Despite the ultimate failures of all three accords, each was briefly successful, dramatically reducing violence and showing that even in remote corners of rural southern Afghanistan, Taliban supremacy is no foregone conclusion. They also point to several simple yet critical lessons that have relevance far beyond the narrow context of northern Helmand.
Recognise that good brokers can play essential roles in peace mediation but have ambiguous identities. By definition, the best intermediaries have sets of contacts and a pattern of movement that can make them appear suspicious from a counterterrorism perspective. Their value as brokers is linked directly to their access to and influence over significant figures on opposing sides of a conflict. In the Musa Qala instance, elders on the tribal jirga were able to parlay their influence over local Taliban fighters into a settlement. In Sangin, the district governor, district elders, and later Agha Badar, played a key role in negotiations, with Badar ferrying letters between parties. In August 2011, however, Agha Badar was arrested by US forces and detained for almost two years on account of his association with insurgent leaders – the very quality that made him such an effective go-between. Depth of local knowledge and suppleness of thought are crucial attributes for any international actor seeking to decide whether or not to back a potential broker. Equally important is the calibre of that actor’s Afghan advisors.
The Sangin examples showcase how the outcome of negotiations can hinge on the personal characteristics of key brokers. It was the appointment of a new district governor to Sangin in March 2010 that made both Sangin accords feasible. Unlike his predecessors, Muhammed Sharif became a trusted figurehead able to bridge tribal divides on the strength of his personal integrity. Following his appointment, USV leaders sought to meet with him, and the subsequent small-scale delivery of projects (pre-2011) were agreed in face-to-face meetings between community leaders and the district governor. The role of Sharif’s British advisors, Phil Weatherill and John McCarthy, as well as that of another British civilian, Andy Corcoran, were also critical, with their deep well of detailed knowledge and diplomatic savvy helping to side-line spoilers who might otherwise have been able to undercut the second accord.
Empower local communities. The foundation of the three accords outlined above was the establishment of a revised social contract between local tribes and provincial government. It is a testament to the absence of the government in any meaningful form that these revised contracts amounted to little more than a basic form of engagement, in which the provincial government provided a modicum of basic services and security support in return for political allegiance. The contracts were notable as much for what they prevented as for what they provided, namely freedom from the predatory behaviour of discredited local elites.
Honour commitments punctually. The Afghan government and its international partners should recognise that streamlined delivery mechanisms that bypass the capacity issues faced by the Afghan government as well as the bureaucracy of the international development apparatus should be established before the conclusion of any future deal. Arguably the biggest failure by the Afghan government and its coalition partners in both Musa Qala and Sangin was their inability to deliver tangible benefits to the local communities engaged in the accords.
Semple has observed of the Musa Qala deal: ‘The Afghan government and international support structures are too chronically cumbersome to deliver quick impact projects or capacity-building assistance to a challenging environment like Musa Qala ... Projects remained bogged down in bureaucratic delays and support to the auxiliary police was inflexible ... Whereas there was a need to enhance the prestige of the tribesmen working with the accord, the handling of the follow-up by the government and international community seemed calculated to undermine them.’
Much the same could be said of the two Sangin accords. While uncoordinated military action – a drone strike first, and later the arrest of a key intermediary – may have signalled the end of both the Sangin accords, it was the failure of the PRT and the provincial government to uphold the government’s side of the deals that ultimately undermined them. Although the small, quick, cheap rural infrastructure projects promised to local communities under the terms of the accords wore the veneer of development work, their primary function was actually to consolidate the grassroots political outreach that had led to the accords in the first place. Delivered through the district government, they were intended to demonstrate government credibility, force USV leaders to engage with the district governor, burnish the prestige of the USV commanders who had switched allegiance to the government, and highlight the inability of the Taliban to deliver anything similar. Quick delivery was essential. Other considerations, such as quality of workmanship, or strict observance of administrative process, were not.
Yet, as had been the case in Musa Qala, cumbersome bureaucracy and a lack of strategic purpose across a multitude of Afghan and international agencies stalled project delivery entirely. Until 2010, a degree of flexible, easily accessible funding had been available to the Sangin district governor through the UK Stabilisation Aid Fund. This relatively agile mechanism had allowed the British advisors supporting the district government to respond
to emerging opportunities for political stabilisation without delay. From 2011, however, a change in the resourcing model and a series of sweeping cuts, with no compensatory mechanism put in place, starved the local government
of funding at an acutely sensitive political moment.
Coordinate military and political activities. Throughout late 2010, military operations in Sangin frequently damaged reconciliation attempts, sometimes at critical junctures, despite the supposed primacy of political objectives. These included:
- an August 2010 drone strike against a reconcilable USV commander – who survived, and subsequently informed district officials that the attempt against him marked the end of the first Sangin accord
- constant operations by US military forces in late 2010 despite a central government edict banning such activity
- a November 2010 drone strike that killed Sangin’s shadow governor – who was widely viewed as reconcilable, who was aiding negotiations towards the second accord, and whose death had the effect of driving several constituencies away from the accord, when previously they had been prepared to back it.
This fundamental disconnect between Afghan and British officials pursuing a political deal on the one hand, and US warfighters on the other, was also evident in the contrasting narratives with which each described the second Sangin accord. Senior US commanders framed the deal as a surrender by Taliban-aligned fighters to the coalition rather than a compromise with honour – a depiction that many USV fighters found both insulting and inaccurate. At the same time, US commanders insisted on ‘testing the deal’, sometimes by contravening its terms: on one occasion by driving the length of the USV, and then shooting dead an irate but unarmed villager; by establishing patrol bases in territory well away from the main road; and by entering local compounds without Afghan forces in tandem.
Where political and military action was coordinated, however, as it had been in the build-up to the first Sangin accord, the results were effective. Most notably, the exercise of ‘heroic restraint’ by British forces through the first half of 2010 was viewed positively by local communities, and contrasted sharply with abusive behaviour by out-of-area Taliban personnel, whose actions bred resentment and eventually led them to be perceived as occupiers – precisely as the district governor and his advisors intended. Meanwhile, military strikes against irreconcilable USV fighters strengthened the position of more amenable elements of the local insurgency.
Be realistic about central government support. Even when it is politically willing, the Afghan government’s capacity to deliver is constrained. In Musa Qala, a lack of will was compounded by concerted efforts to undermine the accord by elements of central government. During the winter of 2006–07, the accord was the subject of an inaccurate, hostile briefing by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), which portrayed it as an affront to Afghan sovereignty that had turned Musa Qala into an insurgent haven. Divorced though this portrayal was from reality, the effect of the negative briefing was to undermine political support among senior Afghans and internationals, helping to doom any efforts to deliver the development programming or police training mandated in the accord.
While the Sangin accords never faced the same level of NDS hostility, they still lacked the benefit of genuine central government support. Line ministries failed to view the region as a strategic priority, maintaining few officials and police in the districts and neglecting to pay salaries – and so communicating a tone of general indifference. Meanwhile, the Afghan security apparatus sought to project government authority through local security forces, such as the Afghan National Army, rather than the revised social contract envisioned in the accords. What political support existed was largely ineffectual: for example, President Hamid Karzai’s edict against military operations in the USV in late 2010 was routinely flouted by US forces.
Recognise that local deals can nonetheless pave the way for a national settlement. For all their local particularities, district- and even sub-district-level settlements have the potential to create space for political settlements elsewhere. This is most evident in the way that over time different communities in Sangin expressed their support for the accords, showing a widespread and popular appetite for the revised social contract on offer. This was provided that the Afghan government and its international partners could demonstrate credibility and good faith through the delivery of development and security support. Furthermore, successful local deals have the potential to alter not just local realities but broader perceptions of the conflict, opening up more political space for deals elsewhere. And finally, with the long-term success of local deals ultimately requiring national backing, obtaining this degree of political commitment in and of itself sets the stage for reconciliation on a grander scale.