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ICG Report; “Talking about Talks”. Helpful but flawed…

April 5, 2012

ICG Report; “Talking about Talks”


Helpful, yes, solidly exposing many of the problems of the current “dialogue” issue.  But too many “great in theory”, over-ambitious, recommendations threaten to dissipate the paper’s value.  The key recommendation that the UN is competent to (and should) drive a political settlement is highly questionable.  More discussion on – and recommendations directed to – the Taliban and their views, values and goals would have balanced the paper


On 26 March, the International Crisis Group published a report: “Talking About Talks: Towards A Political Settlement In Afghanistan”.  The paper analyses the current obstacles facing political settlement in Afghanistan.  It notes the major shortfalls in the Afghan security forces, the weakness of the Karzai government and the failings of the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Process (APRP) and High Peace Council.  It describes the Afghan government’s efforts to get dialogue going as “half-hearted and haphazard”.  It makes many recommendations to several distinct audiences (Afghan President, parliament, UN Security Council, major donor countries, regional partners and the UN Secretary General) to help move the process forward, in particular by:

1. Reassessing the APRP and High Peace Council processes – abandoning them if necessary
2. Revising the Afghan constitution and undertaking electoral reform
3. Using “a broad spectrum of citizens” to help shape the reconciliation debate
4. Giving the UN/UNAMA the lead in mediating with the Taliban; creating Afghan government and UN negotiating teams to achieve this
5. Vigorously pushing regional-backed co-operation


The International Crisis Group regularly produces thorough, well-researched and powerfully argued papers in regard to Afghanistan.  A new paper was perhaps overdue and I was beginning to wonder what had happened to them.  The paper did not appear to make much of a media splash, although the Afghan government and ISAF seemed dismissive.  The report helpfully highlights and exposes the scale of the dialogue problem in Afghanistan.  It provides very solid background “history of failure” as it reviews 35 years of efforts to secure a political settlement in Afghanistan.   In fact, there is perhaps too much emphasis given to history and the paper could have been shorter, punchier and more focused on the “next steps” for kick-starting dialogue with the Taliban.

Where I think the ICG also tends to fall down slightly is its over-reach with its recommendations – lists of demands to large and diverse audiences.  The recommendations are very much based in the ideal world and I generally struggle to visualise them as goals that are ever practically going to be achieved.  If all the recommendations were followed, we would soon get bogged down and another year or three of precious time, together with billions of dollars, would be wasted.  It is easy to say “Conduct a thorough reassessment of APRP…” or “initiate reform of the High Peace Council…” or Conduct greater public out-reach on government plans for reconciliation…” or “Adopt a constitutional amendment…” or “Repeal the presidential decree…”.  Great in theory, but more gritty pragmatism is to be recommended for the recommendations.  There are some important issues being raised in the recommendations section, but the number of ideas – and the number of audiences being aimed at – gave me a sense that the true value of the ICG’s paper has being unhelpfully dispersed into several directions, and consequently weakened.  On some issues, their recommendations could have been much more forceful – the ICG really appears to dislike the APRP (as do I), but can provide little more than a recommendation to: “conduct a thorough assessment…consider defunding”.  Likewise with the High Peace Council.

I don’t believe that either the Taliban or the Afghan government know what they want from talks or where they want to be over the next few years in terms of Afghanistan’s relationship with the Taliban.  So much for an “Afghan-led” solution.  I am unconvinced that these recommendations take us any closer to achieving dialogue with the Taliban – in fact the way to grind everything to a halt is to try and effect some kind of constitutional and electoral reform in the middle of dialogue attempts.  Every pressure group and faction will crawl out of the woodwork demanding a stake and expecting concessions.  Come on – Karzai takes two years just to get his cabinet approved.  I think such reforms are red herrings, or should at least be set aside until there is a better (or indeed any) sense as to what the Taliban might think and want out of such issues before leaping in with “reform” as the answer.

And I am fascinated by the absence of ICG recommendations to the Taliban – this should be the key messaging direction – and the lack of consideration of what the Taliban might want and how they might want to achieve it.  Several statements in the ICG report seem to make assumptions about what the Taliban must accept: “there should be no discount on democracy” and “the Taliban will have to abandon the goal of resurrecting an Islamic Emirate if they plan to be a part of the Afghan political order…they should demonstrate the capacity to develop a comprehensive platform that is domestically acceptable” and “The Taliban must recognise that there will be strong domestic resistance to substantially altering the basic democratic attributes of the constitutional system…”.

Something radical needs to be done if any kind of political settlement is to be brought forward.  But I think this paper is something of a missed opportunity.  In the section entitled “Devising a sustainable peace”, the ICG seems to present the solution as hanging on a massive leap of faith: “[The Taliban] should demonstrate the capacity to develop a comprehensive platform that is domestically acceptable and acquire the political skills and resources to gain access to government through peaceful means”.  Last year, I thought that there ought to be a role for the UN/UNAMA in this process – or the Red Cross, or at least a group that wasn’t ISAF or the US.  The ICG seem to put much store in presenting the UN as the obvious solution.  In the ideal world I would agree.  But on looking at the ICG’s history of failed negotiations as presented in the report, I cannot escape the conclusion that the history of the Afghanistan in the 1990s was a history of the abject failure of the UN to deliver any form of workable cease-fire, and certainly no political “settlement”.

“The UN is the only international organisation capable of drawing together the necessary political support and resources for what will undoubtedly be a lengthy and complex negotiating process”

Well, on paper, this might be the case, but I wonder what exactly has the UN and UNAMA really constructively achieved politically in Afghanistan since 2001?  I would want to see good reasons for thinking that the UN have the capabilities and resolve to achieve a political settlement in the future.  Maybe we should ask the Taliban,  Seriously.


I still think that the paper is important and useful, but I don’t feel that the ICG realised just how important it could have been.  The “answer” is hinted at here, in one sentence on page 35:

“It will take years for the Taliban to develop the kind of political cohesiveness and talents needed to test its political ideas at the polls – if it ever happens at all”.

But this, above all, is what we should be focusing our thoughts and efforts on – how do we communicate and build confidence in order to slowly and cautiously guide a group like the Taliban down this route? Are there political models that could be employed to assist a Taliban transition – Hamas? Hezbollah? Al-Sadr? Hezb-e Islami?  None of them particularly cute and fluffy, to be sure, but at least a few levels away from full-on jihad and insurgency?

Jaw, jaw better than war, war…

If we do anything, it should be to start talking at the Taliban as if they are slowly on the road to forming a political grouping.  The more they can be encouraged to expound on and engage in political, social and economic issues – yes, the boring stuff – the more they might slowly, almost by accident, move away from “Jihad”.  We should remind them of the obligations of governance and society (the people want to hear about reconstruction, jobs, investment, justice, representation, etc) but we should stop making provocative and unrealistic demands of them – renounce violence, lay down your weapons, denounce Al Qaeda, accept the Afghan constitution.  Without even realising it, they wind up with a stake in society where they have to be accountable to fellow Afghans.  And that’s a good thing, right?

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