Toward a Political Settlement in Afghanistan

New Report by the International Crisis Group

Kabul/Brussels  |   26 Mar 2012

A major course correction is needed if talks with the Taliban are to have any chance of delivering sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

Talking about Talks: Toward a Political Settlement in Afghanistan , the latest report from the International Crisis Group, finds that Hamid Karzai’s government and the U.S.-led reconciliation process are poorly positioned to cut a deal with leaders of the insurgency. Karzai’s efforts stand little chance of success in the face of an internal crisis of governance, deep-seated political divisions, deteriorating security and widely differing interests and priorities of influential outside actors. U.S. efforts to strike a deal with the Taliban – driven by the 2014 transition date and aimed at giving political cover to its exit strategy – are only invigorating the insurgency and its regional supporters.

“Afghanistan’s security forces are ill-prepared to handle the power vacuum that will occur following the exit of international troops”, says Candace Rondeaux, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst in Afghanistan. “Political competition will heat up within the country in the run-up to NATO’s withdrawal of combat forces at the end of 2014. The differing priorities and preferences of the parties will further undermine the prospects for peace”.

The Afghan government’s reconciliation program is foundering in the wake of increased violence and targeted assassinations of leading political personalities. This has harmed the peace process, eroding what little trust existed between the government and international allies, while severely undermining relations between the government and the country’s political opposition. Nor are U.S.-led efforts to patch together a deal with the Taliban before the 2014 transition, which lack local ownership and broad-based buy-in, likely to bear fruit. On the contrary, widespread opposition to the process, particularly among ethnic minorities, could pose serious risks for the country’s stability. All this underscores the increased potential for a deepening of the conflict upon withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces.

A lasting peace accord will ultimately require far more structured negotiations, under the imprimatur of the UN. As NATO prepares to draw down its forces, a major requirement is to create and bring into play a UN-mandated mediation team to help the sides develop an agenda and then negotiate a settlement that will require buy-in from Afghanistan’s neighbours, each of whom has major interests, including, importantly, Pakistan and Iran. Collective consultation and transparency rather than secrecy and unilateral action should be the guiding principles of the negotiation process.

Ultimately, the success of any settlement will depend on Kabul’s ability to set the negotiating agenda and ensure broad participation, and on the insurgency’s capacity to engage in a dialogue focusing as much on political settlement as on security concerns. In the coming years, the Afghan government is also likely to face even greater challenges to its legitimacy, as regional and global rivalries play out in its backyard. It will need to introduce constitutional change, including fundamental restructuring of the political order, and undertake genuine electoral reform in order to strengthen that legitimacy.

“The rhetorical clamour over talks about talks has led to a number of desperate and dangerous moves on the part of the Afghan government and its international allies to bring purported insurgent leaders to the negotiating table”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “But a deal with the Taliban alone will never be enough to secure the peace the country so desperately deserves”.

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