The recently released Century Foundation International Task Force report on Afghanistan titled “Afghanistan: Negotiating Peace” usefully sketches out the myriad issues surrounding the challenges of seeking an Afghan peace settlement involving the Taliban.
However, the report’s call for a “neutral international facilitator” harkens back to the 1990s, when the United Nations (unsuccessfully) sought to stitch together an Afghan peace agreement between the warring mujahideen factions. The U.N. proved no match for the well-armed and Pakistani-supported Taliban, who successfully captured Kabul in 1996 and ruled Afghanistan until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
A hard-nosed analysis of the Taliban’s military capabilities, relationship to other lethal extremist groups in the region, and continued sanctuary in Pakistan reveals that the U.S. must be the leading force behind any effort to reconcile the Taliban. Rather than view a political strategy in Afghanistan as merely part of an exit strategy, the U.S. should view it as a way to capitalize on military gains and focus on achieving a political outcome that ensures that vital U.S. national security interests are protected over the long-term.
U.S. policymakers should also be prepared to accept the possibility that the Taliban may be unwilling to make political compromises or break its ties to al-Qaeda, which would render the idea of reconciliation with the Taliban unworkable.
The Century Foundation report rightly acknowledges that a political settlement will not be easy. But it also raises questions by asserting that Afghans “will have to allow for fair representation of the Taliban in central and provincial governments” and “determine the proper role of Islamic law in regulating dress, behavior and the administration of justice.” On the first point, it is the Taliban that must submit to a political process that allows the fair representation of all ethnic groups. In other words, the Taliban leaders must reconcile themselves to a fair political process, not the other way around.
With regard to the role of Islamic law, religious liberty in Afghanistan is already problematic. Demanding a Taliban voice in the “administration of justice” and matters of personal conscience can only exacerbate the situation. Moreover, most Afghans would argue that the constitution already goes far enough in recognizing the importance of Islam to society by stating that no law may contradict the beliefs and provisions of Islam. The constitution of a country with full religious liberty would guarantee an individual’s freedom to worship in the way he or she chooses without reference to the religious orientation of the state or tenets and provisions of any particular religion.
The report rightly points to Pakistan as holding a key role in any negotiated solution in Afghanistan. But the goal should be to convince the Pakistanis to join the club for progress and moderation in the region, not to allow them to reverse the gains in human development and rights for minorities and women made over the last decade.
We need greater clarity on Pakistan’s role in the Afghan conflict. On the one hand, it is widely accepted that Islamabad is playing a spoiler role by allowing the Taliban to maintain sanctuary on its territory. On the other hand, Pakistani officials claim that they do not have full control over the Taliban and thus cannot be held responsible for the insurgency that still rages in Afghanistan. But Pakistan cannot have its cake and eat it, too. Allowing the Pakistanis to play the spoiler in Afghanistan without receiving international pushback gives them too much power.
Only a political process that somehow holds Pakistan fully accountable for its actions would be worth the effort. And, if as the report says, “Pakistan may be expected to use its influence over the Taliban as leverage to advance its own security interests as part of a political settlement,” then the U.S must fully expect India to use its leverage with the political players it can influence to protect its own security interests. As it stands, the individuals India would most likely support happen to be the same leaders the U.S. has worked with over the last 10 years and share U.S. values of respect for human rights and dignity and religious pluralism.
The U.S. must shape a political environment in South Asia that is conducive to peace, stability, and robust U.S. engagement, not cede the region to extremists who will harbor international terrorists, provoke Indo–Pakistani conflict, and reverse the gains made in human development in Afghanistan over the last 10 years. To achieve these objectives, the U.S. needs to be the driving force behind any political settlement that involves talks with the Taliban. The U.S. has not invested 10 years of American blood and treasure in Afghanistan to leave the country’s fate in the hands of the U.N.