Doubts about mounting a successful peace process in Afghanistan are running high as 2011 nears an end. However, hopes for it have not been extinguished and considerable work needs to be done on laying out what a viable process would include and how it might proceed, according to several Afghanistan specialists appearing at an event held at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on Nov. 29.

Doubts about mounting a successful peace process in Afghanistan are running high as 2011 nears an end. However, hopes for it have not been extinguished and considerable work needs to be done on laying out what a viable process would include and how it might proceed, according to several Afghanistan specialists appearing at an event held at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on Nov. 29.

The meeting drew on a recent USIP PeaceWorks report, “Designing a Comprehensive Peace Process for Afghanistan.” Its lead author, Lisa Schirch, was one of the panelists, as was Nilofar Sakhi, who contributed to the same paper. Another PeaceWorks report, “Beyond Power Sharing: Institutional Options for an Afghan Peace Process,” was authored by two other panelists, Hamish Nixon and Caroline Hartzell, released in December by the Institute.

For now, a politically negotiated Afghan settlement is “a long shot,” conceded Andrew Wilder, who directs USIP’s programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “But there aren’t many other shots to be taken.”

The September assassination in Kabul of Afghan High Peace Council Chairman Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president, has triggered a wave of skepticisim about prospects for peace and prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to announce that his government will no longer hold talks with the Taliban but rather with neighboring Pakistan, where some of the militant forces fighting Afghan government and international troops are finding a haven. Reconciliation remains on the agenda at the International Conference on Afghanistan to be held at Bonn, Germany, on Dec. 5. But in a sign of the complexities of regional politics, Pakistan has announced that it is pulling out of the Bonn conference in retaliation for an incident along the Afghan-Pakistani border in which NATO planes fired on two Pakistani security posts, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers. The incident is still under investigation. Iran’s participation at Bonn has also been unclear. And while a senior German official has said that “moderate Taliban” can join in at Bonn, it seemed unlikely ahead of the conference that any significant Taliban representation will be there.

“The current ambiguity is really paralyzing everyone,” noted Wilder, who said the United States, for its part, needs to consider “how we can articulate better that we’re serious about this process.” Despite all the setbacks and uncertainties in Afghanistan and the wider region, the panelists at USIP emphasized that a viable peace process remains possible—but will require careful planning, the involvement of all key players and considerable patience.

  • Hamish Nixon. Despite “a huge amount of pessimism,” Afghans and others should remember that many conflicts in which some combatants seemed unwilling or unready to negotiate later gave way to negotiations, said Nixon, who coordinates a joint project on Afghan peace issues for USIP, the Peace Research Institute Oslo and the Chr. Michelsen Institute that is funded by Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Rabbani killing does not foretell whether the Taliban will be willing to bargain in the future, he said. “This kind of escalation is unfortunately extremely common in the closing period of a conflict before negotiations are embarked on.” Doubts also center around Pakistan’s attitude toward negotiations and its pursuit of a hedging strategy, given its concerns over the regional influence of rival India and the future size of Afghanistan’s security forces. “Any peace process requires both will and ideas,” he said, and maintaining a vision for a peace process that can respond to the core needs of the parties to the conflict is critical if “pro-dialogue elements” on each side can prevail.
  • Caroline Hartzell. Special attention needs to be given to what happens after a peace accord is signed but before its long-term arrangements can be implemented, said Hartzell, a political scientist at Gettysburg College and a 2010-11 Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at USIP. “Once a peace agreement is signed we enter into a very unstable transitional period,” she said. Such a period might entail not only a cease-fire but the verified disclosure of what combatant forces exist and perhaps the cantonment of troops, she said. During a transition, hybrid arrangements for a political order that show both continuity and some power-sharing might be put in place. Over the long run, she said, the focus on negotiated power sharing will need to be much broader than deciding who holds central or provincial executive positions. It could include a range of measures that create opportunities to share and balance influence and access to resources among Afghan groups, while fostering a more accountable and capable state.
  • Lisa Schirch. Recent Afghan peace efforts have left out key stakeholders and set aside key issues, said Schirch, the director of 3P Human Security, a partnership for peacebuilding policy, and a research professor at Eastern Mennonite University. She argued that fast-track style negotiations will not work and cannot replace a comprehensive peace process. “History shows us this is a fantasy,” she said. There are a number of options for structuring public participation in a comprehensive process, giving the overall enterprise greater legitimacy and a better chance of enduring. That approach also pays long-term benefits. “Successful peace processes are exercises in democratic governance,” she said. At the same time, Afghanistan will need both internal and external mediation help, likely including an international “gGroup of Ffriends” to encourage the parties to stick with a process.
  • Nilofar Sakhi. It remains important to understand Afghanistan’s troubles as “a deep-rooted conflict” in which the Taliban took advantage of a ruined social fabric and political system to take power, said Sakhi, an Afghan advocate for human rights who earlier served as the country director at the Open Society Foundation—Afghanistan. Previous peace initiatives have been ad hoc and suffered from a “lack of continuity,” she said. “For us, it was really events—not a process.” The efforts have also lacked transparency and the inclusion of important groups in Afghan society. Sakhi argued that a peace process does not require a deadline, such as the end of 2014 when U.S. and other international forces plan to transfer responsibility for security to Afghanistan. Still, she said, “we should start it as soon as possible.”

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