The government of Afghanistan (GoA) has announced that it is working on its own reconciliation strategy with its armed opponents. This has been confirmed over the last few days both by Vice President Muhammad Karim Khalili and by the presidential spokesman Wahid Omar.
Also, various documents seem to be under discussion: a draft policy document by the Afghan government (authored or at least agreed to by the Ministries of Defence, Interior, NDS, IDLG, the D&R commission and the National Security Council) and a summary to be presented to the international London conference on 28 January. The latter document seems to be more of a project proposal than a strategy document.
The first hint came from VP Khalili when he introduced the latest list of ministerial appointees to the Wolesi Jirga on 9 January. In this his speech there he said, according to the Afghan news agency Pajhwok (‘Kabul to drum up support for peace parleys at London moot’, for the full news item see here), that the Kabul government ‘would seek assistance from the international community on four key issues’ at the international Afghanistan conference that will take place in London on 28 January. These issues will include ‘reconciliation with Taliban and other insurgent groups’, he added and explained that ‘the government would seek world’s support for holding talks with opponents’ and that the conference ‘will be a golden chance for Afghanistan to seek international support for the restoration of peace, stability and reconstruction of the country’. (The other three key issues are reconstruction, economic development and efforts to combat narcotics.)
On 12 January, Pajhwok reported as follows:
‘A close aide to President Hamed Karzai has said a draft national reconciliation policy is being prepared in accordance with a government strategy. (…) Karzai’s spokesman, Wahid Omar, told a weekly press conference here on Tuesday (12 January) that the strategy consisted of comprehensive plans, particularly for national reconciliation, to ensure peace in the country.
Omar did not give details of the policy that was still in the process of being drafted. However, he added the strategy would be unveiled soon after its finalization. The government’s position on the issue was that its opponents there should be provided the opportunity to join the national mainstream, he observed. The opportunities include protection of life and property as well as jobs.
Omar explained: “Our first step is not to remove the names of people from a blacklist.”’
(‘Afghan spokesman says policy for reconciliation with insurgents being prepared’, Pajhwok Afghan News, 12 Jan 2010, see full news item here.)
Afghanistan’s government, through its UN Ambassador Zaher Tanin, already has asked the United Nations to support such an ‘Afghan-led effort’ by conducting ‘a review of the consolidated list established under resolution 1267 (1999) with a view to possibly removing from the sanctions list, upon request by the Afghan Government, elements of the Taliban willing to renounce violence and join the peace process’ (this list included persons and entities linked with the Taleban and al-Qaida; see Tanin’s speech here).
Details on what this new strategy exactly looks like, however, are still scarce. A few hints can be taken from earlier announcements, first of all by President Hamed Karzai. Both in his inaugural speech and in his ‘Id address on 27 November, he referred to the option of calling a Loya Jirga to achieve reconciliation: ‘[T]he Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has placed national reconciliation at the top of its peace-building policy. (…) We will call Afghanistan’s traditional Loya Jirga and make every possible effort to ensure peace in our country.’ As to who can be included into these efforts, he referred to ‘all disenchanted compatriots who are willing to return to their homes, live peacefully and accept the Constitution’ and ‘are not directly linked to international terrorism’ (see full inauguration speech here).
Later, Hamid Elmi, a spokesman for Karzai, explained that the jirga envisioned by the President would not be the Constitutional Loya Jirga described formally under Afghan law but a ‘traditional Loya Jirga’ which could have a different make-up. ‘The meaning of the traditional Loya Jirga is how to bring about peace and how to invite the Taliban and opposition in Afghanistan (…) They are not coming to talk about the cabinet and the administration. They are coming to bring security and peace.’ According to Elmi the government was looking at two options: ‘either calling a Loya Jirga at which militants would not be present but a broad spectrum of Afghans would debate how to reconcile with them, or actually inviting some militants to participate’.
On the timing Elmi added that ‘Karzai would like to hold it before parliamentary elections’ (‘Militants could be invited to Afghan “Jirga”’, Reuters 22 Nov 2009, see here) which have been scheduled for May.
Receiving NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on 22 December in Kabul President Karzai said: ‘If they (Taleban) want foreign troops to vacate Afghanistan, they should negotiate for peace and solve the problem of the country (…). If [the] Taleban refuse our offer for talks for million times, we would repeat our offer for million times, because bringing about peace is necessary and this is the prime demand of our people’ (the relevant 22.12.2009 Xinhua report here).
In a Newsweek interview a day earlier, Karzai explained that his government needed US support that would provide ‘the ability to actually reintegrate the Taliban, to find them jobs and provide us the environment where they would not be harassed or intimidated, so that they can go to their homes and villages’ (‘Hamid Karzai’s Challenge’, see here).
Karzai’s main allies, the US and the UK, also are active. Within ISAF, they formed a new unit seeking to ‘reintegrate’ former insurgents, mainly ‘foot-soldiers’. The unit is led by British Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb. We already quoted him frequently, on the link between reconciliation and militias (seehere for example and here).
The deputy head of this unit, British Major General Richard Barrons, an Oxfordian, told the Telegraph that he ‘is hoping for “substantive delivery” in coaxing [Taleban] fighters to defect by late summer of this year (…), expected to see Taleban commanders take senior positions within the President Hamid Karzai’s administration (…) representing parts [my emphasis] of the Pashtun ethnic group (…).My sense is that this is inevitable, that there has to be a process of political assimilation or reconciliation or accommodation’. He also emphasized that this needs to be done under an Afghan lead and that ‘reconciliation’ is ‘not my lane (…). When you get into the political arena, that is a matter for Afghan politicians.’ (See the full article ‘Taliban must join security forces, says Brit general’here).
Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, confirmed on 7 January during a speech at Brookings in Washington that this is also a priority for the US. His office, he said, now sees the reconciliation process as ‘high on our personal priority list’ (see the Eurasia.net report where it is quoted here).
General Barrons’ statement indicates that the US and UK make a conceptual difference between ‘reintegration’ (aiming at ‘peeling off’ low- or middle-ranking insurgents) and ‘reconciliation’ (aiming at a political deal with the Taleban leadership). This might be the case or not or an expression of political correctness, officially recognising the much heralded but never really respected Afghan lead in Afghan politics. The Afghan government, in any case, sees both elements as parts of one strategy (‘national reconciliation and reintegration of armed opposition groups’) and calls reconciliation ‘the strategic level’ of it.
According to sources in Kabul, the government’s draft policy document envisages the creation of a new office that would deal with reconciliation/reintegration and that answers directly to the President, possibly replacing (although not officially disbanding) the high unsuccessful and corrupt Program for the Strengthening of Peace (known under its Dari acronym PTS). The document seems to be based on a sounder analysis of the reasons for the insurgency than before (when most of the blame was put on Pakistan’s ISI), including internal factors like corruption, the lack of justice and people in governmental positions who abuse their power and turn people away from the government. A distinction is made between insurgents who are backed by regional intelligence services and al-Qaida on one hand and those who have joined the fight for the above-mentioned reasons and motives on the other. The latter are considered to be reconcilable and the former as non-reconcilable.
What remains unclear is who – and through which mechanism – those insurgents and/or insurgent groups will be contacted and made part of the process. To decide about this, the Afghan government now wants to hold a Loya Jirga to decide about the approach possibly as early as February.
This rush is problematic unless major Afghan social and political stakeholders are consulted and made part of an Afghan consensus before a Loya Jirga is convened. This includes those who view any kind of reconciliation with the Taleban with scepticism or reject it outright: women’s organizations and modern civil society, large parts of the ethnic minorities and the political opposition. If the timeline really foresees February, it will be practically impossible to have a useful discussion even if there is a consultation process, and this would mean that, again, the opportunity of having a real process is squandered.
Under the current – including constitutional – circumstances, the Loya Jirga is likely to be government/administration-dominated and this will not suffice as a real consensus-building mechanism. If important forces are left out (or are only there as fig leaves, like Afghan civil society at the London conference), they might obstruct the process or organize resistance. The Loya Jirga should stand at the end of such a process, instead, and confirm the outcome.
Another open problem is the possibly intended link between the reconciliation/ reintegration issue and the new ‘tribal‘ militias, in the framework of the so-called Community Defense Initiative (CDI). Already almost a year ago, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was quoted as speaking ‘about “community defence initiatives” as a way of dismantling the insurgency’ (see the BBC report here) – and remember: the UK took the lead in developing the ‘reintegration’ concept as it is called now.
We have reported earlier – with reference to quotes by Gen. Lamb – that the ‘new’ ‘tribal’ CDI militias (which are not called ‘militias’ officially) are supposed to be formed by local shuras and that those local shuras will identify who is reconcilable and who is not amongst their local insurgents. And we had picked up indications that those identified as ‘irreconcilable’ would be killed. CDI militias becoming such kind of ‘reconciliation’ instrument will result in more conflict than reconciliation. Communities and tribes will be split in many cases because no outsider (and this includes the Kabul government which often has contributed to local conflict) will be able to say whether real hardliners will be targeted or whether – as happened earlier – old scores will be settled.
Finally, there seems to be a leadership problem. The UK had favoured the appointment of DIAG chief Massum Stanakzai, a former communications minister, as the head of the ‘reintegration’ programme at least, while it had been said in Kabul that the President wasn’t too thrilled about him – exactly because of the British support. (Remember, the relations were strained since the attempted imposition of a heavy-weight international representative, Lord Ashdown.) Now it looks as if Stanakzai has been introduced to the parliament as the candidate for the Ministry of Water and Energy, the only cabinet slot that had no name attached to it hitherto; the ministry is currently held by Ismail Khan who – according to another Kabul rumour – does not want to leave. Is this to get Stanakzai out of the way?
Now it is in the hands of Afghanistan’s donor countries to make sure that the above-mentioned weaknesses and dangers in the plan are identified and that ways are found to develop the emerging Afghan strategy into a meaningful process. Without proper coordination with and involvement of Afghanistan’s partners, a reconciliation strategy would not work anyway. But the Western governments also need to understand that it is not sufficient to rely on a weak Afghan lead. And they should not accept just another project proposal with weak oversight that would turn the plan into another money machine, like PTS.
Inclusiveness that leads to a national consensus is a similarly important point in the plan. Reconciliation is a societal problem, the Afghan government (and those of the West) are part of the conflict and should not consider themselves neutral. A really convincing idea about exactly who should go and speak with the insurgents, have a chance to be heard and to convince them that they also have to give something is still lacking.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020