Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

Reconciliation in Afghanistan: Can the UN right some wrongs?

Horia Mosadiq 7 min

Our guest author Horia Mosadiq(*) looks at the United Nations’ role now and then in Afghanistan, with special attention to its numerous attempts to ‘peace deals relying largely on power-sharing’. She sees the latest initiatives for ‘reconciliation’ as a continuation of this approach and discusses its possible implications for justice, with its inherent differentiation of human rights abusers in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ones.

As Kai Eide, former United Nations Special Representative Secretary General (UNSRSG) for Afghanistan, was leaving the country in March this year he reported that during his tenure he had initiated discussions with the Taleban leadership. In an interview with the BBC on 19 March he also expressed his disappointment with the arrest of the Taleban’s second man Mullah Baradar by the Pakistani forces in Karachi and called this a negative impact on the much needed political process with the Taleban.
Through his efforts to initiate discussions with the Taleban leadership, Eide made his way into the groups of former UNSRSGs that have attempted to bring stability to Afghanistan through peace deals relying largely on power-sharing. This blog gives an overview of how earlier UN-led attempts to bring peace brought instability instead. The main reason for the failures is that the UN attempts have consistently ignored the Afghan people and their opinion and wishes, and instead focused and relied on warlords with little popular legitimacy. As President Karzai’s government and the international community again contemplate a grand ‘peace deal’, now with the Taleban, it would be wise to acknowledge the by now empirically established fact that in Afghanistan there can be no peace without justice. Some of these empirically established facts are outlined here below.

In 1989, after the completion of the Soviet withdrawal, Benon Sevan, the UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan and head of the UN Good Offices Mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan (UNMOGAP), and the office headed by him, the Office of the Secretary General for Afghanistan and Pakistan (OSGAP), brokered a peace deal between the Afghan mujahedin groups based in Pakistan and the government of Dr. Najibullah. The process was about the peaceful transfer of the power to the mujahedin groups. This policy of transfer of power failed mainly because there was (a) a lack of clear mechanisms for how the transfer of power should be done; (b) no well-functioning oversight body that could monitor the transfer of the power to the mujahedin groups; (c) little engagement by Afghans themselves in the whole process from its planning to its implementation. And, finally, (4) the United Nations failed to establish mechanism for accountability and justice in the plan necessary to reconcile perpetrators and victims who were living in both sides of the conflict.

As a result, instead of peace, the transfer of the power set the stage for massive destruction of the country and expansion of war from the borders and villages to the major cities of Afghanistan between 1992 and 1996. The different mujahedin factions were fighting each other for the control of the capital Kabul and other major provinces. During the civil war, the USA, Russia, Iran and Pakistan, all signatory members of the UN-brokered power sharing agreement continued supporting the different mujahedin factions that were fighting each other. The civil war left thousands killed and inured and millions of people fled the country.

The anarchy of the civil war and the power vacuum it created provided an opportunity for the Taleban movement established in Pakistan in late-1994. The movement promised people peace, disarmament, stability, accountability and peaceful transfer of the power to the late King Mohammad Zaher Shah. The Taleban did, at least initially, gain the trust and support of peace thirsty Afghans, and members of the international community were also ‘romanticized’ by the Taleban’s approach for bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan – although the Taleban’s methods for bringing stability included the implementation of a very harsh form of Sharia Law.

Between 1994 and 1996, another UN envoy Mahmoud Mestiri, who led the UN Special Mission for Afghanistan (UNSMA), started a series of discussions with the newly emerged Taleban group in Kandahar. Mestiri’s mission was a failure; it was again based on an analysis of the situation in Afghanistan that ignored the people’s needs and demands and focused primarily on power holders. In addition, the approach for dealing with the Taleban was based on analysis of the situation from Pakistan and not from Afghanistan. The UN was then again trying to make a short cut to the peace in Afghanistan by ignoring accountability and justice, and the national context for reconciliation. The Mestiri mission of talks between the Taleban and fighting mujahidin again set the stage for further destruction and bloodshed in Afghanistan. During these years, the Taleban group dramatically expanded their power which led to massacres of thousands of Afghans in the central and Northern parts of Afghanistan.

After the collapse of the Taleban regime in late 2001, the UN sponsored an international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn in Germany that again attempted to bring peace to Afghanistan through power-sharing. Most of the ex-mujahedin leaders accused of massive human rights violations during the civil war were part of this conference. UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi who was head of UNSMA from 1997 to 1999 and later UNAMA from 2001 to 2004 chaired the Bonn conference and he was also one of the major organizers of the Emergency Loya Jirga (ELJ) in 2002.

At the ELJ in June 2002, Brahimi – in close cooperation with and under significant pressure from Zalmay Khalilzad, then the US special envoy to Afghanistan – opened the gate for bringing the warlords and human rights perpetrators back to power, totally opposite to the will and expectations of the Afghan people – and also contrary to the principles ruling the ELJ initially agreed upon by the Afghan interim administration and the UN. In his speech in June 2002 at the ELJ, Brahimi said stated that ‘we cannot sacrifice peace for justice’ in response to questions by many Afghans about accountability and an end of impunity. The background of that statement was that Brahimi and Khalilzad saw a place for the warlords in stabilizing Afghanistan regardless of what they had done to the people in Afghanistan. The United States and the rest of the international community did not strongly oppose this strategy and did not commit the political, economical and military resources necessary to ensure real change.

Many Afghans were hoping to see some level of accountability for past human rights violations committed by the mujahedin leaders and other human rights violators. Instead Afghans saw that the people who had committed massive human rights violations and destroyed the country were brought back to power with the support of the international community – and with the UN as the main public face of this community.

Bringing human rights perpetrators back to power in 2002 and supporting them for the parliamentary election in 2005 did not contribute to the stabilization of Afghanistan; but instead stoked the insurgency and increased insecurity. After the 2002 ELJ many Afghans saw that the USA administration came with a definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ human rights abusers. The good human rights abusers were the ones who were allied with US forces to fight al-Qaeda and Taleban and bad human rights abusers were the Taleban who were fighting against them.

Currently, there are discussions about negotiations with the Taleban among the international and Afghan politicians and leaders. They are talking about the mechanisms of how they can bring the ‘moderate’ Taleban back to power and provide them with jobs, houses and money. Many Afghans are pondering the following question: When the big politicians and leaders are talking about negotiations with the Taleban, who do they want to talk with? The Pakistani Taleban? The Afghan Taleban? And what would be the results of those negotiations without acknowledging the role of the regional countries who are engaged in supporting the Taleban?

On 26 January 2010, during a pre-London conference event on Afghanistan, Brahimi(**) admitted that a ‘strategic mistake’ was made at Bonn as the conference engaged all the warlords and mujahedin leaders and they became part of the power in Afghanistan, but excluded the Taleban. The shocking part is that Brahimi, the ex-UNSRSG, was not regretting bringing the human rights perpetrators back to power in 2001 but not bringing in more of them to rule over the Afghans. Many Afghan civil society groups including the women and human rights groups raised their concerns over the idea of negotiation with the Taleban in a fear that they will lose what they have gained so far. The Transitional Justice Core Group which is comprised of more than 20 Afghan and international organizations working with war victims and transitional justice called for accountability for the past human rights violations as well as the implementation of the Action Plan for Peace, Justice and Reconciliation included in the London Compact in January 2006.

In the Consultative Peace Jirga held in July 2010 more than 1500 representatives including 320 women came together to discuss the mechanism of the negotiation with the Taleban. The last day when the Jirga was finished all the human rights perpetrators including Sayyaf, Rabbani and Mohseni had a chance to speak as much they wanted, but no women were given any chance to speak by Karzai or by the Chair of the jirga Mr. Rabbani. At the time when the Consultative Peace Jirga was in the organizing stage from 1500 representatives only 20 hand picked women were invited by the organizers. Lack of women’s representation in the peace talks with the Taleban was totally in opposition to UN Security Council Resolution 1325 which allows women to take part in the peace negotiations and peace processes. After a campaign from the women rights groups, national and international human rights groups and international pressure the Karzai administration increased the number to 320 women.

Afghan women and human rights organizations are concerned that the issue of women rights and human rights has been dropped from the agenda of the international community while it has never been in the agenda of the Afghan government. The power sharing with the Taleban who just a month ago stoned to death two women in Badghis and Kunduz provinces is reminding us of the horror that people would go through if Taleban are back.

Afghans are very skeptical about their future, and there is not much hope left when no one is honest about their agendas in Afghanistan. President Karzai says he wants to negotiate with the foot soldiers of the Taleban but his calls are addressed to Mulla Omar. The international community speaks about a long-term engagement, but is clearly looking for quick exit strategies. What makes Afghans even more frustrated is that everyone has their own strategy in Afghanistan but no one has any strategy for Afghanistan and the Afghan people. Could this be a role for the UN, an opportunity to right some of its previous wrongs?

(*) Horia Mosadiq is a human rights activist from Afghanistan. Currently she works as an Afghanistan researcher with Amnesty International. The article, however, reflects only her personal views.

(**) Brahimi is currently positioning himself – or is positioned – as a possible ‘chief negotiator’ for Afghanistan again. See a blog on this in our ‘recommended readings’ section here (‘Brahimi’s Back!?’).