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Reconciliation and the end of the insurgency

July 19, 2012

By Tim Foxley


The term “Reconciliation” in the context of Afghanistan is generally taken to mean a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government.  If this still seems a long way off, a wider reconciliation between and within the ethnic, political and military groups of the country seems even less likely any time soon.  And this does not guarantee an end to the insurgency, the origins of which are complex.  I’ve tried here to put together a few thoughts on the directions in which the country might be going.  The Rand Study “How Insurgencies End” from 2010 is a very thought-provoking read in this respect.


  • Insurgencies generally have an ending only when the root causes have been addressed.  In the case of Afghanistan, root causes are numerous and complex: destruction of state infrastructure, societal fragmentation, ineffective governance, extensive criminality, strong specific strains of Islamism and nationalism, warlordism, and a foreign military presence.
  • Addressing these root causes will require sustainable improvements in local and national governance, economic and infrastructural development, provision of justice, capable and accountable security forces, as well as sustained international support and an end to malign interference by neighbours.  Political reconciliation with the insurgents would enable greater focus on these root causes.
  • A “good” political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban – one that is well-structured and inclusive, between genuinely committed parties – will be an important precursor, and perhaps the crucial building block, towards a lasting end to the insurgency.  Humanitarian reconciliation will need to follow as the insurgency fades.  This will be important to prevent grievances re-emerging as conflict.
  • Conversely, a “bad” deal – with little Afghan unity or leadership for the negotiations, malign stakeholders continuing to promote their own agendas and a tired and distracted international community – will be a cease-fire at best.  It might cause the insurgency to pause, hibernate or mutate, but also, almost certainly, to re-emerge.
  • A decisive military defeat of the Taliban is theoretically possible and we would probably see some form of political reconciliation emerge as a consequence of such a defeat.  But such a set of circumstances looks unlikely and the resultant political landscape may not be in the long-term interests of the country.
  • Afghanistan’s historic track record of negotiations and political settlements is extremely poor.  The current situation still offers little in the way of genuine hope.  If and when it starts, we can expect the process towards a political deal to be messy, protracted and with many false starts.  Satisfying a range of local, national and international stakeholders will be painfully difficult.  Any settlement that may emerge will be fragile and reversible.  A genuine finish to the insurgency may yet be several years – even decades – away.  Recognising it will be very difficult when it comes.



With a few exceptions, lasting insurgency endings are shaped not by military action, but by social economic and political change.

Rand study, How Insurgencies End 2010.[1]

1.            The Taliban-driven insurgency began in 2002, following their military defeat at the hands of a US-led Coalition force supporting the Afghan Northern Alliance in late 2001.  With Pakistan as a safe haven, the Taliban regrouped, rearmed and re-considered their options.  Predominantly using the weapons and tactics employed against the Soviet Army in the Jihad of the 1980s, the Taliban, over a period of around five years, re-infiltrated back into southern and eastern Afghanistan from where they mostly had their origins.

2.            From around 2006 to the present, the Taliban have gone from strength to strength.  This has been due to the inadequacies of the new Afghan regime, compounded by an international community that has struggled to understand the scale and nature of the problems the country was facing.  For some years, the Afghan government and parts of the international community have been calling for a “political solution” to Afghanistan’s ongoing violence.  But the desires have been hard to translate into reality.  There has been little evidence thus far that the Taliban are even interested in meaningful talks.  Little tangible progress has been achieved to date.



3.            In the context of international conflict, the term “reconciliation” is usually taken to mean a healing process of national forgiveness after the fighting has ended.  In the context of the current situation in Afghanistan however, “reconciliation” is most commonly understood to mean some form of agreement between the Afghan government and the main insurgent groups whereby the insurgents agree to renounce violence – in essence, a political deal.  Given this now common usage, this is the interpretation of “reconciliation” I will use here, unless expressly stated.

4.            However, amongst the many stakeholders with an interest in Afghanistan (the international community, ISAF, the Afghan government, the Afghan population in all its variety, the insurgent groups, warlords and neighbouring countries) there are a variety of different perspectives on the meaning of the term “reconciliation”.  If a political deal does emerge, we will need to be aware of this context of differing perspectives (such as the need to deal with war crimes and human rights violations).  Stakeholders will compare the deal against their expectations.  Frustrated expectations may contribute to the failure of a political settlement and, potentially, the re-emergence of conflict.

Analysis and Outlook

5.            A study of 89 insurgencies by the Rand Corporation concludes strongly that insurgencies truly end when the root causes of the insurgency have been removed.[2]  In the case of Afghanistan, a non-exhaustive list of root causes might include:

  • Destruction of state infrastructure over decades
  • Fragmentation of society and of tribal and societal values
  • Strong impact of specific strains of Islamism and nationalism
  • Weak or ineffective governance
  • Corruption and criminality
  • The corrosive effect of the narcotics industry
  • A badly damaged economy, unemployment
  • Foreign military presence
  • Warlordism and the culture of impunity
  • External interference
  • Al Qaeda and global terrorism

6.            The scale of the problem is clearly huge.  Even after ten years, international and Afghan efforts to address these root causes are still struggling to show tangible – and sustainable – progress.  In a vicious circle, root causes are creating a persistent insurgency and the insurgency is preventing progress being made in addressing root causes.  A political settlement between the Afghan government and the insurgent groups would clearly allow space for progress.

7.            But, even if the Taliban could be brought to the table, a political deal in itself would be no guarantee that the insurgency as a whole is coming to an end.  However, a “good” deal – one that is realistic, credible and inclusive – would have the potential to provide a solid building block and inject a sense of urgency into more effective efforts to addressing root causes.  This could be a powerful precursor to the beginning of the end of the insurgency.  Conversely, a “bad” deal would be a cease-fire at best.  If

a)      the Taliban were militarily and politically strong,

b)      or there was little Afghan vision, focus or leadership for the negotiations,

c)       or malign stakeholders continued to promote self-serving agendas

d)      or the international community was perceived as “rushing for the exit”,

a political deal would be short-lived and probably counter-productive.

8.            It is still difficult to make assumptions regarding the composition of a political deal.  We perhaps tend to assume that it would see senior Afghan government and Taliban leaders sitting down together, perhaps brokered by neutral international representatives to strike a one-off deal.  But it is possible that several distinct settlements are needed, over different timeframes, to accommodate different groups and interests.  And, theoretically, a formal deal might not be necessary at all.  If tangible and robust progress was made in addressing root causes, such as effective local and national governance, justice and the economy, it is plausible that the insurgency could, over years, wither on the vine naturally, without any need for a political settlement. Many fighters are conducting localised operations based on local issues (water and land disputes, corrupt police, unhappiness at the ISAF presence).  We may find that a political deal might in fact resemble a slowly evolving “patchwork” of local agreements that government and insurgency leaders are able to influence but not control. This might happen organically, be driven locally and be independent of agreements issuing from Kabul (or Quetta, for that matter).

9.            After several years of incoherence, speculation and “talks about talks”, substantial discussions with the Taliban have still not yet begun.  There is little evidence that the Taliban have much desire to engage in talks except on terms very favourable to themselves.  Furthermore, the 2012 “fighting season” is well advanced, with insurgents and counter-insurgents alike looking to achieve some measure of military success by the end of the year that might strengthen respective bargaining positions.

10.          Some decisive and demonstrable military progress against the Taliban this year may favourably shape the ground for credible negotiations.  The Taliban have probably been under more pressure in the last 12 months than they have been for nearly ten years.  However, bloodied but largely unbowed, they appear to take great heart from their understanding that the international military presence is starting to decrease and that the less-prepared Afghan National Security Forces are taking over.  Even if the Taliban were seen to be militarily “defeated”, this might not mean the end of the insurgency, particularly if root causes were left to fester.  And although we would probably see some form of political deal emerge as a consequence, it may not be a genuinely inclusive or balanced deal in the long-term interests of the country.  The Afghan government would perhaps have little incentive to address with any sense of urgency any of the root causes of the insurgency.  In any case, the prospects for this sort of military “victory” are not great in the timeframe before the end of 2014, when ISAF will have transitioned out of Afghanistan.  It would be even less likely after that.


11.          In Afghanistan, it is often difficult to distinguish where conflict ends and insurgency begins.  A robust and credible political agreement between the insurgents and the Afghan government could serve as an important precursor to the ending of the insurgency.  Given the complexities of Afghanistan’s multi-decade history of conflict, and specifically the poor success rates of past political deals, any new political settlement looks likely to be short term and fragile unless demonstrable progress in addressing the root causes of the insurgency is quick to follow.

12.          If and when it starts, we can expect the process of establishing a political deal to be messy, protracted and with many false starts.  Satisfying a range of local, national and international stakeholders will be painfully difficult.  Any settlement that may emerge will be fragile and reversible.  A genuine ending to the insurgency may yet be several years – even decades – away.  Recognising this ending could be very difficult when it comes.

[1] Connable, B. and Konicki, M., ‘How Insurgencies end’, Rand National Defence Research Institute, P. 154, 2010,

[2] Connable, B. and Konicki, M., ‘How Insurgencies end’, Rand National Defence Research Institute, P. 154, 2010,

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Afghan permalink
    July 19, 2012 5:57 pm

    In Mr. Foxley’s world, a country by the name of Pakistan doesn’t exist. How can you talk about the “Taliban” and “insurgency” in Afghanistan without mentioning the destructive role of the Pakistani generals? You don’t mention who is supporting Taliban and why.
    We Afghans know that Taliban and whatever you call them are nothing but Paki/Punjabi puppets and an instrument in the hands of the Punjabi generals to destabilize Afghanistan.
    You know very well that you can’t hit and neutralize the Taliban without destroying the colonial entity of Pakistan first. Therefore you do everything possible to convince the world that it should accept the Taliban. You can dream on Mr. Foxley.
    Even the word insurgency is a perverse choice produced by the pro-Paki/punjabi clique in the west, where Mr. Foxley has a prominent place.
    The people of Afghanistan will not buy such naive descriptions of a terrorist organization called Taliban.
    Taliban means direct Pakistani terrorist aggression against the defenseless people of Afghanistan, who are being killed by those who created Pakistan in first place.
    People can talk so much nonsense.

    • July 20, 2012 11:25 am

      Hi Afghan and thanks for taking the time to write. The point of my paper was to set out a few thoughts on the prospects for reconciliation and not so much to look at the role of Pakistan or who or what caused the Taliban, although this is of course relevant. “Are the Taliban a Pakistani construct?” would make an interesting paper, however. Even if I did write such a paper I would still not entirely agree with your assessment regarding Pakistan’s role. My sense is that Pakistan sought to take advantage and exploit a situation developing in southern Afghanistan in the early/mid-1990s much more than its Generals sat round a table and dusted off a set of blueprints to “create” the Taliban. I don’t sense that the Taliban like taking orders from anyone.
      I wrote a paper, which you can read at:

      Of course I have a large section on Pakistan which you are welcome to read. I’m not sure the “pro-Paki/Punjabi clique” you suggest I am a part of would be too happy with my judgements. My summary in 2010 of Pakistan’s role was as follows:

      “The relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan is complex and controversial. Historic differences rub shoulders with recent and more pressing disputes. Pakistan’s problematic relationship with India, its willingness to sponsor terrorism and its tendency to flip between military dictatorship and weak and corrupt civilian rule, continue to make Pakistan unattractive as a neighbour. Pakistan would prefer a Pushtun-dominated and passive client state to its west, but Afghanistan clearly has no immediate desire to fill this role. There is much evidence for Pakistani intelligence services continuing to support the Afghan Taliban and this is a source of major friction between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

      But let me give you what you want: Pakistan has played, is playing and is likely to continue to play an extremely negative role in Afghanistan, seeking to shape the political, economic and security environment there in accordance with its own agenda and concerns – a fear of India and being surrounded by Indian, or Indian-influenced power. The dominance of the Pakistani military and intelligence elements across Pakistan’s government and foreign policy remains a very damaging aspect of this. Pakistan ultimately wants a Pushtun-dominated regime that is very friendly towards (and obedient to) Pakistan. Pakistan almost certainly maintains links to Afghan Taliban groups and is probably allowing them to conduct the business of arming, regrouping, recruiting, training and moving inside Pakistan. Some parts of the Pakistani military and intelligence services are likely to know the locations of key Afghan Taliban leaders. But you know all this. I see in my paper that I do reference “Pakistan as a safe haven”, “External interference” and “malign stakeholders continued to promote self-serving agendas”. Regarding the latter two quotes, I could definitely have spelled out “Pakistan” more clearly because I certainly meant that, but I was also thinking, if nothing else, of Iran as well. (And, lets face it, a lot of other countries are also involved in Afghanistan for their own agendas and not that of Afghanistan).
      Eleven years of international military intervention seems to suggest that, in 2012, a clean, clear-cut military victory over the Taliban is not going to happen, however much you would like it to. Your solution – correct me if I am wrong – appears to be a major regional war against Pakistan. Seems highly dangerous to me – I wonder who you are expecting to fight this war – the Americans? The British (perhaps reclaiming one part of the Empire and forcibly amalgamating it with India)? The Afghan National Security Forces?
      The relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan remains a little opaque, with both sides using the other for their own purposes. If you get a chance to look at Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef’s book “My Life with the Taliban” there is a very plausible sense of dislike, verging on hatred, for Pakistan. My sense (and this is where I might get a little bit naïve) would be that perhaps, if Afghan groups (Government, political movements , insurgent groups) could actually work a deal out for themselves this might effectively close the door on Pakistan’s attempts to subvert.
      Please feel free to let me know your thoughts – given where we are now, in 2012, what would your solution be?


  2. Afghan permalink
    July 21, 2012 6:44 pm

    Dear Tim,

    Thanks for your response and I’m glad you got my point.
    You stated that Pakistan wants a Pashtun-dominated client state in Afghanistan, in other words a puppet regime 1996-year style, however, I disagree with you on Pakistan’s wishes for Pashtun domination in Afghanistan. What Pakistan fears most of all, more than the fear the Indians, is Pashtun nationalism and unity. Actually, that is the problem with Western analysts when it comes to Afghan-Paki conflict. The Paki propaganda has brainwashed you and your western colleagues and made you believe that Pakistan is a friend of the Pashtuns. Are you kidding? They can’t see the real motives behind Pakistan’s strategy. You describe the problems with Pakistan and like many other western analysts falling short of having any workable suggestion on how to deal with Pakistan’s army, its proliferation history, its support for different kinds of very dangerous terrorist and extremist organizations and figures, its killing of Afghan civilians, soldiers, NATO and allied troops, or what concrete measures should be taken in order to contain the cancer called Pakistan.

    It may look like Pakistan wanting Pashtun dominance in Afghanistan on the surface and in your blue Western eyes, but deep down and in reality the Punjabi generals are destroying and pushing the Pashtun communities on both sides of the colonial, defunct, imposed and disputed Durand Line back to the stone age, to a great extent with the direct and indirect help, support and assistance of American and British forces in Afghanistan, who have mostly been busy chasing the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, one of the main and definite objectives of the Paki generals and one of the top reasons behind their decision to allow American and NATO forces to use Paki soil for as their main supply route. An anti-Afghanistan, specifically and particularly, an anti-Pashtun Punjabi policy which was launched prior to the Soviet invasion and which continues to this very moment, quite successfully I must admit.

    If we look at the Pashtun reality on the ground on both sides of the disputed and defunct Durand Line since 2001, not to speak of Soviet invasion and its consequences for Pashtun communities which were hardest hit by both the Red Army and the Paki militias at that time, the Pashtuns find themselves in a very miserable and dark situation. Their schools and hospitals are attacked and burned down, their teachers, doctors and all kind of educated people are kidnapped, threatened or killed. The Pashtuns of Afghanistan are marginalized and excluded, turned into a minority in the security organs, in the administration and the politics of Afghanistan.
    Millions of Pashtun civilians are displaced on both sides of the colonial Durand Line. Pashtun communities are daily targeted by suicide bombers, IEDs, American, British and Punjabi plans, bombs, rockets, artillery, Special Forces of different kind. As we speak, the aggression of the Punjabi Army, in the form of rocket attacks, against the defenseless Pashtun civilians of Eastern and Southern Afghanistan continue with total impunity, with no significant from Afghanistan’s “strategic allies”, whatever that means. Most of the victims of the so called “war on terror” are Pashtun civilians. Pashtuns are the biggest victims of the Cold War and War on Terror.

    What the Punjabi generals want is an insecure, wild, isolated from the rest of the world, completely destabilized, populated with extremist elements and bases, backward, hopeless and blind Pashtun communities. The Paki/Punjabi generals are smart enough to realize that their historic and present enemy is the Pashtuns, which must be kept down at any price, because that is an existential question for Pakistan. West is doing exactly what Pakistan wouldn’t be capable of doing or even dreaming of, namely, weakening the Pashtuns and provoke them to a full scale war against the West, as mounting and increasing civilian causalities, the corruption, impotence and incompetence of the Karzai regime will undoubtedly prepare the ground for such a scenario, which is one of the main objectives of the Punjabi generals.

    The current situation suits the long term strategy of the terrorist Paki generals perfectly well, at the same time as Pakistan has nothing to lose if the situation continues like this as it has during the past ten years, thousands of deaths, billions of dollars…: As much as the Pashtuns get weaker, the West is fulfilling the very historic dream of the terrorist Paki generals and their corrupt elite. The weakness of the Pasthuns mean the weakness of Afghanistan and a destabilized Afghanistan for an unforeseeable time.

    I could go on and on and on, but with the above in mind the West and the rest of the world need to take the following steps:

    1. Declare Pakistan a terrorist sponsoring state, isolate it diplomatically and politically, cut all forms of aid
    2. Befriend the Pashtuns on both sides of the colonial border (without peace and stability in the Pashtun heartland and without the support of all Pashtuns, no mega projects will be possible. They will remain a “Pipe dream”.
    3. Support the liberation and freedom of the deserving and heroic people of Baluchistan
    4. Support and strengthen Pashtun resistance against the Punjabi Army (recent Pashtun uprisings against the so called “Taliban” in different parts and Pashtun dominated provinces of Afghanistan don’t look to be a joke.)

    Otherwise, Afghanistan will continue bleeding (does the past ten years tell us anything, disregard the cosmetic changes in Afghanistan. Telecommunication companies are the ultimate winners of all conflicts nowadays anyways), her sovereignty, national unity, territorial integrity continue to be threatened…

    Th world needs to take some drastic and concrete measures in order to deal with the terrorist entity of Paksitan.
    Regards, Afghan

    • July 25, 2012 3:42 pm

      Hi Afghan and thanks again for writing in such depth. Sorry it took a while to get back to you. I hope you are getting this all down on a blog, book or website somewhere – it seems a bit of a waste for you to leave all your thoughts in the comments section of someone else’s blog!
      I don’t think I suggested Pakistan was necessarily a friend of the Pushtuns, but that Pakistan might “prefer” a Pushtun-dominated client state. Maybe that is wrong. Actually, I’m sure Pakistan will work with whoever they think will best fit in with the Pakistani agenda inside Afghanistan – just as the US worked with some quite suspect warlords in Northern Afghanistan in late 2001. It is just that it might make sense to have the Afghan Pushtuns “on board” given that they make up (around) 40% of the population, have traditionally provided the rulers in Afghanistan and the main Pushtun population groups inside Afghanistan not only border, but spread over both sides of the border. “Difficulties” with the Pushtuns, as we have perhaps already seen, can spill across into Pakistan, and vice versa, quite easily. But, as you rightly note, failing a client state that can be easily controlled (Afghans are not always easily controllable), an area that is in a state of upheaval might also be seen as a viable option for Pakistan. I think Pakistan has saddled itself with an out of date, dangerous regional agenda based on paranoia. This agenda is self-maintaining as long as the military dominate Pakistan’s foreign policy and it helps to justify the massive expenditure on the Pakistani military. I don’t think they know how get themselves out of this vicious circle. At the moment, not enough of them seem to want to…
      But, the main point I wanted to make was that your solution still seems to involve major regional conflict and the collapse of Pakistan. You certainly seem to want a fight in Baluchistan (not sure how this helps the Pushtuns?). I wasn’t sure if your recommendation to “befriend the Pushtuns on both sides of the colonial border” was a call to support the growth of a Pushtunistan? I would be interested in your further thoughts on this. But, even if the international forces were still staying, this is not something they would want to get involved in. However much Pakistani “double games” are frustrating the US, it still appears preferable to put up with much of this than knocking over a nuclear state full of terrorist groups. Encouraging the strengthening of civilian, democratic governance in Pakistan probably offers the best long-term opportunities in your area. Even if you disagree with this, it is still what Europe and the US are most likely to be sponsoring over the coming years.
      Let me know your thoughts.

  3. ayaz permalink
    December 9, 2012 9:38 am

    Hi Tim and Afghan, thanks for the in-depth and thought provoking discussion. Afghan has pointed out some of historic causes of the instability of Afghanistan and that tallies with the views of Tim. The difference I see in their views is placed in time scale, as Afghan thinks historic events important, Tim finds the current state of affairs significant. Integration and stability in Afghanistan is one of the post cold war enterprize that global community undertook and there is a wish from all who love peace to make Afghanistan a modern state that postively participate in global affairs. Finding fault with an outsider power and waging a conflict with nuclear armed state would be having a disastrour impact on the world peace. It might start a third world war, as the interests of China, India, US and Russia collide in case of a war which the western population is not willing to go after. The question of Durand line though significant for Pashtuns, is not a top priority among non-Pashtuns, who would lose all prospects of playing a singnificant role in the political structuring for future. Security and stability is the first step which people of Afghanistan want on top prority. Wars and sanctions against Pakistan would have disastrous effects on Afghanistan, as its landlocked geography makes it dependant on trade through Pakistan. Further, carving out an independant Baluchsistan is an international issue as Balcuh territory covers Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.This means three states are to be dismantled to make the proposed state of Baluchistan. Such an action of demand for statehood would cascade its effects to other ethnicities in the south Asaia and central Asia. The west would then be dealing with a large number of states with weak state and security apparatus that would provide an immense opportunity to host millitant terrorist groups. A better solution to gaining the objective of security and stability lies in reconciliation that ensures social and polical integration of the entire ethnic groups instead of focusing on the compromises with the elites who maintain their presence mere through the force of arms. Genuine leadership is required to ensure the sustainability of a settlement. Decentralizing the power in Afghanistan would allow the minority ethnic groups a chance to come up with a genuine political leadership and contribute to the strengthening of Afghanistan. Factor of Taliban would diminish as the popular support for such elements end in Afghanistan. Opportunism of the neighbouring states of Afghanistan is potent factor until the internal cohesion of Afghanistan is strong enough to resist it. Tim’s view about social and political fragmentation is very relevant which the stakeholders of political power in Afghanistan need to recognize and work on with strategies to bolster up the political capacities of all ethnic groups to ensure equality and redressal of grievances.

    • December 10, 2012 9:39 am

      Ayaz, hi and many thanks for your thoughts, much appreciated. Another analyst, Joshua Foust suggested that Westerners should approach Afghanistan with a sense of humility and a 50 year time frame…



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