Graffiti in Kabul
Taliban leaders, Afghan government representatives, and national and international experts have contributed to a new Accord publication, examining the prospects for peace in the country and how this could be achieved. 
Anna Larson is the editor of Accord Issue 27: Incremental Peace in Afghanistan:

"Afghanistan is at a crossroads facing two possible futures: indefinite violent conflict, or gradual progress towards sustainable peace. Choices made now over strategy, tactics and resources can tip the balance either way."

After 40 years of civil war, Accord findings highlight a need for a radical new approach to peace in the country - one that builds progressive steps towards peace and includes Afghan society as a whole. It argues that the process must begin with measures to reduce violence as a basis to build confidence in a more fundamental change over time. 
Contributors span a range of perspectives and insights of Afghan and international men and women from academia, the military, government, armed opposition and civil society, many with direct experience of conflict and peace in Afghanistan. 
Contributors to the publication include the Chair of the High Peace Council HE Mohammad Kareem Khalili, senior representatives of five Taliban factions, HPC Deputy Chair Dr Habiba Sarabi, US Ambassador Douglas Lute, the Taliban Political Office in Qatar, Afghanistan peace expert Professor Barnett Rubin, 2016 peace accord signatory Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, human rights expert Dr Patricia Gossman and leading peace practitioner Professor Michael Semple.
His Excellency Mohammad Kareem Khalili, Chair of the High Peace Council of Afghanistan, writes in the Foreword to the publication: 

"I am grateful for the efforts of the contributors, who have approached the issue of peace in Afghanistan in such a scholarly and professional manner. Such endeavours are required to facilitate the peace process, to nurture new perspectives, broaden our horizons and stimulate our people towards fresh political and practical initiatives."

President Ashraf Ghani’s recent offer to the Taliban of a political process provides a stark illustration of the critical juncture for Afghanistan. Statements in Accord by different Taliban factions show some common interest in achieving political status without surrendering or rejecting their identity as Taliban. However, publically the Taliban leadership has been more sceptical. 
M Suhail Shaheen, Spokesman for the Taliban Political Office in Qatar, writing in Accord indicates some willingness to enter into dialogue:

"We believe negotiation is the best way to resolve the Afghan issue because it is through this process that we can resolve the issues without bloodshed."

As Anna Larson explains:

"The way forward from rhetorical proposals to actual engagement in dialogue and a reduction in violence has so far been elusive. A persistent theme of the Afghan conflict is the glaring gap between words and actions – with both sides talking peace while intent on waging war."

Accord argues that a progressive, step-by-step process towards political settlement offers a way to move beyond the peace rhetoric, which builds stability, confidence and legitimacy over time. 
An incremental approach must pursue two objectives. First, short-term to reduce violence which inevitably involves a central role for the conflict parties, principally the Taliban and the Afghan government. And second, long-term to renegotiate an inclusive social contract representative of all Afghans, which is only achievable with involvement and ultimately endorsement across Afghan society. 
Dr Habiba Sarabi, Deputy Chair of the High Peace Council, explains Afghan women’s contribution to peace, in Accord:

"Afghan women can have two roles in peace. In political negotiations they can observe to see what is going on and make sure that our achievements are not lost. At the grassroots level they can play a social role, convincing male members of their families and communities not to fight."

In Accord, Afghanistan Peace practitioner Professor Michael Semple explains how an incremental approach to peace could work in practice:

"An Afghan settlement does not necessarily mean a single comprehensive peace deal, signed off by all parties. A more viable model could consist of an incremental series of agreements, reforms and joint actions connecting the parallel processes, which cumulatively contribute to confidence and improvement of conditions on the ground, probably over a period of years."

The Accord publication is split into three sections. Section one learns lessons from Afghanistan’s history of peacemaking. Sections two and three explore possibilities for peaceful transition looking ahead, focusing on peace initiatives and then institutional change.
Practical suggestions for a transition from war to peace, outlined in Accord, include: 
Short-term measures to reduce violence as essential first steps. These should start locally in order to respond to the high-levels of violence in Afghanistan, the fractured nature of the insurgency and the inclination towards de-escalation of some Taliban caucuses. Practical actions could include locally-agreed provisional peace zones, security guarantees for demobilising local armed groups in the absence of a broader Taliban commitment, and regionally tailored strategies to tackle local war economies.
Credible long-term commitments to develop a more inclusive social contract in order to broaden buy-in and momentum. Practical steps could include: a high level independent consultation on political reform; a National Peace Dialogue to address root causes of the conflict and ensure gender equality; and a Peace and Security Commission of senior national and international membership to ensure security sector reform reinforces peace efforts. 
Support for President Ghani’s offer of a political process towards peace talks and an eventual settlement can facilitate progress towards short- and long-term goals, for example by mitigating resistance to local peace initiatives by the Taliban leadership or Afghan national institutions. Practical steps could include: supporting intra-Taliban dialogue to broaden cross-movement consensus on de-escalation; exploring options for third-party mediation; or a hybrid International Contact Group that includes both state and non-state actors as a way to link mediation tracks.
Download and read Accord Issue 27 Incremental Peace in Afghanistan.
This report is an output of the Political Settlements Research Programme, which is funded by the Department for International Development (DFID).