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The key to ending Afghanistan’s long war — it’s politics, stupid

afghanistan war
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afghanistan war

Nearly 16 years after the international intervention toppled the Taliban government, war rages in Afghanistan. A gradual but steady deterioration in security — including the massive sewage truck bomb that recently killed 150 civilians in Kabul recently — has leaders inside and outside Afghanistan once again searching for a new strategy.

The Afghan government has announced fresh elections in 2018 and President Ghani has renewed calls for a comprehensive peace process that involves cooperation from Afghanistan’s neighbors. 

{mosads}Meanwhile, President Trump is poised to roll out a new Afghanistan plan, which began with Secretary of Defense James Mattis telling the Senate that he will add up to 5,000 U.S. troops to the 8,500 already there. The addition of U.S. troops to support and mentor the Afghan security forces may be a critical element of a possible plan to strengthen the government’s position and forestall collapse or loss of significant territory to the Taliban, ISIS or both. But it will not “win” the war.


That’s because the signal failing in Afghanistan since 2001 has been the lack of a political solution to the factional conflicts that have divided Afghanistan for the last forty years, and which continue to drive its conflicts today. Despite nearly sixteen years of massive international military, economic and political assistance, the country remains beset by a debilitating array of conflicts. The Taliban insurgency, with support from Pakistan and others, continues to take territory. Militants affiliated with ISIS are making inroads and have punctuated their presence with a series of high-profile terror attacks. Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees are again fleeing, adding to the European migration crisis and causing a brain drain. Overall, levels of violence and civilian casualties continue to rise. 

A lasting, inclusive and legitimate political settlement remains elusive because longstanding grievances about the distribution of political power within Afghanistan have combined with foreign machinations to create a toxic brew of insurgency, extremism and ethnic opportunism.

Elections have culminated in deeply divisive and contested results. The creation of a National Unity Government in 2014 has failed to resolve competition for power among major factions and has clouded the legitimacy and effectiveness of the current government. At a basic level, Afghanistan needs effective systems for sharing power and better mechanisms to build confidence between power-brokers who fear they’ll be cut-out, or cut-up, once they turn their backs.

This is not just a question of reconciliation with the Taliban, although that too will be an essential element of any peace process. Rather, in order to create viable conditions both for a peace process and its sustainable implementation the current Afghan government, political parties and electoral institutions will need to come together to build the trust needed to build the peace.

We propose three ways that, in combination, can shift the political dynamics to enable a political settlement of the conflict.

First, the Afghan government must hold credible elections allowing for fair competition for a share of political power. Parliamentary and District Council elections are scheduled next July, and presidential elections are required in 2019.  The government and electoral institutions therefore must work quickly to execute election reforms that expand political representation by increasing the role of political parties, reducing the size of electoral constituencies to bring people closer to their representatives and ensuring that different ethnic groups have equal access to the polls. Overall, there must be greater accountability between voters and their representatives.

Second, the question of how power is shared in Afghanistan must be revisited. The current ‘winner take all’ system gives the president enormous power in a divided society. The National Unity Government is a reflection of that problem.  The president has the power to appoint almost every official in the country, including governors and mayors. Increasing local autonomy and a voice in selecting leaders should increase accountability and citizen engagement. Ultimately, Afghanistan has to have more local elections, which will also result in more local government accountability.

Third, political reforms should enable peace negotiations with the Taliban, but not be stalled waiting for them to begin. The Taliban will demand a share of political and economic power that will likely come at the expense of current power-holders, especially in Pashtun areas of the country.

It is therefore particularly important that reforms to the Afghan political system are enacted that enable former Taliban members to have a ‘piece of the pie’ within an acceptable constitutional order. Greater provincial input on appointments and decision making and greater Constitutional checks and balances are therefore tools that that can be used to facilitate a lasting peace process.  

Ultimately, Afghanistan needs to reform and restructure its political institutions to get back on the path of peace, stability and prosperity. The United States and international allies cannot dictate terms of new Afghan political arrangements, but they can help Afghan political actors to take the hard political decisions now, before worse ones emerge. Every Afghan watching the horrors unfolding in Mosul and Raqqa can take heart in knowing they still have the power to avoid a similar fate.

Alex Thier is executive director of the Overseas Development Institute in London and a former senior U.S. official working on Afghanistan. Scott Worden is director of Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs for the U.S. Institute of Peace. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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