Big Tent Key to Saving Afghanistan

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Big Tent Key to Saving Afghanistan

The US and Afghan governments need to rethink the current peace process. Striking a deal with the Taliban is no magic bullet.

The assassination late last month of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the Afghanistan High Peace Council, was another in a long series of blows to an already fragile reconciliation process in the country. And, although US President Barack Obama affirmed shortly after that the assassination wouldn’t deter the United States and NATO from pursuing their current path, the incident has significantly undermined the prospects for peace in Afghanistan. 

The fallout from Rabbani’s killing continued last week as Afghan officials announced their plans to cancel trilateral talks with Pakistan and the United States. Senior officials from the three countries had been expected to meet in Kabul on October 8 to discuss the fragile Afghan reconciliation process that many hope will bring an end to the decade-old conflict. 
Viewed in the context of the past six months – a period marked by political assassinations and other deadly targeted attacks – the latest tragedy also calls into question the very fundamentals of the current reconciliation and reintegration process. Instead of moving on without further reflection, a serious reappraisal of the process is needed.  
After 10 years of fighting, the idea of finding a political solution to the war in Afghanistan has become a top priority on the international agenda. With extremist factions steadily undermining moderates, as demonstrated by the escalating violence and spectacular nature of recent attacks, the current process is being heavily undermined. This casts doubts on the effectiveness of the US-initiated talks with a marginalized faction of the Taliban. Further, it begs the question of whether a lasting solution involving just moderates isn’t overly optimistic. 
When evaluating the peace process, the inherent domestic challenges of reconciling the Taliban must also be considered. Rabbani’s death is set to exacerbate the already stark opposition to negotiations that exists in many parts of Afghan society. Rabbani was tasked with not only reconciling and negotiating a peace settlement with the Pashtun-dominated insurgency, but also bringing the so-called ‘anti-Taliban constituency’ to the table. This opposition group is comprised of non-Pashtuns – Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras – who fought against the Taliban under the umbrella of the Northern Alliance in the 1990s. 
Led by influential warlords and former mujahideen commanders, this opposition group remains opposed to any peace talks with the Taliban, and believes they have the most to lose from a negotiated settlement. The killing of Rabbani has significantly bolstered this opposition group along with other critics of the peace talks. Opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah and former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh announced that all reconciliation efforts were dead. Although President Hamid Karzai has struggled to keep them on board, most of the leaders of these groups have gradually drifted away. Indeed, Rabbani was the only influential Northern Alliance leader loyal to Karzai and his circle. 

There are further obstacles to peace talks well beyond the need to placate the erstwhile Northern Alliance or Karzai’s appointment of Rabbani, a Tajik warlord, as his chief peace negotiator. Karzai is widely viewed by the majority of Afghans as an ineffectual leader who has held on to power through fraudulent elections. The United States, for its part, is seen as having further facilitated the situation by supporting Karzai’s strongman rule in a myopic attempt to militarily defeat the Taliban.
At the same time, both the US and Afghan governments have failed to provide political space for the mainstream Afghan population, sidelining influential tribal leaders viewed as local power brokers with historical legitimacy. Moreover, while negotiating an enduring peace deal and political settlement in Kabul will require extensive engagement with a wide range of state and non-state actors, including leaders of political parties, armed opposition groups, civil society representatives, religious leaders, and youth groups, neither the United States nor the Afghan government has yet declared peace with the Taliban as a national priority.
Under such conditions, any efforts by the United States or Afghan leadership aimed at reaching a peace deal appear more bleak and elusive than ever. Ultimately, striking a deal with the Taliban doesn’t automatically ensure a political solution to Afghanistan’s problems. In order to restore a true sense of reconciliation, both Washington and Kabul must reconsider the current peace talks and promote a more inclusive process that engages the entire spectrum of actors. In other words, they shouldn’t leave a matter that is a national and international priority in the hands of a few. 
Javid Ahmad, a native of Kabul, is Program Coordinator with the Asia Programme of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington DC. Louise Langeby is a Programme Associate with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels.