Global Security: Afghanistan and Pakistan - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

8  Future prospects: towards a political settlement?

298.  Both the US and the UK argue that Afghanistan's future cannot be secured through a military victory alone. One way in which a wider political settlement might be achieved could be through political engagement with elements within the Taliban. In the July/ August 2009 edition of the journal Foreign Affairs, Fotini Christia and Michael Semple argue that "although sending more troops is necessary to tip the balance of power against the insurgents, the move will have a lasting impact only if it is accompanied by a political 'surge', a committed effort to persuade large groups of Taliban fighters to put down their arms and give up the fight".[483]


299.  Attempts thus far to negotiate with insurgents have foundered. In October 2008, Saudi Arabia hosted a meeting between Afghan Ministers and former Taliban insurgents, at the invitation of the Afghan Government, but no agreement was forthcoming. Christia and Semple also point to the existence of the Afghanistan National Independent Peace and Reconciliation Commission (better known by its Dari abbreviation, PTS). Launched in 2005, the PTS was given an ambitious agenda but its achievements, according to Christia and Semple have been "lacklustre" not least because it was not provided with sufficient resources or been able to protect ex-fighters from retribution by the Taliban or harassment from the government. [484] They comment that:

The PTS office in Kandahar, where the Taliban have their base and which is thus the most crucial part of the country for reconciliation, is a parody of the program. Its monthly budget, barely $600, is supposed to both cover its operating costs and support all the former fighters who choose to defect. The office's efforts have been minimal […] and its record is dismal. Of the roughly 7,000 people whom the Kandahar office has certified during its four years in operation, fewer than a dozen were bona fide midlevel Taliban officials.[485]

300.  In March 2008, the UK, US and Dutch governments suspended their support for the PTS programme arguing that there were "a number of weaknesses in the programme, including lack of validation, monitoring and credibility". UK financial support totalled £500,000 from 1 January to 31 March 2007, and £870,000 from 1 April 2007 to 31 March 2008.[486] Provincial-level attempts to bring onside tribes and communities who had previously tolerated or supported the Taliban have met with mixed success. The Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) is now leading central Government efforts to co-ordinate provincial-level reconciliation efforts led by provincial governors, and is developing guidance on this issue.[487] BAAG's written submission states that:

It would appear that the major troop contributing countries that are fighting the anti-government forces in the south and east have made attempts to negotiate with elements from those forces. The outcomes of those negotiations are either unclear or perceived as questionable and counter-productive. A major weakness of these initiatives is a lack of a common strategy and of Afghan perspectives. The role that Afghan civil society could play in these processes should be recognised and promoted and resourced.[488]

301.  A number of commentators argue that the excessive use of force by NATO troops and Afghan security forces has hindered reconciliation attempts and strengthened the resolve of many insurgents who may otherwise have been receptive to negotiation. For instance, Christia and Semple argue that the "United States' misguided approach to the detention of suspected Islamist terrorists in Afghanistan, spurred on by political insiders in Kabul […] eager to harass personal rivals, drove people who might otherwise have cooperated into the insurgency. In other words, the people charged with stabilizing Afghanistan forfeited one of the most powerful tools at their disposal".[489]


302.  The new US strategy calls for the Afghan government to engage in reconciliation with mid to low-level Taliban fighters. It concludes that "Mullah Omar and the Taliban's hard core that have aligned themselves with Al Qaeda are not reconcilable," but states that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won without "convincing non-ideologically committed insurgents to lay down their arms, reject Al Qaeda, and accept the Afghan Constitution".[490] Dr Stuart Gordon told us "there is a sense that there is a middle ground somewhere between economic opportunists and the ideologues, where you have a group of Pashtun nationalists with conservative religious ideas, who, if they could be offered […] real commitments to security and stability-are able to be bought off into another political process."[491] Likewise, Dr Gohel commented:

What we have is the ideological Taliban and those who join the Taliban for monetary purposes. If we can clinically extract those members of the Taliban […]and remove them by offering them jobs, employment and economic opportunities, then that is possible. You cannot talk to the ideological Taliban. Their view and their agenda are totally different from ours.[492]

303.  Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid argue that talking with the Taliban or other insurgents need not "mean replacing Afghanistan's constitution with the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, closing girls' schools, or accepting other retrograde social policies." They state "that whatever weaknesses the Afghan government and security forces may have, Afghan society - which has gone through two Loya Jirgas and two elections, possesses over five million cell phones, and has access to an explosion of new media - is incomparably stronger than it was seven years ago, and the Taliban know it."[493]

304.  Christia and Semple state:

The idea that large groups of armed men bent on killing Americans and other Westerners can be persuaded to change sides may seem fanciful at first. But it is not—at least not in Afghanistan. After continuing uninterrupted for more than 30 years, war in Afghanistan has developed its own peculiar rules, style, and logic. One of these rules is side with the winner. […] Afghanistan's recent history is replete with examples of commanders choosing to flip rather than fight.[494]

305.  However, Christia and Semple argue that it is "only if the United States' military surge can demonstrably stem the insurgents' influence in Pashtun areas" that militants in that area will start to believe that their own safety could be secured by realigning with the winning side in the form of the government.[495]

306.  However, Christia and Semple add that "US policymakers have not adequately developed a vision of how to achieve reconciliation. Admitting their lack of knowledge about the precise character of the insurgency, they equate reconciliation with merely cajoling Taliban foot soldiers into crossing over to the US side".[496] Professor Adam Roberts notes that the first question to be asked is "whether, on either side of the border, there are sufficiently clear hierarchical organizational structures with which to negotiate". He then goes on to raise a series of questions which remain to be answered:

Whether, or to what extent, the Taliban are interested in negotiating with Kabul and the West? To what extent are Kabul and the West in a position to lay down terms and conditions for negotiations? If the Taliban are a decentralized entity, then which Taliban faction or affiliate should Kabul be talking to? On what terms and conditions would the Taliban be willing to share power with the Karzai government? What would be its impact on the country's constitution, state structures, and foreign policy? Is Kabul willing to integrate Taliban guerrillas into the armed forces? How would it impact on the position of minority ethnic groups? These are some of the issues of far-reaching consequence which are not being thought of, especially as Kabul, in the given circumstances, cannot speak from a position of strength.[497]

307.  Pakistan's recent experience of the consequences of negotiation with insurgents in the Swat valley area arguably highlights some of the risks involved in pursuing political settlements. Professor Roberts states that "the scope and content of any agreement are matters of huge difficulty" and that some of the agreements that were concluded by the Pakistan government in recent years were widely perceived to have given Taliban leaders a licence to support the insurgency in Afghanistan. Professor Roberts notes that "this serves as a warning of the hazards of partial negotiation".[498] Lord Malloch-Brown told us that "What happened in the Swat valley shows you the real risks of doing this the wrong way ". He added:

The Pakistan Government negotiated from a position of weakness. They negotiated when they did not have the upper hand militarily in the valley, and so the agreement was perceived by the Taliban […] as a sort of white flag from the Government. That, I think, validates what we are trying to do in Helmand, which is to ensure that the Afghan Government enter into any reconciliation negotiations with the upper hand militarily so that they are able to do this from a position of strength.[499]

308.  The US has made it clear that future attempts at reconciliation must be Afghan-led which, as Peter Marsden notes, means that the US is reliant upon the Afghan government to reach a political settlement with the Taliban that will determine the overall success or otherwise of the US's counter-insurgency campaign. President Karzai's relations with the USA have soured since the election of President Obama and he has become increasingly vociferous in his criticism of American military tactics and has hinted that he may shift his allegiance to Moscow.[500] Mr Marsden highlights another factor to consider:

If the hand of President Karzai is further weakened, the political dynamics of Afghanistan will continue to be dominated by the deals that are being struck on a daily basis by the many other actors in Afghanistan, some of whom, including those involved in the drugs trade, have a vested interest in continuing instability and the absence of an effective state. The international community may thus find it difficult to achieve a political settlement in Afghanistan and, therefore, a means through which it can establish a face-saving exit from its military involvement.[501]

309.  A number of our interlocutors told us that the US was keen to show that progress is being made in Afghanistan by 2011. Daniel Korski pointed out that "the [US] mid-term elections are in two years, and I think that the US Administration would like to show something for their efforts, whether it is a regional—not settlement, but process—that Ambassador Holbrooke can instigate, or something else. […] There is a clear sense in the Obama strategy that, if there is not an exit, they keenly understand that the American people are only so interested in staying for so long".[502] Yet, there is no sense that reconciliation will take place soon. The Strategic Conflict Assessment produced by the Post-War Reconstruction and Development Unit comments:

Despite a reportedly high level of public support within Afghanistan, a political solution is neither clear nor imminent. While many informants and critical actors recognise the need for political dialogue leading up to formal negotiations, the parties themselves may have an interest in avoiding such a situation. For the United States and its Coalition partners, including the UK, a political solution would be an admission that they have been militarily unsuccessful. It would also be seen as negotiating with an enemy which has killed substantial numbers of foreign troops. Furthermore, it will reveal the truth that such engagement should have been pursued from the outset and that the Bonn political process, which leading experts have appropriate described as inappropriately narrow, in 2001 could have averted, to a certain degree, the violence of the last six years.[503]

310.  In a similar vein Christia and Semple argue that "in the short and medium terms, it seems highly unlikely that Taliban leaders will be willing to strike a broad deal with the Afghan government". They add that although "leaders and commanders who are influential within the movement are open to rapprochement, […] a dialogue conducted through a single authorized channel could be hijacked by Taliban hard-liners". […] They caution that reconciliation is an incremental process, and it should start before the pursuit of any comprehensive settlement.[504] Others say that the Taliban who are willing to meet and talk have little influence, and those who do have influence believe that they are currently in a strong position and thus have no need to compromise.[505] It is also argued that offering the prospect of negotiations may be seen as a sign of international weakness that could increase the Taliban's resolve to 'outlast' the international community's intervention.

311.  We conclude that a negotiated, Afghan-led political settlement with broad popular support represents the only realistic option for long-term security and stability in Afghanistan. However, we further conclude that there can be no serious prospect of meaningful discussions until Coalition Forces and the Afghan National Security Forces gain, and retain, the upper hand on security across the country, including in Helmand, and are then able to negotiate from a position of strength. For these reasons we conclude that the current increased military activity is a necessary pre-requisite for any long-term political settlement.


312.  To a large degree the prospects for a political settlement in the short term depend upon Afghanistan's forthcoming Presidential and provincial elections which are set to take place amid tight security on 20 August. The elections were originally meant to be held in the early part of 2009 following the planned completion of geographically phased voter registration by the end of February. However, in early February, the deteriorating security situation led to warnings from both the Afghan Independent Election Commission and the UN that the credibility of the elections would be severely undermined if the elections were not delayed. The UN also cited problems deriving from manpower limitations and budget shortfalls.[506]

313.  We have been told by many interlocutors, witnesses and the FCO that it is crucial that credible elections are held. Daniel Korski told us that the election offers an opportunity for whoever becomes President to re-assess current strategies and provide direction on how to achieve change,[507] while Lord Malloch-Brown told us it was important that:

there needs to be a competitive election which delivers a result that people believe in, and where they believe that the campaign has allowed a real debate and airing of the issues. Frankly, there is a bit of a sense of stifled democracy in the country and of a leadership that has seemed out of touch, locked up in Kabul and not connected with the needs of people. For us, this election - not just who wins it but the very process of candidates getting out there and debating and engaging—is critical to the political renewal of the country. Without this, arguably neither the Afghan government nor the international community will find it difficult to make progress.[508]

314.  Although President Karzai's term formally expired on 22 May 2009, he announced in April his intention to continue in office until the election, a move which prompted considerable constitutional and political controversy. We were told by a number of interlocutors that the US's silence over his decision to continue in office was perceived by many Afghans to amount to tacit US support for President Karzai in the forthcoming election. We were also told that although the US had not intended this to be the case, it had nevertheless proved unhelpful in attempts to demonstrate to Afghans that the Presidential election result is not being dictated by the international community.

315.  Whether the elections are perceived to be credible will also be determined by how fair the voting process is deemed to be. Additional security has been provided by the international community to deal with the expected upsurge of violence ahead of the election and to ensure that the elections are not derailed by the poor security situation. According to Dr Gohel, "the eyes of the world will be on what happens there. Groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban will want to try to exploit the situation by trying to carry out attacks and creating chaos and disruption".[509] Lord Malloch-Brown told us that the elections had the potential to strengthen democracy if it is "accepted by the great majority of Afghans as a credible test of their leadership, and that whoever wins it has a mandate that people accept as genuine and real".[510]


316.  During our inquiry a number of witnesses and interlocutors spoke about widespread concern that any political settlement in which conservative forces dominate would risk reversing the small gains that women have made in terms of political involvement and their greater access to health care, education and employment.[511] Elizabeth Winter told us many Afghans were worried that the international community's focus on securing an exit strategy through reconciliation would be "at a cost, particularly of women's rights. They will go to the wall". She added that "Bringing back the Taliban, with all the unhappiness that their regime caused, is something that people are very frightened of".[512]

317.  The US strategy states that "practical integration must not become a mechanism for instituting medieval social policies that give up the quest for gender equality and human rights".[513] Lord Malloch-Brown told us that he acknowledged that there was a risk in this respect, and that there was "no reason to believe that their spots have changed when it comes to the treatment of women". He added:

That is, […] another reason why it is so important to understand the nature of the dialogue that we would support in the reconciliation process. […] [It is about] talking with those who have supported the Taliban, and maybe ultimately with elements who might even be described as Taliban, but it is not arriving at an agreement with the hardcore traditional Taliban leadership and their hardcore, hard-line allies. […] The second point is that it is about winning those groups back into a system of governance based on elections and the democratic rule of law which is being established […] and so I would hope that the system and the checks and balances it would provide mean that the rights of women would be protected, but I acknowledge that this is going to be a very difficult area.[514]

318.  We welcome the commitment of the US and UK governments to ensuring that human rights are not undermined in any future reconciliation process and we conclude that the meaningful participation of women is an essential element in any negotiated reconciliation, as has been the case in many other post-conflict peace processes.

483   Fotini Christia and Michael Semple, "Flipping the Taliban: how to win in Afghanistan", Foreign Affairs, July/August 2009 Back

484   IbidBack

485   IbidBack

486   Ev 86 Back

487   Ev 86 Back

488   Ev 172 Back

489   Fotini Christia and Michael Semple, "Flipping the Taliban: how to win in Afghanistan", Foreign Affairs, July/August 2009 Back

490   "US Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan", White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group's Report, April 2009 Back

491   Q 171 Back

492   Q 171 Back

493   Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid, "From Great Game to Grand Bargain: Ending Chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan", Foreign Affairs, November/December 2008  Back

494   Fotini Christia and Michael Semple, "Flipping the Taliban: how to win in Afghanistan", Foreign Affairs, July/August 2009 Back

495   IbidBack

496   Fotini Christia and Michael Semple, "Flipping the Taliban: how to win in Afghanistan", Foreign Affairs, July/August 2009 Back

497   Ev 139 Back

498   Ev 131 Back

499   Q 219 Back

500   "Nosedive in Afghan-US relations", BBC News Online, 5 February 2009 Back

501   Ev 178 Back

502   Q 171 Back

503   "A Strategic Conflict Assessment of Afghanistan", Post-War Reconstruction & Development Unit, November 2008, p 54 Back

504   Fotini Christia and Michael Semple, "Flipping the Taliban: how to win in Afghanistan", Foreign Affairs, July/August 2009 Back

505   "Talking to the Taliban has failed before", The Guardian, 9 March 2009 Back

506   The full electoral process is anticipated to cost up to $500 million and according to the FCO, more financial support from a wider donor pool is still required; Ev 85 Back

507   Q 169 Back

508   Q 216 Back

509   Q 172 Back

510   Q 180 Back

511   Ev 178 Back

512   Q 78 [Elizabeth Winter]  Back

513   "US Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan", White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group's Report, April 2009 Back

514   Q 221 Back

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