Without a negotiated settlement - that is, without a broad political consensus to support a new national order - inserting international military forces into any ongoing armed conflict risks prolonging and intensifying that conflict and puts the international community on one side of a civil war.

And experience and logic tell us that political consensus is not forged on the battlefield: that presumably is what our own political leaders, as well as Afghan and NATO leaders, mean when they frankly agree that peace in Afghanistan will not be won by the military effort alone.

The Prime Minister made no mention of diplomacy when he listed the options that the Afghanistan Panel should consider, but diplomacy must be at the core of the Afghanistan effort. The pursuit of national accord requires its own dedicated peace and reconciliation process, and as the security situation continues to deteriorate, especially in the south, there is growing recognition that contemporary Afghanistan has yet to go through that transformative process.

Lessons learned from other contexts also tell us something about the essential components of such a peace and reconciliation effort. It is not a matter only of offering dissidents amnesty. It is not a matter of elites and militia leaders making deals to divvy up districts to control.

It is about engaging all sectors of society and communities of interest to build national institutions and practices that Afghans trust. That means:

  • a peace and reconciliation process based on inclusivity (involving all local stakeholders, but also regional actors);
  • it means a locally owned process that is broadly based (that includes women and civil society, as well as political and military groupings);
  • it requires international backing that lends legitimacy and authority to the process, and
  • it benefits from external facilitation (the government of Afghanistan obviously needs to be a key participant, but it cannot itself facilitate the reconciliation process).

So what of the role of Canada in this? What should the new panel of Afghanistan say about diplomacy?

At a minimum Canada can become a tireless advocate for a comprehensive peace process to build the political consensus that is now absent. Current Canadian leadership has too often treated the very idea of negotiation as if it were a denigration of the military effort. But peace and reconciliation efforts are not tactics to assist a faltering military effort; the military effort must be oriented to support an essential political peace process.

That means engaging our ISAF partners, the government of Afghanistan, and the key regional actors, to encourage those talks that are already underway, but especially to encourage the broadening of such efforts into a comprehensive reconciliation process. Canada can also provide technical and financial resources to facilitate initiatives and to ensure that Afghan women and civil society have the resources to participate effectively.

We have to be appropriately modest about what we can do, but a fundamental and urgent requirement is that we infuse the extraordinary commitment that we have made to this country with a palpable energy toward supporting Afghans in the pursuit of a new political order that earns the confidence of Afghans in all parts of the country.

What moves conflicted societies from the "failed states" column to the functioning state column is not of course the end of conflict, but the presence of national political and social institutions capable of mediating conflict without the resort to violence. That is a large part of what the collective struggle in Afghanistan must finally be about.

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