Afghanistan has been in a state of war for nearly 35 years. If there is anything we have learned, it is that only a broad-based reconciliation can resolve the fighting. The current US-led military intervention has proven disastrous with the security situation worse off now that during the early 2000s. Furthermore, the international recovery process has emerged as broadly inappropriate. What has been achieved is certainly not commensurate to the billions of dollars spent – or mis-spent – on Afghanistan over the past 12 years. Given the current situation, the only realistic option is to focus on a transparent reconciliation process that involves all parties – above all, the Afghan people.
This article by Essential Field Guide editor Edward Girardet was first published by The Christian Science Monitor last February 19, 2013. Since then, we have received considerable interest among both Afghans and foreigners regarding the need for such a peace process to be initiated by Switzerland as a neutral country rather than having Pakistan, the United States and others dominate the process. It should also involve people who understand Afghanistan. What Afghanistan does not need are more “High Level” negotiations headed by officials, diplomats and ‘experts’ who have little idea what they’re talking about.
Some have suggested that Switzerland’s role be assumed by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (CHD – formerly the Henry Dunant Centre) in Geneva. However, given that the CHD focuses primarily on secret talks, including approaches with select Taliban, this would not be appropriate for Afghanistan. It is imperative that such reconciliation approaches be done in a fully transparent manner involving Afghans and outside players from all sides.
Hence perhaps a hosting coalition of different Swiss organizations, such as SwissPeace, Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the CHD with support from other groups might prove more effective. What is crucial, however, is that the Swiss government should fully back the process.
Here are five factors necessary to achieving a sustainable peace in Afghanistan.
1. All Afghans must be represented
All Afghans need to be represented in peace talks, whether those participants be the government, insurgent fronts, or credible political and religious leaders. Equally crucial are respected civil society actors, who are emerging as a significant third group.
There is also a whole generation of young Afghans – 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25 – whose aspirations have little to do with the former jihadists, the Taliban, or the warlords. They should have a say.
2. Peace talks must be Afghan-led and US-backed
The talks must be Afghan-led and sincerely backed by the United States and its allies. Islamabad should not be granted excessive dominance. While trade routes and border disputes are often cited as reasons for allowing Pakistan such influence, this neighbor is not the only outside link for Afghanistan. Iran and the Central Asian republics also offer viable commercial routes to Europe, Russia, and beyond.
3. Talks must be transparent
The talks have to be transparent. No secret deals. As anyone who has worked in Afghanistan knows only too well, grassroots Afghans believe they have been badly duped by the donor countries starting with the top-down Bonn talks at the end of 2001.
Then came the Emergency Loya Jirgha (Grand Assembly) in July 2002, when the Americans shattered public confidence by involving the discredited warlords, some responsible for war crimes. Even more disastrous, Washington sidelined Zahir Shah, the aging former king and only figurehead leader capable of rallying Afghans behind a genuine recovery process.
The same thing happened during the 1980s when Pakistan’s ISI (intelligence agency) undermined the ex-monarch in favor of hard-line extremists now fighting the coalition forces.
4. Talks should be overseen by a neutral, non-NATO country
Reconciliation efforts should be overseen – at least initially – by a neutral, non-NATO country. A recent roundtable on Afghanistan organized by SwissPeace and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy proposed Switzerland as a possible venue. The Swiss are ready to step in. Traditional Afghan mediation institutions should then take over without outside meddling.
5. West cannot abandon Afghanistan
And finally, even with the pullout of most foreign troops by the end of 2014, the West cannot simply abandon Afghanistan. It did so once before following the Red Army withdrawal in 1988, with horrendous consequences, notably a brutal civil war and the rise of the Taliban.
This time, the West, particularly the US, needs to persist with long-term development and investment. This does not mean wasting billions more dollars, but rather focusing on “smart” recovery initiatives. Given its natural resources plus exceptional cultural and eco-tourism potential, Afghanistan could have a good future.
For all this to happen, however, the West needs to be serious about wanting a credible peace. It also means acting in the interests of ordinary Afghans.
Edward Girardet is author of “Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan” and “Afghanistan: The Soviet War.” He is also editor of “The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan and the Region.”