One powerful way of explaining the persistence of violent conflict in Afghanistan is the break down in the social contract, which was precipitated by the two coups of the 1970s – led by Daud Khan in 1973 and the 1978 Saur Revolution. Ostensibly the forty years of war since 1978 have been driven by contested ideological transformations of the state, by Communists and Taliban, and by the resistance to foreign intervention.
But with the disappearance of the ancien regime, Afghans have also contested their place in society. Ethno-linguistic groups, rural and urban communities, and clerical networks have all aligned themselves in the conflict as a way of staking a claim to elevated status in the eventual new Afghanistan. Therefore, achieving a lasting peace may depend upon Afghans agreeing a renewed social contract which locates every citizen relative to the state and the rest of society. Such a renegotiated social contract would require addressing fundamental issues which have been ignored in previous attempted settlements.
There are formidable challenges inherent in attempting to resolve the core contested issues. First, there is a major trust challenge. Successive peace and power-sharing agreements in Afghanistan have been ‘honoured in the breach’. The tradition of unwritten rules and informal agreements poses a challenge to the transparency of any settlement process. Parties to the agreement could reasonably ask whether there is some informal agreement which contradicts the terms they have just agreed.
National institutions are routinely criticised as partial, corrupt or ineffective and the prestige of the international community has been damaged by persistence of conflict and instability despite an intervention. This means that any proposal to establish new institutions as part of a settlement risks lacking credibility. Existing state institutions have been under permanent reform for a period of nearly twenty years, which means that further promises to reform deserve a degree of scepticism.
A dual system of governance is in effect operating in the country, with the Afghan government running the main population centres, while the Taliban operate their Islamic Emirate in much of the rural hinterland. Thinking about a settlement usually starts from the assumption that the Taliban will accept and be absorbed into the Kabul-based state. However, the Taliban have yet to be persuaded to go along with this. The parties take their positions informed by an idealised self-image and a vilified image of the other side.
Even the question of which parties should get a seat at the table for negotiating the settlement is complex. The Taliban are the main armed opposition. But most of the grievances they articulate against the Kabul government are owned by others. A settlement of the big social and economic issues could not meaningfully be attempted among the fighting groups. Rather, it would require broader participation of political stakeholders, alongside the representatives of the combatants.
Thought about a settlement in Afghanistan has been shaped by exercises such as the Bonn Agreement, in which negotiating parties held time-limited talks and produced a compact written agreement. However, alternative models may be better suited to pursuit of agreement on the underlying conflict issues. An incremental approach in which agreement was phased would allow for confidence- building measures over time to increase the parties’ willingness to consider ambitious measures or embrace compromise. Such an approach would recognise the importance of rebuilding relationships between the parties in expanding the possibility of agreement.
Ideally, the ending or reduction of violence, through some version of an interim ceasefire, would be agreed at an early stage. The pausing of violence would represent the single most important confidence-building measure to help launch dialogue on the core issues. Rather than involving a single text, such as the Bonn Agreement, an incremental peace in Afghanistan might consist of a series of agreements, sequenced from easy to hard, with agreed reforms and confidence-building running in parallel, over a period of years.
We can identify some of the substantive issues which would have to be addressed by any broad settlement which attempted a lasting end to the conflict. Some of these could be addressed early as confidence building- measures, while others would be more appropriately addressed in a final settlement. Significantly, the vast majority of issues which can be expected to be addressed in a settlement process are issues among Afghans. International interest is confined to a small subset of issues, such as counter-terrorism, and to the general concern that there should be a lasting agreement.
The observations below represent the issues which we can anticipate Afghans will bring to the peace agenda. Reaching a lasting settlement on a broad agenda would be challenging. However, a well-handled settlement process should generate benefits from the outset. The fact that the Taliban and other Afghan parties were engaged in a dialogue aimed at reaching a settlement should undermine the case for political violence long before that settlement is finalised. Significant to achieving progress towards peace is to identify potential areas for positive-sum outcomes on respective issues as bases for dialogue and accommodation.