The South Asia Channel

In support of a reconciliation strategy for Afghanistan

While Washington phases out its combat mission and withdraws troops from Afghanistan this year, the Taliban continues to increase its use of violence and refuses to negotiate with the Afghan government towards a political settlement. With no military victory over the Taliban in sight, the White House needs to make peace talks with the Taliban a centerpiece of its exit strategy in order to ensure that Afghanistan will not lapse back into civil war after most of the U.S. troops leave by 2014.

Currently, about 66,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, but the number is expected to be cut drastically this spring and into 2014 when the U.S. combat role ends and Afghanistan takes full responsibility for its security. Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Washington this week and one of the key items on the agenda was for the two governments to discuss the various options for and potential effects of a residual U.S. military presence beyond 2014 that would train and equip the Afghan security forces and conduct counterterrorism operations along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Numerous discussions and scenario planning occurred this week in regards to the drawdown of security forces and its implications on potential peace talks. Sending ripple effects across the policy making community, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said on Tuesday that President Obama is not ruling out the possibility of withdrawing all U.S. troops by the end of next year. While many in the policy community deem this as a negotiation tactic by the Obama administration, a complete troop withdrawal would undoubtedly have lasting implications for potential peace talks with the Taliban. The scenario of zero U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan would create an opportunity for the hardline elements of the Taliban to wait out the American withdrawal and subsequently emerge as an inhibiting force for peace which has no interest in a negotiated political settlement.

On Friday, escalating concerns by both the Afghan- and American policy communities were realized when in a joint statement President Obama and President Karzai agreed to speed up the handover of combat operations in Afghanistan to Afghan forces. The potentially bleak realities resulting from a hastened U.S. troop withdrawal are an increasingly likely end. The move also highlights the Obama administration's growing posture to end a nuanced and unfavorable war.

Despite the recent developments, it remains a critical security imperative for Washington that Afghanistan does not once again revert into a safe haven for terrorist activities, anarchy and civil war. A resilient Taliban insurgency, widespread corruption within the Afghan government, and the inability of the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) to protect the Afghan nation on its own after foreign troops leave require Washington to reevaluate its strategy vis-à-vis peace talks with the Taliban. For the talks to succeed and a durable peace process to emerge, Afghans must lead the talks with the Taliban in an inclusive and transparent manner, with full support from their regional neighbors and Washington. Above all, the White House and Kabul must be on the same page and adopt a unified policy towards reconciliation. Moreover, Washington must provide strategic economic and political support for the Afghan government to lead the process and must adopt a firm stance toward Pakistan through constructive diplomacy.

Following the assassination of Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, Head of the High Peace Council, in September 2011, the reconciliation process became dormant. The talks gained a renewed momentum after the French think tank, Foundation for Strategic Research, organized a meeting between representatives of the Taliban, Afghan political parties and civil society groups last December. Senior members of the Taliban, Hizb-e-Islami, the High Peace Council, political opposition groups, civil society and the Afghan parliament attended the two-day talks, marking the significance and increased inclusiveness of the reconciliation process. Numerous Afghan and international policy analysts believe that the seniority of the Taliban representatives attending the Paris Talks indicates they are serious about the possibility of a negotiated political settlement.

While some Afghans and foreign observers consider the Paris Talks as a positive catalyst for the overall peace process, others remain skeptical that the talks will result in a durable and inclusive peace agreement. The Taliban continue to reiterate that they would not talk with the Afghan government. Recently, the Taliban envoys at the Paris Talks restated their position that neither the Afghan constitution nor the Kabul government were legitimate and they had no plans to negotiate with the latter now or in the future. However, Taliban representatives cooperated in talks with the opposition leaders in Paris representing the Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek ethnic groups, indicating a greater potential for movement towards increased factionalism and bringing the legitimacy and cohesiveness of the central government and the gains made during the past 11 years into jeopardy.

In May 2012, Washington and Kabul signed the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement in which the U.S. designated Afghanistan as a "Major Non-NATO Ally" and committed to protecting and remaining engaged into 2024 in an advisory capacity. Yet, certain regional actors still maintain the belief that the U.S. will once again abandon Afghanistan and therefore continue to support the Taliban and other extremist militant groups as a proxy to exert influence over Afghanistan's future. This scenario would not only have security implications throughout the region, but would also affect wider, global security. It would allow al-Qaeda and its affiliates to reestablish themselves in parts of Afghanistan, where they could plot against America and its allies.

The Peace Process Roadmap recently issued by the High Peace Council proposes a negotiated political settlement by 2015 with the Taliban and other insurgent groups including Hizb-e-Islami. However the roadmap fails to address key issues such as the disarmament of these groups. If there is a power-sharing deal within the government that includes the Taliban and other armed extremist groups without a provision for the disarmament of these groups and their acceptance of the legitimacy of the government, the outcome of the reconciliation could pave the way for a divided Afghanistan with a weak central government, and would compromise the gains of the past 11 years. Additionally, such a politically negotiated settlement would face considerable backlash from political opposition groups, as well as civil society.

After three decades of war, Afghans are weary of war and desire peace. However, peace must not come at the cost of human rights and democracy. In the absence of a democratic government, Afghanistan could become a hotbed for terrorism once again. Washington invested heavily in Afghanistan over the past 11 years in order to combat extremism, and the U.S. government should have a vested interest in deterring the emergence of terrorism hotbeds and ensuring a stable Afghanistan beyond 2014. A peaceful, democratic Afghanistan where human rights are protected should be a security imperative for Washington, necessitating that it put its full support behind an inclusive, transparent peace process led by Afghans and promoted by regional actors. Furthermore, any peace talks with the Taliban must not come at the cost of compromising human rights and setting back the hard won gains of the past 11 years, making it ever more an imperative that the U.S. closely reevaluate its troop withdrawal strategy.

While it remains unclear how a politically negotiated settlement will play out in the coming years and who the key stakeholders will be, it is clear that the Taliban does not wish to talk with the current Afghan government, leaving Washington to think outside the box and tap into other credible stakeholders in Afghanistan that could help lead the process. Afghan civil society leaders represent various ethnic and interest groups including religious minorities, women and youth and could be key players and stakeholders in the peace process. National consensus at all levels is critical to whatever peace process emerges in Afghanistan. Bringing in a neutral third party to broker a peace negotiation is not a bad idea, but the devil is in the details of who could serve as a neutral third party with the ever-growing list of stakeholders and spoilers to peace in Afghanistan. Without a unified reconciliation policy between Kabul and the White House and regional countries' sincere cooperation, achieving an acceptable peace agreement before the 2014 elections and troop drawdown would prove considerably more challenging and endanger the progress the country has made over the past decade. The new window of opportunity rests in the recent endorsement in the joint statement issued by President Obama and President Karzai of the establishment of a Taliban political office in Qatar in hopes of bringing insurgents to inter-Afghan talks.

Hamid Arsalan, a founding member of Afghan Analytica, is a Program Officer for the Middle East and North Africa Program at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Hodei Sultan, a founding member of Afghan Analytica, is a Program Officer for the Afghanistan and Pakistan Program at the
United States Institute of Peace (USIP). The views reflected here are solely those of the authors.

A version of this piece was originally published here.

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