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Afghanistan: more ideas needed…

October 16, 2012

Summary: The lack of fresh thinking over Afghanistan is painfully obvious.  But at a time when new ideas are desperately needed, a “wait and see” mode has kicked in.  A new conflict resolution approach to the Moslem insurgency in the Philippines might be worth monitoring.


By Tim Foxley

Cliche alert – its a long road…

There is such a lack of ideas for Afghanistan these days, certainly when compared to, say, the 05 – 09 period, when you couldn’t move for academic, government and NGO papers critiquing, advising, suggesting, recommending… In fact, I am sure there is a paper to be written exploring the role of “ideas” during an international conflict.

The irony of course, is that if ever there was a need for some fresh thinking for Afghanistan, it is now, although the default setting of “wait and see what happens after 2014” really looks to have taken hold on all sides.

In the area of talks, negotiation, reconciliation and dialogue with the Taliban, this need is perhaps most pressing of all.  Are the insurgents  supposed to be defeated, talked to or, as a very senior ISAF commander told me last year, both?

The Economist has very competent analysis of Afghanistan, to be sure, but sometimes in its pages I come across themes from other areas of conflict that strike a chord.  A few months ago, in a piece on the problems of bringing Islamic groups into government in Egypt, they noted:

23 June 2012 – Quoting The Economist in my article.  On the situation in Egypt:

“The best way to tame the Islamists, as Turkey’s experience shows, is to deny them the moral high ground to which repression elevates them, and condemn them instead to the responsibilities and compromises of day-to-day government”

In this week’s issue I came across a short piece on the insurgency ongoing in the Philippines – “Making peace in the Philippines, 13 Oct 2012” highlighting two key strands to a tentative peace agreement between the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.  As the piece suggests, the latest peace breakthrough could offer “…a model for some of Asia’s other conflicts”.

There are two core components of the deal:

  • The rebel group gets autonomy in a new area, weapons will be put “beyond use” and the fighters reintegrated into normal life
  • The process moves away from locking the two parties in a room until a deal is struck towards a more gradual process, with confidence building measures employed, trust slowly built up and concessions from both sides (the article notes the ceasefire has now held for a year).  Outside facilitators – NGOs and specific nations – gently and slowly push the talks along: “Deliberately, a lot has yet to be dealt with”.

It is not a conflict I know much about, but there are parallels and distinct differences with Afghanistan.  I am not so drawn to the first bullet point as to the second- it doesn’t really fit with where we are with Afghanistan.  But the gradual, confidence-building approach presented in the second part does resonate.  Controversial, difficult and painful issues could perhaps be better fixed by leaving them to one side for a few years and try for some kind of temporary ceasefires.  In assessing the risks, I like the last point mentioned here in the piece:

“The risks are obvious.  Decades of insurgency have created splinter movements, violent mafia rackets and clan rivalries [Tim comment: some clear Afghan parallels here].  Even more than elsewhere in the Philippines, guns are the extension of politics.  But the further both the government and the front go down the current path, the larger the constituency for peace becomes and the less likely either side is to turn back

Does anyone else, apart from me, struggle to understand why the US is still apparently the lead for talking to the Taliban, other than the US desire to release its prisoner and to snatch victory from the digestive tract of defeat by securing a face-saving “mission accomplished” deal?  My belief is that there are many more creative possibilities for engaging with the Taliban beyond the jarringly crude dictation of “surrender” by insisting on Taliban disarmament, supporting the constitution and denouncing Al Qaeda.

And perhaps if the Taliban were very pointedly given no one else to talk to apart from the Afghan government and some neutral facilitators they might, er, bite the bullet and get on with it…

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