronger Afghan National Army.

This increased pressure may be inducing more Taliban leaders to negotiate and more Taliban rank-and-file fighters to defect. In addition, the enhanced number of coalition and Afghan ground troops has lowered the number of civilian casualties by reducing the need for air strikes. For example, there are now more forward-based ground controllers nearby who can waive off attacks when many civilians are near the target. Furthermore, the troop increase appears to have provided the improved security needed to promote the social, economic, and other initiatives needed to strengthen the capacity of Afghan institutions.

Unfortunately, the current surge in foreign troops and spending is unsustainable.

NATO forces are already on a downward path in Afghanistan, while their foreign assistance to Afghans is also falling. The Afghan economy has shown signs of improvement, but it has not grown fast enough to sustain the enormous Afghan national security establishment built in recent years with foreign funding and encouragement.

The next two years will therefore see an endurance contest between the tenacity of the insurgents and the durability of the Western military and financial commitment to the Afghan government.