Will a peace-for-justice trade-off be viable in Afghanistan?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 10, 2017

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani inspects the honour guard before the handover ceremony of Blackhawk helicopters from US to Afghan forces. Reuters

He may not have meant for it to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Che Guevara’s death, but Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani recently spoke about peace in reference to a conflict inspired by the exploits of the iconic guerrilla leader.

Mr Ghani told the BBC that there were lessons for Afghanistan in the Colombia peace process and that he wanted nothing less than “a peace agreement with the Taliban”.

The mention of Colombia was significant. Last year, the longest war in the Americas came to an end after 52 years and more than 200,000 dead. Thousands of rebel fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym, Farc, started trying to re-enter society as civilians, complete with government assistance to build homes. For many, it was their first real taste of civilian life after years in tents in the jungle. It was also the first test of reconciliation for ordinary Colombians. But the process is well under way. The end of the Colombian war closes the last chapter on a tradition that went back to the Cuban revolution and Che — and it brings the very last of the guerrilla groups out of the jungles of Latin America.

In some ways, the Afghan president could be said to be proposing a much smaller leap of faith for his country. After all, the Afghan insurgency hasn’t run as long as that of Colombia. And for all the Taliban’s ideological bent, they are not, like Farc, part of a revolutionary fervour that spanned a whole continent. But the similarities between the two conflicts, not least a thriving drug industry, have long been remarked upon. So much so, that 10 years ago, the US was sending Afghan policemen to learn commando tactics from Colombia’s counter-narcotics police.

Even so, Colombia now has a ceasefire and a tenuous peace, but Afghanistan seems very far from it. What might move the needle for Afghanistan?

That seems to depend on whom you ask. America’s top military commander in Afghanistan recently unveiled part of a new strategy that would unleash “a tidal wave of air power” on the Taliban. This will rely on tripling Afghanistan’s air force capacity within five years (by means of 159 Black Hawk helicopters and other US aircraft) and doubling its special operations forces. But even as he hails this tough initiative, president Ghani continues to insist that his “government extends the hand for peace”.

This dual-track approach to conflict resolution has some noteworthy champions. The provocative, well-networked, 74-year-old US strategic consultant Edward Luttwak says that wars have a purpose, which is that of bringing peace. Luttwak, who has spent his long career advising governments and whose 1987 book, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, is a set university and military academy text, publicly disses the conflict resolution industry itself. He calls it “a plague”, an enthusiasm of “every unemployed Swede”. Conflicts end, Luttwak says, when one side wins, or both sides are at even strength and totally exhausted by war. A ceasefire brokered by the UN or a great power merely affords both sides the chance to recover and fight another day.

By that logic, Afghanistan should be in a good position to start to plan for the end of conflict and for eventual peace. America’s open-ended promise to stay the course and the infusion of new air capability for the Afghans obviously leaves the Taliban with little hope they can win on the battlefield. In itself, though, that seems hardly enough to bring about lasting peace, especially when there is the messily drawn international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as senior Indian diplomat Rajiv Dogra notes in his new book, Durand’s Curse: A Line Across the Pathan Heart. The Durand Line splits tribes, clans and families and makes it harder to see the Afghan conflict as purely limited to its territory.

So how hard would a Colombia-style peace deal be for Afghanistan?

Making peace requires social change, which takes time, patience and the willingness to innovate. It also needs inordinate amounts of trust. Jonathan Powell, who served as the British government’s chief negotiator on Northern Ireland, has described the hours he spent meeting Sinn Fein-IRA leaders “on their turf”, out of sight of the security forces. But even he acknowledges that before trust, there must be a “mutually-hurting stalemate” and that military pressure is key to finding a political way out of conflict.

In Afghanistan, there has been military pressure for years, but very little attempt at a political settlement. This is despite the central government losing control of roughly 40 per cent of territory.

Some Pakistani security analysts have begun to suggest that it would be better for the Afghan government to recognise the support the Taliban enjoys and then to move forward with them to build a constructive peace. That would need the sort of controversial trade-off — peace for justice — that the Colombian government embraced. It’s not easily done and even harder to sell.