To build on positive signs of headway towards a political process, an expanded international initiative to support dialogue should proceed along interrelated and phased steps. These would need to function on multiple levels to be effective, matching the multi-tiered nature of the conflict. The steps begin with dialogue and confidence- building measures. This foundational first step is key to progress in current conditions and so is the focus of attention here. Advancement on step one facilitates movement on steps two and three: limitations on military activities leading to a general ceasefire; and finally more formal negotiations.
The three levels correspond to the dimensions of the conflict where international facilitators can make a reasonable difference: first, regional – Afghanistan’s neighbours plus India, China, Russia, and also the US; second, bilateral – Afghanistan and Pakistan; and third, national – the Afghan government and the Taliban. Given the complex and dynamic nature of the conflict, a third- party facilitator would be well placed to ensure efforts are coordinated and mutually reinforcing – as discussed in more detail below. Critically, international actors must avoid poorly coordinated and overly high-profile ‘rushes to failure’ – such as the attempted opening of the Taliban’s Doha ‘office’ in 2013 – that have undermined earlier efforts.
Step one would need international engagement at all three levels to find agreeable confidence-building measures in order to establish the credibility of all parties to deliver tangible progress. Confidence-building measures, if carefully crafted, can begin while the conflict is ongoing and accelerate both the recognition of stalemate and a viable alternative path. Measures in step one could include cooperation on polio vaccines, for which there is some precedent, or on reducing civilian harm. A gradual intensification and constant evaluation of confidence- building measures would reduce the risk of ceding political and military advantage or creating unrealistic expectations. Starting small and building toward more significant measures has the potential to create important momentum and credibility, and offers a practical, low-risk, high-payoff way forward.
A subsequent advance within step one would be to seek agreement on broad-brush principles on which further dialogue could be built. There is arguably already a basis for this. International actors, the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership are all under some bottom-up public pressure to bring greater stability to Afghanistan; all three want to see foreign fighters withdrawn from Afghanistan, whether Arabs or Americans; and all three are committed to seeing corruption reduced and governance practised in light of Afghan tradition and Islamic values. All international players can also agree, at least rhetorically, that it is in their interests to see a sovereign, stable and neutral Afghanistan – even if the more difficult issues of distribution of political power and any long-term international troop presence would need to be considered later in the process.
Step one could also include a well-coordinated and clearly supported dialogue process at Tracks 2 (unofficial) and 1.5 (quasi-official), undertaken ‘quietly’ with minimal media coverage. This could help generate momentum at the national level. The Track 2 event held in Chantilly in France in 2012, which was attended by members of the Taliban leadership, caused tensions in Kabul. But it also exposed some Taliban leaders to other contrasting Afghan voices and gave the movement’s more pragmatic figures a status and platform they otherwise lacked.
These initiatives are not without risk. But both the Afghan government and the Taliban will need to see something positive ‘on the table’ if they are to be able to sell any form of engagement to their sceptical constituencies. In support of the Afghan government’s successful negotiation of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s return to Kabul and culmination of his faction’s insurgency, the international community was able to lift sanctions on members of the armed group. This showed that international partners can react quickly and constructively when required, and how quickly the policy edifice seemingly preventing progress can be undone. The Hekmatyar deal is no template for negotiations with the much larger and more powerful Taliban movement – but it shows what can be achieved with enough resolve.
International actors also need to seek bottom-up opportunities to support progress on dialogue at the national level. Efforts to reform local government and local High Peace Council structures have been important and need to continue. But to complement these, a potentially effective innovation around step one would be for international actors to dedicate more effort to understand and collectively tailor their support for local level peace initiatives. Insurgents and officials have found accommodations locally in the past that have genuinely reduced levels of violence [see article on Brokering local settlements, p. 74].
Given the reduced international footprint in Afghanistan today, mobilising adequate and effective support for local initiatives would be no mean feat. One way forward would be to consider ‘trial de-escalation zones’ at a sub- provincial level, perhaps leading to local ceasefires. Afghan government engagement could be monitored and constructively supported. Positive popular pressure for peace generated by such initiatives could be channelled upwards to both the insurgent and government leaderships.