A lasting reconciliation will only come with the support of every Afghan faction

As elusive as a consensus is on Afghanistan is, there is one key issue there on which there is now wide agreement that the insurgency in southern and eastern Afghanistan will not be defeated on the battlefield.

The Stephen Harper government's June 10 report to Parliament makes that very point succinctly and unambiguously: "Afghanistan cannot secure peace or realize its governance and development objectives by military means alone."

So, if the United Nations-sanctioned and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is not fighting to win in Afghanistan, what then?

The hope that has not yet completely faded is that foreign and Afghan forces will provide enough local security to enable enough development and reconstruction to win enough hearts and minds to persuade enough Afghans to turn their backs on the Taliban and to generate enough support for the Afghan parliament and constitution to produce enough stability to allow foreign forces to leave.

But after discussions in Kabul -- with Afghan academics, students, civil society organizations, former Mujahedeen, community elders, politicians, and government officials, as well as international representatives, UN officials, and diplomats -- confidence in that scenario was hard to find.

While the presence of international forces was widely welcomed, few value the ISAF for its contribution to local security in the south and east where the insurgency is most active. As recent events in Kandahar confirm, the ISAF is widely understood to have neither the capacity nor the trust of local people needed to consistently fill the security gap in areas targeted by the insurgents. Indeed, the presence of international troops in a community, some UN and non-governmental workers maintained, undermine security by attracting insurgents to counter the foreign presence.

International forces are nevertheless widely credited with keeping a lid on the still smouldering national-level civil conflict between the Pashtun communities of the south and east and the non-Pashtun communities in the rest of the country (militarily reflected primarily in the Taliban and Northern Alliance respectively). To be sure, public support for the international military presence is severely tested by the ubiquitous stories of U.S. and other forces killing civilians and offending local customs and Islam, but there is still a prominent belief that the international community through the UN and ISAF does preserve a modicum of national stability, and thus creates some political space to address the reconciliation and governance deficits that threaten to widen the Afghan war.

Afghanistan's reconciliation deficit is a holdover from the civil war of the 1990s and is reflected in the ongoing intercommunal distrust and competition for power between the Pashtun and northern alliance groups. The governance deficit is most clearly reflected in widespread corruption and the absence of public institutions capable of mediating the kinds of regional, communal, and economic conflicts that are inevitable in any multinational society -- indeed, in any modern society. The new institutions of government that emerged out of the 2001-2002 Bonn process are still regarded by many as unrepresentative and thus not legitimate -- the subsequent elections notwithstanding.

As one Afghan academic put it, "in Bonn there was no reconciliation--there was revenge." It was revenge in the sense that control of the new order was now to go to the victors in the U.S./northern alliance war to depose the Taliban, while the losers would be systematically marginalized. And when national institutions are not to be trusted they are also not relied upon. Communities and regions in such circumstances inevitably turn to their sectarian roots in the expectation that their tribe or clan will better serve their particular needs and interests. And when that institutional distrust extends to security institutions like the police, communities are inclined to look to local or informal militia forces to protect them -- obviously compromising the state's monopoly on the resort to force.

But calls for the reconciliation efforts that were not front and centre in Bonn are becoming more insistent. Observers identify several basic efforts already being pursued. President Hamid Karzai has made genuine efforts to include more Pashtuns in his government and cabinet. A national government program focuses on engaging moderate Taliban to persuade them to renounce violence and to join the government (essentially amnesty programs).

The international community manages programs that focus on the disbandment of illegal armed groups. The binational peace jirga between Afghanistan and Pakistan is seeking ways for the two governments to co-operate in bringing some law and order into the Pashtun belt that spans their common border. Beyond that, various informal or freelance efforts also promote reconciliation efforts in local situations.

The Canadian government, to its credit, has promised to contribute $14 million over the next three years to reconciliation efforts. Three elements are identified: mechanisms to encourage dialogue; communication with citizens; and strengthening civil society capacity to promote reconciliation.

The evidence suggests, however, and analysts increasingly agree, that these efforts miss the fundamental point as long as the international community continues to insist that reconciliation efforts must be under the leadership of the government of Afghanistan and based on adherence to the current Afghan constitution. The government of Canada similarly insists "that reconciliation only involve those individuals and organizations that . . . accept the legitimacy of the Afghan government and the Afghan constitution."

It is true that Afghanistan is a sovereign country under a constitution and government affirmed by elections. However, critics point out that this formal framework does not sufficiently recognize that in the views of substantial elements of Afghanistan society, both the present government and the constitution are the product of processes that were not fully inclusive and are not now fully respected or owned by all Afghans.

There is, thus, an urgent need, they argue, to engage all Afghans, including those now in violent conflict with the government, in a new process to develop a more inclusive political order. Confining reconciliation efforts to persuading dissidents to lay down their arms and accept the existing order is unlikely to be successful.

Establishing trust between communities and building confidence in pubic institutions are linked objectives. Both require extensive dialogue and intercommunal reconciliation, along with a wide range of initiatives in support of good governance, security sector reform, serious anti-corruption efforts, and fair representation.

It is not simply a matter of negotiating with the Taliban. Reconciliation efforts will have to reach well beyond official bodies to engage civil society organizations and educational institutions in Afghanistan in initiatives such as people-to-people reconciliation, intercommunal and regional diplomacy efforts, and education programs in support of a culture of peace. To perform those roles, these organizations and institutions will need international assistance in the same way, and with the same urgency, that the Afghan military and police forces need assistance -- in other words, supplementing ISAF with an international reconciliation assistance program.

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.