Afghanistan: The Negotiation Track

Tasneem Jamal Defence & Human Security

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2009 Volume 30 Issue 4

The current, and by now conventional, wisdom that the war in Afghanistan will not be won by military means alone is meant to highlight the importance of reconstruction, local peacebuilding, and an effective “hearts and minds” campaign. But as security conditions continue to slide,1 analysts and politicians are having to face what others have long been saying, that, even with these additions, the war will not be won.

Ending a war that won’t be won or lost

The new US Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal (2009), does not pull his punches when describing the deteriorating security situation and the resulting loss of confidence in the Afghan Government: “The weakness of the state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF’s own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government.”

But not winning is not the same as losing. Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald E. Neumann (2009) is among those who believe that foreign forces and their Afghan partners, in their current numbers and roles, “can prevent Taliban takeover, but cannot bring victory.” In fact, late October reports out of Washington were suggesting that the Obama Administration was moving toward reinforcing a strategy of not losing. One approach being considered was to defend the major cities and population centres against Taliban takeover, abandon or at least limit efforts to seek out and defeat insurgents in the rest of the country, accelerate training of Afghan troops, expand economic development, and pursue “reconciliation with less radical members of the Taliban” (Shanker, Baker & Cooper 2009).

Expanded attention to the last item would be new – how new depends on what is meant by reconciliation. Earlier efforts at reconciliation could more properly be called cooption efforts – essentially attempts to entice “moderate” Taliban to switch sides. A recent US intelligence analysis holds that some 90 per cent of insurgents are not religiously motivated Taliban or al-Qaeda but are tribal ethnic Pashtuns fighting in localized militias, in part for control of their own local territory and interests and in part to oust a foreign occupying power (Bender 2009). Winning over these non-ideological Taliban and other insurgents is less a reconciliation initiative than it is a military strategy designed to “neutralize the adversary” through cooption.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that cooption on its own will not be successful and that “national-level compromises involving power-sharing” will ultimately also be required (Suhrke et al. 2009, p. 3). Limited cooption initiatives, one Western diplomat has noted, “make reconciliation sound like surrender; where has that ever worked? What is required is structured engagement with all Afghan communities, including the Pashtun and therefore representatives of the Taliban, around a new political project” (Gall 2009).
Gen. McChrystal’s report (2009) briefly hints at just such a new “political project,” raising the prospect of ending the war through reconciliation with insurgents: “Insurgencies of this nature typically conclude through military operations and political efforts driving some degree of host-nation reconciliation with elements of the insurgency. In the Afghan conflict, reconciliation may involve [Government of Afghanistan]-led, high-level political settlements.”

Building the case for negotiations

Calls for a more robust, high-level, reconciliation or political settlement effort have over recent months become much more prominent. Last summer President Hamid Karzai ( 2009) again argued that more foreign troops would not bring peace and that other approaches are required: “We must engage in negotiations, bring back those Taliban who are willing to return, who have been driven out by fear and coercion and the mistakes we’ve all made. They are part of this country and must be called back…. If Mullah Omar wants to come and talk, he’s welcome. It’s the desire we have and we should try for it. Without sincere peace process on all sides, matters will only get worse.”

Indeed, a New York Times report (Gall 2009) quotes Afghan officials and Western diplomats as saying that “the peace process might have already made greater progress if the Afghan government and the United States had pushed it more forcefully.” The same sources also said that “negotiations should be expanded to a broad spectrum of Taliban leaders and that a policy of talking only to moderates was doomed.”

The Obama Administration increasingly draws distinctions between al-Qaeda, which it sees as largely non-Afghan and still harbouring ambitions to attack the United States, and the Afghan Taliban, “which the administration has begun to define as an indigenous group that aspires to reclaim territory and rule the country but does not express ambitions of attacking the United States.” Al-Qaeda and Taliban cooperation is thus pursued for tactical advantage, some in the Administration argue, and not because of shared strategic goals. The White House has therefore concluded that the Taliban “could not be wholly removed from Afghanistan because they were too ingrained in the country” (Baker & Schmitt 2009).

The exclusion of the Taliban and other disaffected constituencies from the Bonn process in 2001 and 2002 meant that it was never the “high-level political settlement” it was meant to be and that Gen. McChrystal says is, or at last may be, needed. The war that has ensued since then is not a consequence of some parties to the Bonn agreement defecting from it; rather it is a consequence of the fact that key stakeholders were never a party to it. As Michael Semple (2009, p. 89) writes, “It is now widely understood that the Bonn Accords did not constitute a peace agreement. They needed to be supplemented by a strategic pursuit of reconciliation in order to bring all Afghan parties to the conflict into the peaceful political process.”

That “strategic pursuit of reconciliation” has not happened. After the overthrow of the Taliban government, the Bonn process, confirmed through two Loya Jirgas, produced a new institutional and governance framework. Afghanistan’s constitution, approved in 2003 at the second Loya Jirga, has been described as “one of the most modern and democratic in the Muslim world” (Rashid 2008, p. 217), but, in spite of that, Afghanistan’s deteriorating security confirms that the post-Bonn political/legal order in Afghanistan has not become inclusive and obviously has not earned the undivided loyalty of the Afghan population.

In the face of the post-Bonn failure to build political stability, the strategy adopted by the international community has not been a determined political/diplomatic effort to rebuild a basic national consensus in Afghanistan; instead, the strategy has been to militarily defeat those outside the consensus. But it has been a resort to war, as Gen. McChrystal confirms with considerable force, that has neither defeated the opposition nor delivered a necessary, and expected, modicum of security.

The failing military effort also translates into narrowing political options and opportunities. In an open letter to President Obama, William R. Polk (2009) points out that when foreign forces exit a counterinsurgency war, “almost always, those who fought hardest against the foreigner take over when he leaves.” In other words, the longer the effort to defeat an entrenched insurgency by sheer force, even when force is supplemented by enlightened hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency tactics, the more difficult it is to find a moderate middle ground.

Generating a political settlement

Negotiations in pursuit of that middle ground will take place, because that is how the vast majority of insurgencies end. To date, however, efforts at high-level negotiation have not enjoyed the committed political and material support of the international community. A key question now is how to get the international community behind the pursuit of such a settlement.

As is frequently noted, there are multiple parties to the current conflicts and the insurgency has multiple strands. In addition, there are influential traditional tribal leaders who must also be engaged. In fact, during the 2009 election campaign, candidate Gul Agha Shirzai suggested that engagement with Taliban elements could be done effectively through tribal leaders: “We have capable people who are patriotic, who can work on this and persuade the Taliban to come to talk” (Gall 2009).

Patrick Seale (2009) proposes “a dose of political shock therapy…in a bold attempt at a political settlement,” and envisions the US establishing a regional contact group “tasked with summoning a loya jirga in which all sides of the Afghan conflict – President Hamid Karzai, his Taliban and other opponents, as well as regional and tribal dignitaries – would be represented.” The Afghan Loya Jirga would pursue an immediate ceasefire, followed by negotiations toward a decentralized form of government suited to Afghanistan’s regional and ethnic diversity.

In 2008 a group of Taliban leaders who had “reconciled” with the Kabul government but maintained links with the Taliban senior leadership put forward a seven-point process (Ruttig 2009, p. 28) that they said had been tested with the top Taliban leadership. They envisioned a staged process, beginning with a recognition that the war cannot be won militarily, and proceeding through confidence-building, including agreements to end attacks on civilian infrastructure and the release of some prisoners, to a jirga to work out key elements of a peace plan. From there they set out plans for building international support, including within the Islamic Conference, and steps toward a ceasefire and a war-ending Loya Jirga.

Some observers call for the convening of a second Bonn conference that would involve the UN, key world powers, front-line states, and all the key Afghan stakeholders.

Both the process and the conclusions of a negotiation track must obviously be led by and decided by Afghans. That doesn’t mean it will necessarily be led by the Afghan Government, and it is not likely that a negotiation track will be persistently pursued without significant international encouragement and material support. Reconciliation is properly among Canada’s stated priorities in Afghanistan, but the promotion of a new peace process has not yet, but should, become an active priority.



  1. Among many accounts of this growing insecurity is the most recent report of the UN Secretary-General, “The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security,” September 22, 2009, A/64/364-S/2009/475


Baker, Peter & Eric Schmitt. 2009. Afghan war debate now leans to focus on Al Qaeda. The New York Times, October 7.

Bender, Bryan. 2009. Taliban not main Afghan enemy. Boston Globe, October 9.

Gall, Carlotta. 2009. As US weighs Taliban negotiations, Afghans are already talking. New York Times, March 11. 2009. Karzai seeks negotiations with Taliban. July 19.

McChrystal, Gen. Stanley. 2009. Commander’s Initial Assessment. August 30, 2009.

Neumann, Ronald E. 2009. Afghanistan: Looking Forward. Afghanistan Paper No. 1, July. Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Centre for International Policy Studies.

Polk, William R. 2009. An open letter to President Obama. The Nation, October 19.

Rashid, Ahmed. 2008. Descent into Chaos. New York: Viking.

Ruttig, Thomas. The Other Side. Dimensions of the Afghan Insurgency: Causes, Actors and Approaches to ‘Talks’. Afghanistan Analysts Network, July 2009.

Seale, Patrick. 2009. Finding an exit from the Afghan trap. Agence Global, October 23.

Semple, Michael. 2009. Reconciliation in Afghanistan. United States Institute of Peace Press.

Shanker, Thom, Peter Baker & Helene Cooper. 2009. U.S. to protect populous Afghan areas, officials say. The New York Times, October 27.

Suhrke, Astri, Torunn Wimpelmann Chaudhary, Aziz Hakimi, Kristian Berg Harpviken, Akbar Sarwari & Arne Strand. 2009. Conciliatory Approaches to the Insurgency in Afghanistan: An Overview. CMI Report. International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, and the Chr. Michelsen Institute, Bergen.

Spread the Word