A Primer on Afghan Peace Talks

James Dobbins and James Shinn offer practical guidelines for a future peace process in Afghanistan in their August 2011 RAND report, Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer (summary | pdf).

In spite of the apparent collapse of secret, direct talks between the Obama administration and Afghan Taliban officials over the summer, Mr. Dobbins and Mr. Shinn believe that a negotiated settlement remains feasible and worth pursuing. After all, the potential parties to a peace process share a number of priorities—not least the withdrawal of Western armed forces—and the Afghan and US governments, NATO, and most of Afghanistan’s neighbors have endorsed a negotiated settlement, in principle at least, that would give the Taliban some role in a future government.

Outlining the shape that talks could take, Mr. Dobbins and Mr. Shinn call for a UN-endorsed facilitator to orchestrate a multi-tiered negotiation process, with the Taliban and the Kabul government at the core and regional and other interested governments engaging less formally on the periphery.

The terms of an accord would likely focus on security assurances including a ceasefire, the withdrawal of foreign forces,  and the severing of the Taliban’s link with al-Qaida, as well as power-sharing arrangements and possible modifications to the constitution. The authors also touch on trade and investment—essential for peace and stability in Afghanistan, where 36 percent of the population lives in absolute poverty.
Mr. Dobbins and Mr. Shinn aim their recommendations primarily at the US government—Mr. Dobbins was a lead negotiator for the United States at the Bonn Accords in 2001, and Mr. Shinn is a former assistant secretary of defense for Asia. When they suggest that UN peacekeepers would provide the most acceptable follow-on presence in Afghanistan to oversee the process of implementation, they are thin on the details. If talks do eventually come about, monitoring and compliance will prove crucial to ensuring that commitments on paper are realized in reality. UN peacekeepers have proven most useful in this kind of role in other cases; in Afghanistan, it will require a lot more than a primer.