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Major Breakthroughs in Afghanistan Talks Unlikely

A Series of Negotiations Lack Interrelated Linkages

Diplomatic and political efforts to achieve a lasting peace in Afghanistan will take years to produce lasting results and require a major rethink of the current approach, says Brian Katulis.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, center, Afghan First Vice President Qasim Fahim, right, and Chairman Sebghatullah Mujadidi attend a <i>loya jirga</i>, or grand council, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, November 16, 2011. (AP/Musadeq Sadeq)
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, center, Afghan First Vice President Qasim Fahim, right, and Chairman Sebghatullah Mujadidi attend a loya jirga, or grand council, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, November 16, 2011. (AP/Musadeq Sadeq)

The traditional grand council of more than 2,000 Afghan leaders and elders meeting in Kabul this week is the latest in a series of efforts to revive the political and diplomatic efforts aimed at advancing peace and stability in Afghanistan. But these steps are unlikely to produce tangible results in the immediate future.

Here’s why. Resolving the multiple conflicts at the heart of the decades of war in Afghanistan and the broader region requires a better diplomatic and political game plan than the one currently in place. A conference in Istanbul earlier this month involving key regional neighbors of Afghanistan produced a document that was heavy on the verbiage and light on the implementation mechanisms. Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s loya jirga in Kabul this week appears to have little direct linkage to the regional diplomatic efforts in Istanbul and other international initiatives, even though all are designed to some extent to help build a peace process for Afghanistan.

Another international conference planned for next month in Bonn, Germany, is not likely to produce major steps forward either. Open meetings like these are the least likely arenas to address some of the thorniest issues at the core of the conflict, including the role played by neighbors such as Pakistan and Iran and the diplomatic strategy for dealing with a fractured yet alarmingly resilient and deadly Taliban movement. These meetings may establish some useful frameworks and broad understandings between key actors but the tough work on resolving conflicts like these necessarily takes place behind the scenes.

Indeed, the loya jirga this week in Kabul is mostly focused on garnering support for the proposed strategic partnership agreement between the United States and Afghanistan—an agreement that could outline long-term commitments of support to the weak central government in Afghanistan. Delegates will also discuss the flagging efforts to advance a peace agreement with the Taliban—efforts that have made little headway even before the assassination earlier this fall of the head of the High Peace Council, the Afghan organization aimed at reaching out to the Taliban.

The Taliban movement says it will attack this week’s conference, just as it did in a similar meeting organized in June 2010. Some opposition figures including Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up in 2009 presidential elections, are boycotting the meeting because of its vague goals and their lack of confidence in President Karzai’s leadership. The meeting may build support for a long-term agreement between the United States and Afghanistan but the chances of a major diplomatic breakthrough on talks with the Taliban are slim for a number of reasons.

First, some elements of the Taliban—a broad label applied to a diverse set of largely decentralized groups—clearly do not see that it is in their interest to enter talks and continue to use violence to advance their agenda. This is seen in the spate of targeted assassinations of Afghan leaders, as well as the continued attacks killing Afghan civilians. This year is shaping up to be the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since the United States entered in 2001, and Taliban elements are responsible for about 80 percent of those deaths, according to U.N. reporting.

Second, getting the Taliban to the negotiating table is proving more difficult than diplomats anticipated. The theory of the case put forward by counterinsurgency advocates at the start of the 2010 surge was that military pressure would motivate top leaders of the Taliban to enter reconciliation talks or spur lower-level members to join reintegration programs. Yet the numbers of fighters joining reintegration programs is paltry, and to date few major leaders of the Taliban have moved towards reconciliation.

In addition, one consequence of the military operations over the past two years may have been to degrade the internal coherence of the Taliban leadership structure, a splintering effect that contributes to some tactical improvements in security in the short run but could complicate efforts to try to co-opt the movement into the political process because of disarray in the movement and a lack of clarity in the internal decision-making process. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton labeled the current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan as “fight, talk, and build.” But coordinating the “fight” component with the “talk” component across many U.S. government agencies has never been easy.

Identifying which elements of the Taliban should be targeted with force because they are never likely to accept the Afghan constitution and then separating them from those inclined to enter the political process requires judgment calls stretching across multiple agencies. That’s hard to coordinate, especially in a war zone. In early September, coalition and Afghan forces conducted a night raid that killed a Taliban-linked figure who was engaged by the High Peace Council, and the action drew protests from members of the High Peace Council.

Another reason why the prospects for serious advances in Afghanistan’s peace process remain slim is because of the spoiler role that neighboring countries including Pakistan continue to play. Despite what neighboring countries may agree to in documents such as the Istanbul Protocol earlier this month and no matter what diplomats might say publicly at these conferences, actions speak louder than words. And Pakistan’s unhelpful actions supporting militant groups in Afghanistan are apparent.

Finally, the Obama administration seems unlikely to make a serious push toward negotiations with elements of the Taliban in the coming election year at home given the low chances of producing any immediate successes in diplomacy and the risk of political blowback if things go wrong. Despite all of the talk about the need to talk—and even though diplomats will continue the probe the possibilities—it seems like any attempts at major diplomatic breakthroughs will entail a high degree of risk with low prospects for return. An administration seeking a second term is not likely to seriously pursue that strategy.

What does this mean for the coming year? The Obama administration should work to build the basic foundations for a diplomatic process that will likely to take years to unfold—and one that will probably continue long after most of the U.S. troops come home. This means continuing the difficult work of trying to reshape the calculus of actors such as Pakistan in efforts to get them to play a more constructive role. It also means building a more realistic longer-term diplomatic strategy to end the conflict.

As U.S. policy moves forward in a transition aimed at placing lead responsibility for the country’s security in the hands of the Afghan government by 2014, “reconciliation” among competing centers of power within Afghanistan has been elevated as a higher priority in public statements by the United States and its NATO allies. But a realistic diplomatic strategy that takes into account all of the complex realities in Afghanistan and the region has not been developed.

Given the multifaceted nature of the struggle for power and legitimacy within Afghanistan and the links those internal tensions have to broader regional dynamics, the label of “reconciliation” is somewhat of a misnomer. Any diplomatic effort to resolve the conflict will have to address a broad range of issues connected to power, including who controls the money, guns, and resources.

A successful diplomatic process in Afghanistan is more likely to be an ongoing long-term progression that leads to a series of partial and localized agreements, and quite probably at times short-lived settlements within Afghanistan, with some participation and involvement from neighboring countries. The end to the conflict in Afghanistan is not likely to lead to something like the Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia. A grand bargain in the form of a signed agreement between all of the stakeholders inside and outside of Afghanistan before 2014 is not likely.

The key to advancing such deals is establishing realistic and practical goals for settling struggles over power and resources peacefully, rather than setting high expectations of what might be achieved in the immediate future. This will require patience and dexterity in diplomacy alongside an approach that seeks to achieve partial deals that lead to a more sustainable security, political, and economic arrangement within Afghanistan with support and affirmation from neighboring countries and key global powers.

The policy debates in the United States on Afghanistan have been understandably focused on the numbers of U.S. troops on the ground but the missing element has been a more fulsome debate over the diplomatic and political strategies to help support a peacebuilding effort in Afghanistan. U.S. troops will start to come home in the next year and more will soon follow.

This coming redeployment is a necessary move for U.S. national security interests. The United States is currently overinvested in Afghanistan and the resource levels dedicated to that country far exceed the potential threats. In addition, Afghan leaders need to start to test the limits of their power without the costly international military safety net if a sustainable equilibrium is ever going to be achieved. Otherwise the United States will continue to foster a culture of dependency.

But as this international military safety net is gradually reduced, the United States needs to redouble its diplomatic and political efforts. The United States needs to construct a quiet diplomatic effort that engages a broad range of actors in Afghanistan and the region to translate the ideas discussed at conferences in Istanbul, Kabul, and Bonn into an action plan. The war in Afghanistan won’t end simply by withdrawing international troops. The war will come to an end when the combatants have a greater incentive to pursue their agendas through political and diplomatic means than through violence and force. Without a more coherent and realistic diplomatic game plan, the parties will continue to resort to violence and force to settle their disputes.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow