Afghanistan needs a dignified, inclusive peace process



What is the conflict in Afghanistan about? That is not a simple question. But there is a single word that sums it up: dignity.

Recently I joined a group of 40 Afghan leaders in Istanbul, Turkey, to discuss how to bring an end to the war and transition toward peace. Convened by Wilton Park, a United Kingdom-based forum for convening innovative policy discussions, the group explored options for “Shaping the Conditions for a Political Settlement in Afghanistan.”

After 18 years of war at a cost of $45 billion a year, U.S. military leaders conclude there is no military solution. In December, President Trump reportedly ordered the withdrawal of 7,000 U.S. troops. U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and his team started direct negotiations with the Taliban to end the war last July. These are all signs that a broader “comprehensive peace process” is necessary to build a sustainable peace.

While a ceasefire agreement between the United States, Afghan government and the Taliban could set the stage for ending the war, this limited approach is not sufficient to achieve U.S. interests. Some express a dangerous desire to “keep things simple” and a concern that including women and other stakeholders “unnecessarily complicates” Afghan peace talks. Although the United States would like a quick end to the conflict, a process that ignores key issues and stakeholders is doomed to fail.

More than 50 percent of peace agreements fail within five years. The most successful peace agreements are accompanied by a broader, inclusive peace process. The goal of a comprehensive peace process should be to build public consensus around a shared future. A comprehensive peace process includes representatives from various parts of society and creates multiple forums for discussing a wide set of key issues at the local, provincial and national levels over a longer time frame.

Successful peace agreements emerge from comprehensive peace processes such as those that took place in South Africa, Tajikistan, Colombia, Guatemala, Liberia and the Philippines.

In South Africa, religious leaders played a significant role in creating forums for reconciliation. In Guatemala, a civil society assembly developed more than 200 policy recommendations that made it into the final constitution. In Liberia, a women’s nonviolent social movement played critical roles in pressing for a ceasefire and negotiating for a democratic transition. In the Philippines, civil society’s “people power” movements created leverage for a transition of power. Research indicates that the involvement of women and broader civil society in peace processes correlates with greater likelihood of agreements being implemented.

A stable, peaceful future in Afghanistan is possible. There could be light at the end of the tunnel. The problem is, there is no tunnel. There currently is no structure or financial support for a comprehensive peace process for Afghanistan.

Designing an Afghan peace process requires both inspiration from other successful peace processes, and innovation to address unique Afghan cultural resources and contextual challenges.

In Istanbul, many participants noted that Islamic religious leadership and Muslim countries must play a role in a comprehensive peace process. Key issues, such as women’s rights, require discussions related to Islam that the United States and other Western countries cannot provide. A dignified U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan cannot be achieved in the face of humiliation by any of the stakeholders.

Afghans at the conference noted the important role of dignity in a peace process, and the dangers of humiliation. Humiliation is a destabilizing emotion; it creates rocket fuel for revenge.

A dignified peace process would be inclusive and respectful of Afghan culture and the role of Islam. Afghanistan has a robust, experienced group of local peace-building experts, with decades of experience mediating local land and water conflicts. But based on my own work in Afghanistan over the past 10 years, time and again these local peace-building experts have been almost completely ignored and cut out of discussions on the peace process.

The United States and international community must help support that “missing tunnel” to address U.S. security interests in a stable, sustainable peace. But the United States cannot lead the peace process or drive the process blinded by our interests or timetables. It can best achieve its security goals by supporting a dignified, comprehensive peace process.

Lisa Schirch is North American research director for the Toda Peace Institute, senior policy adviser with the Alliance for Peacebuilding, and visiting scholar at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. She is the author of several books and a report, “Designing a Comprehensive Peace Process in Afghanistan,” published by the U.S. Institute of Peace. Follow her on Twitter @LisaSchirch.

Afghanistan needs a dignified, inclusive peace process