A guest-post by Tim Matthews.
Negotiation is an option gaining greater support among policy makers and policy advocates searching for a way out of Afghanistan. The Century Foundation has helped to emphasize the importance of retaining the option to negotiate with a recent report by The Century Foundation International Task Force on Afghanistan in Its Regional and Multilateral Dimensions (hereinafter “Task Force”), titled Afghanistan: Negotiating Peace (hereinafter “Task Force Report”). The report rightfully helps to downplay the negative connotations that Americans often associate with negotiation (ascribing weakness, failure, or indecisiveness to any such attempts). Negotiation must be an option that remains available for all actors in the conflict.
The Task Force Report caught my attention because I have argued for greater emphasis upon negotiation in Afghanistan.1 But I find very little common ground with this report because it is, in my opinion, based upon a series of poor judgments. I will argue below that the report makes an incomplete assessment of the crisis in Afghanistan, advocates that we pursue an objective that does not address the drivers of the insurgency, and recommends implementation of a plan that will prolong the misery of ordinary Afghans. I will conclude not with a sweeping new policy proposal, but rather an alternative recommendation for how negotiation as a tactic, rather than a strategy, can and should be leveraged more often by small unit military leaders and district-level government officials, rather than senior leaders and heads of state.
An incomplete assessment of the crisis
The report begins by highlighting the duration of the Afghan crisis, its international dimension, and consistent international opposition to the Taliban.2 The Taliban is described as “a force in Afghan society whose exclusion entails a very high cost.”3 Thus, the international community must find some sort of negotiated middle way. The report even states that a majority of Afghans “seem anxious for the contending factions to achieve a negotiated end to the war”4 (a claim that is more equivocation than evidence or justification).5
The assessment glosses over the roots of instability in Afghanistan. The Taliban is a powerful force, but the reason the Taliban is so formidable is because it fills a void. In the 1990s, the Taliban was initially welcomed for the stability it brought to a country engulfed in civil war.6 It then wore out its welcome.7 This contributed to the speed with which the US-led invasion ousted the Taliban.8 After the fall of the Taliban, there was a general recognition of the need for a central government to ensure stability among regional powerbrokers.9 Lacking a government capable of providing security, Afghans initially welcomed the arrival of military forces from the international community as a means of ridding the country of the Taliban and providing stability until a new government could assume security responsibilities.10 But after a series of unrepresentative processes that culminated in the 2004 Constitution,11 optimism faded. Soon thereafter, dissatisfaction with the rampant corruption of the Afghan government,12 abuse at the hands of Afghan National Security Forces,13 inadequate dispute resolution by the judicial system,14 and a general lack of essential or expected services15 led to such widespread disillusionment and dissatisfaction that many communities acquiesced to the Taliban filling governance voids by providing security, dispute resolution, and acting as a counterweight against the abusive elements of the Afghan government.16
The Task Force Report is an improvement over the conventional wisdom that endured until recently, which assumed an intent “to break the Taliban’s will, to divide the movement, and to settle with as many leaders as are willing to deal.”17 The Task Force seeks instead to alter the terms of the conflict. But because the Task Force is acting upon a flawed assessment of the situation, the manner in which it advocates altering those terms is misguided. In its assessment of the crisis, the Task Force overlooks the significant grievances of the people with the Afghan government,18 focusing instead on grievances that Taliban leaders have with the government.19 There are only passing mentions of inadequate governance in the report and the significance is downplayed.20 There are mentions of these issues near the end of the report, but, as will be discussed later, the absence of these issues in framing the situation leads to identifying the wrong objectives and, by extension, the wrong course of action.21
An objective that does not address the drivers of the insurgency
The objective sought by the Task Force is a power sharing arrangement between national elites and senior insurgent leaders.22 The arrangement sought is described as a settlement that achieves a political order at the national level acceptable to Afghan elites and addresses security concerns of international stakeholders.23 Key interests to be addressed in the negotiation process include hopes of Taliban leadership to retain “key provincial posts” coupled with reform of the electoral process to prevent a narrow electoral victory by a “winner-take-all regime” from upsetting the power-sharing balance.24
Missing in this settlement is any consideration of the relationship between the national government and lower levels of government, particularly villages and districts. The report states that a settlement must address, “political order acceptable to Afghans.”25 But as this is discussed throughout the second chapter of the report, it is clear that the acceptability of that order is only considered with regard to Afghan elites at the national level. The discussion is cast solely in terms of ministries, provincial posts, power-sharing between national elites and Taliban senior leaders, constitutional issues, backward looking issues about transitional justice, and a mention of women’s rights. As another paper by TCF points out, “current approaches that focus nearly exclusively on government officials and armed actors are likely to deepen insecurity and feelings of injustice.”26
The report also takes a troublesome turn when it portrays the constitutional drafting process in 2003 and 2004 as a representative process, with the exception that interests of the Taliban were not represented. The report states:
“A constitutional loya jirga of 502 delegates selected from every province debated the text in December 2003 and, on January 4, 2004, assented to the document: the chairman of the jirga asked participants to ‘please stand if they supported the text’ and every one but two stood up.”27
The 2004 constitution, apparently viewed as the product of an inclusive constitutive process, is then mentioned as “likely to end up as the point of departure in hammering out a revamped political system.”28 After all, with only the Taliban excluded from the constitutive process, negotiation apparently needs only to inject their interests, perhaps even arriving at a settlement that “might be adopted without revision of the constitution.”29 Alarm bells should be going off.
The impression of an orderly and representative constitutive process bears no resemblance to the description offered by Alexander Thier, who describes a chaotic process that followed weeks of secrecy and lack of transparency.30 Although the Constitutional Loya Jirga (CLJ) delegates were “asked to stand for one minute to denote their accession to the document,” this did not involve “a formal vote count or recording of dissenting votes, opposition was muted.”31
Barnett Rubin wrote, in 2004:
“… the group assembled in Bonn did not represent the people of Afghanistan, either directly or indirectly. The UN veteran and former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi, who chaired the talks in his capacity as Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s special representative, repeatedly stressed that no one would remember how unrepresentative the meeting had been if the participants managed to fashion a process that would lead to a legitimate and representative government.”32
Sadly, that process did not lead to a legitimate or representative government and people do remember how unrepresentative it was. To pursue negotiations with assumptions to the contrary requires more explanation than what is provided in the Task Force Report.
Dr. Florian Keuhn argues that our state-building effort has become a rentier state-building effort where public officials are not accountable to the people.33
“Politics is this context is concerned more with securing international aid than responding to public demands for goods and services. . . Because their authority tends to come from above (through appointment), rather than from below (from election), political figures have little incentive to use funds economically or productively to foster development. At every level there are Afghan government positions being run like businesses—officials who “bought” their post are eager to “sell” any appointments they are responsible for. . . effects of these clientelist networks extend to the farthest outposts of the Afghan government, affecting ordinary Afghans through corrupt local officials.”34
The impact of this lack of accountability was also highlighted in a paper by Jennifer Brick. She explains that outside organizations lacking “self-enforcing accountability mechanisms”35 tend to upset the stability offered by customary organizations.36 When not influenced by outside actors, “[c]ustomary leaders are able to resolve disputes and provide other goods to citizens because they extract a fee for their services but also because they are accountable for what they extract.”37 The essence of what the Task Force Report advocates is to give a piece of an unaccountable regime to the Taliban, rather than reforming it.
In a region brimming with armed militias, commanders, warlords, Taliban, and a thriving opium trade, the default state in an absence of Afghan government influence is either local governance by customary organizations or local domination by an armed non-state entity. In many of those areas, the local domination is imposed by the Taliban. Driving the Taliban out of the area causes a reversion to an intermediary stage where it can return to the default state or the Afghan government can extend governance functions.38 Removing the Taliban does not mean the Afghan government extends its influence. The void may be filled by a warlord or customary organizations.
This crisis needs to be viewed as a race to build an Afghan state before the will of the international community runs out. That involves a combination of reforming the rentier state and extending accountable governance into areas where government influence is weak. The rate at which a viable state can be built is determined by the acquiescence of local communities to the extension of governance functions by the state. Non-acquiescence is expressed by the refusal to use government services, such as courts that are deemed corrupt, or by cooperating with Taliban or other actors to forcefully resist government intervention, or by acquiescing to Taliban control due to a perception that this is safer. These are largely local issues. They are not adequately addressed by discussions that focus upon national elites and senior leaders of the insurgency.
A plan harmful to Afghans that offers little assurance of stability
When discussing implementation, there is finally an acknowledgement that governance reform could “stem the effectiveness of Taliban recruitment, which has often been spurred by grievances with the behavior of the Afghan government” and that such resentment “aggravated localized conflicts and created conditions conducive to armed opposition.”39 Corruption is acknowledged to contribute to “local grievances that have fueled the insurgency and expanded its reach” and a focus on this could blunt the insurgency’s momentum.40 If these facts were considered in the assessment of the situation, it seems that a very different understanding of the crisis would have resulted and different objectives would have been formulated. Instead, 66 pages into the report, these are only considerations for how the Task Force’s identified objectives will be met, not considerations for identifying objectives.
There is no apparent reason to think that arranging for power-sharing of ministries and provincial-level appointments will create accountability, particularly at the village or district level. It seems more likely that the lack of accountability will be exacerbated because communities will be less capable of allying with one faction in order to gain concessions from the other. A community cannot seek Taliban protection from abusive Afghan Police or seek Afghan Army protection from an overzealous Taliban. Less choice at the citizen level means more power and less discretion at the government level. Without accountability measures to check that power, the Afghan people are subjects and vulnerable to further abuse.
Furthermore, recall the environment in which the Taliban arose. The people were being abused by warlords and militias. There were no governance functions being fulfilled by a state actor. The Taliban filled that governance void by settling disputes, eliminating toll collectors, disarming militias, and establishing order. If we recreate that environment of rule by unaccountable institutions, then what assurance do we have that a new insurgent organization will not materialize?
Negotiation as a tactic, rather than a strategy
As stated at the beginning of this piece, negotiation is an option that must remain available. But negotiation in Afghanistan is more wisely pursued at the tactical level, rather than the strategic. As Thomas Ruttig wrote in 2009, “discussion of the Afghan insurgency should start from its causes, not from who its actors are. Causes define actors.”41 The Taliban movement gains momentum42 by exploiting poor governance at the local level. Momentum (a term that I will now define)43 is the increase in the rate at which the insurgent influences Afghan organizations to not acquiesce to government authority (or vice versa for the counterinsurgent). Influence over individuals is not momentum because, as Sinno informs us, states and individuals do not engage in conflict; organizations do.44 “[O]rganizations, which are either ad hoc or extensions of existing social structures” perform “essential processes, such as coordination, mobilization, and the manipulation of information, to undermine rivals within a contested territory.”45
As the counterinsurgent, ISAF and the ANSF should be focused upon obtaining acquiescence of local social structures – not individuals46 – to government authority and undermining acquiescence to Taliban and warlord authority. One way to pursue this (not the only way)47 is to mediate specific grievances that impede acquiescence of local social structures to government authority.48 Mediating accommodation of that interest of the aggrieved party with the district government helps to align the interests of the social structure with the government, mitigating the potential risk for the community to waver back and forth, playing the government against the Taliban.49 That is momentum. That is a worthwhile objective. And that is an appropriate use of negotiation in pursuit of a gain that is not as “fragile and reversible” as incorporating belligerents into the government,50 paying the local arbakai51 or doing development projects.52 If negotiation of that type were replicated hundreds of times by district and provincial leaders, with assistance from ANSF, ISAF, or NGOs, then the government could gain momentum in its race to build a viable state by obtaining wider acceptance of the authority of the government. One priority for this type of negotiated integration of local social structures with the government could include connecting state and customary modes of dispute resolution.53
The Task Force Report describes the military and political balance in Afghanistan in a way that focuses exclusively upon state actors and the Taliban. There is very little consideration demonstrated for Afghans who are not national or regional political elites, warlords, or drug lords. This is not to suggest a lack of empathy on the part of the Task Force, but rather a poorly crafted plan that fails to take the interests of, and considerations related to, the most numerous and most salient stakeholders in this crisis.
The Task Force is correct to give serious thought to negotiation. The mere word evokes images of Chamberlain seeking “peace in our time” in the minds of many Americans. Even if we disagree upon how best to negotiate, or with whom, or why, serious discussion by a wider and respected audience will help to remove the emotional stigma attached to the idea and help policy makers to more seriously consider it.54 But the process is best performed by a more realistic assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, with less idealistic goals of concluding a long and dirty conflict through talks that resemble the Paris Peace Accords more so than a shura, and with more decentralized execution that leverages our large presence in Afghanistan to devise creative local solutions appropriate for each situation.
The report’s preface quotes an instruction in the Hadith, emphasizing the importance of “putting things right between people, making peace between people and restoring good relations between people.” This need not be the sole function of ambassadors and envoys. Too much emphasis has been placed on the use of negotiation as a solution at the strategic level. The only thing that can solve our problem at the strategic level is a sound strategy. Negotiation is one means available in the implementation of a strategy, not a way to bypass development of a sound strategy.
1 Tim Mathews, Negotiation: By, With, and Through the Afghan People, SMALL WARS J., February 18, 2011 available at smallwarsjournal.com.
2 The Century Foundation International Task Force on Afghanistan in Its Regional and Multilateral Dimensions, Afghanistan: Negotiating Peace 15 (The Century Foundation 2011) (hereinafter “Task Force Report”), available at tcf.org.
3 Id. at 16.
5 Id. That assertion is repeated 3 pages later. Id. at 19. But the “majority of Afghan people” statistic refers to responses to a poll question. The question asks, “Do you strongly agree, agree somewhat, disagree somewhat or strongly disagree with the Government’s reconciliation efforts and negotiations with the armed opposition?” 41 percent “agree strongly” and 42 percent “agree somewhat.” Mohammad Osman Tariq, Najla Ayoubi, Fazel Rabi Haqbeen, A Survey of the Afghan People 45 (Asia Foundation 2010), available at asiafoundation.org. What is not clear from this question is what the people know or perceive about “the Government’s reconciliation efforts” or “negotiations.” Do the respondents know about the attempts to initiate dialogue through a “peace jirga” and what successes or failures that has produced? Do they know about the demobilization programs or the recidivism rates? Or do responses reflect an assumption that any attempts to end fighting, such as reconciliation or negotiation, are better than insecurity in the short term? And what is their perception of reconciliation and negotiation? Do they envision the local district governor sitting down with competing warlords? With the Taliban? Both? Or do they envision something occurring at the national level? And what is the “armed opposition”? Presumably this does not refer only to the Taliban. In short, the question is vague, but the authors of the Task Force report seem to read in to the data what they prefer.
6 See generally Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia 21-54 (Yale University Press 2000) (2010), available at books.google.com.
7 Id. at 35 and Thomas Barfield, Custom and Culture in Nation-Building: Law in Afghanistan, 60 ME. L. REV. 347, 366-367 (2008).
8 Afghans defections occurred after the US was perceived as likely to succeed, but were motivated by a desire to be rid of the Taliban. See Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History 275-277 (Princeton
University Press 2010), available at books.google.com (asserting that Taliban unpopularity was a motivation for Afghans to ally with US forces) and Steven Biddle, Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy 18-19 (U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute 2002), available at strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil (asserting that Afghan fighters within the Taliban defected after US forces turned the tide of battle, while foreign fighters often fought to the death or until captured).
9 Olivier Roy, Afghanistan: Internal Dynamics and Socio-Economic Dynamics and Groupings, 4 WRITENET Paper No. 14/2002 (March 2003), available at unhcr.org.
10 Barfield, supra note 8, at 275-276.
11 See Barnett Rubin, Crafting a Constitution for Afghanistan, 15 J. OF DEMOCRACY 5, 7 (2004), available at cic.nyu.edu.
12 Antonio Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan 19 (Columbia University Press 2008), available at books.google.com (points out that government officials were perceived as arrogant, incompetent and having little regard for the welfare of the people).
13 Abdulkader H. Sinno, Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond 256 (Cornell University Press 2008) (2010) (points out that women and children were more likely to be kidnapped or raped, sometimes by the very members of the security forces who should have been protecting them).
14 Antonio Giustozzi, Negotiating with the Taliban: Issues and Prospects 18-20 (The Century Foundation 2010) and David Kilcullen, The Accidential Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One 76 (Oxford University Press 2009).
15 Barfield, supra note 8, at 274 (points out that reconstruction funds donated to the GIRoA were poorly allocated and there were insufficient police and soldiers to provide security).
16 “The Taliban tapped into this frustration, but the return of what had been a discredited force was less a measure of their popularity than a response to the failures of the Karzai government…” Id. See also Giustozzi, supra note 14, at 18-20.
17 Task Force Report, supra note 2, at 17 (quoting Dexter Filkins, In Afghanistan, the Exit Plan Starts with “If,” N.Y. TIMES, October 16, 2010 available at nytimes.com).
18 For some examples illustrating Afghan grievances with the government, see Kate Clark, Afghanistan’s ‘weekend jihadis’, BBC, September 11, 2009, available at bbc.co.uk(quoting a local expressing his grievances: “… as they saw the government becoming more inefficient, corrupt and indifferent, they started tending towards the Taliban… Imagine – during the day, the police are police and at night, they are robbers. They plunder people’s houses, they loot the bazaar and kill innocent people… People became very angry… And the Taliban grabbed this opportunity. They attacked the district headquarters and, until now, it’s under Taliban control.”); Seth G. Jones, Beating Back the Taliban, Foreign Policy, March 14, 2011, available at foreignpolicy.com (“The Taliban have also demonstrated an uncanny ability to regenerate, by taking advantage of local grievances against the Afghan central government.”); Allisa J. Rubin, Suicide Bomber Kills an Afghan Police Chief, N.Y. Times, March 10, 2011, at A7, available at nytimes.com (“The police chief, Gen. Abdul Rahman Saidkhaili, was a controversial figure. An ethnic Tajik and a former commander of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, he was seen by a number of local Pashtuns as someone who unfairly discriminated against them because of their ethnicity.”); Paul Wood, A Battle in Baghlan, Foreign Policy, March 11, 2011, available at foreignpolicy.com (“The Taliban commanders explained that they had joined the insurgency because of the district governor who was ‘corrupt.’ A brother had gone to him for help in a land dispute — a common problem in a country where only 10 percent of land is properly registered. But he was arrested and beaten. The family turned instead to the Taliban for help, and the whole village went over to the insurgency.”)
19 For a general criticism of weak assumptions underlying calls for high-level talks, see Martine van Bijlert, Talking about peace talks; a morass of misunderstandings and abstractions, Afghanistan Analysts Network, March 22, 2011, available at aan-afghanistan.org. For specific criticisms of assumptions in the Task Force Report, see Thomas Ruttig, It takes two to talk: reading the Century Foundation report, Foreign Policy, March 24, 2011, available at afpak.foreignpolicy.com.
20 The government’s “seeming incapacity to provide good governance, render justice, and effectively fight corruption” is cited as the reason for low voter turnout and flagging international support. Id. at 20.
21 See the section of this paper below titled “A plan harmful to Afghans that offers little assurance of stability”
22 Task Force Report, supra note 2, at 29.
23 Id. at 27.
24 Id. at 31.
25 Id. at 27.
26 Marika Theros and Mary Kaldor, Building Afghan Peace from the Ground Up 36 (The Century Foundation February 2011), available at tcf.org.
27 Task Force Report, supra note 2, at 28.
28 Id. at 29.
29 Id. at 32.
30 J. Alexander Thier, The Making of a Constitution in Afghanistan, 51 N.Y.L. SCH. L. REV. 557, 566-571 (2007), available at nyls.edu.
31 Id. at 571.
32 Rubin, supra note 11, at 7.
33 Mark Sedra, Rentier State Building in Afghanistan: A Political Economy View, Center for International Governance Innovation, May 19, 2010, available at cigionline.org.
35 Jennifer Brick, Political Economy of Customary Village Organizations in Rural Afghanistan, 17 (University of Wisconsin 2008) available at bu.edu.
36 “… local separation of powers and local checks and balances that encourage more legitimate use of village resources can be destabilized by outside groups.” Id. at 35.
37 Id. at 36.
38 For example, the operations in Marjah unfolded with a “clear” phase followed by attempts to “build” some semblance of governance (the much maligned “government in a box”) in hopes of “holding” the city.
39 Task Force Report, supra note 2, at 66.
41 Thomas Ruttig, Dimensions of the Afghan Insurgency: Causes, Actors and Approaches to ‘Talks’ 5 (Afghanistan Analysts Network 2009) available at aan-afghanistan.org.
42 This term is used extensively by NATO, the United States Government, and many policy researchers. After much research, I found no instance in which it is explicitly or implicitly defined, even vaguely. Therefore, see footnote 43.
43 Unable to find a definition (see footnote 42), I hereby offer my own. If you think I lack the expertise to do that, tough. Like the Taliban, I am merely filling a void.
44 Sinno, supra note 13, at 3.
45 Id. at 4
46 Categories of individuals (poor, unemployed, etc) are simply the pools that organizations draw from. Id. Wooing individuals does not work well in practice. See Buying out Taliban foot soldiers a long shot, BBC, January 20, 2011, available at reuters.com.
47 There is no “best practice” that I am aware of, nor is there any instance where one would observe a negotiation and conclude it to be “the best I have ever seen it practiced” as measured against some ideal standard. Advocacy of negotiation should not be viewed as dogmatically as counterinsurgency. Not only did viewing counterinsurgency with religious-like fervor violate the principle of laïcité that Galula no doubt embraced, but it also caused people to wrongly assume that you either do counterinsurgency everywhere at all times or not at all. Negotiation is a tactic to be used when it can achieve a desired objective. My primary argument is that this should likely occur more often.
48 See recommendations of Theros and Kaldor, supra note 26, at 42-47.
49 For shortcomings of reconciliation attempts, see id. at 37.
50 See Neil A. Englehart, A Tale of Two Afghanistans: Comparative Governance and Insurgency in the North and South, 50 Asian Survey 735, 742 (2010) (“Dostum’s forces clashed … with those of … Atta Mohammed. The central government was unable to [respond] because its only armed forces … were those of the combatants”). Fast forward to February of this year: “The moment these local [militia] forces mistreat people or fail to obey the law, they’ll be dealt with. There’ll be strict control of them.” US-funded militia in Helmand province to be expanded, BBC, February 17, 2011, available at bbc.co.uk.
51 Matthew Green, Petraeus defends plan to arm villagers, FINANCIAL TIMES, February 7, 2011, available at ft.com; Mujib Mashal, Rogue militias abuse rural Afghans, al-Jazeera English, January 12, 2011, available at english.aljazeera.net.
52 For example of troubles inherent in this approach, see Carlotta Gall and Ruhullah Khapalwak, Winning Hearts While Flattening Vineyards Is Rather Tricky, N.Y. TIMES, March 11,2011, at A4, available at nytimes.com.; Sebastian Abbot, Tribal peace deal in Afghanistan on shaky ground, Associated Press, March 1, 2011, available at news.yahoo.com.
53 See generally Theros and Kaldor, supra note 26, at 42; René El Saman, Linking formal and informal conflict resolution mechanisms in Afghanistan: A survey of the people’s perspective (Sayanee Development Organization August 2008), available at library.fes.de.; Thomas Barfield and Neamatollah Nojumi, Bringing More Effective Governance to Afghanistan: 10 Pathways to Success, 17 MIDDLE EAST POL’Y 40 (2010). For a specific example, see An Evaluation of the Khost Commission on Conflict Mediation (CCM) (The Liaison Office June 2009), available at tlo-afghanistan.org.
54 For a sample of discussion that immediately followed the presentation of the report, see What the Media is Saying: Afghanistan Task Force, The Century Foundation, March 24, 2011, available at tcf.org.