Why Do Peace Processes Still Exclude Key Actors?: Q&A with Daisaku Higashi

Militants lay down guns to signal their intention of leaving the Taliban. Saripul, Afghanistan, March 17, 2016. (Yaqoube Azorda/Xinhua/Getty Images)

Convincing the Taliban to accept democratic elections as a means of choosing leaders could be among “the most difficult and crucial questions for this peace process,” said Daisaku Higashi, Associate Professor at the University of Sophia, referring to current negotiations on Afghanistan.

Dr. Higashi, the author of last year’s Challenges of Constructing Legitimacy and Peacebuilding: Afghanistan, Iraq, Sierra Leone and Timor-Leste, said the Taliban had not indicated whether it would accept a democratic process in Afghanistan, but had made some recent acknowledgements of the need to improve its record on women and human rights.

Speaking with International Peace Institute Director of Programs Maureen Quinn, he criticized the way the Taliban had been frozen out of past processes for peace and political transition, and has called for further research into why such exclusion continues to occur.

“I think that including former enemies or big political factions in the political process in the early stages of peacebuilding is one of the most important lessons from Afghan history,” Dr. Higashi said.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your research and your book take an in-depth look at two very distinct processes in peacebuilding: disarmament of warlords and reconciliation among armed groups. Let’s consider the case of Afghanistan, where you had field experience with the United Nations: What did you learn from the process of disarmament, particularly the disarmament of warlords? What were the obstacles?

One of the challenges is that the international community and the United Nations has an assumption of creating a central government that holds authority over the entire country, but that has never happened in the past in Afghanistan. Warlords and military groups are so strong in local areas that it’s not easy to disrupt everything and create new security institutions like the Afghan military or police. Hamid Karzai, in a previous government, tried to do it, but it’s a big challenge because people are not accustomed to those kinds of centrally controlled institutions.

I also found that people want to disarm military groups because they are harassed by them. They are hopeful that they can disarm these armed groups and establish new security institutions, but the way to induce a military group to give up their weapons has been the government promising they would provide economic development projects if 75% of the weapons registered in each district were rendered to the government. Some military groups complied with that request. Unfortunately, when I did the research in 2008, 40 districts had already crossed the threshold of 75%, but only two districts actually received economic development projects. The other 38 districts did not receive anything.

There are many, many reasons for this. One is that government officers did not explain that there was a budget ceiling for these projects, so some districts continued to request a project over the ceiling, which was $150,000 USD at that time. Also, there was a linkage between the projects and the district development plans created by the United Nations Development Programme. UNDP created a whole list of development projects that each district might want to have in the future, without considering the cost of each project. And the districts might choose a first, second, or third project, but they never calculated the actual costs of these. So, in many cases they requested those projects and the central government made an estimate, and said “Oh no, I’m sorry. We cannot do it.” They wasted so many months and years and really destroyed the credibility of both the government and the UN.

A number of former warlords were appointed as governors in Afghanistan. Do you think that contributed to the process of peacebuilding? Did it undercut the process, or did it depend on the individual warlords involved and the context of the province?

It’s a reality that sometimes a government needs to include those warlords that are very big political stakeholders in each of the different regions or provinces, but I think it is quite problematic that in the current Afghan system, the president can appoint every governor in the 34 provinces. Afghanistan is a very decentralized state, so it’s quite contradictory to the nature of the country. Some experts argue that if the governor is elected, you might have better governors who have local bases and some popularity. Also, it might encourage some opposition members to enter the political process, because they might see that they can at least win local elections. It might, for example, induce some parts of the Taliban to join in the political process.

The Taliban were not included in the Bonn process, which laid the foundation for the new constitution, elections, and the federal government in Afghanistan after 2001. Do you see an opening for reconciliation with the Taliban today, given the talks that have been launched with Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and the US in this regard?

Yes, the Taliban was totally excluded from the Bonn process, and many people argued that it was quite difficult to include them. But what many people, including former UN representative Lakhdar Brahimi, argue, is that after the Bonn process, you had one or two years, from 2002 to 2003, where it was quite easy to accommodate at least some faction of the Taliban leadership. It could have been transformed into a political party and have participated in the elections.

There was also scholarly research that showed the Taliban leadership had a big discussion in 2002, and they almost decided to join in the political talks, if they could get a guarantee that they would not be arrested. But nobody from the government actually responded to that. I asked many Afghan ministers why this was not the case, and many people told me that in 2002 and 2003, there was quite a consensus that Afghanistan’s nation building was a success. Many people didn’t think it was necessary to make such a difficult decision as to include the Taliban in the political process. I think that including former enemies or big political factions in the political process in the early stages of peacebuilding is one of the most important lessons from Afghan history.

In terms of current need, maybe there’s a consensus by even the US government and the Afghan government, and all the international community, that they need to have some kind of political settlement in Afghanistan, especially when the US has withdrawn almost all combat forces. The US used to have a 100,000-strong military force in Afghanistan; now it’s only 10,000, and it might become 5,000 in a year. So, maybe it’s difficult for the government and the US to expel the Taliban if they couldn’t expel them in the last 15 years.

I always argued that we have four key actors in this political process: one is the Afghan government, of course; second is the Taliban; the third is the US; and fourth is Pakistan. Pakistan originally  supported the creation of the Taliban in the 1990s, and it’s continued to have some influence on the group. If you want to have a political process without Pakistan, it might interrupt the process. They want to be involved, at least, in the talks. At the same time, Pakistan might see its national interest as having some political settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, because the Taliban is under the influence of Pakistan.

If those four states can create some sustainable process to discuss what could be the final agreement, there might be a possibility of making a political settlement with some cessation of conflict or ceasefire, and some political process to include the Taliban in the process.

Current Taliban leaders argue that they made some mistakes in how they treated women in the 1990s, and they will not do it again. They also say they will at least respect some human rights, but they haven’t made it clear whether or not they will accept democratic elections as a method of choosing leaders. Maybe the most difficult and crucial questions for this peace process could be how to make it possible for the Taliban to accept these.

Before that happens we need to create sustainable peace talks, and we have yet to find good mediators who can accommodate those four key actors. After I left the UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), I hosted a peace conference at my university and invited many governmental officials, UN experts, and Afghan mediators who had contact with the Taliban. We agreed that it might be important for UNAMA to have a political office in Dubai so that those four key actors could get together and talk. It didn’t happen, because the United States didn’t want to outsource the United Nations’ authority for this very important process. Qatar in the last three or four years has wanted to mediate those actors, but it might not be trusted by the Afghan government, especially not by the Karzai government. We continue to face challenges in finding an organization that could best mediate between these four key actors.

What takeaways or insights does your research provide for peacebuilding practitioners? Are some of your research insights relevant in other contexts?

As I mentioned before, inclusive political processes in the early stages are very crucial in post-conflict peacebuilding. We always have a big argument or controversy about how to include, for example, a former enemy who committed war crimes, but my research suggests that if you want to focus on creating peace first, you might want to include as broad as possible participants to create some consensus for peace first. Then, 15 or 20 years later, there might be some justice process, as we can see in Latin America, Chile, or Peru.

This is a key argument that could be applicable to most peacebuilding cases. Still, when local government or leaders do not embrace or support the idea and want to make a lot of political exclusions we are not quite sure of the way forward for the international community to change  attitudes or policies. I want to continue to study why those political exclusions and inclusion can happen in the processes of peacebuilding, because if we don’t know why it happens it’s very difficult to know how to address it. My next research agenda is to investigate the dynamics or reasons why political exclusion and inclusion can sometimes occur, and how to support the inclusive process.