Reconciliation in Afghanistan: At what price?

While the battles of the US-led military surge rage with renewed intensity in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, off the battlefield, much of the talk and not a few questions focus on the merits reconciliation.

Reconciliation in the Afghanistan context refers to diplomacy that seeks to engage insurgency leaders in pursuit of a political settlement that will end the fighting. [i] With the current surge in fighting, reconciliation remains an elusive goal; nevertheless, even the prospects of diplomatic engagement with the Taliban and other elements of the insurgency are continuing to raise serious and legitimate concerns. A central question is, will reconciliation with extremist insurgents mean losing hard won gains in human rights and civil liberties?

The hope that intensified warfare[ii] will hasten the insurgents’ move to a negotiating table has to contend with the sobering reality that more than eight years of war, including continuing civilian deaths at the hands of international forces,[iii] have not only failed to set the insurgents back on their heels, but have witnessed the growth of the insurgency (with estimates of more than 30,000 fighters now)[iv] and its spread to the point where the journalist, author, and expert on Afghan and Pakistani affairs, Ahmed Rashid, reports that “the Afghan Taliban are now a countrywide movement.”[v]

The word “reconciliation” appears only once in the 3600 word communiqué issued at the end of the January 2010 London Conference on Afghanistan, and it appears not as a topic of the London discussions but in the context of acknowledging another conference – the summit meeting held by Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey in Istanbul which declared support for “Afghan-led peace, reintegration and reconciliation efforts.”[vi]President Hamid Karzai’s speech to the London Conference, on the other hand, made prominent reference to reconciliation, including his plan to create a “National Council for Peace, Reconciliation and Reintegration;”[vii] the conference communiqué’s reference to it welcomed only a “national Peace and Reintegration Programme.”[viii]

This conspicuous official-level failure to promote reconciliation reflects a larger reluctance in the international community to fully embrace a diplomatic track for ending the conflict – though the Obama Administration has in general signaled its support for political accommodation.[ix] But many of those who are open to reconciliation in principle worry both about timing and about the human rights implications.

The timing argument easily becomes an argument against negotiations in principle, opposing talks with either an ascendant or a retreating Taliban. On the one hand, there is no point in talking to an ascendant Taliban because it will be disinclined to compromise; on the other hand, there is no need to seek compromise with a retreating Taliban.

The reluctance to negotiate that is linked to human rights concerns is more clearly rooted in questions of basic justice. Canadian Chris Alexander, the very effective former Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan and former deputy special representative of the UN Secretary General for Afghanistan, agreed in a recent public lecture that while the Bonn Agreement of 2001 was not a genuine peace agreement because the party that shortly before that had controlled 95 percent of the country (the Taliban) was not at the table, he at the same time explicitly rejected any negotiations leading to power-sharing. The Taliban record of extraordinary human rights abuses while in office, as well as their terrorist tactics since being driven out of office, disqualified them as partners in a new peace agreement.[x]

That position is amplified by the noted Australian expert on Afghanistan, William Maley. He says, not only does talk of negotiating with the Taliban “send shivers down the spines of significant elements in the Afghan population, starting with Afghan women and members of ethnic and sectarian minorities,” but a deal with the Taliban would have additional catastrophic effects. It would take the air out of Afghanistan’s slow transition to modernity, it would lead to the rearming of anti-Taliban groups, and it would lead to sanctuary for Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan.[xi]

Similar reservations are also heard from Afghan professionals and urbanites in Kabul, genuinely fearful that the gains they have made in basic rights and liberties since 2001 would be entirely lost or drastically eroded in any political settlement that would give the Taliban and other insurgent groups a share of the power and an opportunity to re-establish elements of the draconian rule that characterized their regime of the 1990s.

Juan Cole of the Global American Institute reports on a survey that indicates that, not surprisingly, non-Pashtun communities are most wary of reconciliation with the Taliban, citing, among others, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazarah concerns that negotiations could lead to the restoration of the harsh conditions of Taliban rule. While supporting reconciliation efforts in principle, for example, the Hazarah dominated Afghanistan People’s Islamic Unity Party issued a statement after the London Conference  saying that “any type of reconciliation effort must fully respect Afghanistan’s Constitution and values such as democracy, freedom of expression, human rights, women’s rights, and Afghanistan’s multi-ethnic structure, political, religious, and cultural diversity.” Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdulla called for a national dialogue about reconciliation with the Taliban – “People want to know,” he said, “if they are going back to the Islamization of the Taliban government that was ousted in 2001.”[xii]

The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) has recently also warned against reconciliation at the expense of accountability, citing Afghanistan’s “National Reconciliation, General Amnesty and National Stability Law." The ICTJ says the law offers “an amnesty for all involved in the Afghan conflict, regardless of whether they merely took up arms or were responsible for war crimes or crimes against humanity. Amnesties are frequently part of peace negotiations, but international law forbids amnesties for serious war crimes.” Sari Kouvo, the head of ICTJ’s Afghanistan program, said that “while reconciliation is needed to end the conflicts in Afghanistan, it should not be promoted by further entrenching a culture of impunity.”[xiii]

All this, it must be recalled, in the context of almost universal acceptance that the Taliban and wider insurgency is unlikely to be defeated, the war will not be ended, on the battlefield.

So it is clear that political reconciliation, supported by effective reintegration programs, is what points the way out of the Afghanistan war. But for it to be a durable political settlement, one that preserves and gradually expands the rights and freedoms of Afghans, the process leading to it will have to be comprehensive, inclusive of Afghan women and men from all walks of life and communities, and guided by human rights law and basic principles of transitional justice.

It is a principle easier said than done – but it bears saying. A 2001 Amnesty International statement made just one month after the US-led attack applies equally well today:

"There is as yet no indication of how long the military action will continue, but there are already discussions about the political future for Afghanistan after the conflict. It is essential that an agenda for human rights and social justice for all Afghans is developed on the basis of broad consultation and participation by the widest possible cross section of Afghan society. Solutions cannot be imposed from the outside and must be decided by the Afghan people. The UN has a substantive part to play in facilitating this process."[xiv]

Amnesty’s call for “broad consultation and participation” is echoed in Abdullah Abdullah’s current call for a “national dialogue.” In the final stages of negotiations to end any protracted war, when the focus turns to exit strategies, negotiators are invariably tempted to cut deals, even if that means trading away commitments to inclusiveness and basic principles of justice. It is a temptation they can’t resist on their own – they need the guidance of a fully engaged and consulted population. That in turn means the international community now needs to become fully fixated on developing the mechanisms for engagement and consultation that will draw in all segments of Afghan society and the cooperation of Afghanistan’s neighbors – in other words, a mechanism to meaningfully engage those whose future is on the line.

At the same time, there can obviously be no expectation that a new peace process, no matter how comprehensive, can meet the human rights challenges in a single agreement. A report recently circulated by Amnesty International says that “more than 87 per cent of Afghan women suffer from domestic abuse, according to the UN, and between 60 and 80 per cent of marriages are forced.”[xv] Fundamental change in the homes and villages of Afghanistan will not come quickly and will not be delivered via a new peace agreement – what reconciliation can deliver is an end to fighting, under which the generations long struggle for human rights can be rejoined with renewed promise.


[i] Aunohita Mojumdar, “Afghanistan: Decoding Reintegration and Reconciliation,” Eurasia Insight, 9 February 2010.

[ii] ISAF officials were calling Operation “Moshtarak” (meaning “together”) as the biggest joint operation since the 2001 US-led attacks, involving 15,000 troops. Alfred de Montesquiou, “NATO: Troops miss target, kill 12 Afghan civilians,” 14 February 2010, The Associated Press.

[iii] “Civilian teath toll climbs in Afghan offensive,” The Associated Press, MSNBC.COM, 16 February 2010.;

Josh Wingrove, “Afghan offensive marred by civilian deaths,” The Globe and Mail, 16 February 2010.

[iv] Jerome Starkey Kabul, “Major-General Richard Barrons puts Taleban fighter numbers at 36,000,” The Times, 3 March 2010.

[v] Ahmed Rashid, “What will it take to talk?” The Globe and Mail, 27 January 2010.

[vi] The meeting, the “Istanbul Regional Summit on Friendship and Cooperation in the ‘Heart of Asia’,” pledged support for “Afghan-led peace, reintegration and reconciliation efforts,” and notably to work actively for “ending support wherever it occurs on each other’s territory for illegally-armed groups, parallel structures and illegal financing directed towards destabilizing Afhanistan or individual neighbors.” Paragraph 28 of the Communiqué of “Afghanistan: The London Conference.”

[viii] Communiqué of “Afghanistan: The London Conference,” 28 January 2010. Paragraph 13.

[ix] “Washington’s new approach combines a readiness to negotiate and compromise (even with significant elements of the Taliban leadership) in order to end the war with a belief that it needs to do so fdrom a position of clear military strength. Operation Moshtarak is the first major step in this military-diplomatic process.” Paul Rogers, “Afghanistan: propaganda of the deed,” 11 February 2010.

[x] His new paper (February 2010), Ending the Agony: Seven Moves to Stabilize Afghanistan, is available as Paper Number 3 of the Afghanistan Papers of the Centre for International Governance Innovation,

[xi] William Maley, States of Conflict: A case study on state-building in Afghanistan, Institute for Public Policy Research (UK), November 2009.

[xii] Juan Cole, Informed Comment, “Afghan Minority Parties Unenthusiastic about Reconciliation with Taliban,” 17 February 2010.

[xiii] “ICTJ Statement on Afghanistan Amnesty Law,” February 17, 2010.

[xiv] Afghanistan: Making human rights the agenda, Amnesty International, 1 November 2001.

[xv] Contact Hilary Homes, Campaigner:  International Justice, Security and Human Rights Amnesty International Canada [Security and Counter-terrorism: check out the blog and receive regular updates via Twitter].

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.