- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 28, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has convened a peace council aimed at national reconciliation in Afghanistan, and some form of Afghan reconciliation has been publicly supported by numerous U.S. and NATO officials. But we should not delude ourselves. This is not reconciliation in the Western sense, nor will such recognition fit with the stated goals of the international community.

The fundamental dilemma in Afghanistan is in the multiple definitions of security. The original mission of the 2001 U.S.-NATO invasion was to punish al Qaeda and thereby remove a threat to international security. Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies were defeated - or, more accurately, they fled to the hills - after just 90 days of war. But it was not a complete victory because they never surrendered or were destroyed. Local insecurity continued while the West began to build a nation. From early on in the war, aims shifted from “deter, defeat and destroy” terrorists to nation-building. In sum, the real objective - from the Tokyo donor conference in 2003 through the International Security Assistance Force’s current mission statement - continues to be nothing short of massive, deep-seated transformation of Afghan society.

The nation-building program combined efforts to promote security and political reform with economic development. The international community spent billions to create and/or reform Afghanistan’s law enforcement, courts, departments of government, military and every other aspect of the state. Furthermore, Western-style institutions such as an Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) were created. Through it all, donors were convinced that lack of economic development was a “root cause” of disorder, and hence, billions of dollars were invested in Afghanistan’s economic development.

The inability to obliterate the Taliban and al Qaeda was not just a military affair - it portended a far deeper, much more elusive war of ideas between competing conceptions of a rightly ordered society. To this day, tens of thousands, if not millions, of Afghans - especially Pashtuns - maintain conceptions of order and justice that are rooted in local cultural norms (e.g. the honor code of pashtunwali), kinship networks, patriarchal lines of authority and traditional forms of Islam. The arduous task of the Karzai government and its Western benefactors has been to establish a Western political order radiating from Kabul in a regional environment of competing concepts of legitimacy, authority and justice. Neither side has been able to completely defeat its opponent, thus allowing a war of ideas over those competing models of order to destabilize the country.

Justice issues similarly have become more difficult over time; this is no longer simply a narrow counterterrorism action. Various issues are pressing, including local compensation for “collateral damage” by Western militaries, the impunity by which the Taliban continues to violate national law, and the corruption endemic to regional warlords and Afghanistan’s government.

With rampant insecurity, deep reservations about local justice, and nine years of expensive nation-building, what are we to make of efforts at national reconciliation? First, conciliation of the Karzai variety is not congruent with Western definitions of reconciliation that take into account issues of war and justice. The flaw in such an approach is to pretend that outreach to “reconcilable” elements among the Taliban and other local networks is really some form of healing of relationships. If there is to be reconciliation, it will not be due to a moral epiphany among the Taliban or tribal leaders nor appeals to justice and brotherhood. Any arrangement that brings the Taliban in “from the cold” must be based on a reappraisal of their interests. That appraisal might be based on major military victories that leave the Taliban and its tribal allies stricken and on the verge of collapse, allowing its members to switch sides. A reframing of Taliban and tribal interests might include the opportunity for them to participate in governance, such as an evolution to a political party. We have seen elsewhere how rebel groups can disband and become part of the political process, as occurred with Colombia’s M-19 in 1991 and Iraq’s Sunni Awakening in 2007. That reframing of interests could take place in the context of a peace council or formal loya jirga.

Any such agreement would begin with assessments about security and political order from both sides. On the U.S.-NATO side, the calculation would have everything to do with a cost-benefit analysis of the national security implications of exiting Afghanistan. Moreover, the West will have to come to terms with the failure of an economic-development-first strategy. The West still mistakenly thinks economic development is the root of security when, in truth, it is the fruit of stability and security. For the Taliban, such a political bargain would proceed from a definition of their interests over the short and long term on the larger stage of Afghan national politics.

In short, we should not confuse the lingo of “Afghan reconciliation” with the reconciliatory ideals found in Western conflict resolution theory. Afghan political “reconciliation” - if it is to happen - will be about security and interests, not harmony and healing.

Eric Patterson is the assistant director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

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