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A way out of the Afghanistan conundrum

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A comprehensive peace will clearly not be achieved militarily, but how can the warring factions engaged with the complex conflict in Afghanistan be brought into negotiations? Engagement with Alternative Dispute Resolution practices at the regional level offers potential.

Haifa Peerzada
18 October 2013

The possibility of a military victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan has been long abandoned by all parties. Yet attempts at Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) – such as negotiation and mediation – have all been undermined. There have been a number of mediation attempts through unbiased third parties such as Qatar, Turkey and Germany. All these attempts proved futile, with no major breakthroughs prior to the establishment of the Taliban’s unofficial office in Doha in January 2012.

With the withdrawal of US troops in 2014, it is the actors in the region who will play a crucial role: a region strongly shaped by the rivalry between India and Pakistan. Alternative dispute resolution is used here as a scenario building exercise. Any plan for resolving hostilities would benefit from mediation by unbiased third parties and comprehensive negotiations, not just between the conflicting parties but also between each one’s internal factions.

The conflicting parties

Despite a professed willingness to negotiate with the moderate faction of the Taliban, made especially clear after Obama came to power, US suspicion persists. The Americans’ distrust of the Taliban and fear of the group’s links with Al-Qaeda hinders progress towards a political settlement, exemplified by their reluctance to release five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. For his part, Karzai has long been averse to the US directly negotiating with the Taliban, as he wants an Afghan-led process. Although the establishment of the Doha office presented an opportunity for a negotiated settlement between the US and Taliban, the chance was squandered: the Taliban allegedly did not abide by the terms of the negotiated document. Debacle ensued when the Taliban raised their own flag and put up a plaque that read ‘the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’, a term used when the Taliban was in power.

Afghanistan and Pakistan have also tried to deal with the issue at a regional level and negotiate an Afghan-led process between themselves. Despite positive signals from both sides, their efforts were scuppered by the suspension of negotiations in late 2011 in the wake of the killing of Badruddin Rabbani, the Afghanistan High Peace Council’s main peace negotiator. Rabbani’s death created a lot of uproar since Afghanistan believed Pakistan helped provide safe havens to the Haqqani Network, the outfit allegedly behind the assassination. The friction between the two countries this has created has so far prevented further negotiations.

Pakistan’s position

Ultimately, the four conflicting parties, Pakistan, Afghanistan, US and the Afghan Taliban, must come together to reach a negotiated settlement for Afghanistan. However, bringing together these parties is difficult – as has already been indicated - and is further complicated by the fact that the regional actors are all enmeshed in internal and external rivalries.

Bringing just two of these four parties together is a challenge. Looking simply at Pakistan and the US, it is incredibly difficult to build on speculative relations between the two with anti-Americanism brewing in the region. Coercive diplomacy by the US, such as the use of drones, puts further strain on the relationship by fuelling anger at the Western power. Although US anti-terror strategy is not the sole cause of all of Pakistan’s difficulties, it definitely exacerbates the domestic situation and even provides political cover for destabilising attacks within the country.

Following the recent killings of 9 tourists at Nanga Parbat, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP or Pakistani Taliban) claimed responsibility, calling it revenge against the US drone strikes that killed Waliur Rehman Mehsud, a senior TTP commander. Such incidents stem from the belief that the Pakistani government is conniving with the US on its war on terror and targeted killings.

Pakistan’s internal difficulties with the Taliban are relevant here, as they make it difficult for Pakistan to pressurise the Taliban to negotiate towards a solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. The task would be daunting even with US support but American drone warfare is making the Taliban more intransigent - irrespective of the reported decline in the number of strikes since 2010.

The TTP is responsible for insurgencies in various parts of Pakistan including Balochistan, Peshawar and Karachi.  This has stoked the sectarian violence instigated by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), an affiliate of the TTP, leading to further killing of Shias. In light of such violence, the Pakistani Army considers the TTP its strongest rival both nationally and regionally, which makes a power-sharing arrangement for Afghanistan involving the Taliban seem unsustainable and unrealistic.

In the past, maintaining friendly relations with the Afghani Taliban has worked in Pakistan’s favour by maintaining their idea of strategic depth in Afghanistan. However, the civilian government in Pakistan, nervous about its own army, now thinks that the strengthening of the Taliban in Afghanistan may be detrimental to its interests. It is therefore unlikely to reorient the Pakistani Taliban back towards their Afghani counterparts.

All of these violent challenges to the legitimacy of the Pakistani state make its committed involvement in any kind of political settlement seem far-fetched. This inability to make a substantial commitment explains why Pakistan immediately distanced itself from its tentative suggestion that the Afghani government share power with the Taliban, as soon as Kabul reacted in outrage.

The demographics of Afghanistan mean that dismissing the power sharing solution removes a potential route to peace. Afghanistan is an ethnically diverse nation, which helps account for the nature of the country’s insurgency. There has been a widening split between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns with both sides feeling that they are not being adequately represented in Parliament. Power sharing could be a solution to this rift; for instance, a federation consisting of independent Provinces with one single unified centre and greater devolution of powers could allow for more local autonomy, thus reducing violent tensions. By taking power sharing off the table, another chance for peace is lost.

Uncertain ground

Pakistan and Afghanistan’s dispute over the Durand Line remains at the forefront of the estranged relations between the two. The dispute also feeds the insurgency at the border, since ethnic fault lines remain prominent and rival armed groups contest control of the borderlands on both the Afghan and Pakistani sides of the Line.

The British-drawn Durand Line was never accepted by Afghanistan and is not internationally recognized, although Pakistan considers the matter resolved. It remained a contentious issue during the latest Border talks in April 2013. Just over a fortnight later, there was an attack at Goshta, supposedly following the construction of a border gate by Pakistan in an area claimed by Afghanistan. Presently, the stances of Pakistan and Afghanistan remain irreconcilable, proving to be yet another hindrance in the Afghan peace process.

In addition to its border dispute with Afghanistan on its western frontier, Pakistan has a similar problem with India over Kashmir on the eastern frontier. Kashmir remains the main bone of contention between India and Pakistan even after 65 years of partition. Tensions have recently escalated, as indicated by the increase in ceasefire violations and militant attacks, as well as the furore over Afzal Guru’s hanging.

Although analysts rightly rebuffed the recent Brookings essay by historian William Dalrymple completely attributing the present mess in Afghanistan to the India-Pakistan conflict, it is still vital to acknowledge that easing tensions on this front would smooth Afghanistan’s transition.

In the light of relatively constructive relations between India and Afghanistan vis- à-vis the parlous domestic situation in Pakistan and its deteriorating relations with Afghanistan, increased Indian engagement becomes ever more palatable. Indian facilitation of cooperation would be difficult but might be a step in the right direction, given that it is not only the most stable country in the region but also the largest democracy in the world.

A regional path to peace

Moving from considering bilateral relationships to reflecting on multinational efforts, it would be beneficial if there were concrete dispute resolution mechanisms in place at a regional level, in addition to those at the international level. Such mechanisms would foster friendly relations between countries, bridge the trust deficit in South Asia and help the involved parties reach a peaceful political settlement.

One such option is reviving the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). The functioning of SAARC has been severely hampered by the Kashmiri dispute so could be revived if India and Pakistan step up efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution on that front. Cooperation on the Kashmiri issue could facilitate the same in regards to Afghanistan. A successful transition in Afghanistan could be jointly reached through liberal internationalism, as well as preparing an Indo-Pak peacekeeping contingent for deployment in the country.

While obstructive political issues remain at the forefront, there is still some hope for the revival of friendly relations through liberal internationalism at SAARC. This opportunity is a result of booming trade between India and Pakistan, which has occurred despite recent tensions ongoing since January 2013. However, Pakistan has put the granting of Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India on hold, foreclosing more meaningful engagements on pivotal issues like the Kashmir conflict and terrorism.

Peaceful relations between the two could also incentivize them to form a joint Indo-Pak peacekeeping contingent in Afghanistan, which may seem impossible at the moment but as Bharat Karnad rightly points out the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), India could send out feelers to gauge opinion. India could take a lead on training and assist Afghan security forces with Pakistan’s help and cooperation. All this only requires India and Pakistan to keep their inflated egos in check and sincerely work towards a satisfactory resolution of the Kashmir Conflict.

Approaching the Afghanistan conflict from more theoretical territory, the idea of international society can apply to South Asia and serve Afghanistan’s transition, provided actors realize and strive towards common objectives. The involved parties can work together provided they resolve their disagreements through diplomatic engagement, even though the situation is anarchical. International organisations would also play an important role.

In other words, it would involve reconciling a security dilemma or realist approach to international relations with the English School of diplomacy, which seeks to find solutions by investing more diplomatic capital to resolve areas of discord, while cooperating to achieve common objectives. This is not to say one should follow this stream of Western thought blindly, if only because conflicts and societies do not evolve in uniform ways. However, applying the aforementioned fundamental principles of the English School allows us to seek our own ways to enhance cooperation and subsequently resolve conflicts.

US willingness to engage the moderate faction of the Taliban in dialogue has brought some hope. America should follow this up by investing more diplomatic capital and implementing confidence building measures such as releasing the five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and striking the name of the Taliban from the UN’s blacklist. This has to be done without recourse to coercion, which has not yielded any significant results yet insofar as a political settlement in Afghanistan is concerned.

For their part, the Taliban will have to renounce any links with terrorist organisations. The Pakistani government and army should make a concurrent push towards successful US-Taliban talks, while they negotiate with the TTP.

Beyond the regional           

National undertakings aside, the efforts of the UN’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan should be commended. They inspire optimism by aspiring to a post-2014 scenario where issues of corruption, injustices and abuses of authority are dealt with a local level. The Mission endeavours to achieve an Afghan-led political transition with a significant role for civil society.

At the moment, a solution mediated by the UN, which bridges the trust deficit and improves the security situation, seems to be the best available alternative to a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan. Therefore making the mandate of the UNAMA more diverse and comprehensive would be beneficial, a point stressed by the Special Representative to Afghanistan at a briefing in 2011.

Last but not least, in order to reach a peaceful negotiated settlement, there must be a greater emphasis on human security along with national security imperatives to secure safe futures for the citizens and civilians who are the worst suffers of this ongoing conflict. Without such guarantees for the most vulnerable, any progress towards a negotiated political settlement will remain illusory.

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