We have been engaged and working inside Afghanistan, some of us for decades, as academics, experts and members of non-governmental organisations. Today we are deeply worried about the current course of the war and the lack of credible scenarios for the future. The cost of the war is now over $120 billion per year for the United States alone.
This is unsustainable in the long run. In addition, human losses are increasing. Over 680 soldiers from the international coalition – along with hundreds of Afghans – have died this year in Afghanistan, and the year is not yet over. We appeal to you to use the unparalleled resources and influence which the United States now brings to bear in Afghanistan to achieve that longed-for peace.
Despite these huge costs, the situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago because the Taliban insurgency has made progress across the country. It is now very difficult to work outside the cities or even move around Afghanistan by road. The insurgents have built momentum, exploiting the shortcomings of the Afghan government and the mistakes of the coalition. The Taliban today are now a national movement with a serious presence in the north and the west of the country. Foreign bases are completely isolated from their local environment and unable to protect the population. Foreign forces have by now been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviet Red Army.
Politically, the settlement resulting from the 2001 intervention is unsustainable because the constituencies of whom the Taliban are the most violent expression are not represented, and because the highly centralised constitution goes against the grain of Afghan tradition, for example in specifying national elections in fourteen of the next twenty years.
The operations in the south of Afghanistan, in Kandahar and in Helmand provinces are not going well. What was supposed to be a population-centred strategy is now a full-scale military campaign causing civilian casualties and destruction of property. Night raids have become the main weapon to eliminate suspected Taliban, but much of the Afghan population sees these methods as illegitimate. Due to the violence of the military operations, we are losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Pashtun countryside, with a direct effect on the sustainability of the war. These measures, beyond their debatable military results, foster grievance. With Pakistan’s active support for the Taliban, it is not realistic to bet on a military solution. Drone strikes in Pakistan have a marginal effect on the insurgency but are destabilising Pakistan. The losses of the insurgency are compensated by new recruits who are often more radical than their predecessors.
The military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure. Military action may produce local and temporary improvements in security, but those improvements are neither going to last nor be replicable in the vast areas not garrisoned by Western forces without a political settlement.
The 2014 deadline to put the Afghan National Army in command of security is not realistic. Considering the quick disappearance of the state structure at a district level, it is difficult to envision a strong army standing alone without any other state institutions around. Like it or not, the Taliban are a long-term part of the Afghan political landscape, and we need to try and negotiate with them in order to reach a diplomatic settlement. The Taliban’s leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate, and it is in our interests to talk to them. In fact, the Taliban are primarily concerned about the future of Afghanistan and not – contrary to what some may think – a broader global Islamic jihad. Their links with al-Qaeda – which is not, in any case, in Afghanistan any more – are weak. We need to at least try to seriously explore the possibility of a political settlement in which the Taliban are part of the Afghan political system. The negotiations with the insurgents could be extended to all groups in Afghanistan and regional powers.
The current contacts between the Karzai government and the Taliban are not enough. The United States must take the initiative to start negotiations with the insurgents and frame the discussion in such a way that American security interests are taken into account. In addition, from the point of view of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable populations – women and ethnic minorities, for instance – as well as with respect to the limited but real gains made since 2001, it is better to negotiate now rather than later, since the Taliban will likely be stronger next year. This is why we ask you to sanction and support a direct dialogue and negotiation with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan. A ceasefire and the return of the insurgency leadership in Afghanistan could be part of a de-escalation process leading to a coalition government. Without any chance for a military victory, the current policy will put the United States in a very difficult position.
For a process of political negotiation to have a chance of addressing the significant core grievances and political inequalities it must occur on multiple levels – among the countries that neighbour Afghanistan as well as down to the provincial and subdistrict. These various tables around which negotiations need to be held are important to reinforce the message – and the reality – that discussions about Afghanistan’s political future must include all parties and not just be a quick-fix deal with members of the insurgency.
We believe that mediation can help achieve a settlement which brings peace to Afghanistan, enables the Taliban to become a responsible actor in the Afghan political order, ensures that Afghanistan cannot be used as a base for international terrorism, protects the Afghan people’s hard-won freedoms, helps stabilise the region, renders the large scale presence of international troops in Afghanistan unnecessary and provides the basis of an enduring relationship between Afghanistan and the international community. All the political and diplomatic ingenuity that the United States can muster will be required to achieve this positive outcome. It is time to implement an alternative strategy that would allow the United States to exit Afghanistan while safeguarding its legitimate security interests.
Matthieu Aikins Journalist
Scott Atran Anthropologist (University of Michigan) and author of Talking to the Enemy
Rupert Talbot Chetwynd Author of Yesterday’s Enemy – Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?
Robert Abdul Hayy Darr Author of The Spy of the Heart and humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Gilles Dorronsoro Visiting Scholar (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) and author of Revolution Unending
David B. Edwards Anthropologist (Williams College) and author of Before Taliban Jason Elliot Author of An Unexpected Light
Antonio Giustozzi Author of Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop and editor of Decoding the New Taliban
Shah Mahmoud Hanifi Associate Professor, James Madison University
Daniel Korski Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations
Felix Kuehn Kandahar-based writer/researcher, co-editor of My Life With the Taliban
Minna Jarvenpaa Former Head of Analysis and Policy Planning, UNAMA
Anatol Lieven Professor, War Studies Department of King’s College London and author of Pakistan: A Hard Country
Bob McKerrow Author of Mountains of our Minds – Afghanistan
Alessandro Monsutti Research Director, Transnational Studies/Development Studies at The Graduate Institute, Geneva
Ahmed Rashid Journalist and author of Taliban and Descent into Chaos
Nir Rosen Fellow, New York University Center on Law and Security
Gerard Russell Research Fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard University
Alex Strick van Linschoten Kandahar-based writer/researcher, co-editor of My Life With the Taliban
Astri Surkhe Senior Researcher, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway
Yama Torabi Co-Director, Integrity Watch Afghanistan
Jere van Dyk Author of In Afghanistan and Captive
Matt Waldman Afghanistan Analyst