Parties interested in initiating an Afghan peace process have long been aware of the challenges involved in negotiating an end to the country’s armed conflict. These challenges range from the procedural (identifying a venue for the negotiations) to the geostrategic (accommodating the security concerns of neighbouring states). Unfortunately, to this list must now be added another potential impediment to peace – a changing international political climate in which military victories are again becoming accepted as a legitimate means of ending civil wars.
This emerging sentiment marks a return to the Cold War period when most civil wars ended in a military victory. With the end of the Cold War, negotiated peace agreements, often brokered and supported by the United Nations and other members of the international community, emerged as the dominant form of civil war termination. This trend has recently experienced an apparent reversal, however. As Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs and Isak Svensson note in a recent paper, a new trend in civil war settlements, one characterized by a sharp decline in negotiated agreements since 2009, the replacement of mediation and peace talks with counter-insurgency tactics, and the dominance of military experts over diplomats in war termination efforts now seems to have taken hold. Recent cases in which this approach to ending conflict has been manifest include Iraq, Libya, Mali and Syria.
A number of factors appear to have contributed to the emergence of this more militant approach to ending intrastate conflicts. One is the mixed track record of many of the negotiated settlements signed in the post-Cold War period. In some instances, agreements not only failed to keep the peace but also, in countries such as Rwanda and Côte d’Ivoire, were followed by even higher levels of violence. In other cases, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, stability seems to depend on a long-term commitment by the international community, something that states mired in economic crisis are increasingly loath to extend to other countries.
The growth of hybrid forms of armed violence also has generated doubts about the utility of negotiated settlements as a means of ending armed civil conflicts. It is not obvious, for example, what kind of a settlement can be designed to accommodate the interests of a government and groups like a non-state armed opposition, organizations that traffic illegal goods, and armed gangs that at times join forces to challenge the state, and other times compete violently with one another for territory, population, resources and power. Faced with this kind of complexity, mediators have been displaced by specialists with experience in combating these diverse forms of violence.
The emergence of major power rivalry between the United States and competitors such as Russia and China also appears to have blunted support for diplomatic efforts to end civil conflicts, particularly in regions of strategic importance to those actors.
If this has indeed become the international community’s de facto approach to ending civil wars, what does it portend for Afghanistan? The clear-cut answer to this question is ‘nothing good’. If years of fighting have made one thing evident, it is that none of the parties to the conflict has the ability to prevail militarily. This means that, in the absence of an effort to end the conflict via a negotiated settlement, Afghans might well be destined to experience yet more years of death and destruction. And, even if a war of attrition eventually ended in a military victory by either the state or some armed group, it is highly unlikely that stability would take hold. Unless the victor undertook to completely destroy the defeated parties, a goal that likely would prove exceedingly difficult to achieve, an armed resistance almost certainly would rise up again after some period of time.
Can Afghanistan avoid this fate? Although conditions are not propitious at this moment, there are factors, operating both internally and at the international level, which may make it possible for Afghanistan to buck the latest trend in civil war settlements, initiate a peace process, and arrive at a negotiated settlement.
On the internal front, elements of Afghan society, including some of the parties to the conflict, have signaled their interest in engaging in a peace process. If a ‘partial peace’ can be reached by at least some of the conflict actors, others may later seek to become part of a negotiated settlement so as not to be excluded from the benefits associated with the peace.
There is also reason to believe that now that the International Security Assistance Force has ended its mission in Afghanistan, international actors will not be keen to see the fighting drag out until a military victory is scored. Fear regarding the potential for an escalation of armed conflict in Afghanistan to further destabilize the region is likely to limit external actors’ tolerance for a settlement of this type. That factor, coupled with the growing realization that a militant approach to ending the conflict in Afghanistan simply has not worked, is likely to make key external actors more amenable to seeing a peace process used as a means of ending the conflict in Afghanistan than they have been in other parts of the world of late.
If a durable peace is to be achieved in Afghanistan, members of the international community can and should do more than merely acquiesce to a peace process. External actors should be prepared to signal their support for an inclusive peace process that includes not only non-state actors such as the Taliban but representatives of civil society. This may involve activities ranging from the provision of guarantees of safe passage for representatives of the Taliban during the negotiation process to support for a national dialogue that familiarizes the Afghan population with models of inclusive peace settlements. The international community can also prepare for a peace process by seeking to identify a mediator who is acceptable to the parties in Afghanistan as well as to regional and international actors and who has sufficient standing to move a process along. Finally, plans should be made for the best ways to support implementation of the components of any peace agreement that may be reached by the parties to the conflict.
Of course there is no guarantee that Afghans will be able to negotiate an end to armed conflict in their country. One thing does seem clear: the current international embrace of military victories as a means of ending civil conflict poses significant risks to the long-term stability and viability of the Afghan state.
Download the paper, ‘A Comparative Perspective on an Afghan Peace Process: Why, When, Who and What?’ at http://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/comparative-perspective-afghan-peace-process-why-when-who-and-what