The current security, political and economic environment in Afghanistan presents significant challenges to ending the conflict. Facts on the ground have largely worked against political dialogue in the first four months of 2012. In recent weeks, however, there have been small steps forward in four areas: 1) dialogue with the Taliban; 2) easing tensions with Afghanistan’s neighbors; 3) Afghan leadership exercising its sovereign authority; and 4) international commitment backed up by credible action. Accelerated progress in these areas is essential to create an atmosphere that facilitates a peace and reconciliation process.
Dialogue among Afghans, including the Taliban, on a peace and reconciliation process has not yet started. As of late April, it seems that new ideas are being offered to provide safe passage for Taliban representatives from Pakistan to join the talks to be held in Qatar. Pakistan is engaged in the current process of facilitating the talks, so regional buy-in to a certain extent is occurring. Afghanistan has asserted its sovereignty in its relationship with the United States by establishing Afghan terms and lead on detainees and night raids. The United States is demonstrating its commitment to Afghanistan beyond 2014 by signing the US-Afghanistan strategic partnership in Kabul on May 1. This political progress is both real and very tenuous, given the violence and insecurity across Afghanistan.
Events in the first quarter of 2012 have done little to create an atmosphere that would support positive steps toward resolving the conflict in Afghanistan. 2012 has thus far been marked by a series of incidents involving serious misconduct by US forces with tragic consequences and the killing of civilians in a pre-dawn raid by an unauthorized US soldier acting alone. These incidents, as well as the April 15 attack in Kabul that shut down the center of the city (speculated to be the work of the Haqqani network), and the attack at a compound used by western contractors on May 2 immediately after the visit by President Obama, have over shadowed the ongoing international, regional and bilateral political tracks.
Dialogue between the Karzai government and the Taliban is being fostered, but has not yet started. This process got off to a bad start with a very public tiff as the Karzai government at first rejected Qatar as the location for a Taliban office and the talks. Once President Karzai agreed to Qatar as host, the dialogue itself appeared in jeopardy because of the Taliban’s reluctance to participate and a disagreement between Qatar and the US over the terms of a transfer of Taliban from detention at Guantanamo to Qatar, considered a central confidence-building measure for the talks.
At the end of April, however, a new impetus was given to the US-led effort to open the doors for the Karzai government and Taliban to talk. On April 27, the Afghan vice minister of foreign affairs, following a trilateral meeting with Pakistan and the United States, announced two new initiatives – a process whereby Pakistan would provide safe passage of representatives of the Taliban to talks in Qatar and for a trilateral sub-group to work in New York on de-listing of Taliban from the UN sanctions list.
There is press speculation that this tripartite discussion of new confidence-building measures among Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States was followed by another round of US talks with the Taliban representatives in Qatar, as the US defined its role as opening the way for the government of Afghanistan to talk to the Taliban. Where the Taliban stands on the issue of talks is unclear, given the recent announcement of the start of their spring offensive.
The fact that the above-mentioned trilateral core group meeting among senior officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States occurred in Islamabad is representative of some easing of tensions among neighbors. A trilateral summit meeting of the presidents of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in February in Islamabad and a quadrilateral summit of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Tajikistan in Dushanbe—along with the 5th Regional Economic Cooperation Conference—also show some level of regional cooperation.
The question remains, however, of whether these meetings are capable of producing meaningful results, especially given the international effort underway to isolate Iran over its nuclear program, and the yet-unresolved issues in the US relationship with Pakistan over drone strikes and the transit routes through Pakistan for NATO, following the late November killing of Pakistani soldiers at an outpost on the border with Afghanistan.
The next significant area demanding progress—as much for internal Afghan domestic purposes as to reassure the international community—involves demonstrating that Afghanistan is assuming and exercising its sovereign authority. Agreements on detainee management and Afghan lead on special forces operations, particularly night raids, are indicative of the Afghan government asserting itself. Similarly, the long awaited and unexpected approval by Parliament in early March of the remaining nine cabinet ministers of the Karzai government, two years after they were first nominated, is an indication of political forces demonstrating a willingness to put governance before politics.
Finally, international commitment to Afghanistan’s future beyond 2014, backed up by credible action, is central to creating an atmosphere for serious dialogue on peace and reconciliation. The signing of the Afghan–United States Strategic Partnership in Kabul on May 1 certainly contributes to allaying fears that Afghanistan will be abandoned by the West in 2014, as was the case in the 1990s.
While other allies and western partners of Afghanistan have already reached accords on long-term partnerships, the terms of the relationship with the United States is the backbone of the international commitment. Two key stumbling blocks to the US-Afghanistan strategic partnership, the core of bilateral relations post 2014, were removed when Afghanistan and the US signed memoranda of understanding on the handling of detainees in March and on special forces operations, including the controversial night raids, in April.
All of the above is a minimal level of forward momentum which could easily be reversed, given the underlying mistrust among supposedly cooperating governments. The real challenges lie ahead in engaging the Taliban and its allies, while Afghanistan continues to assume the lead in the security area; keeps the neighbors involved in a positive fashion; and finds ways to demonstrate to the Afghan people that the international community’s commitment is strong and viable beyond 2014.
Ambassador Maureen Quinn is a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute, who had a distinguished career in the US State Department, including serving as Coordinator for Afghanistan; Acting Chief of Mission in Kabul; and Ambassador to Qatar
About the photo: Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai exchange documents after signing the strategic partnership agreement in Afghanistan, May 1, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)