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New approach needed to end Afghanistan's insurgency

Commentary: Crisis Group chief urges the UN to replace the US as the lead peace negotiator.
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Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers hold rocket-propelled grenade launchers as they keep watch near the scene of an attack in Kabul on April 15, 2012. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The current effort to negotiate with the insurgency in Afghanistan is not working. Nor is it ever likely to work as long as Washington continues to dominate the process while President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban are dragged along without enthusiasm.

The signs are about as grim as they can be. The Taliban suspended talks in March with US officials in Qatar. There is ever more speculation about an accelerated drawdown of US and NATO forces. The differing parties — from the Afghan government to the Taliban leadership, to key regional and wider international actors — are looking ahead to the intense political competition sure to follow in the wake of NATO’s withdrawal.

In short, Afghanistan is on course for another civil war unless we see a major shift in policy. The only solution, itself a long-shot, is for the UN Security Council to mandate UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to appoint a dedicated team of negotiators to help lead the way toward a political settlement.

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No matter how much the US and its NATO allies want to leave Afghanistan, and to leave it relatively secure, it is unlikely that a Washington-brokered power-sharing agreement will hold long enough to ensure that the achievements of the last decade are not reversed. As the recent chilling killings in Kandahar illustrate, US and NATO forces have been transformed in the eyes of many from liberators to occupiers. The vast majority of Afghans view the US in particular as a full party to the country’s decades-long war.

To make matters worse, the Afghan government is so crippled by internal political divisions and external pressures from regional actors like Pakistan and Iran, that it is poorly positioned to cut a deal with leaders of the insurgency. Afghanistan’s security forces are likewise equally unprepared to handle the power vacuum that will occur following the exit of international troops. In the coming years, the government is likely to face even greater challenges to its legitimacy, as regional and global rivalries play out in its backyard.

President Barack Obama’s pursuit of a “responsible end” to the war in Afghanistan will require the US to drop its traditional resistance to UN involvement and recognize that negotiations must be led by a neutral third-party. A lasting peace accord will ultimately require far more structured negotiations, strong guidance and sustained engagement from the UN.

The UN is the only organization capable of drawing together the necessary political support and resources for what will undoubtedly be a lengthy and complex negotiating process followed, if successful, by an equally lengthy supervised implementation phase. As NATO prepares to draw down its forces, coalition partners must begin to incorporate the UN more in the overall dialogue around transition and a negotiation team should be appointed well before the end of 2013, when many decisions around NATO’s continued presence and role will have already been decided.

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Some have suggested the appointment of a UN-backed “super envoy,” tasked with overseeing the negotiations process, but the conflict is too complex for a single envoy, and there is a danger that concentrating too much power in the hands of a single negotiator would result in damaging and long-lasting misunderstandings between critical parties.

The facilitation process should be designed to allow parties to the conflict to draw on a wide range of resources and expertise. The UN Secretary-General should expand consultations with Kabul and key regional and extra-regional players, particularly the US, Pakistan and Iran, on the formal appointment of a mutually acceptable panel of mediators who are internationally recognized and respected for their knowledge of both international and Islamic law and regional political realities. The Security Council should adopt a resolution to appoint a team of negotiators and an individual to lead it as soon as possible.

Hundreds of billions of dollars, thousands of lives and two fraudulent elections later, it has become abundantly clear that the cost of a political settlement in Afghanistan will be very high. The current political order in which Kabul’s political elites dictate provincial realities and corrupt government officials remain unaccountable to their constituents will not survive for long once NATO troops have gone.

What will emerge in the years after 2013-14 will be determined in very large part by what happens right now. Amid the dwindling legitimacy of all the current actors, only the UN has a chance of forging a deal that will avoid the looming new civil war.

Louise Arbour is president of the International Crisis Group. She is the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
 

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