Afghan President Hamid Karzai will unveil new reconciliation efforts with the Taliban at this week’s London Conference on Afghanistan’s political future. After US President Barack Obama’s announcement of another troop surge last month, Afghans have been asking: “Where is the diplomatic surge to address the root causes of Afghanistan’s turmoil?”
Last month, I muddied my boots walking around cold but friendly Kabul to ask: “What would US support for a diplomatic surge look like?” After drinking many cups of tea with over five dozen Afghan civil society leaders and government officials, one theme stood out in my notes: Afghanistan needs a coordinated, multi-pronged peacebuilding approach to contribute to the region’s complex political chess game.
The slow US diplomacy with the Taliban may result from the conventional notion of first imposing a painful stalemate on the Taliban, bending their will toward negotiation. Yet history suggests successful peace processes require a more proactive, comprehensive diplomatic approach.
The Afghan government’s new reconciliation efforts will offer vocational training and jobs to 35,000 former Taliban members. This is a good start. Previous reconciliation efforts aimed to peel off insurgents one at a time, rather than offering economic and security incentives to entire groups.
Diplomacy with the Taliban is an important dimension of addressing the conflict in Afghanistan, but not the only one.
A second dimension is Afghan-led peacebuilding at the local level. The highly functional Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development’s National Solidarity Program (NSP) blends locally owned, cost-effective development projects with efforts to increase local capacity for conflict management. The District Development Assemblies (DDAs) and Community Development Councils (CDCs) work through locally elected male and female shuras, or councils, that identify local priorities for building health centres, irrigation systems and schools. This simple yet sophisticated approach is vastly more cost-effective than US-funded development efforts, as it uses existing local channels.
Afghan universities and peacebuilding organisations, some funded by the United States Institute of Peace, an independent US institution which provides the analysis, training and tools that promote stability, help train the shuras in reconciliation and run peace education programmes. Some already operate at capacity. Many could expand with additional international support.
Next, Afghanistan needs a broader public peace process for civil society to build a national consensus on the country’s future, particularly on issues such as corruption, ethnic tensions and how to address the Taliban. We should remember that Americans in the Civil Rights Era, which began in 1954, did not set out to destroy the intolerant Ku Klux Klan–a once widespread white supremacy movement that used violence to resist pluralism–through violent measures. Rather, they made it irrelevant by changing the national consciousness through public discussions and campaigns.
Likewise, Afghans need iterative public forums to discuss and design their national agenda to move forward collectively and peacefully. This agenda will complement and coordinate with official diplomatic efforts.
Finally, Afghan leaders await robust regional diplomacy. Persistent dialogue with neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan, along with economic, political, security and territorial incentives, is essential. With regard to the United States: “It matters when Secretary Hillary Clinton or Ambassador Richard Holbrooke come to the region. We want to see more of them,” say local leaders.
They also say the United States does not have enough diplomats with the requisite training in local cultures and languages, principled negotiation, sustained dialogue and other advanced conflict resolution skills to support a peace process. During my trip, Afghan peacebuilding experts warned against imposing Western-style diplomacy on Afghans: “They need to do a better job of acknowledging and learning ways Afghans traditionally manage conflict, through tribal methods and Islamic ways of fostering good and cordial relations.”
Though there was almost no mention of diplomacy in his 1 December Afghanistan speech, Obama could start the diplomatic surge by drinking cups of tea with Afghans in Afghanistan. Then add a few dozen more culturally sensitive diplomats muddying their own boots on Kabul’s streets like I did. Next, invite more Afghans to talk about diplomacy with US policymakers.
Most importantly, if this country can risk the financial and human costs of sending 30,000 new US troops to Afghanistan–costing up to a million dollars each–surely it makes sense for US Congress to directly fund comparably cost-effective Afghan-led civilian peacebuilding efforts.
* Lisa Schirch is Professor of Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University and Director of the 3D Security Initiative. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).