Focus on Taliban is misplaced

The obstacle to peace in Afghanistan is not the absence of meaningful talks with the Taliban, it is the misguided idealism about those talks. 

For a pragmatist with any understanding of politics and appreciation of the Afghan context, making the most of the Afghan peace process, as currently calibrated, is a useful project. The approach assumes a view of politics that is governed by shared norms rather than competition for power and conflicting interests. It dismisses fundamental issues such as defining the kind of Afghan state that has the best chance of resonating with the Afghan youth — the only true majority in Afghanistan — as lesser concerns. It advocates a new vocabulary of distinguishing Taliban from al Qaeda. And, it endorses de-listing of Taliban from the United Nations list of terrorists as critical to eliminating the existing impediments to peace. All this is, quite simply, window dressing.

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Peace in Afghanistan would ultimately result from a framework that includes complementary political and military strategies. The political strategy being pursued is flawed on several accounts — the first flaw lies in the inadequacy of the process. 

The process rightly focuses on the Taliban as the major spoiler in the stabilization of Afghanistan, but it fails to account for the other underlying reasons for instability there. There is hardly any emphasis on internal cohesion among different ethnic groups, the absence of which threatens the very foundation of the Afghan state. The process also overlooks the fact that the Afghan government, with its lack of any accountability, is part of the problem, not the solution. Until this reality is successfully addressed, and reversed, the Afghan government will continue to lack both legitimacy and credibility, and be forced to contest the political space with the Taliban.

The second flaw in the current approach is its unwillingness to put the peace process in the right context. Obligation is a function of power and influence. The Afghan government does not exercise any leverage over Taliban, but the Pakistani military does, through its documented support to Taliban. It can thus impose obligations the Taliban would find hard to evade. In the absence of a serious and uncomplicated commitment from the Pakistani military to change its calculus in Afghanistan vis-à-vis its support to the Taliban, any talks with the Taliban would not move beyond talks. 

Understanding the real-world incentives and disincentives to which the Pakistani military actually responds is thus critical to influencing its behavior and tackling the threat from Taliban. Such understanding is also crucial for the long-term relations of the United States in the region.

However, these flaws only illuminate the deficiencies in the current approach toward the peace process — analysis of why genuine prospects for peace continue to elude Afghanistan misses the mark because fundamental questions are rarely asked. What political conditions can create a stable Afghan state? What is required to create those conditions in the current context? What are the trade-offs involved? For instance, does Afghanistan have to trade its sovereignty for peace with Pakistan? If the trade-offs are (fundamentally) unrealistic, what alternative arrangements can be considered? How long will this process take and how do we collectively manage this transition?

The real test of a pragmatic framework for peace in Afghanistan will be whether it sufficiently answers these fundamental questions. The success of the framework would be conditional upon the participation of all major ethnic and political groups in the country, without any exclusion based on wealth and power. If all the major groups believe that the approach and the actions it prescribes — both military and political — are fair, it is likely to have a future that transcends ad-hoc political concessions and flirting with the Taliban in newly opened offices.

Bringing peace in Afghanistan is not an academic discussion but a practical policy matter that requires a hardheaded understanding of what is possible to achieve and what is not. These are the elements by which any Afghan peace process should be dictated and are what the current process fails to acknowledge. When you have a policy or a process that conflicts with reality, the reality often wins.

Sharma was a visiting fellow at the Henry. L. Stimson Center in 2009 and a post-graduate associate at the Yale University in 2010-11. He has been researching in Afghanistan since late 2006, focusing on issues concerning local politics and security in the country.