The Possible Contours of a Settlement in Afghanistan

23 07 2013

23 July 2013

Below is a more detailed version of my latest piece for the New York Times, available here

While most of the focus in the last three years of intermittent talks among Taliban, US and Afghan officials has revolved around simply getting the parties to the table—who will fulfill which preconditions, what confidence-building measures will demonstrate the parties’ sincerity and capability of delivering, etc.—the long-term prospects for peace are rarely discussed in detail.  Given their immediacy, it is tempting to get caught up in issues such as whether and when the Taliban will renounce violence or accept the Afghan constitution (as frequently demanded by Kabul) and whether Kabul will refuse to permit foreign forces and advisors to remain in Afghanistan (as demanded by the Taliban).  Yet even if Kabul and the Taliban find themselves sitting at the same table down the road (as America’s involvement is merely the opening act), how would they navigate the thorniest issues, what role would US support for Kabul play in the negotiations, and what might a final settlement look like?

With the Taliban gradually softening its vision of itself in a future Afghanistan, it is difficult to know just how far the group would come to secure a prominent seat at the table.  In contrast, women and minority groups (particularly ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras) have not moved an inch in their public proclamations as to what they would settle for; with memories of persecution in the 1990s, they seem to have a much greater stomach for continued war than the Pashtuns who have borne the brunt of the war’s last decade.  Instead, these groups with a history of marginalization have spent their resources insisting that the Taliban must not be trusted, no matter the cost.

To be sure, at least until the drawdown is complete, the Taliban has little incentive to negotiate in any meaningful way, despite what they may say in Doha.  Already divided internally over negotiating at all, the group will wait to see what exactly Afghan forces will be capable of with only a small residual force of western advisors beginning in 2015 before moving beyond confidence-building measures.  If the cities are deemed strategically vulnerable, serious negotiations will be highly unlikely, but if Afghan forces are getting enough Western financial support to hold down the population centers as well as regularly mount assaults on insurgent strongholds, the Taliban may feel increasingly compelled to settle.  Still, neither those Talibs favoring meaningful negotiation nor those who oppose it will be able to persuade the other until there is evidence of Afghan forces’ apparent success or failure during the 2015 fighting season, if not later.

If the parties do make it to an internationally-mediated negotiating table, however, then based on the Taliban’s history of governance, its public statements since the 2001 US invasion, and the current structure and make-up of the Afghan government, it is likely that the contours of a possible settlement would pivot on several key Taliban grievances, most of which it feels would be remedied by implementing sharia law and giving the Taliban far more influence across Afghan society, starting with rewriting the Afghan constitution.  On principle, the international community and anyone remotely interested in protecting minorities and women will not indulge talk of rewriting the constitution, but the Taliban would probably settle for a number of modifications that make the country more Islamic.

Precisely what that means in a country that is already culturally and legally anchored in Islam is unclear, but it most likely means extending certain cultural norms of rural Pashtun society (regarding education, religion and the role of women) across the country.  For instance, female education beyond middle school in the rural east and south is already extremely rare, even in the absence of the Taliban.  (In contrast, the Taliban’s history of draconian punishment is one tenet that few in Afghanistan value or miss because those measures had nothing to do with Afghan culture to begin with.)  Yet Kabul would never agree to enforce gender or education norms like those across the country, which is exactly why a more likely settlement would revolve around a different kind of modification to the constitution: decentralization of the Afghan government.

Kabul has one of the most centralized governments in the world; there are no institutions at the provincial or district level, for instance, that are permitted to create and enforce their own laws—a longstanding grievance among most Afghans who frequently decry Kabul’s insensitive intrusions into local affairs.  In effect, decentralizing would allow the Taliban (and all Afghans, for that matter) to get more of what it wants in the areas where it has more influence, and less of it in areas in which it has little influence, obviating the need to force values on anyone who does not already share them.

Still, many Afghans and outside observers fear that decentralization would essentially concede large slices of the country to the Taliban—more than enough, for instance, to provide safe haven to al Qaeda or slice the noses off of runaway brides, should the Taliban so choose.  As a result, any decentralization would be unlikely to grant the Taliban carte blanche but instead permit it (working within the mechanisms and institutions of the Afghan government) to make certain cultural norms official that are already widespread in their respective areas of influence.  Relatively speaking, decentralization would also appeal to Kabul because the Taliban is expected to control (or already does control) much of the east and south after 2014 anyway, making such a concession considerably less painful and more akin to recognizing reality.

In theory, then, the Taliban could have local state-sanctioned sharia courts that adjudicate civil law disputes; education norms could be drafted and implemented on a province-by-province basis; and district and provincial governors could be chosen locally, though Kabul would be hard-pressed to forfeit its authority to appoint provincial leadership. To be sure, any such modifications would face enormous logistical and political firestorms—specifically, would traditional and locally based shuras decide on these norms and appoint provincial/district leaders, or would they be voted on by citizens?—but the question is whether those tempests are harder for Afghans to weather than a civil war.

Alternatively, if negotiations do not go down the path of decentralization, then depending how vulnerable the central government feels to Taliban encroachment, the parties might consider a temporary unity government to build trust in governing together, or a more permanent power sharing arrangement that gives the Taliban and other coalitions veto power over the most important decisions in Kabul.  Another variant would allocate a certain number of parliament seats or ministries to the Taliban.  (In that vein, through a Norwegian intermediary President Karzai reportedly already offered the Taliban the Ministry of Justice and the position of Chief Justice on the Afghan Supreme Court.)  If the Taliban were to accept an allocation of ministries, though, it is hard to imagine such a deal without either Defense or Interior included—frightening as such a prospect would be to non-Pashtuns.

Furthermore, power sharing has a tendency to paralyze governments that employ them because, after all, recently warring parties rarely agree on much.  Nor would it be the first attempt in Afghanistan.  The 1992 Peshawar Accord was a power sharing agreement cobbling together the mujahideen commanders that had recently expelled the Soviet Union’s 40th Army Division and forced the resignation of Afghan President Najibullah.  The deal collapsed almost immediately when one of the intended signatories, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (currently the commander of insurgent group Hezb-e Islami and key player to any successful deal today), refused to play second fiddle and tried to seize Kabul, triggering the civil war.  There were also a number of other unsuccessful attempts in the following years, but only the Taliban’s eventual monopoly of force was able to quell the violence.  Nonetheless, any power vacuum in 2015 will not be as acute as it was in the early 1990s, and it must be said that in some instances power sharing can create enough trust and confidence in governing together that cooperation finally becomes possible, as has been the case in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

The anticipated residual footprint of roughly 15,000 western forces after 2014 creates additional obstacles to any deal, and it also presents a bit of a paradox.  The very same western advisors whose presence compel the Taliban to consider negotiations with Kabul may also make it impossible for the Taliban to negotiate in earnest without losing face.  Having demanded the withdrawal of western forces as a precondition to negotiations with Kabul, the Taliban may find that it can only secure such an outcome as the result of a deal, much as Kabul is unlikely to secure a renunciation of violence from the Taliban except as a tenet to an eventual agreement.  Unsurprisingly, in this delicate balance, many of the cards each party might play could just as easily derail the process as they could open it up for compromise.

Inevitably, any settlement the Taliban might want to accept would have to safeguard Pakistani interests as well, and even if the Taliban grows weary of violent conflict, Pakistan will be unlikely to grow weary of funding it.  It has become conventional wisdom that the Pakistani military prefers an unstable Afghanistan (even at the cost of destabilizing Pakistan) to one where India is able to use Afghanistan to encircle and threaten Pakistan from the outside.  So even if the Taliban were in a position to diverge from Pakistan, their handlers in the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) could easily spoil any deal by shifting its resources to yet another Islamist faction to continue the war against Kabul.  In that case, even after the rosiest of political settlements, Afghanistan’s security would be as marred as Iraq’s is today.

Still, Islamabad might support a power sharing agreement if it gave the Taliban enough power as to preclude a reasonable amount of Indian influence in Kabul, particularly with Afghan security forces. Yet because reaching that threshold would give the Taliban enough influence to resemble Kabul’s surrender in many corners, the kind of power sharing that Kabul could tolerate would be unlikely to satisfy Pakistan, even if it satisfies the Taliban.  Ironically, even if the Taliban settles for control over some of the ‘softer’ ministries like education and justice, the ISI cares far more about the ‘harder’ ministries like interior and defense, making consensus over power sharing even more elusive.  Instead, more common ground is likely to be found with decentralization and the subsequent overt Taliban influence in much of southern and eastern Afghanistan.  Granted, even then it remains unclear if such a Pashtun buffer would provide sufficient “strategic depth” to reassure Pakistan about Indian encirclement, especially if a Tajik is still in charge of national military strategy.  It certainly wasn’t sufficient in the mid nineties, when the Taliban controlled most of the south and east and Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Massoud was Defense Minister.

That said, decentralization is still the basis for the most probable and equitable political settlement, particularly because it would benefit the widest cross-section of Afghans—a key ingredient in preventing the fragmentation of the Afghan army and rearmament of non-Pashtun militias who are liable to interpret power sharing as a zero-sum appeasement of the Taliban.

Yet if the Taliban senses that decentralization is the best deal it can hope to secure at the negotiating table, its leaders are unlikely to forsake violence if they can still gain all the benefits of decentralization without making any concessions. In other words, if they feel confident that Kabul will avoid their heartland anyway due to the central government’s pending impotence, then the Taliban would gladly settle for unofficial decentralization caused by a void of official security and governance.  That way, the Taliban could continue fighting to get more than negotiations would likely offer without closing the door on negotiations if its gamble fails.

For this reason, instrumental to driving the Taliban to the negotiating table is convincing the movement that it cannot count on unofficial decentralization simply by avoiding serious talks.  Undoubtedly, that is a high bar for the army and police force, even higher than the ‘Afghan good enough’ standard of merely maintaining control over population centers in the absence of western forces. Yet keeping the Taliban off balance in its own backyard—with Army clearing operations, more Afghan Local Police and other similar measures in areas under Taliban control—is crucial, as difficult a task as it may be. The Taliban would need to see that Afghan forces can patrol and fight independently, and equally important, the Taliban must not be tempted to think that any success Afghan forces have in 2015 would disappear in subsequent years.

If western support after 2014 is insufficient to permit Afghan forces to make such strides, the only way to lure the Taliban to the table would be for Kabul to expand the menu and give the impression that a power sharing arrangement particularly favorable to the Taliban would be possible—specifically, one that offers the Taliban the Ministry of Defense or Interior.  In the end, it may turn out that the Taliban’s many enemies would prefer endless war to taking such a risk; in fairness, the Taliban might not settle for significant influence in the government and opt instead to go for the jugular, as Hekmatyar did in 1992.

Inevitably, Afghanistan will face tremendous change in the near future, most fear for the worse, and the Americans will only be in a position to help, not rescue, their Afghan allies.  A peaceful solution, if one is to be found, remains years away. Yet with a mostly free and fair presidential election in 2014 and a modicum of success among Afghan security forces after the drawdown is complete, it may be tempting for the parties to put their full weight behind the effort.  Unfortunately, a great many stars must align to make that happen.



7 responses

24 07 2013

This is a baseless proposal and your personal inapplicable view. You served in Afghanistan as an advisor, were you providing such baseless advise and getting paid for that? You had been misleading you audiences and this article is too.

It looks like you were sleeping and not even awake while writing this article. This does t make sense and the ways you are proposing for resolving the conflict in Afghanistan is completely wrong, not applicable and will lead to more problems.

25 07 2013

Sorry, you’ll have to do better than that. There are many problems with my proposal, much as there are in any potential peace negotiation, but you failed to mention a single one of them. Here is what a solid counterargument to my thesis would look like: any district in which the Taliban might be elected with a majority of seats on a local law-making body could roll back all the progress that women have made in that district, and there is little the national government could do about it. Now you try one, and we’ll start again.

25 07 2013

Hi David, A very solid piece of thinking about evolving circumstances. You productively step out of the present moment – nearly everything I read feels stuck in thinking in terms of days and months. Attention to the highly centralized nature of Kabul’s gov’t is much needed. I have one simple reaction, what about the “Afghan people” as a source of resistance to the Taliban. However vague and perhaps overly optimistic that might be, ordinary Afghans in villages across the countryside appear to be the most likely source of successful resistance to the Taliban. I don’t necessarily mean ALP, tho that is close, but what could facilitate and nurture an Afghan penchant to successfully resist imposed “groups and ideologies”? This assumes – something that many might easily argue with – that the Taliban, both politically and culturally, are mostly outsiders to the bulk of Afghanistan – with the possible exception of some districts of two southern provinces. If rural Afghans determined that they had more feasible alternatives, they could stop the Taliban. Perhaps the very circumstances that the Taliban emerged from, could recur, with another group/s garnering enough support or acquiescence to undo Taliban influence. Or more simply, I would like to see thinking about possibilities like yours above in which ordinary’ Afghans play an active role in power-brokering, at least at village levels, because I think they already do and a complementary role to decentralization.

27 07 2013

Thanks Jimmy. An article I wrote for Foreign Policy last year goes into detail about how, when and under what circumstances ‘normal’ Afghans will resist Taliban predation independent of the whims of their respective power brokers. Here’s the link:

Sadly, ‘uprisings’ of the sort you describe rarely last because the Afghan government doesn’t swoop in to help (sometimes wisely so), and other times the Taliban’s firepower is so daunting that the leaders of the uprising simply disappear for a year or two (to work in Iran or Pakistan, for instance) only to return when things have cooled off a bit.

27 07 2013

The problem in Afghanistan going forward and something you don’t seem to truly understand is the Pashtunist government’s intransigence to allowing the other minorities to express their will to live in a civilian lead state (Hazaras especially but Tajiks and Uzbeks as well). While you try to paint the distinction between the central government in Kabul lead by Karzai and his delegates and the barbaric Taliban mercenaries in the East and South of the country, the truth is these two parties interests overlap most times than not. Though the Taliban wants to impose a stricter version of an already Sharia led state (something most Pashtuns and Karzai oppose), their interest to establish complete Pashtun hegemony throughout the country is a main goal inextricable linked to the aspirations of the majority Pashtun parliamentarians and other government officials currently in power.

For example, recently the education minister proposed a plan that would allocate a fixed number of acceptances to the state-sponsored universities to each province. Whereas, the current system is mostly meritorious( based on national exam), this new Pashtunist driven policy would seek to rescind and tide the significant progress many minorities have been able to gain through education. Never mind the fact that not a dollar of foreign aid has gone to building infrastructure in non-Pashtun (mostly Hazara) regions to begin with.

This is the main problem faced today in “Afghanistan” (the name itself connoting a land only for the Pashtuns): the Pashtun majorities inability and unwillingness to confront the progressive attitudes of the other minorities.

Why don’t more Western journalists and media talk about this central point, maybe because they too are somewhat complicit in this aim? I hope that this isn’t the reality, but all evidence indicates that the racist aspirations of Karzai and his Pashtun peoples are not being properly criticized and brought up as an important obstacle in negotiations as we head toward 2014 and beyond.

27 07 2013

Thanks Sal. I’m afraid it is inaccurate to suggest that Hazara communities have not received their share of the foreign aid largesse. Countless millions have been spent developing infrastructure, communications and transportation in Hazara communities across the country.

That said, I certainly take your point and agree that there are significant segments of the Pashtun population (including many public officials) that fondly remember their dominance (dating back hundreds of years) and are working hard to reverse course. But to suggest that education quotas are an indication of that is a stretch for me. Besides, as you said, the Taliban wants frighteningly more than the re-Pashtunization of Afghanistan. Karzai is many things, but a Talib he is not.

Either way, what I recommend is understandably scary to Afghan minorities. I merely think it’s naive for anyone to think that the status quo is sustainable and that any talk of reconciliation is out of the question. Keeping our heads in the sand is not a policy; it’s indulging a fantasy. US forces are drawing down, and Afghans need to know exactly where they will draw the line. Considering ideas like mine (even if it’s eventually discarded) is part of a deliberative process that must be done, and before it’s too late.

27 07 2013


Your idea of decentralizing the current state in Afghanistan is not one I would consider wholly radical or unreasonable. In fact, if your plan were truly implemented effectively, I can assure you that the prospects of long term peace and stability in the country would finally seem realistic. However, your plan is EXACTLY what the Pashtuns do not want to see in Afghanistan.

If Karzai and his tribesman were to say: “Well after decades of fighting and killing innocent people, we should all mind our business and govern our territories the way we see fit,” then there would be no cause for conflict. But by ceding this point and adopting your plan, it would signify that this territory today designated as Afghanistan is not entirely destined to be in control of the Pashtun people; an idea completely heretical to any of the bellicose Pashtun tribal leaders today.

But there is hope. Given the somewhat stable state of peace Afghanistan has witnessed over the last decade since the arrival of NATO and US troops, there has resulted an informal consensus among the various minorities that uni-tribal hegemony by Pashtuns after US combat operations have ended is totally unacceptable and will be resisted. Unfortunately, this implicit agreement will jeopardize the status quo and launch the country back into civil war; yet there is the glint of hope that reconciliation will result on the part of the radical Pashtun sects and conflict can be avoided. The United States, the Western world and certainly any diaspora of the recent Taliban terror, myself included, hope that the latter will be true.

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