Is there a political solution in Afghanistan?

Allison Stuewe writes: 

The members of yesterday’s panel hosted by the Middle East Institute believed that a political solution is desirable but concluded nevertheless that the question of whether or not one is possible is harder to answer than it seems.  The panel was more inclined to raise additional questions than provide definitive answers.

Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute, the event’s moderator, introduced some of the questions:  Is a political solution possible?  Are there incentives that would facilitate an agreement among all interests involved in the Afghan conflict?  What will the U.S.  or other participants in the peace process have to sacrifice to reach a negotiated solution? Has the opportunity for productive U.S. involvement in conflict resolution passed?  Or should we still be pushing for a political solution?  Are we failing to see the possibilities?  Will U.S. government efforts to find a political solution be viewed in the region as a gesture of desperation for an easy exit?

Ambassador Omar Samad, previously Afghanistan’s ambassador to France and Canada and currently a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, structured his presentation around two questions that must be addressed in the peace process.  First, he asked, what is the Afghan conflict?  Is it an insurgency, civil war, or proxy-driven conflict? Is it about resources, ethnicity, geopolitical rivalries, anti-terrorism, or historical narratives?  From the Afghan perspective, which looks at the conflict with history in mind, it is all of these.

In the 1960s, the country was stable, with a constitutional and democratic order.  The communist coup and subsequent Soviet invasion ended three generations of peace and destroyed the government, infrastructure and human capital while killing over a million Afghans.    The U.S.-backed resistance was successful in defeating the Soviets, but when the Soviets left and the United States lost interest, a void remained.   Radical Islam thrived.  As it became clear an agreement would not be reached between the powers that emerged after the Soviet defeat, the interests of external players became more pronounced.  Pakistan and Iran had their own political agendas and used Islamic extremism to achieve their own ends.

9/11 was a game changer.  The tragedy showed the world that there are consequences to ignoring conflict in Afghanistan.  Previous mistakes should not be repeated in the current attempt at conflict resolution.  The Bonn Agreement creating what Arif Rafiq, scholar at the Middle East Institute, views as a consociational government pointed in the right direction.  There are divisions between Afghans based on ethnicity, language, and religion, but these divisions are shallow and reflect only part of Afghanistan’s history.  Ambassador Samad believes there is an Afghan national identity, history and sense of belonging to the same state.  It is unlikely that Afghanistan will collapse.  What it needs is an inclusive political system.

Ambassador Samad’s second question was about the meaning of a “political solution.”  Does this mean an intra-Afghan, regional, or international solution?  From the Afghan perspective, all three are critical to ensuring future stability.  A peace plan must be Afghan-inspired and include input from regional interests, but these imperatives will be hard to accomplish without international support.  There will be a transition in 2014 when President Karzai concludes his term and much of the United States and NATO presence is withdrawn.  We have between now and the end of 2014 to address security issues, ensure citizens will be able to vote, plan for legitimate elections, and invite the Taliban to participate in politics as equal citizens of the Afghan state.

Shamila Chaudhary of the New American Foundation (but previously at the National Security Council) contributed a former policymaker’s perspective.

American politics have hindered the search for a political solution.  At the beginning of the war, the U.S. treated the Taliban and al-Qaeda as essentially the same terrorist organization and refused to negotiate on principle.  We know now that there were divisions in the Taliban even over the 9/11 attack and that the U.S. government ignored some of what might have been indications that Taliban members were willing to talk.  The military’s “fight, talk, build” strategy has made negotiation difficult.  Congress is angry that it has not been consulted more.  Despite Administration efforts, many members are unwilling to acquiesce to two Taliban requests:  the transfer of Guantanamo detainees associated with the Taliban and the recognition of a Taliban office outside of Afghanistan.  The rise in “green-on-blue” attacks, the Taliban attack on Camp Bastion in September and last year’s attack on the Embassy Kabul have made negotiation with the Taliban harder for the Americans, who won’t be able to engage seriously until after the U.S. election.

The second obstacle Chaudhary identified was Pakistan.  Pakistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar spoke in Washington last month, clarifying Pakistani goals:  an Afghan-led political solution that is satisfactory to Islamabad, no further destabilization in the border areas and the return of Afghan refugees still residing in Pakistan.  Pakistan is in a bind because it does not have sufficient Afghan partners to guarantee these interests.  Pakistan wants to curb pro-Indian sentiment and block moves towards an independent Pashtunistan in the border areas.  Islamabad relies heavily on the Haqqani network, a group associated with the Afghan Taliban that could turn on Pakistan at any time.  A productive agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan would include acceptance of the Durand line, limits on India’s security presence in Afghanistan and assurances that the border areas will  not become an anti-Pakistan, pro-Indian hotspot.

Arif Rafiq thought a political solution possible but was pessimistic about the likelihood of one happening.  He listed many reasons for his doubts:  the Bonn framework is slowly unraveling.  President Karzai, once respected as a leader from a prominent family, is now a divisive figure.  Though he has said he will step down as planned, it appears he is working to consolidate his power and choose a successor who will allow him to continue to influence politics.  He faces real challenges:  Mullah Muhammad Omar’s Afghan Taliban does not want Karzai to be a part of peace talks and the opposition National Front not only opposes President Karzai but also envisions a constitutional overhaul to establish a federalized parliamentary democracy.

The surge is over and it did not accomplish what it set out to do.  The Afghan army is not ready to take over primary security responsibility for the whole country.  If anything, the surge emboldened militia groups and resulted in a huge influx of weapons.  The insurgency is alive even if fragmented (there are divisions between Mullah Omar’s Taliban and Gulbiddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami).  The Taliban did not participate in the Bonn talks of December 2011.  “Exploratory” talks among the Taliban, President Karzai and the U.S. have been on hold since March.  There is no indication that Mullah Omar’s Taliban intends to participate in elections.  The NATO-led coalition of the willing is fraying.

Rafiq did note some reasons for optimism.  The U.S. helped build a functioning, if not fully effective,  Afghan parliament .  Pakistan needs the U.S. presence in Afghanistan to limits cross-border risks.  It might be possible to exploit splits in the Taliban, some of whom are looking for the international legitimacy they lacked when they ruled most of Afghanistan. Most Afghans reject the emirate that the Taliban advocate.

The panel agreed time is running out.  Political transition in Washington, Islamabad and Kabul is eating into the time available.  Despite the Taliban’s motivations and goals, all participants noted that any political solution has to be open to all citizens.  A political solution requires an Afghan state that balances the center and periphery and meets the bottom line goals of the neighbors and the major international powers.  It is not going to be easy to solve this equation.

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