Peace is too important to fake

On 25 to 27 January 2011 ASDHA of Barcelona brought Afghan government and civil society representatives together with international analysts to debate whether there should be negotiations with the Taliban Movement.

For a few moments confusion reigned as silent protesters pushed their way to the front of a Barcelona conference hall where an audience listened to Afghanistan’s most famous poet-diplomat lecture on war and peace. The speaker paused and smiled politely as a group of costumed activists presented a tableau calling for an immediate end to the war in Afghanistan and castigating collaboration with the “narco-mafia”. That both the speaker and a fair number of the guests first assumed that the banner-waving actors’ protest was a part of the conference programme gives an idea of the dilemmas facing all those trying to steer a way forward in the Afghan imbroglio. A highly principled Spanish human rights group had gathered us to contemplate the wisdom of engaging with the Taliban to end the conflict in Afghanistan. ASDHA’s roots were in the 90’s and the period of European solidarity with Afghan women struggling under Taliban rule. But now the organization played host to Masood Khalili who deployed his poetry and proverbs to honour the sacrifice of Spanish soldiers in Badghis, thanking Europeans for being prepared to “fight for peace”, asking them to fight on until Afghan security forces were ready to take over and cautiously calling for peace talks with the Taliban. Not just civil society, but the political establishment in the United States and Europe wrestle with competing impulses to stay committed to the military campaign or wind down involvement in Afghanistan. They weigh up endorsing negotiation with the Taliban Movement versus freezing it out of the political process. Discussion in the conference suggested that the discourse is shifting.

The first hint we saw of how long a road European civil society has travelled came in the form of the multiple screenings of an animated awareness-raising film in Spanish. This was a classic civil society perspective. Cartoons of gun-toting be-turbaned men and burqa-clad women summarised recent Afghan history as a series of deals between wicked Afghan warlords and American financiers, repeatedly selling out on the rights of Afghan women. In the same spirit, dedicated participants wore t-shirts with the film’s Afghan woman cartoon character calling for an Afghan parliament stripped of war criminals. But meanwhile back in Kabul the agenda was palpably moving on. While we were debating in Barcelona, the tussles over the Afghan parliament reached a denouement beyond the imagination of the cartoonists. Persuading President Karzai to let the new parliament start work was such an achievement for democracy that few had time or energy to notice the new batch of warlords in its ranks. Despite a long tradition of speaking out against the abuses of power by Taliban before 2001 and by the revived warlords after 2001, the mood in the conference was reluctantly towards accepting that one way or another peace in Afghanistan will demand accommodation with the Taliban.

Masoom Stanekzai, security adviser to President Karzai, presented the government’s eye view of the road to peace. He explains efforts to get the Taliban on board as part of the broader process of “transition”. Transition is the new framework for pretty much all cooperation between the Government of Afghanistan and its international supporters – a new round of investment in Afghan security forces and administration to allow the winding down of the international presence. The way Stanekzai explains it, the Afghanisation of security will deprive insurgents of a cause de guerre. But the Afghan army will be strong enough to deal with those “extremists”among the insurgents, who will want to fight on against the Afghan government even in the face of the transition away from foreign troops. Stanekzai has responsibility for a progamme for reintegrating Taliban to which $200 million has been committed. One year after the Government of Afghanistan announced reintegration as its top priority, at the London Conference, Stanekzai reports that 960 men have embraced reintegration (250 in Herat, 172 in Baghlan, 365 in Badghis, 30 in Farah, 19 in Saripul, 40 in Faryab, 64 in Kunduz and 20 in Helmand). Stanekzai claims that Taliban fighters’ acceptance of the government’s offer of non-harassment and material incentives is helping to bring security. His main example was Badghis, where he claimed that the top six of the Taliban provincial leadership has either been killed (two men) or reconciled (four men) and the security bubble round the provincial centre has expanded from 1 km to 50 km. He claimed that this progress opens the way for completion of the ring road through Badghis in 2011. But most of Stanekzai’s briefing on progress focused on structures, processes and atmospherics rather than output. He took credit for the holding of the 2010 peace jirga in Kabul (building a consensus in favour of reconciliation) and for establishing the famous High Peace Council of prominent pro-government figures, to propagate in favour of reconciliation and prepare the way for negotiation. The achievement Stanekzai seemed most proud of was the creation of a pro-reconciliation sentiment in the population. He presented a graph tracking popular attitudes to reintegration and reconciliation from January 2010 to January 2011, based on 186 source reports. The graph shows a beautiful yellow trend line climbing from disapproval of government peace plans in the first half of 2010 to approval in the second half of the year, with popularity boosts related to every event through which the government rolled out its strategy – the June Peace Jirga, the July Kabul Conference, the launch of the High Peace Council and NATO’s December Lisbon Summit.

As we were hosted by a human rights organization it was only fitting that Sheela Samini, one of the nine woman members of the High Peace Council, presented on the role of women in the reconciliation process. The Presidential team recruited Sheela to the Council because she was a prominent member of the community of civil society and women’s organizations that have emerged in post Taliban Kabul. She confessed that it was strange to be a woman at the same table as the former jihadi leaders who comprise most of the Council. She was proud of the way that the women are now an integral part of the working of the Council. As a concrete example she told how she works alongside three former senior Taliban in the prisoners sub-committee and described her astonishment at finding herself helicoptered to Bagram to meet with Taliban detainees.

The most cautious endorsement of the idea of negotiations with the Taliban came from Nadir Nadiri of the Human Rights Commission. He described the Taliban movement as a product of Pakistan’s proxy warfare in Afghanistan. He condemned the series of decisions after 2001 which led to war crimes suspects of the civil war era dominating the Karzai administration and warned that an unhealthy rush to welcome the Taliban into the political system might amount to a sell-out on rights and extension of impunity.

On one level the conference distilled an important point. Because there is a broad popular desire to achieve peace, even those constituencies long hostile to the Taliban movement – Northern Alliance stalwarts, technocrats and civil society figures – are prepared to endorse President Karzai’s call for the Taliban to enter the political system. But the presentations also left me deeply worried that in reality no one on the government side is yet prepared to contemplate the kind of peace process that the Taliban movement might find attractive. Nothing that was described by the official speakers sounded likely to persuade the Taliban to end their armed struggle. For the moment the most likely outcome is a continuation of the conflict so that when the “transition” happens the NATO countries do not just hand over security responsibility, but also hand over a war that has to be fought indefinitely.

The reintegration programme occupies an important part in the architecture of the war. Given that NATO and the Government claim to be fighting to restore peace they have to make overtures to insurgents who opt out of the fight. I have also advocated local peace deals as a way of building the confidence that will be necessary for national level peace-making. Done well, reintegration can be part of the solution. But what the programme managers hold up as progress is illusory. Firstly there is little evidence that the 960 “reintegrees” had even seriously been involved in the insurgency. Secondly Stanekzai’s claim to be able to track precisely movements in popular support for the government peace-efforts is unconvincing because of the unreliability of Afghan survey data. Thirdly Stanekzai’s claims of a security bubble in Badghis sounded premature, to say the least. No qualified company was prepared to bid in the latest Asian Development Bank tender for construction of the ring road through the province. Companies are doubtful of the prospects of protecting work in the insurgency affected north of the province. Tellingly Stankzai deftly avoided revealing how much of his $200 million programme actually ends up in the hands of the intended beneficiaries (tamed fighters). There is a real risk that government and international aid bureaucracy “insiders” will use the programme to grab resources while running a few project activities that sound good but tame few Taliban. Reintegration is too important for this to be allowed to happen.

Despite the relentless government publicity around the establishment of the Peace Council and its counterparts in the provinces, for the moment the Taliban have made it abundantly clear that they consider the Council a new front for a puppet regime and therefore have no intention to engage. They dismiss the Council as an exercise in political theatre, in the tradition of communist era national reconciliation endeavours, designed to delude government supporters that it can pacify the opposition. There is indeed an eerie similarity between the set pieces concocted by today’s Kabul government and the way in which the beleaguered communist government of the 1980s, controlling only urban pockets, used to convene grand national councils and congresses. It is unsurprising that the Taliban stays well clear of these stage managed processes, suggesting that real political engagement will happen through other channels.

It would be churlish to speak ill of the role of Afghan women in the High Peace Council. Their presence certainly breaks new ground. But from what I have learnt so far of this role they are far removed from the power politics which eventually will determine whether there is some kind of a peace deal. Shireen simply knew little of her Council’s strategy towards the Taliban and is so unquestioning in her reverence for the Afghan government that it is difficult to imagine her finding common language with Taliban who dismiss the same administration as a puppet. For the moment the women’s real role is to increase the palatability of the Peace Council to western backers and certain sections of “pro-government” Afghan society. If there ever is to be peace with justice it is vital that powerful Afghan political actors persuade the Taliban leadership to endorse ideas of women in the work place and in public life. This will require tough political maneuvering rather than a decorative women’s presence in a government-appointed Council.

There is an obvious agenda for civil society here. Until now civil society figures have mainly worried that government and NATO will drop concerns for women and rights and sell out to the Taliban in a hasty peace – the point made by Nadir Nadiri. But there is a more imminent risk that there will be no peace at all. War-fighting continues for real while on reintegration and reconciliation we just go through the motions. In the spirit of peace with justice, civil society should demand that the Government of Afghanistan, NATO countries and the United Nations get serious in pursuing peace. This can involve holding exercises like the reintegration programme and the High Peace Council and perhaps the transition strategy as a whole, to account. Independent assessment of progress would be the best way to check the dangers of insiders hiding resource grabs behind phantom reports of progress. Peace with justice requires that we prevent them from fudging the figures.