Middle East

Op-Ed

A Role for the U.S. in Afghan National Reconciliation?

A U.S. soldier in Afghanistan.

In June, at the latest loya jirga (a grand assembly comprised of tribal leaders) meeting in Kabul, 1,600 local Afghan leaders endorsed a social reintegration program for low-level Taliban insurgents willing to renounce violence, accept the Afghan Constitution and return to their homes with potential incentives, such as employment, vocational training or development projects for their communities.

The jirga was a significant step forward in consensus building and national reconciliation among Afghans. The program is designed to attract Taliban insurgents who have no ideological commitment to the Taliban and are part of the insurgency for monetary compensation. However, reintegrating Taliban foot soldiers is only one dimension of a broader reconciliation process.

Although the United States supports and funds reintegration of foot soldiers, it still refuses to endorse talks with senior Taliban leadership, in essence creating a major roadblock towards Afghan-led reconciliation efforts. This strategy continues despite the fact that the majority of NATO allies, and senior Afghan and U.S. officials, have publicly acknowledged that this war cannot be won by military means alone. If Afghanistan is to move towards lasting peace, the United States' overall strategy must be changed.

The United States and the Taliban leadership continue to place opposing preconditions on the Kabul government that prevent a national reconciliation process from going forward. For example, the United States wants the Taliban to stop fighting and accept the Afghan Constitution. The Taliban, meanwhile, wants foreign forces out of Afghanistan as a precondition to joining the government's political process. Furthermore, senior Taliban leadership is open to dialogue with the United States, but only under the condition that there are no other preconditions for holding talks.

To break this stalemate, build trust between both sides and facilitate reconciliation, Karzai's administration has pushed the United Nations in recent months to remove certain Taliban commanders from its terror list. And Kabul and Islamabad are rumored to be luring top Taliban leadership into Afghanistan's political process. However, U.S. Army General David Petraeus' recent decision to blacklist the Haqqani Network—an insurgency group in Afghanistan and Pakistan closely allied with the Taliban—as a terrorist organization may jeopardize these initiatives.

U.S. President Barack Obama has declared that his country's objective in Afghanistan is to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda" while breaking the "momentum" of the Taliban. The counter-insurgency strategy pursued by the United States seeks to weaken the Taliban insurgency before endorsing formal dialogue between the Karzai Administration and insurgent commanders. The strategy to meet this goal needs to be reassessed.

First, there are only 50 to 100 active al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, according to Afghan and U.S. officials, which means that a huge military force to deal with this number of operatives is wholly disproportionate. Second, the only way to break the "momentum" of the Taliban lies in assisting an Afghan-centric reconciliation process, which heavily supports talks with senior Taliban commanders.

After all, there have been nine years of fighting an insurgency without serious engagement in dialogue to bring these elements into the political fold—and the Taliban have only become stronger, not weaker. Thus, the stability of Afghanistan rests on re-examining the ineffectiveness of a hard-power approach and an eventual transition towards the robust use of soft power in meeting long-term policy objectives. The best way to help the Kabul government stabilize the country is to support their full reconciliation strategy, which includes reaching out to senior Taliban commanders.

Third, all major players—including the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and NATO allies, amongst others—need to put an emphasis on socio-economic development, reconstruction, institution building, education and human rights in Afghanistan.

Finally, the exploitation of ethnic divisions for political interests by regional players and internal actors must be contained by the United States. Both Afghan majority and minority leaders must work together to bring peace to their war-torn nation.

Continued violence and long-term military engagement will lead only to further destruction of Afghan society. Supporting Afghan efforts to reconcile differences among themselves and strengthening Afghan state institutions will pave the way for long-term stability. Neither the Afghans nor the international community can allow Afghanistan to become a safer haven for terrorists.

Shukria Dellawar is an independent analyst based in the Washington, DC area and can be contacted at rdellawar@gmail.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service: www.commongroundnews.org.

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