Women judges and media workers have been killed by gunmen in Afghanistan in alarming attacks over the past two months. Civil society leaders are also being targeted, and some are leaving their jobs or fleeing the country. These devastating attacks send a chilling message to others, especially women, who dare to participate in Afghanistan’s public life. The United Nations and Afghanistan’s independent human rights commission have both reported a sharp increase in these kind of attacks over the past year. These circumstances raise further questions about the future of the peace process and the ability of the Afghan government to maintain security should the United States fully withdraw its troops.
The killings are more than lives lost and should be a matter of grave concern to international policymakers. They undermine freedom of expression, confidence in the government, and the stability of the country. They silence important voices and drive political discourse and disagreement in the direction of violent conflict. They are powerful potential spoiling acts jeopardizing the potential for the lasting peace that Afghans want.
Spoilers’ motivations vary. They may believe that an emerging peace will threaten their power or world view. Or they may be criminals who profit from chaos, terrorists who seek to demoralize the population, and even parties to the negotiations who want to shift the odds in their favor.
It is cold comfort to know that the presence of spoilers in Afghanistan is a predictable reality. A United Nations University study on peacebuilding and spoilers noted that, historically, the success of peace negotiations is not measured by the absence of violence during them but by “whether the peace process can continue despite incidents of violence, whether violence is not allowed to spin out of control.” For example, in 1992 a campaign of terror against Black South Africans by anonymous gunmen continued side-by-side with negotiations—until the massacre of dozens of people, including children, led Nelson Mandela to suspend the negotiations. Talks resumed months later once the government had taken steps to control the violence and concluded with a successful political transition in 1994.
Unless something is done, Afghanistan will see even more targeted assassinations of political moderates and those advocating compromise from outside the system. Even if there are breakthroughs at the talks in Doha, violence may mutate to include violations of a future agreement or ceasefire. A wave of similar assassinations targeting civil society leaders and former insurgents in Colombia has threatened its 2016 peace agreement. Spoilers have successfully derailed multiple Israel-Palestine processes, attempts at Cyprus rapprochement, and Angola’s 1991 peace accords, costing tens of thousands of lives.
What Can Be Done
With urgency, the international community should continue its statements of solidarity and condemnation of the violence, and support the Afghan military, police, and civilian authorities’ efforts to find and prosecute those responsible for the wave of assassinations and bomb attacks. Most Afghans want peace, and spoilers and terrorists who want to continue the war do not have broad support.
A visible yet calibrated government response to spoilers is the best means of confronting them without widening the conflict further or inadvertently giving them popular support. It requires effective military counterterrorism operations, law enforcement efforts, and civilian dissuasion of recruiters. The stakes are high, but other violent conflicts have been brought to a close. Northern Ireland’s 1998 Accords barely survived the impact of violent dissidents, but managed to do so through an effective partnership between the United Kingdom’s Security Service (MI5) and the police service of Northern Ireland. While these two security institutions were well-established and supported by their respective publics, their focus on controlling the dissidents early and decisively still carries lessons for Afghanistan today.
It is worth noting that non-violent criticism of the peace process has its place. In peace efforts around the world, positive engagement has led to inclusion of previously marginalized groups and more systemic and lasting reforms by entrenched elites—leading to clearer signaling from the international community about what behavior will be tolerated. In Afghanistan, this additive engagement is coming from those in the government, minority ethnic leadership, women’s civil society organizations, and media. Because of these efforts there are more voices represented at the talks and in society as Afghanistan determines its acceptable negotiation redlines.
However, spoilers can also use non-violent means which the international community should condemn. This could include information operations or propaganda to destroy the reputations of combatants and institutions. All must be careful in repeating unfounded claims against either side of the negotiations, and it is especially important that lies specifically designed to unravel the peace process be confronted.
There are also those who will speak out against the peace process because they want to stop it, not because they feel left out of the conversation, in order to continue an already devastating war. As the UN University report notes, when one side actually wants to achieve its aims on the battlefield, you can tell at the bargaining table—you will see “attempts by disputants to introduce complications into negotiation processes, make implausible claims, avoid negotiation, threaten constituency unrest, demand changes in third-party personnel, use targeted or limited violence, sign agreements but not implement them, play for time, or search for new alliances or resources while negotiations are ongoing.”
Afghanistan’s future is at stake and the vital importance of containing spoilers while encouraging a broad and productive debate on peace cannot be overstated. This challenge is common, and more trauma may lie ahead, but the right response can make a difference. Failure to address it should not be the final chapter of ongoing efforts to create a just peace. The Afghan government and Afghan citizens, along with the global diplomatic community and the press, must constantly identify spoilers going forward, neutralize their impact, and take actions that help protect the fragile peace process.
Annie Pforzheimer is a former diplomat and a non-resident associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Andrew Hyde is a former diplomat and a Nonresident Fellow at Stimson with the Transforming Conflict and Governance Program. Jason Criss Howk is a retired US Army Afghanistan specialist and a researcher and writer on Afghanistan.
The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the US government.