The US and Nato are more earnestly than ever trying to speed up peace talks between them, the Afghan and Pakistani governments and the Taliban. But they will falter again, just as they have done in the past until the US is prepared to make a radical break with the past format of negotiations and understand the importance of mediation.
For the last three years talks to end the war, before the 2014 deadline when US and Nato forces leave Afghanistan and to conclude a political power sharing-settlement between Kabul and the Taliban, have floundered on severe divisions of opinions within all the relevant players.
There were acute divisions within the first Obama administration, with a testosterone-driven military undermining peacemaking attempts by the state department, while Pakistan’s military refused to end its support of the Taliban. President Hamid Karzai’s ambivalent, contradictory and ultimately self-defeating approach towards the peace process was also a major hindrance. Taliban moderates who led the 2010-12 talks in Germany and Qatar with the Americans had to take abuse and threats from their own hardline rank and file. Meanwhile, other important regional players such as Iran, the central Asian states, India and Russia were ignored.
Now renewed hope is being generated by a changed US landscape. The dream team of John Kerry and Chuck Hegel at the state and defence departments see eye-to-eye on the need for talks to bring peace to Afghanistan. And Pakistan’s military is finally concerned enough about the state’s own possible collapse to speed up the peace process in Afghanistan, which could help reduce the threat from the country’s own extremists. Finally, although the Taliban are still deeply divided on the need for a 2014 peace deal, more and more of them do not want to continue fighting once the Americans leave.
But what we have seen in the on and off talks between the US and the Taliban is essentially that Washington acts as both the most powerful party in the conflict and as a mediator. The result has been that Kabul, Islamabad, the Taliban and others have put demands on the table which they expect the US to reply to as the lead party, but they also expect America to mediate each others’ demands so that both sides can reach a compromise and move forward.
It is time Washington woke up and realised that the US cannot bring peace in Afghanistan by mediating by itself. America cannot be both an occupying force in Afghanistan trying to kill Taliban commanders on night raids and firing drones into Pakistan, but also be a convincing mediator between all the protagonists to broker a peaceful conclusion to the war.
The obvious choice for such a mediator role is the UN, which brokered the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988 and tried many times to mediate an end to the civil war in Afghanistan between 1992 and 2001. However secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has run the organisation into the ground and the UN does not boast of a single authoritative renowned negotiator, who could muster global support for the task. (Even the UN mediation in Syria is being conducted by retired UN officials.)
There are two countries that could possibly carry out the task – Germany and Norway. Germany started the US-Taliban negotiations in November 2010 and has retained a good relationship with the Taliban despite still having troops in the country as part of the Nato force.
Out of all the countries in the world the Taliban first approached Germany to send messages to the Americans. The Taliban have trusted the Germans and so it seems does Mr Karzai. It was a serious mistake by the state department to dump the Germans once direct US-Taliban talks started – which quickly floundered as the US continued to play its double role of player and mediator.
Norway has also established excellent relations with the Taliban over the years and recently has been used by the US to try to get peace talks restarted. Oslo’s diplomatic corps is the world’s most renowned for pre-emptive and conflict resolution diplomacy. It is small enough and neutral enough not to upset the egos of the bigger players and despite its small contingent of troops in Afghanistan, Norway is also trusted by the Taliban.
The real advantage is that both these countries have had the humility to realise that they are not brokering peace for themselves or their national egos, but essentially for their American, Afghan and Pakistani allies. Only without hubris can true mediation be realised.
Messrs Kerry and Hegel need a non-American partner that can do some of the heavy lifting of mediating terms and conditions with a difficult, stubborn Mr Karzai and divided Taliban, who can talk to neighbouring states such as Iran which the US cannot do, who can offer an non-American perspective to the Pakistani intelligence services and who would have a clean record when the time comes to muster adequate funding to sustain a peace process and keep Afghanistan solvent for the next few years.
President Karzai also needs to realise that he cannot do this on his own as there are too many regional complications which Afghanistan is too weak to address and his regime is too discredited. He needs a mediating partner just as the Americans do. Pakistan too would probably welcome a neutral partner for mediation and there could be the start of a dialogue with Iran on the peace process.
This US administration needs to take a settlement in Afghanistan seriously if Barack Obama is to have a legacy as a peacemaker in four years’ time. Afghanistan needs to be up there in importance alongside handling the crisis in Syria and with Iran, but America also desperately needs a mature partner if it is to succeed and not end up failing again because it is trying to mediate by itself.
The writer’s latest book, ‘Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan’, is now available in paperback. He is the author of four other books