Conversations in Kabul on Military Intervention and Political Reconciliation

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2008 Volume 29 Issue 2

Ernie Regehr visited Kabul, Afghanistan from April 24 to May 4 to explore, among other things, attitudes and approaches toward political reconciliation and negotiations.

The room was like any boys’ high school dormitory. It had all the scattered clothes, books, footballs, electronic music players, and general messiness you would expect to find in a room crowded with a dozen double bunks and 24 active young men. From homes in many parts of Afghanistan and representing a diverse range of ethnic communities, they had come to Kabul to study English in the hopes of earning scholarships to attend university in India. On this particular day they had all agreed to take a break before the evening meal to meet a foreign visitor, and while they were unfailingly polite and welcoming, when it came time to talk about life in contemporary Afghanistan they were certainly anything but shy.

They spoke movingly and repeatedly of the growing poverty in their home communities. “It was not like this under the Taliban,” said one; “poverty is the main cause of the insurgency,” said another. Their teacher later compared a teacher’s monthly salary to the soaring cost of flour, confirming a recent World Food Programme assessment that “rising food prices in Afghanistan have left millions of people struggling and in need of assistance” (UN News Centre 2008).

While the descriptions of poverty and hunger conveyed a sense of weary disillusionment, when the conversation turned to issues like corruption and poppy production any hint of resignation quickly switched to animated outrage. “Why does the international community come here to support criminals?” The repeated and rhetorical question was, “if 40 of the world’s rich and powerful countries (the countries in the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF]) have come to tiny Afghanistan to make a difference and help Afghans, why can’t we see any change?” “Why are there still warlords and drug traffickers in government?” For many of them, conspiracy theories provided the only credible answers. If the rich and powerful cannot change Afghanistan, they obviously don’t want to—their presence is just a ruse to keep Afghanistan off balance and unstable in the service of larger, undefined, strategic purposes.

Key concerns

The conversation that evening covered a wide range of topics and foreshadowed many of the key issues that would emerge in 10 days of discussions with Afghan academics, students, civil society organizations, former Mujahideen, community elders, politicians, and government officials, as well as international NGOs, UN officials, and diplomats.

Central to all the discussions was, of course, the evolving security situation, the role of foreign forces, and prospects for political solutions. Four impressions stand out.

  1. Local concerns about international forces have more to do with their conduct than their presence. The students seemed to draw on a special reserve of anger when they described what they said was the callous disrespect of international forces for their religion and culture. Even more striking was the extent to which the attitudes of the outspoken students were reflected in the conversations of many others, from village elders to senior government officials and representatives of international NGOs.
    Some of the criticisms have taken on mythic proportions and may even be apocryphal. Throughout the conversations there were several variations of a story in which American soldiers gave village children a football on which they had printed a verse from the Quran, so that each time the kids would kick the football they would be kicking, and of course insulting, their own religion. Whatever the details of that particular story, it illustrates a phenomenon described and decried by many—that the opportunity for international forces to be a steadying and constructive presence is being systematically squandered by either deliberate or indifferent acts of disrespect. Home searches by foreign forces, in which women are routinely manhandled and humiliated, leave a pervasive and lasting impression, reconfirmed and entrenched when civilians are killed by international forces.
    Stories of abuse travel fast, and one can only imagine the impact of the recent story from Iraq of the US soldier in Baghdad who used the Quran for target practice with his sniper rifle. American commanders went to great lengths to apologize, but while tribal leaders attended a ceremony to hear US military officials condemn and apologize for the action of their soldier, residents of the area carried banners and chanted slogans like, “Yes, yes to the Quran,” and “America out, out” ( 2008).
    The conclusion drawn most often was not that international forces should leave but that international forces should mend their ways—fix what should be an eminently fixable problem and show the respect that individuals and communities are owed.
  2. Intense intercommunal (including but not confined to Pashtun/non-Pashtun) conflict reflects a deep institutional deficit in Afghan society. Afghan is a complex, multiethnic, and multilingual society. Historically, the large Pashtun community has frequently been at odds with itself (conflicts among its subtribes) and with the other major language and ethnic groups. Visits with many Pashtuns reveal frank expressions of this rivalry. Whether or not Pashtuns form an actual majority is widely debated, but they are numerically and historically dominant. This reality has many non-Pashtuns worried that calls for “negotiations with the Taliban” are simply code for efforts to restore Pashtun ascendancy. At the same time, Pashtun attitudes often reflect the belief that they are subject to discrimination and their community under the new post-2001 regime is being denied its legitimate place at the centre of the life of Afghanistan.
    Afghan academics warn against locking onto simple formulas of intercommunal or interregional conflict, but they do acknowledge that current conflicts, including the Pashtun-centred insurgency, reflect the absence of any credible national or pan-Afghan security or mediating institutions of government that enjoy the confidence of all groups and that could be regarded as the foundation for the equitable sharing of power and resolution of conflicts. They state that the development of such institutions is at the core of the solutions to the political challenges facing Afghanistan.
  3. International forces cannot reliably deliver the security needed to facilitate development at the local community level. International and Afghan NGOs, as well as many individual Afghans, noted that while development must take place at the community level, the international forces in fact have little capacity to consistently deliver the needed security at that level. The international forces have neither the numbers nor the local acceptance to act as reliable community police forces. Indeed, the presence of ISAF troops in a community, many said, can lead to a significant decline in community security inasmuch as the presence of international forces attracts insurgents to counter the foreign presence.
    NGOs that work in what are considered to be insecure areas say that conditions are more conducive to community development when international forces are not present and when those communities make their own arrangements with the relevant authorities, either tribal leaders, the Taliban, warlords or private security firms (sometimes the same thing), or the Afghan National Army (ANA) or the Afghan National Police (ANP). Except in cases of outright combat, local people negotiate some basic level of accommodation conducive to the kind of stable and routine village life that enables at least some reconstruction and development efforts. One UNDP representative was particularly insistent that in Kandahar province small community projects work best when they are outside the orbit of international forces. Particularly disheartening, she said, were military operations to clear out the Taliban that then were not sustained by an effective long-term presence by the ANP or the ANA.
    At the same time, Afghans spoke repeatedly and urgently about the lack of development—often, but not always, linking it to the lack of security—and about the growing presence of famine in parts of the country.
  4. International forces do prevent intercommunal conflict from escalating into more widespread armed conflict (civil war). One interviewee was described beforehand as a Taliban cleric, but seemed to be more closely linked to the Pashtun-dominated political movement Hezb-i Islami (Hekmatyar). While he was particularly incensed by the conduct of American forces, he still strongly rejected Mullah Omar’s demand that all foreign forces leave Afghanistan. Withdrawal, he said, would send Afghanistan into a new level of war that would not be easy to end. He said the old Taliban-Northern Alliance conflict would immediately escalate into much more generalized fighting, and he feared that the Taliban and Hezb-i Islami forces would not have the capacity to prevail in a civil war with Northern Alliance groups.

As long as the central and other regional and communal disputes remain unresolved and there is insufficient confidence in National Government institutions to manage equitable powersharing, the danger of escalation into a much more widespread armed conflict remains. And many argued that, in the absence of a national government and constitution that all can buy into, the best hedge against spreading armed conflict is the presence of international security forces.

Almost everyone, including some Taliban sympathizers, wanted the international forces to stay (although some said explicitly that while ISAF should remain, the American forces should go and be replaced by troops from Muslim countries). Many (including international NGOs) insisted that the presence of international forces prevents the escalation of current fighting into a full-fledged civil war between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns. In effect, it is argued, the presence of foreign forces creates the space to generate political reconciliation and negotiated accommodations and to build trustworthy national institutions that are essential to Afghan security. And thus many expressed frustration at the lack of significant progress on the political and governance fronts.

Space for reconciliation

The conclusions about international security forces that emerge out of at least this brief set of conversations with engaged Afghans can be summarized as follows:

  • International forces cannot reliably and consistently produce security at the village level to support the level of reconstruction and development desperately needed.
  • Those same forces are nevertheless instrumental in preventing all-out civil war between the Taliban/Pashtun and the Northern Alliance/minority ethnic groups.
  • While public confidence in the international military presence is severely tested, and probably declining, the international community through the UN and ISAF still does create space for constructive political accommodation, development toward good governance, and social reconciliation.

In the absence of public institutions capable of mediating intranational disputes, groups and communities inevitably seek out alternative sectarian or regional institutions or collectivities that they hope will better serve their interests and on which they feel they can depend. In particular, in the absence of trust in national security institutions (like the police), communities seek to develop their own means of security, especially armed security. Local reliance on such informal militia forces reflects the state’s inability to secure a monopoly on the resort to force.

The testimony of many is that the longstanding reconciliation and political deficits in Afghanistan were not redressed by the 2001 defeat of the Taliban and the subsequent development of a new government. “At the time of the Bonn peace meetings in 2001–2002,” said one Afghan academic, “there was no reconciliation—there was revenge.” Now observers identify several basic types of reconciliation efforts currently underway. They include national government programs that focus on engaging moderate Taliban to persuade them to renounce violence and join the government (essentially amnesty programs). The international community manages programs that focus on the disbandment of illegal armed groups. The bi-national peace jirga between Afghanistan and Pakistan is seeking ways for the two governments to cooperate in bringing some law and order into the Pashtun belt that spans their common border. Beyond that, various informal or freelance efforts also promote reconciliation in local situations.

Clearly, these efforts are very far from being adequate. None is notably successful, but real opportunities to do more exist. Inasmuch as international forces in Afghanistan are widely understood to be holding off the escalation of Afghan instability into full-scale civil war, and given the also widely proclaimed presence of deep-seated conflict in Afghan society that will become harder and harder to contain, many Afghan observers point with increasing urgency to the need to take advantage of the political space that is still available to vigorously pursue new levels of political reconciliation.

In fact, interviewees from across the spectrum of national life and the international community insist that a new emphasis on reconciliation programs and negotiation is required at local, intercommunal, national, and regional levels. At the moment the international community supports political/reconciliation efforts only if they are led by the Government of Afghanistan. The UN is particularly insistent that reconciliation efforts be initiated and owned by the national government of a sovereign Afghanistan. The Government of Canada similarly insists “that reconciliation only involve those individuals and organizations that…accept the legitimacy of the Afghan Government and the Afghan constitution” (Canada 2008).

Unfortunately, substantial elements of Afghan society believe that both the present government and the constitution are the product of processes that were not fully inclusive and are not now fully deserving of respect. Thus there needs to be some room for thinking outside that particular box and for engaging all Afghans in developing a more inclusive political order, rather than confining reconciliation efforts to bringing dissidents into the existing order.

Establishing trust between communities and building confidence in public institutions are linked objectives that involve a wide range of governance, security sector reform, anti-corruption, representational, and reconciliation imperatives. States without the national institutions to generate a broad national consensus on key issues and mediate without violence the inevitable economic, regional, and intercommunal conflicts are destined to descend into chronic armed conflict. Current Afghan institutions, while effective to varying degrees, do not enjoy the levels of trust and confidence needed for regions and communities to submit fully to prescribed political processes and to believe assurances that such processes will be fair and equitable and produce compromises that will be acceptable, even if necessarily imperfect. Suspicions remain great.

A broad range of Afghan voices express an urgent need for dialogue, trust building, and other efforts toward political accommodation. Civil society organizations and educational institutions, they say, have important roles to play in promoting people-to-people reconciliation, intercommunal and regional Track II diplomacy efforts, and education programs in support of a culture of peace. The needs are of such a scale that they cannot be met without direct public support. Thus, the international community should promote and fund reconciliation efforts and especially encourage the government of Afghanistan and opposition groups to embrace such opportunities.

The students in that dormitory were certainly looking to their leaders and the international community to reach beyond the current formulas and stalemates that they see are not working and not improving the lives of their families and communities. They have demands and expectations that are basically in line with the rights and aspirations of young people anywhere. They want a government and public institutions that are honest and nondiscriminatory. They want the international community and international forces in their midst to respect their religion and culture. They want their families to have access to food and the basic necessities of life. And they don’t seem to feel any greater need for neatness than do their counterparts in any other part of the world.


Canada, Government of. 2008. Political reconciliation. June 10. 2008. US soldier uses Quran for target practice; military apologizes. May 18.

UN News Centre. 2008. Meeting basic food needs “problematic” for millions of Afghans, says UN official. May 1.

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