Time for Afghan Political Settlement Talks

Reinvigorated Diplomatic Efforts with All Parties to the Conflict Is Needed

The recent protests in Afghanistan expose vulnerabilities in the current U.S. approach, write Colin Cookman and Caroline Wadhams. A diplomatic tack is necessary.

Afghans shout slogans during an anti-United States protest over burning of Korans at a military base in Afghanistan. (AP/ Rahmat Gul)
Afghans shout slogans during an anti-United States protest over burning of Korans at a military base in Afghanistan. (AP/ Rahmat Gul)

Violent protests in Afghanistan over the past week in reaction to the burning of Korans at Bagram Air Base have, as of this writing, claimed the lives of more than 30 Afghans and six U.S. military personnel around the country. These protests also exposed the vulnerabilities of the current U.S. and NATO strategy and reinforced the importance of pursuing a political settlement strategy in close synchronization with military and economic efforts.

For the past three years U.S. strategy largely centered on taking the fight to the insurgency while building up the Afghan police and military. As U.S. and NATO forces transition out of the country, these Afghan forces are expected to take over responsibility for fighting the insurgency as international forces draw down through 2014. But training, mentoring, and embedding with the Afghan police and military have all become more challenging in the wake of last week’s violence. This weekend U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen and other NATO countries withdrew hundreds of advisors from Afghan ministries. The protests reveal deep anger even among Afghans who support the current government, as well as diminishing patience for a foreign military presence that still struggles to adapt to Afghan political realities.

Even before these incidents, however, it was increasingly clear that Afghan security forces would most likely not be strong enough by 2014 to maintain stability in Afghanistan without shifts in the larger political and regional dynamics. Years of external intervention have heavily distorted Afghanistan’s internal balance of power, creating an unsustainable dynamic in which a narrow group of leaders operate with few domestic checks and balances on their actions and most Afghans have little means of holding them accountable. A stronger Afghan military will not fix this problem.

The Afghan government’s legitimacy crisis, the Afghan insurgency’s resiliency with Pakistani support, and the Afghan government and security services’ dependency on international assistance all served to undermine the prospects of the U.S. strategy’s long-term success.

The United States’ principal military alternative at this point is the substitution of one set of operations and tactics—counterinsurgency and the training of an unsustainably large Afghan national military and police force—for another mission that ramps up counterterrorism and special forces efforts without dealing with the broader effects of those operations on Afghanistan or the region. Another option—severing ties and recusing ourselves from the country’s fate entirely—would likely result in a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan with dangerous and uncertain repercussions in the broader region. Although these effects might only indirectly impact the United States, they are serious and should not be accepted as inevitable.

Instead the United States needs to invigorate its nascent diplomatic efforts and find a political solution to the Afghan conflict. Arriving at a more stable political equilibrium in which Afghans can settle their grievances through a peaceful political process rather than armed conflict is critical for the future stability of the country and the region. In the past year administration and military leaders have refocused on options for a political solution and initiated outreach to insurgents. As we argue below, for all the uncertainties involved this offers the best remaining option to achieve American strategic interests in a stable Afghanistan.

Making the case for pursuing a political settlement

Clearly, reaching a political settlement is far from guaranteed. The complex and fragmented nature of Afghan politics means there is no shortage of potential spoilers to such an effort. President Hamid Karzai insists his government have a leading role in any talks, and he has publicly pressed both the United States and Pakistan to keep him in the loop. The Taliban leadership—mindful of many of their frontline fighters’ antipathy for talks with the government—have publicly disavowed holding discussions with Karzai on multiple occasions. Afghan leaders both inside and outside government reject accommodation with their opponents. In the United States, Republican presidential candidates have spoken out against any political settlement talks with Afghan insurgents, and rising congressional opposition has slowed the Obama administration’s attempts at a prisoner transfer as an initial confidence-building step with the Taliban.

But different Afghan factions and their benefactors do have incentives to talk to one another. Many Afghan leaders, for example, remember the brutal civil war of the 1990s and hope to avoid another eruption. A civil war for control over the country is liable to be grindingly destructive for Afghanistan, leaving insurgent, government, or opposition commanders in an ongoing battle over the long term.

Taliban insurgents even agreed to open “a political office” in Qatar in January, showing their willingness to pursue discussions with the United States. Recent accounts suggest that the senior leadership of the insurgency mobilized its cadres for the specific purpose of rallying field commanders and fighters in support of talks. Even as they called for revenge attacks in the wake of the Koran-burning incident, Taliban spokesmen indicated they would continue discussions with the United States as part of the Qatar process. In fact, the Taliban’s objections to engaging with Karzai may also be meant more for public consumption than reality—the most recent Taliban statement on the subject asserts the movement has “not yet decided” to talk to the Afghan government.

A civil war in Afghanistan is also likely to hurt the Taliban’s benefactors in Pakistan, which is already burdened with its own internal political, security, and economic problems. For these reasons, Pakistani military and civilian leaders appear to have subtly shifted their policy. While Pakistani leaders are unlikely to accept an Afghanistan in which they maintain no significant levers of influence, they now disavow interest in an exclusively Taliban-dominated government in Afghanistan, citing a preference for a stable internal settlement.

In a belated but welcome development, Pakistani diplomats in recent weeks began tentative outreach to factions of Afghan society who were once viewed with distrust, and have now publicly called upon the Taliban and “all other Afghan groups” to engage in an “intra-Afghan process for national reconciliation and peace.” Pakistani leaders are correct to note that they cannot make concessions on behalf of or control the actions of the Taliban, but they can and should work to facilitate talks and use their influence to push the Taliban to the table.

Getting traction in the negotiations process

Whether or not it is successful, therefore, a serious negotiation process may peel away insurgents and test the intentions of different factions both inside and outside Afghanistan. The announcement that the United States had reached a prospective agreement with Taliban representatives to open the Qatar office was a positive first step. But the first movements in the talks outpaced preparations for the next steps, driving them into a dangerous stall.

That is why more needs to be done now to move the diplomatic ball forward. Further delays could undermine Afghanistan’s best chance for long-term peace. Uncertainty about the country’s future and opacity of the negotiations process is increasing Afghan factions’ hedging and mobilizing vocal opposition to a political settlement. Conservative opponents here at home are also speaking out more against U.S. involvement in any talks with the insurgency, though few have put forward alternatives short of indefinite U.S. military engagement.

Reviving hopes for a settlement requires a more inclusive process that involves all stakeholders and clear signals that all sides are ready and able to make concessions. The U.S. objective should be to facilitate Afghan discussions rather than impose an agreement among Afghans.

The next steps should be the following:

First, the U.S. government must coordinate its diplomatic outreach to more stakeholders than Taliban insurgents. U.S. civilian and military officials—at the State Department, the embassies in Kabul and Islamabad, and in the NATO/ISAF command—must build on the current diplomatic groundwork underway to establish an overall negotiations roadmap that brings in Taliban representatives, Pakistani civilian and military leaders, the Karzai government and Afghan domestic political opposition, and the United States and its NATO allies around one table. Whether this takes place under the auspices of the United Nations, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere, the process will only gain traction through sustained multiparty engagement. Without such a process, suspicions that each side is forging its own separate peace with other players in the conflict is likely to grow, weakening both the prospects for any consensus agreement and the ability of leaderships to negotiate on behalf of supporters divided over the benefits of talks.

Second, the United States should establish sequenced confidence-building measures among all parties to the conflict. Ultimately, each side’s leadership needs to demonstrate to their constituencies that they can advance their interests more effectively through negotiations rather than violence. The details and initial negotiating postures of the various parties may change, but at their core these concessions are likely to revolve around a recognition of elements of the insurgency as a legitimate political movement; guarantees for Pakistan of its territorial sovereignty and security; an affirmation of the Karzai administration’s privileged status in the national government; a guarantee of some level of federalism to protect the northern opposition’s local independence from Kabul; and for the United States, the Taliban’s clear renunciation of al-Qaida.

Transferring five Taliban detainees from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp to Qatari control, as has been discussed by U.S. and Taliban representatives, could provide the opportunity to jumpstart this process and should be explored further. While the exact details of the prisoners’ detention in Qatar have yet to be finalized, as an initial concession a transfer stops well short of giving in to the Taliban’s ultimate objective of international legitimation. But it offers opportunities for sequenced follow-up moves (such as the phase-out of the U.N. blacklist of senior Taliban officials) in exchange for reciprocal commitments from the insurgency (such as a condemnation of al-Qaida, public engagement with the Afghan government, and/or the establishment of a partial ceasefire).

The security risk of a prisoner transfer thus appears low, and the potential strategic opportunity high enough to pursue this seriously.

Congress has been strongly opposed to this idea and now appears loath to transfer anyone from the Guantanamo facility at all, having already barred the executive branch from transferring prisoners at the facility to U.S. courts—whose effectiveness in prosecuting terrorism cases is in fact much greater than the military tribunal system.

But in fact the United States and the region will face greater strategic risks if political settlement talks lapse entirely, and Afghanistan is left with the unenviable alternatives of either perpetual American dependency or anarchic civil war. The U.S. secretary of defense holds waiver authority that grants the power to transfer prisoners should Congress prove irrevocably obstructionist. But the White House and Departments of State and Defense need to take the time to make the case to skeptical congressional members and lay the domestic political groundwork for a settlement process.


To be sure, all sides will need to make real sacrifices during a political settlement process. Members of every party at the table will oppose making those sacrifices, and the ability of negotiators to overcome internal divisions and suspicions and reach an agreement with long-time enemies is not guaranteed. But a negotiated settlement is not impossible, and the costs for any actor—be they American, Afghan, or Pakistani—of continuing to pursue their goals by exclusively military means will be extremely high.

The United States can afford to make the first confidence-building moves as the principal military actor in the conflict and one with only limited direct security interests in Afghanistan at this point. Doing so can signal its seriousness about a political settlement process, and it will test the seriousness of others. Ultimately, however, the United States must work to bring all parties into the negotiations process, and all parties must be ready to make concessions of their own in order for talks to proceed.

Afghanistan is extremely vulnerable to shocks that may come from unexpected quarters, as the past week’s protests demonstrate. Mistrust on all sides makes discussions in their current form equally unsteady. Avoiding unpredictable derailments and getting to a point where negotiations are resilient and self-reinforcing requires diplomatic action to develop a real and inclusive negotiations process now.

Colin Cookman is a Policy Analyst with the National Security team at the Center for American Progress and Caroline Wadhams is a Senior Fellow.

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Colin Cookman

Policy Analyst

Caroline Wadhams

Senior Fellow