To be clear up front, what is at stake is not the exit of foreign troops from Afghanistan, but Afghanistan’s exit from its devastating civil war.
Both exits, however, are inextricably connected in reality, even though much of the debate, especially in Western capitals, is predominantly focused on the former. Unsurprisingly thus, following the death of Osama Bin Laden, pressure has increased on the Obama administration and its key allies to commit to an accelerated withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan. Even if the prevailing wisdom in Washington and London, as well as among the other main Western troop contributors to the NATO-led ISAF mission for the time being is not to rush the withdrawal, it is equally obvious that the international troop presence eventually has to come to an end. In other words, there will come a time, and sooner rather than later, when security and stability in Afghanistan have to be on a more resilient footing than what can be provided by armed force, foreign or domestic.
As a military victory in the traditional sense of comprehensively defeating the Taliban insurgency seems a remote possibility at best, the alternative of a negotiated settlement that would bring at least some elements from among the insurgents into the political fold has been explored for some time, and now appears to be the main strategy explored by the United States, with the backing of its allies and in cooperation with the Afghan government, to end violence and secure an exit that does throw Afghanistan into even deeper chaos.
It is in this context that we need to see the passage, on 17 June 2011, by the United Nations Security Council of Resolutions 1988 and 1989, separating the formerly single sanctions list against the Taliban and al-Qaeda into two. While Resolution 1988 strengthens the sanctions regime against al-Qaeda, Resolution 1989 is aimed at the Taliban. In a significant step to support the fledgling peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan it creates a separate sanctions list and committee to oversee its implementation. At the same time, it affirms criteria for “delisting”; that is, individuals can be removed from the sanctions list if they renounce violence, sever links to international terrorist organizations, and respect the Afghan Constitution. In other words, the resolution offers the possibility of reintegration into Afghan society to those among the Taliban who wish to end their involvement in the insurgency. The official recognition by the Security Council of the difference between al-Qaeda’s global jihad and the Taliban’s local insurgency has been widely welcomed in the country, the region and more globally as an important measure to give a realistic prospect to a negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict.
While all of this may well constitute the most conducive environment yet for a negotiated settlement, it is still far from clear whether this opportunity will indeed be seized by the parties and, even if it is, whether the resulting settlement will be sustainable. Evidence from many studies of how civil wars end would suggest that stability is more likely after one party’s military victory. Yet, what is often conveniently forgotten in such arguments is the human and material cost that such “victories” entail and the fact that most of them still necessitate some kind of political settlement in the aftermath to help integrate, rather than permanently exclude, the defeated party. In other words, if a political settlement is inevitable one way or another, it might just as well be pursued with a degree of enthusiasm and commitment that can spare civilians the trauma of a prolonged civil war with all the human suffering and material destruction it involves.
In this sense, the strategy of negotiating with the Taliban is right. It is also correct in insisting on conditions as to who can participate in negotiations without closing the door to those who may not (yet) meet them-this is the precise meaning of the “listing” and “delisting” in UN Security Council Resolution 1989(2011). As with the Northern Ireland peace process where participation in the negotiations that led to the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement were conditional upon acceptance of the Mitchell Principles of Non-violence, demanding that those Taliban who want be part of a future peaceful Afghanistan renounce violence is only logical. Similarly, the Sunni insurgency in Iraq was brought to an end, in part, because those supporting and participating in it were simultaneously pressured and incentivised to turn away from, and on, al-Qaeda and encouraged to participate in a political process. While a comparison between Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan with Sunni insurgents in Iraq, let alone Republicans (and Loyalists) in Northern Ireland, is not straightforward, and perhaps not even sensible, the particular strategy of dealing with the problem that they pose(d) makes sense: the demands of these groups are to a significant degree negotiable (which fundamentally distinguishes them from al-Qaeda and its affiliates).
Clearly, not all among the Taliban will easily and quickly warm to the compromises and concessions that will be necessary for a settlement to be possible, nor will all in the current Afghan political establishment necessarily do so either. The more negotiations progress, the more spoilers will come to the fore-groups and individuals who will benefit more from a continuation of the conflict than from its end. That is why ISAF must stay the course and continue fighting its counter-insurgency campaign against those unwilling to participate in a genuine search for a political settlement and demonstrate to them the futility of pursuing the illusion a military victory over the Afghan government and its international supporters. International support must also continue to build a local Afghan security capacity that can eventually lead this campaign as necessary. Yet in the same way in which there can be no unconditional negotiations with the Taliban, there cannot be unconditional support of an Afghan government which presides over unbelievable levels of corruption and whose president lacks democratic legitimacy.
A political settlement will only be possible with international support for its negotiation and implementation. It will only be sustainable if both sides, the Afghan government and the Taliban alike, commit to it credibly and if institutions are put in place that offer transparent, participatory, and accountable mechanisms for dealing with the multitude of challenges that will undoubtedly face Afghanistan on the way to and after the negotiations have succeeded. Such success may seem rather far-fetched at present, but not to give good-faith negotiations a fair chance now would block any kind of exit for the foreseeable future.