After participating in parallel events to the main London Afghanistan conference, FATIMA AYUB points at the alarm amongst many Afghans caused by indications of a ‘headlong dash to give Taliban leaders recognition and power’.
A near-hysterical optimism accompanies any official event on Afghanistan, and the London Conference almost two weeks ago was no different. To listen to the official comments and speeches, Afghanistan is just going through a reversible rough patch. Apart from the laundry list of tired commitments and the serious problems that a weak and unstable Kabul government must address was the untroubled promise of reconciliation with insurgency leaders, all the more alarming for its glib assurance.
Despite the brief window from the announcement of the conference date in December and the London Conference itself, the umbrella network British Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG) moved to organize a parallel civil society event to reflect the views and voices of Afghans outside of the official discourse about the expected outcomes of the official conference. The event featured a range of presenters from Afghan media, research, aid and rights groups, along with a number of prominent diplomats, Afghan government officials and British politicians, the latter of whom had to contend with serious anger, concerns and criticism from audience members and panelists.
Afghan civil society groups and a lot of ordinary citizens are seriously alarmed by the prospect of the headlong dash to give Taliban leaders recognition and power. This skepticism is borne not of any assurance that a military defeat of the insurgency is possible. Afghan civilians continue to bear the brunt of casualties and destruction, and after thirty years, they will bargain for peace at almost any cost. Almost, because most Afghans will not trade away the basic rights guaranteed to them under the current constitution.
For most Afghans, memories of life under Taliban rule are too recent. However badly the government has managed itself, however badly the war is going, Afghans still hold to the framework that will offer them protection and some preservation of their rights. Those who work in and on Afghanistan should soundly reject the pithy and condescending claims that “human rights” are an unrecognizable Western construct to Afghans. There is nothing especially Western about a desire to live in dignity and with the promise of socioeconomic stability, and not to be fearful, beaten, tortured or summarily executed.
Undeniably, this same unfulfilled desire is what has undermined the existing Afghan government. In an absurd twist, former UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi – who gave the keynote speech at the BAAG-organised Conference on 26 January–conceded mistakes were made at Bonn in 2001 that have led to the current disenchantment and violence, not because the main factional leaders at Bonn had risen to renewed prominence on the back of massive violations against Afghan civilians, but because the Bonn talks did not include all of these murderous factions. (Brahimi has repeatedly stated in the last few years that it was a mistake that the Taleban have not been invited to Bonn.)
The quite legitimate fear that Afghans from all areas of the country retain is that the Afghan government and its international backers are too weak to conclude any negotiations that would favor the public interest, stem future abuses and ensure stability. Trading peace for justice is an old refrain, but in Afghanistan past lessons are already forgotten.
Amidst the flurry of activities and events around the London Conference on Afghanistan, one modest parliamentary event took place in the House of Commons. Neither speaker (Michael Semple and Abdullah Anas) was Afghan; the sponsors were two British MPs (Adam Holloway and Eric Joyce). The main argument of both speakers was: Mistakes have been made by all parties, and everyone, including the general Afghan public, should be prepared for some unpalatable changes. The speakers offered a troublingly unqualified support for negotiations, arguing that most of the Taliban had been wrongly branded recalcitrant terrorists.
It would be repeating old mistakes, however, to see any of the political stakeholders as benign, and the Taliban are no exception. In the absence of commitments to foster accountability and end impunity, inclusion is not an instant recipe for political stability.
The process of so-called reconciliation is already mismanaged. Reconciliation is not like surgery, but a long-term process that takes root as the consequence of institutional reform, a credible effort to stem future abuses and an acknowledgement of previous violations. Reports suggest the current reconciliation effort is proceeding on two tracks: backchannel overtures through Saudi Arabia and a lower-level effort to reintegrate fighters using ‘economic incentives’. Between buying fleeting loyalties and recruiting tribal leaders to fight or punish anyone seen as supportive of the insurgency, the discussion on disarmament, critical to enabling the legitimate monopoly on force, has died.
So negotiations are supposedly at hand, but in a deeply problematic, opaque fashion and forged in the haste of the international military forces to depart from Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Afghans feel they are being sold down the river with no effort to elicit their views about their future. They have to contend with a corrupt, illegitimate government (the farce of President Karzai’s reelection in August 2009 already has been too quickly forgotten), a clumsy international military and development machine and now the unqualified political resurrection of the Taliban. While the international community retains a naïve belief that Taliban members can be bought and incorporated into the moderating process of politics, the reality is that the weakness of the political centre will likely mean a return (gradual if not immediate) to the 1996 order, with the Taliban extending their rule throughout the south and east and continuing to wage war against the centre and the north.
All this criticism from Afghan civil society begs the question of what the alternatives might be. One thing is for certain: haste and expediency have never been the basis of sound policy in Afghanistan—exactly the reverse. A sham unity government is not the recipe for stability but rather a guarantee for protracted conflict. It would do well to keep in mind that this discredited Afghan government does not speak for its people. If no opportunities are made to confer with Afghans on their views about negotiations through a referendum or consultations, the corresponding silence should not be interpreted as consent for negotiations at any cost. At a minimum, the Afghan government and its supporters should be keenly aware that it is marginalized, ordinary Afghans who have to live with the consequences of decisions made for them in Washington, London and elsewhere.
Fatima Ayub is a senior policy and advocacy officer for the Open Society Institute and is based in London.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020