Features | Politics | South Asia

Averting a Civil War in Afghanistan

The challenge: Incorporating the Taliban into the future of Afghanistan without sacrificing the rights of Afghans, especially women. Can it be done?

By Arif Rafiq for

Members of the Afghan High Peace Council (AHPC) visited Islamabad recently and met with a broad set of civil and military officials to discuss collaboration in negotiating an end to the war with the Taliban. There were no dramatic breakthroughs—the meeting was part of the painfully slow process of building trust between Islamabad and Kabul—but the Afghan delegation did not return home empty-handed. With the release of up to thirteen prisoners associated with the Afghan Taliban into the Afghan government’s custody, and frank discussions with their Pakistani counterparts, the AHPC should have a stronger level of confidence in Islamabad’s claim that it seeks peace in Afghanistan.

But that confidence needs to be built at a faster pace. The clock is ticking in Afghanistan. Afghan Presidential elections and the end of U.S. combat operations are scheduled for 2014. Already, Afghan power brokers are preparing contingencies for a post-American Afghanistan. Ismail Khan, a warlord from the eastern city of Herat, is rebuilding his militia. He’s just one of many militia leaders who are stockpiling weapons and men, preparing for a potential, though not inevitable, fight between the country’s many ethnic and political factions.

The windfall from the Western presence will soon dry up and much of the change the Western coalition has brought to Afghanistan will prove to be ephemeral. Afghanistan will be tested as to whether it has the resilience to build an economy more independent of foreign rent than today. The outlook is gloomy. Recently, President Hamid Karzai’s brother Mahmoud told the Associated Press, “Afghanistan became a game. The game is to make money and get the hell out of here. That goes for politicians. That goes for contractors.” He is certainly one to know.

As corrupt as Afghanistan’s elites are, and as much blood as is on their hands, they’re essential to the prevention of an all-out civil war—a civil war that would cause a massive loss of life in Afghanistan, potentially embolden regional and transnational jihadists in the area, and spill over into a deeply precarious Pakistan.

Afghan elites have been kept together by the Bonn Agreement, the governmental framework created by the UN-backed post-9/11 agreements that provided Afghanistan with an interim, and later transitional, system of government. In 2004, Afghanistan held its first presidential elections, followed by parliamentary polls the next year that would produce an increasingly confident body that seeks to check executive power.

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As flawed as the Bonn framework has been—for example, in its early years it overrepresented the non-Pashtun anti-Taliban Northern Alliance—it allowed for a reduction of violence and the reconstruction of the Afghanistan state, economy, and society, after two decades of perpetual war.

However, the system’s net positives are declining. Indeed, what we are witnessing today is the slow unraveling of the Bonn framework. Karzai is a compromised political figure. Gone are the days when he was seen as a unifying force and a moderate who symbolized the hopes of a post-Taliban Afghanistan. Now, he is knee-deep in corruption and appears intent on maintaining power directly or indirectly after his current term comes to an end.

Meanwhile, critical non-Pashtun power brokers are raising significant challenges to the governance framework in Afghanistan. The two Jamiat-e Islami splinter groups—the National Front of Afghanistan (NFA) led by Ahmed Zia Massoud and Amrullah Saleh, and the National Coalition of Afghanistan (NCA), led by Dr. Abdullah—both oppose Karzai. The NFA now even calls for a federalist system that weakens the power of president.

Amid this debate between relative moderates on how Afghanistan should be governed and by whom, there is also the challenge of reconciling the Taliban’s demands. It remains to be seen how all this can be done at once given the fact that NCA and NFA don’t appear to be talking. Nevertheless, that dialogue must begin now.

The Taliban has been vague about the governance system it envisions for Afghanistan. During its reign, the Taliban implemented a swift and crude variant of Islamic criminal law. Its shadow governments behave similarly today. There is little indication of behavioral or attitudinal change.

The Taliban contends that it seeks the implementation of Islamic law. But what changes to the country’s present-day system does it demand? Officially, Afghanistan is an Islamic republic. Much, but not all, of its legislation comes from the Islamic legal tradition. The country’s constitution states that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions” of Islam. But its laws are a mix of Islamic and non-Islamic in origin and the boundaries between these two are often ambiguous.

A Taliban prescription for a legal and governance system for Afghanistan also lacks clarity. Can the Taliban come to terms with some form of a republican system of government? Or is it insistent on having a hardline Islamic emirate akin to the one that existed in the 1990s? Does the Taliban view representative government as permissible or even legitimate? Can a parliament exist? What should its powers be? Will it have the capacity to legislate? Can women exercise the right to vote, let alone serve in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government? And what will Mullah Omar’s status be? Can the so-called commander of the faithful play second fiddle to an elected president or prime minister?

The Taliban has stated that it has a national reconciliation plan ready for Afghanistan. But up to this point, there is no indication that it has conducted an internal dialogue and achieved consensus. It’s not even clear whether it has the capacity and competency to produce such a coherent vision for the country. If and once direct talks with its Afghan counterparts begin, they will need to know the Taliban’s ‘red lines’ and its demands for changes to the present constitution, even if they are untenable.

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An important forum in which these issues can be aired out indirectly is the conference of religious scholars proposed by the AHPC and Pakistani government in their joint statement. Neither the Taliban nor the participating religious scholars should have veto power over the future of Afghanistan. But this forum, should it take place, provides an opportunity to press the Taliban—and give its leadership the necessary cover—to make the necessary compromises on  representative government and women’s rights.

The Taliban cannot be the sole definer of Afghanistan’s future. But as part of a political settlement—which is so crucial for peace and stability in the country and region—the Taliban would undoubtedly have some say in how Afghanistan would be governed. To dilute the Taliban’s conservative influence, intra-Afghan peace talks must be broad-based with ample weight given to relatively progressive forces within the country, including women. And Afghan women—whether they’re part of civil society or parliament—must coalesce as a bloc and press for their fundamental rights.

Afghanistan’s greatest challenge is to avert a civil war by producing an amended governance framework that incorporates the Taliban but does not sacrifice the fundamental rights of Afghans, especially Afghan women. It is difficult to be optimistic about the prospects for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. And any optimism that one may have will certainly dwindle in the months ahead if no progress is made while 2014 nears.

Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He tweets at @ArifCRafiq.