Constituencies from war hawks to humanitarians to women’s rights advocates have found themselves reluctantly supporting NATO’s current hybrid plan which includes both a surge in NATO military forces and a tentative plan for withdrawal. The Obama administration is trying to rally NATO behind a new effort to pursue direct talks with the Taliban. But the coalition risks alienating many of these new allies as it gambles on a potential pathway to peace.
UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown led Afghan President Hamid Karzai, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and dozens of others in talking, largely behind the scenes, on the future of the war and peace strategy for Afghanistan. The event was hosted by UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Green Park in central London. Throughout the week, groups focused on Afghanistan held parallel events for civil society, women’s leaders, aid agencies, and academics at the British Parliament and Canada House.
The war strategy outlined by NATO and the Karzai Administration in London is a hybrid strategy developed to win the war with the proposals of multiple, sometimes irreconcilably opposed, political constituencies. Experts suggest that in many aspects winning one political group will cost another. It is a strategy rife with risky paradoxes as highlighted by experts.
Tricky Trade-offs of the Coalition War Strategy
To secure rule of law and consolidate power behind the Karzai-led government in order to create the peaceful space for reconstruction and development, NATO has increased the scope and scale of its fighting efforts as well as its work preparing Afghan security forces to take over.
But opponents of the war, as well as many actors in the aid sector, argue that foreign troop presence only motivates the enemy to fight harder. To reconcile this paradox the coalition plans phased withdrawal to follow the current surge. That gives the coalition most of 2010 to secure whatever gains are possible through NATO escalation.
Based on proposals like that presented by Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at an event held the day of the conference at the British Parliament, NATO will most likely not seek to conquer the whole country for the Afghan government, but rather will consolidate control of all major cities and roads and help to install permanent Afghan security structures there.
To address the motivations of insurgents and potentially convince many of their number to pursue grievances by nonviolent means, the coalition announced not only broader investment in reform, de-centralization, and economic development. It also announced for the first time its intent to negotiate terms of a future peace through direct talks with the Taliban leadership.
This aspect of the coalition plan highlighted yet more political paradoxes, according to Afghan women leaders, civil society actors, and aid workers speaking at an Afghan NGO conference on Tuesday. While most political and social actors involved in Afghanistan outside the insurgency agree with the concept of winning greater support for the central government, they point out several trouble areas.
If the coalition continues to shift aid as a form of counter-insurgency to win over the moderate opposition, it risks further forcing aid workers into political roles thus making them, their programs, and their beneficiaries targets of the insurgency.
According to Afghan civil society leaders speaking at the Afghan NGO event on Tuesday there is an even more risky gamble in the application of aid. As the coalition shifts aid resources to frontline and the Taliban-dominated areas as part of its counter-insurgency effort, it also risks starving areas where Afghans are supporting the government and maintaining peace.
Muhammad Sabir Siddiqi, founder of the Afghan NGO Nebras, speaking with the author, warned that many leaders in the north have cynically suggested that it appeared to be in their best interests to join the insurgency just to get aid re-directed to their region.
Women’s Rights and Talks with the Taliban
The most publicly controversial point of the summit, if the coalition participates in direct talks with the Taliban, relates to women's rights.
Civil society groups argue that not only are women’s rights non-negotiable and that the Taliban has the worst record for rights violations against women than any other group in the past century, they also point out that the Taliban and its al Qaeda allies would never join a unity government anyway because they not only politically, but also religiously, oppose democracy and women’s participation.
Champions of women’s rights, speaking at the House of Commons on Wednesday detailed their position in ways that surprised many activists. While not speaking for all Afghan women, leaders including Ms Homa Sabri of UNIFEM, Ms Wazhma Frogh, a civil society leader, and Ms. Shinkai Karokhail, a member of the Afghan Parliament, argued that the anti-war left should reconsider calls for immediate NATO withdrawal.
“Immediate withdrawal will be a failure for your government and for us,” said Orzala Asraf, a civil society and women’s rights leader. “We want to stand on our feet. We want time for that.”
Fearing the potential return of the Taliban, those women leaders believed that despite its many troubles the Karzai administration is the best opportunity they have for mainstreaming women’s participation. Efforts have already secured women’s leadership in parliament, business, and civil society. They called for support for the coalition strategy as a least bad option, but also clarified that they demand faster reform, more attention to transitional justice and women’s development, and a freeze on direct talks with the Taliban.
“We want reconciliation,” said Ms. Karokhail, also a women’s rights advocate,” but not at any cost.”
Protests Called for Wiser Financing and an End to NATO Presence
A demonstration held outside the conference on Thursday by the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA), a moderate émigré group that opposes the Taliban as well as tribal competition in the Karzai government, largely echoed the positions presented by Afghan NGOs on Tuesday and the Afghan women leaders on Wednesday.
“The rule of law must be implemented by every individual in society,” said Dr. Nazimi, an anti-Taliban and anti-corruption protester with the ACAA, arguing that security was not only about fighting insurgents but also reforming government and mainstreaming security. “In Afghanistan, for eight years we don’t see this.”
Four other protest groups rallied outside the summit. Oxfam-Great Britain gathered journalists for a photo stunt in which Oxfam campaigners wore over-sized heads resembling US President Barack Obama, German PM Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Japanese PM Yukio Hatoyama, and Canadian PM Stephen Harper while throwing coins which failed to land in a bucket labeled, “Afghan Poverty.”
Meanwhile, anti-war protesters claiming that the NATO presence in the country was the leading cause of conflict led a march around the conference site in Green Park. Socialists and the British Islamic group Hizb ul-Tahrir held separate protests also claiming NATO’s military occupation was the cause of instability in the region.
Painful Truths Revealed by Afghan Peace Process
Perhaps the most illuminating revelation coming out of the summit was greater realization by actors on many sides that the Afghan War, by the very nature of an insurgency which sees its cause not only in political terms but also in religious and existential terms, may never be totally won. Like the FARC in Colombia or the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, the core leadership of the Taliban and its al Qaeda allies are so irreconcilably opposed to the philosophy of the central government that they may never accept a unity government even if it was offered in exchange for peace.
Even if the Karzai government woos many Taliban to change sides with offers of amnesty there will likely remain a core group of extremists too large to arrest or expel in what will become a de facto autonomous area.
Former Afghan Interior Minister Ali A. Jalali, speaking at a related event at the British Parliament the same day as the conference spoke of missed opportunities in speaking with the Taliban, but stressed realism. When asked directly, he said that the goal was to reduce the core insurgency to a number which “will be easier to manage,” a strategy of “containment.”
At the heart of the summit’s most controversial point, the premise of direct talks with the Taliban, the broader Afghan community’s distaste was softened in related conference events by discussion of the theory that few Taliban leaders would consider reintegration or joining a unity government. Perhaps, experts posed, the coalition’s talks with the Taliban are not to forgive wielders of terror, but primarily to communicate to the insurgent ranks as a whole that they have options other than to flee, fight, or be killed.
As Gilles Dorronsoro clarified at the British Parliament event, “The Taliban are not something of the past. They are part of the future of Afghanistan.”
Daniel J Gerstle is Editor of HELO Magazine and a consultant on humanitarian aid and human rights based in New York. He can be reached at www.DanielJGerstle.com, www.twitter.com/HELO_Magazine, www.helo-magazine.com .
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