A Negotiated Solution for Afghanistan?

Michael E. O’Hanlon

For too long there has been too much loose talk and sloppy thinking about reconciliation in Afghanistan—the process by which the war might be ended more through negotiation than by fighting. Along with the debates on timelines for U.S. troop drawdowns, the confusion feeds a sense of strategic drift that is not helpful to maintaining national resolve on this important war.

All sorts of incorrect theories about reconciliation are heard these days. For example, President Hamid Karzai will supposedly concede a defeat at the bargaining table that our soldiers are working hard to preclude on the battlefield. Or Pakistan will broker a deal that creates for Islamabad a Soviet-like sphere of influence in the Pashtun areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan, with the Taliban returning to great influence there. Or the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will be precipitously ordered out of the country as part of a deal between the Afghan government and the insurgents.

Most recently, Afghanistan’s ousted intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh has suggested that Mr. Karzai’s convening of a peace jirga in Kabul in May somehow reflects his lack of commitment to defeating the insurgents in battle.

Admittedly, Mr. Karzai’s rhetoric and actions often make him hard to read. The idea of even holding this jirga in the first place also made many Westerners doubt his judgment on the reconciliation process, as it clearly seems too soon to expect the enemy to show flexibility when it retains considerable military momentum.

But remember, the peace jirga did not include Taliban, and it did not feature any offers from Mr. Karzai to meet the insurgents halfway on matters of politics and security. There was no offer of any co-habitation deal with Taliban chief Mullah Omar. Mr. Karzai did not even offer to concede ground on matters such as press freedom and women’s rights. There was also no suggestion from Mr. Karzai that he might step down as a means of achieving peace, or that he might propose a new constitutional convention, or that he would ask foreign military forces to hasten their departure.

All that said, there are important questions about reconciliation that must be addressed, many revolving around the issue of amnesty. With luck, battlefield trends will improve enough in coming months to make this matter increasingly important.

For starters, Mr. Karzai has recently indicated an interest in exonerating a number of insurgent prisoners as a gesture of good faith towards the resistance. Agreeing with Gen. Stanley McChrystal that we cannot kill our way out of this insurgency, he is exploring ways to change the atmosphere in Afghanistan.

Some Karzai critics worry that hordes of extremist fighters whom NATO and Afghan troops have risked their lives to detain will now be turned loose in an impetuous effort to jump-start a peace process. They are right to raise the concern as a cautionary matter, but no one should quickly assume that the prison floodgates will soon open. At the impressive detention facility in Parwan north of Kabul which I visited last month, release of prisoners is an ongoing process—but in a careful and discriminating way. Prisoners are categorized based on the actions they took before being arrested, the degree of threat they are believed still to pose, and the extent to which they appear reformable.

Mr. Karzai’s interest in amnesty may spur greater efforts to take the procedures at Parwan, where some 1,000 prisoners are held, and extend them to the prisons around the country where 15,000 or more are detained. Even as the ISAF reduces its role at Parwan, which is due to be turned over to Afghan control at the beginning of 2011, foreign forces should offer to intensify the help they provide the Afghan government at other detention facilities.

We also need to think hard about amnesty and political rehabilitation for insurgents who are not in captivity. Consider this scenario: Two or three midlevel insurgent commanders, each commanding the loyalty of a few hundred full-time fighters and a few thousand tribesmen, promise to stop fighting if Mr. Karzai offers them positions in local government. Perhaps the smaller leaders want to be governors of districts in the south or east, and a bigger one wants to be governor of an entire province like Zabul. It’s not out of the question that Mr. Karzai will consider striking such a deal.

The hard issue is what to do with those militias answering to the insurgent leaders. According to a report from Kabul last week by this newspaper’s Maria Abi-Habib, under a new initiative soon to be announced by Mr. Karzai, insurgents might be allowed to keep their weapons if they stop fighting and swear allegiance to the government. This is fine on a small scale.

As scholars such as George Washington University’s Joanna Spear have shown, disarmament is often not essential for ending internal conflicts. But the approach begs the question of how to handle possible demobilization of larger and more powerful groups of resistance fighters—something that is generally critical to resolution of such wars.

Almost certainly, more powerful insurgents will want to retain their militias—as personal protection forces and perhaps as a hedge should the accords with Mr. Karzai break down. The ISAF and Mr. Karzai will want to be sure these militias cannot be used to mount a new rebellion against the Afghan government someday.

The answer has to involve a combination of registering, regulating and monitoring the forces. But it must also feature a fairly rapid effort to demobilize them. Some fighters can be allowed to join the Afghan army or police, though the bulk of them should be dispersed to other locations in the country to reduce the latent threat they might pose. The demobilization process should begin in earnest while NATO forces are still present in adequate numbers to help the Afghans enforce any deals and punish any violators—in other words, within roughly one to two years of any deal being struck.

Reconciliation in Afghanistan will be tricky. But whatever Mr. Karzai’s other flaws or weaknesses, we needn’t lose too much sleep over the possibility that he will be duped into running up the white flag at the negotiating table. He cares too much about remaining president, building up the country, and avoiding assassination and protecting his friends to be so cavalier about such a key matter of realpolitik.