Opinion: Fatal flaw to peace package in Afghanistan

LOS ANGELES — A key feature of the London Conference on Afghanistan, held earlier this month, was the introduction of a peace package aimed at reducing violence in Afghanistan.

The package offers jobs, pensions and land to those Taliban willing to give up violence and join the government side. It's been presented as an attempt to Afghanize the political process by winning over those fighting for economic reasons and isolating those fighting for Al Qaeda.

But the deal contains a fundamental flaw: it is based on the assumption that the conflict is neat and consists of two sides, the Taliban versus the NATO-backed regime in Kabul.

The reality on the ground is messy and far more complex. President Karzai’s power is limited and vast regions of the country are under control of local strongmen commanding their own private, irregular armies. These private armies operate independently from Kabul and may or may not support Kabul’s reconciliation plans. The Taliban has numerous enemies in such irregular armies.

The problem is particularly acute in the north where new anti-Taliban fronts have opened up over the last few months. Recent developments in northern Qalay Zal district illustrate this point. Northern Afghanistan rarely finds mention in international news but the conflict has spread there with the new NATO logistic supplies route now running from Central Asia via northern Afghanistan. The Taliban have moved north, intending to disrupt the supplies route. As a result, Qunduz province and its surroundings are now among the most volatile regions of the country.

It was here, in Qalay Zal district, that the local population approached a former commander three months ago, asking him to remove the Taliban from their district by force. The former commander, Nabi Gichi, had given up violence in 2001, opening a restaurant instead. But he caved into pressure and organized an ad-hoc irregular army of 120 men. The local population supplied both, young men and weapons. The weapons were easy to acquire. The price of a Kalashnikov is $200, and a weapons versus drugs market has been operating in the north for six years.

Commander Gichi told the BBC’s Afghan service that his men succeeded in pushing the Taliban out of the district in less than a month’s time. Life in Qalay Zal has now returned to normal. The Taliban has been forced out and Commander Gichi’s men are in charge of the district. They are roaming the district armed and on motorcycles, but their open display of power is unsettling the local population.

Gichi’s ad-hoc irregular army is only one example of the complexity of the conflict in Afghanistan. Similar irregular armies are known to operate elsewhere in the country. In Baghlan province, to the south of Qunduz, Commander Mirwais is running an irregular army fighting both the Taliban and the Kabul administration. Afghan security forces recently distributed arms to the local population, encouraging them to bring Mirwais’ men under control but the young men decided to join the commander instead. The loyalties of irregular armies are unpredictable and can shift in reaction to the situation.

As the cases of Qalay Zal and Baghlan illustrate, the balance of power is presently in their favor but not the government’s. The government in fact is increasingly relying on militias to fight the Taliban for Kabul. More recently, the U.S. government offered the Shinwari tribe in eastern Afghanistan a package of $1 million in development aid in return for taking up arms against the Taliban. The tribe accepted the offer, but their joining the conflict is likely to further complicate the situation.

An array of armed militias and irregular armies are figthing the Taliban in different parts of the country but none of the armed groups is under Kabul’s command. This is a serious problem because the fight against the Taliban lacks a central command, and the peace deal only represents one side of the conflict.

The peace package offered to the Taliban at the London Conference has international support and is widely regarded as a probable solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. But its basic premise is flawed — that is, that the conflict boils down to two, clear sides, the Afghan government and its NATO allies versus the Taliban. In reality, the Kabul administration represents only the weakest of all Taliban opponents.

For the peace offer to work, Afghanistan needs a strong central government with a monopoly of violence. Presently, Kabul not only lacks a monopoly of violence, but also the violence is being further diffused with the militarization of independent tribes in eastern border regions. Judging from this complex reality on the ground, the peace package’s chances of success are minimal.

Nushin Arbabzadah is a former BBC journalist and currently a visiting scholar at UCLA.