It’s hard to dispute the prevailing conclusion that all options in Afghanistan have become bad.[i] That includes the option that still earns only occasional and grudging mention – negotiation. But what distinguishes this option from all the others is its inevitability.

In his recent and widely dissected assessment of the Afghan security assistance mission, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new US Commander in Afghanistan, raises the prospect of ending the war through reconciliation with insurgents – not as inevitability, but as likelihood:[ii]

“Insurgencies of this nature typically conclude through military operations and political efforts driving some degree of host-nation reconciliation with elements of the insurgency. In the Afghan conflict, reconciliation may involve [Government of Afghanistan]-led, high-level political settlements.”

A “high-level political settlement” was supposed to have been negotiated in Bonn in late 2001 and was to be the foundation on which the International Security Assistance Force[iii] was originally mounted in 2002. The war that has ensued is not a consequence of some parties to that agreement defecting from it but of the fact that it never was a comprehensive, inclusive agreement involving all the key stakeholders. Michael Semple, the European Union’s special representative in Afghanistan in 2004-2007, puts it this way in his new report for the United States Institute of Peace:[iv]

“It is now widely understood that the Bonn Accords did not constitute a peace agreement. They needed to be supplemented by a strategic pursuit of reconciliation in order to bring all Afghan parties to the conflict into the peaceful political process.”

That “strategic pursuit of reconciliation” has not happened. After the overthrow of the Taliban government, the Bonn process, confirmed through two loya jirgas, that extraordinary and enduring Afghan institution for national consensus building, produced a new institutional and governance framework. Ahmed Rashid, the noted Pakistani journalist, describes Afghanistan’s constitution, approved in 2003 at the second loya jirga, as “one of the most modern and democratic in the Muslim world.”[v]

Despite that, Afghanistan’s growing insecurity[vi] is confirmation that the post-Bonn political/legal order in Afghanistan did not become inclusive and has not earned the undivided loyalty of the Afghan population. The recent election has only added to that failure.

The international community’s prevailing response to that failure has not included new political/diplomatic efforts to rebuild a basic national consensus behind its public institutions; instead, the focus has been on militarily defeating those outside the consensus. But the resort to war, as Gen. McChrystal confirms with considerable force, has neither defeated the opposition nor delivered the expected modicum of security. Enduring and fundamental conflict, along with pervasive distrust, has over time transmuted into a conventional wisdom, resignation, that the war is failing badly and that the options are getting worse.

William R. Polk, a prominent American academic and advisor to Democratic Presidents, has written an open letter to President Obama pointing out that when foreign forces exit a counterinsurgency war, “almost always, those who fought hardest against the foreigner take over when he leaves.”[vii] The longer the effort to defeat an entrenched insurgency by sheer force, even when force is supplemented by enlightened hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency tactics, the more difficult it is to find a moderate middle ground.

There have certainly been reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan, but most are more properly described as cooption efforts – essentially attempts to entice moderate Taliban to switch sides. These efforts are designed to support the basic military effort, not to replace it. And those efforts at high-level negotiation that have been tried, like those hosted by the Saudis,[viii] have not enjoyed the committed support, political and material, of the international community.

Negotiations will come, because that is how the vast majority of insurgencies end. And the basic objectives of those negotiations will necessarily have to remain modest; that is, to end the fighting over state control and for whatever influence and benefit control over Kabul affords. The objective in Afghanistan, not unlike in Canada, is not to find enduring political harmony. Like Canada, Afghanistan is a place of enormous regional, geographic, and ethnic diversity in which political consensus will always be elusive – at best, cobbled together through informal, temporary, and often issue-specific coalitions. That means the objective is to rebuild institutions and power-sharing arrangements capable of mediating, without resort to violence, the myriad of political conflicts that are endemic to contemporary states.

By now all the major contenders in the Afghanistan war should be convinced, if the truth be told, that it is a war they “can’t win, won’t lose, can’t quit, and can’t afford.”[ix] If and when that reality sinks in, the point of the ensuing negotiations will be the limited objective of a ceasefire to open the way to further negotiations and reconciliation processes to address regional security concerns, to promote inter-communal reconciliation and power sharing at the national level, to set public parameters for respect for basic rights, and to develop ongoing support for peacebuilding efforts at the local level.

It is not a matter of negotiating with one monolithic Taliban. The insurgency has multiple strands. And while reconciliation must ultimately be Afghan-led, it will not necessarily be Afghan Government-led. The time has come for such efforts to garner as much international support and encouragement as is now reserved for assistance to military and police forces.

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[i] Jeffrey Simpson, “Despite our setbacks, all quiet on the Afghan front,” Globe and Mail, 7 October 2009.

[ii] “Commander’s Initial Assessment,” 30 August 2009. Commander, NATO International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan, and US Forces, Afghanistan. Available at

[iii] Originally approved by UN Security Council Resolution 1386 (2001).

[iv] Michael Semple, Reconciliation in Afghanistan, United States Institute of Peace Press, 2009, p. 89.

[v] Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos (Viking, 2008), p. 217.

[vi] Among many accounts of this growing insecurity is the most recent report of the UN Secretary-General, “The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security,” 22 September 2009 (A/64/364-S/2009/475).

[vii] William R. Polk, “An Open Letter to President Obama.” The Nation, 19 October 2009.

[viii] Pakistani journalist Amir Mir, “Saudi peace initiative for a Taliban-Karzai truce fruitless so far, Middle East Transparent, 22 December 2008.

[ix] This felicitous phrase, or close to it, was offered by A.J.R. Groom of the University of Kent, not in the context of Afghanistan, in a recent public lecture at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. A related paper, “Roadmaps after the ‘peace’,” was first published in Milica Delevic Djilas and Vladimir Deric (eds), The International and the National, Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, Belgrade, 2003,

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.