An End to the “Endless War?” Prospects for Stability and Reconciliation in Afghanistan
Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.
The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on May 1, 2019 on the prospects for stability, peace, and reconciliation in Afghanistan. The panelists considered recent developments related to the conflict, focusing on the renewed talks between the U.S. government and Taliban leadership. They noted that, in the wake of these recent developments, there is palpable hope regarding the prospects for a peace process in Afghanistan. However, there are also considerable doubts about the prospects for long-term stability in the country, especially given the lack of accountability for alleged atrocities and war crimes.
The panel consisted of a group of distinguished scholars and experts, including: Barnett R. Rubin, senior fellow and associate director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation; Graeme Smith, consultant at the International Crisis Group; and Ajmal Pashtoonyar, a human rights lawyer. The event was moderated by Ayesha Tanzeem, bureau chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan at Voice of America. Members of Doha’s diplomatic, academic, and media communities attended the event.
Barnett R. Rubin began by arguing that people often misstate what the objective of the peacemaking effort should be, by focusing too intensely on the current combatants and their motivations. He pointed out that there are fundamental causes of the current war that are unrelated to combatant motivations, meaning that, even if the current war were to end, another conflict could start up in its place. Rubin claimed that promoting peace will require resolving intra-Afghani disputes over how the country should be run and Afghanistan’s disputes with neighboring countries, as well as providing foreign aid to the country in a way that does not enable foreign actors to disrupt it.
Graeme Smith continued the discussion by saying that he has been following events in Afghanistan since 2005 and, as a conflict analyst, in most years it was easy to predict that there would be more violence and that the Taliban would add more territory. He said that the current situation in Afghanistan is not a stalemate, but rather is eroding, arguing against people who claim there is a balance between the Taliban and government forces. Smith added that he thinks something in the country has to change, because the cost of maintaining the status quo rises daily. He emphasized that, if the Taliban want to safeguard against chaos, fragmentation, and anarchy, it is better for them to pursue negotiations than military action. Smith also claimed that, while the current situation is unpredictable, this unpredictability is good, because the bloodshed seen in recent years is a tragedy.
Ajmal Pashtoonyar discussed the various transitional justice models, jurisprudence, and research that could inform people attempting to address war crimes committed in Afghanistan. Pashtoonyar said, however, that entrenched impunity in the country means that there is no way to start fresh. He added that, if the International Criminal Court (ICC) were to start investigating the war crimes committed in Afghanistan, there would be pending arrest warrants against many officials. The question would then be who would be responsible for dealing with these officials, especially if they are members of the current government. While Afghanistan has passed an amnesty law to reassure government officials that they would not be prosecuted, this amnesty is domestic and would have little relevance internationally.
The subsequent question and answer session focused on the current conflict actors and their motivations, the possibility of pushing for accountability, and the upcoming elections. Rubin said that it is important to distinguish between those individuals who are engaged in actual combat from supporters and those with stakes in the outcome. He went on to argue that trying to define the fundamental interests of conflict actors is not a useful way to approach a conflict, proposing instead that it is better to analyze their interests, intentions, and resources. In response to another question, Pashtoonyar noted that what is tricky for peace negotiations in Afghanistan is that the United Nations cannot endorse a peace agreement that includes amnesties for war crimes and, as such, an agreement that includes amnesties would not have international support. He proposed that Afghanistan could look to the example of the agreement signed in relation to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc); in that case, the country agreed to a treaty that did not include amnesties, but instead established a tribunal to pursue accountability for war crimes. On a separate note, Rubin expressed hope that the peace talks would advance to the point where there is a delay in holding elections in Afghanistan, as holding them too soon would just weaken the government.
Human Rights Lawyer
Senior Fellow and Associate Director - Center on International Cooperation, New York University
Consultant - International Crisis Group
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