Daniel Serwer, Professorial Lecturer, Johns Hopkins/SAIS and Middle East Institute Scholar
March 22, 2011
It is hard to do justice to UN Special Representative of the Secretary General Stefano (more commonly Staffan, but I know him as an Italian) De Mistura’s presentation this afternoon at the Middle East Institute. I’ll try at least to render some main ideas if not the elegance and nuance of expression.
Afghanistan is facing a year of transition challenges in the midst of a difficult security situation. The surge is working. We are close to the peak of bad news, when the increased US presence is meeting a strong Taliban response. We should see a decline in violence by July, a six-month delay that we also saw with the surge in Iraq. The Taliban are losing territory and making serious mistakes–in particular by attacking civilians–that will cost them dearly.
But everyone is agreed there will be no military victory in Afghanistan. A political and diplomatic surge must follow the military effort, in order to bring about a serious transition.
It is important not to abandon Afghanistan, but it is also important to arrange a serious transition of responsibility to the Afghans, so that they will truly own the future of their country by the end of 2014. This is a win/win: the Afghans get the national sovereignty they want while the troop contributing countries of the coalition get to withdraw substantial numbers of troops.
For this to work there also has to be a serious reconciliation and reintegration effort, led by the Higher Peace Council. President Rabbani is the ideal person to lead it, as he has impeccable anti-Taliban credentials. As many as 700 Taliban have already been through the process, but the need is for something like 30,000. The UN is providing logistical and substantive support to the Peace Council efforts through a “salaam” group.
July will see the beginning of the U.S. redeployment, which will be followed by a regional conference in Istanbul including all the “Silk Road” players from Turkey to India, leading up to the early December Bonn conference (a German diplomat told me 1200 people are expected!). At some point in this process, the U.S. will have to talk to the Taliban, but with the Afghans in the lead.
The regional effort is of particular importance. All are agreed on the need for a “stable” Afghanistan, but what that means differs from country to country. Iran is concerned about drugs and the American presence as well as protecting Shia Afghans and countering the Taliban. We have to shape a regional “stability pact” that takes those interests into account, as well as those of all the other neighbors and the coalition. This is best done through a series of bilateral consultations initially.
Asked about the effect of the peace process envisaged on women, De Mistura said women’s rights must be maintained. The Taliban, he thought, were moderating their views, recognizing that the clock cannot be turned back.
Returnees he thought need better and more coordinated assistance, and the time is coming for a major economic effort, a Marshall Plan, focused on employment.
Tribal and other power brokers are still too strong to allow accountability, but we should not give up. The time will come. Asked about relations between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, De Mistura referred to the recent NYU report, which focuses attention on discrepancies in their world views and the possibility of splitting at least some Taliban from Al Qaeda.