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Is Afghanistan, ‘Iraq, the sequel’?

The artificial bifurcation between peace and reintegration in Afghanistan serves Washington DC's political interests, but is very confusing to the Afghans and is not a coherent, actionable policy. And what happened to reconciliation?
Shanthie Mariet D’Souza Aaron C Taliaferro
3 November 2011

In war, there are only two pathways to peace.  One is the unconditional surrender of one side and the second, a negotiated settlement between combatants.

Since President Obama was sworn into office in January 2009, no one within his administration has suggested that victory in Afghanistan will be won by an unconditional surrender of the Taliban. On the contrary, peace, reconciliation, and reintegration have been the buzzwords on the lips of many in the US administration crafting Afghan policy. Despite this fact, the Obama administration has done very little to facilitate or lay the groundwork for a reconciliation process that could lead to a peace agreement within Afghanistan.  Moreover, various terms like peace settlement, reintegration, negotiation and reconciliation have been interchangeably used and frequently mentioned in the search for a political solution. The lack of conceptual clarity has led to policy ambiguity and dissipated efforts.

During his electoral campaign President Obama emphasized redirecting troops and resources to the ‘just war’ in Afghanistan. More than three years later the United States playbook appears to be following a script that could be titled, Iraq, the sequel. President Obama dispatched General Petraeus, tens of thousands of soldiers and billions of dollars in order to suppress Taliban-inspired violence through vigorous US military operations, popularly known as the COIN (Counter-insurgency) strategy. The inevitable result - that he declared success and announced the beginning of a US drawdown - should have surprised no one. However, given current US posture and strategy, the President appears to be betting that he has done enough to credibly claim that it’s the fault of the Afghans if things go wrong in the future.

The entire decade of US involvement in Afghanistan has witnessed shifting strategies and lack of clarity or commitment to declare an end goal. Thus, President Obama's just war has become a long war - emphasis on the military surge and civilian-led reconstruction has not stabilized Afghanistan. With the death of Osama Bin Laden, the President is not likely to have the political support to continue a prolonged campaign in what the media projects as a ‘stalemate,' and with the commencement of the ‘draw down’ there are serious concerns among Afghans that the gains made in the last decade will be reversed. What they expect from the US is a long-term strategic partnership, not dictated US policy.

In recent Congressional testimony General Petraeus emphasized the need to reintegrate those Taliban who are reconcilable. In this, General Petraeus seems to have gotten the sequence accurate.  There are many supporters of the Taliban and the population at-large either fighting against the Afghan government or doing absolutely nothing to support it. This lack of support stems from wide-spread corruption throughout society, predatory behavior of government officials and security forces, a government structure that vests all power in the central government, and lack of employment or economic opportunities being the most prominent. The Afghan government also recognizes this, which is why it has crafted policy - the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program. The programme’s intent is to reach out to the Taliban and disaffected members of the Afghan population in the hope that differences can be reconciled, leading to a reintegration of the Taliban into their Afghan communities and an end to decades of violence.

For purely political reasons, official US government policy with respect to the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program has been purposely vague. The Obama administration has said that it supports the Afghans’ program and has provided indirect financial assistance through the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP).  However, this support is for reintegration and not reconciliation. With respect to peace and reconciliation the US Government has been noticeably non-committal. This artificial bifurcation between peace and reintegration serves Washington DC's political interests, but is very confusing to the Afghans and it is not a coherent, actionable policy. Adding to the confusion, the US and other NATO countries have been involved in unilateral, at times secretive, talks with the Taliban when the best course would be to conduct them through the Afghan government. There must be unity of effort and clarity in defining the end goal of such processes, otherwise it will be nothing more than a collection of dissipated efforts.

The Afghan High Peace Council is the official body established by the Afghan government through which all processes of reconciliation should occur. This places Afghans clearly in the lead and working in a participatory, transparent and inclusive manner. However, for Afghans to lead they must know where the US stands. Does the US government support a peace and reconciliation process that will ultimately lead to the reintegration of a majority of the Taliban back into Afghan society? If peace in Afghanistan is one of the aims of the Obama administration, it certainly should. Unless perhaps this administration believes either that peace in Afghanistan doesn’t matter or that the Taliban can be militarily defeated.  In which case, the administration also hopes the US population either isn’t paying attention or is just too simple to understand.

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