At a news conference in Kabul on March 11, 2013, the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, charged that the United States was working with the Taliban to undermine his government and keep Afghanistan unstable in order to justify maintaining troops in the country. The accusation angered Washington and was promptly dismissed. Yet Afghan officials and civil society leaders are increasingly frustrated by U.S. actions that harm civilians and undermine Afghan sovereignty. Despite the difficulties, Washington and Kabul could rebuild their frayed relationship by shifting from the current strategy of war to the pursuit of peace and lasting stability in Afghanistan.
It is important to remember that the two governments share many common interests that define their partnership.
In a joint statement that was released on Jan. 11, 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama and Karzai re-affirmed their shared commitments to advancing peace in Afghanistan, strengthening democratic institutions in the country, and enhancing security and stability, so that Afghanistan would be able to develop both economically and socially.
Achieving these shared interests is possible. However, it will require different thinking around – and less resistance to – a peace settlement.
Obama and Karzai have already called for a political solution to the Afghan war. Both leaders endorsed the goal of a negotiated peace settlement. However, neither displayed much enthusiasm or a sense of strategic direction in reaching out to insurgents. The Taliban and other insurgent groups also favored peace talks initially, but then walked away from the process demanding that the United States fulfill earlier promises to release Taliban detainees from the Guantanamo prison.
A possible model for a peace settlement comes at the recommendation of the International Crisis Group and the RAND Corporation. In reports published by these organizations in 2011 and 2012, both recommended the creation of a high-level United Nations-led mediation team that is acceptable to all parties to facilitate a comprehensive peace process between them. The U.N. is perhaps the only organization that is able to garner the political clout needed to successfully achieve a peace settlement. While those reports initially proposed an early 2013 deadline for implementing these efforts, it is still not too late to do so.
A comprehensive peace process could start with confidence-building measures geared at different groups and it can culminate in a negotiated political settlement that includes all relevant stakeholders in the country. This includes ethnic minorities as well as representatives of civil society in Afghanistan.
These latter groups would need to be present from the start to create broader buy-in for a settlement, raising prospects for its success. Washington and Kabul might begin working with the U.N. to identify a mediation team that is mutually acceptable to both of them and also one that is able to engage all major stakeholders.
If a peace agreement is reached, it would likely need the support of third party peacekeeping forces. Peacekeeping is different from peace-building in that a neutral third party – usually one authorized by the U.N. – goes into the country to create conditions for peace, including monitoring the withdrawal of combatants from conflict zones, monitoring elections and delivering reconstruction aid. Evidence from other peace settlements, such as those in Cambodia and Liberia, indicates that the presence of third party peacekeepers greatly increases the prospects for sustainable peace.
A peacekeeping force might be led by troops from Muslim countries, as suggested by Taliban leaders. A Muslim-led peacekeeping force is likely to have more success given the hostility toward the Western powers resulting from Afghanistan’s recent history.
Indonesian officials I have interviewed about this idea have said that Jakarta might be willing to play such a role, but only if the force was under U.N. authority and had the consent of all the Afghan parties.
By supporting U.N.-led negotiations for a comprehensive settlement and working with Indonesia and other Muslim-majority nations to create an interim peacekeeping force, Washington and Kabul could build a more stable, lasting partnership. Both countries would benefit. The United States could withdraw its troops without jeopardizing security in the region, and Afghanistan would gain greater sovereignty and hope for a more peaceful future.
David Cortright is the director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).