Democracy Arsenal

« The Courage of Obama's Convictions | Main | From Where Should We Lead? »

April 26, 2011

No One is Pretending Peace Talks are Easy
Posted by Jacob Stokes

High Peace CouncilSunday’s Washington Post featured a Jackson Diehl column entitled “The mirage of an Afghanistan exit.” The column has many problems, the biggest being that it fundamentally misrepresents arguments made by proponents of pursuing political solution. Having set up those strawman, he sets about knocking them down.

One of the main problems with the column is that Diehl says proponents of broad talks that would engage the various players in Afghan society, along with regional players, are looking for a “quick political fix,” a “mirage” he calls “seductive.” He’d be right if anyone was saying talks would be quick or easy. But nobody is claiming that.

The influential Century Foundation report that energized this debate around Washington in the last month says, “As it is, a process leading to negotiations and finally a peace settlement is likely to be a prolonged and very uncertain affair. The gulf between the Taliban insurgency and the constituencies of the Afghan republic is wide; and the concerns of the international stakeholders vary and occasionally clash.” 

Steve Coll’s New Yorker article, which first reported talks back in February, argued “even under the best of circumstances, an Afghan peace process would most likely mirror the present character of the war: a slow, complicated, and deathly grind, atomized and menaced by interference from neighboring governments.” If those are Pollyannaish, I’d hate to hear pessimistic.

Next on the list is Diehl’s problematic argument that talks would undermine democracy. He writes, quoting former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, that “a conclusion is being made that in Afghanistan democracy is not needed.” Again, nobody is arguing that.

As I’ve written before, inclusive talks could provide an opportunity to fix the country’s constitution by removing one of the core problems that consistently undermines U.S. goals there: the over-centralization of the Afghan government. While the bedrock rights guaranteed in the constitution shouldn’t be compromised, that doesn’t mean the particulars of the governing structure can’t be tinkered in order to devolve power away from the center. As Josh Foust points out here, the current system leaves Karzai “responsible for managing the performance of 34 provincial governors, 400 or so district sub-governors, and all their associated chiefs of police, to say nothing of competing constituencies in Kabul.” In other words, less than democratic. 

Fixing the centralization problem would help ensure wide buy-in from all the players in the conflict by returning a measure of control to the localities. Diehl recognizes this problem and quotes Abdullah: “You have to deal with the ineffectiveness of the Afghan government, with the local political process.” Yet Diehl offers no better way to convince a reluctant Karzai, much less anyone else, of how to get this done if we're not putting effort into the political process.

(One more point on democracy, the Century Foundation report cites a number of polls showing broad Afghan support for foreign forces leaving the country and for talks with insurgents. If you’re talking about democracy, the desire for talks among citizens who know firsthand what a deal will entail should count for something.) 

After all this, Diehl’s answer for how to move forward in Afghanistan is to “keep investing in Afghan institutions.” He gives no specifics for how to fix the deep problems these institutions currently face, such as corruption and a lack of capacity or trust in Westernized local justice systems. Presumably Diehl just wants to throw more money and time at the problems. 

Diehl is right that there’s no easy way out in Afghanistan, and he should be commended for recognizing that fact. But his finger points in the wrong direction when making accusations about who is proposing unrealistic solutions.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference No One is Pretending Peace Talks are Easy:


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear on this weblog until the author has approved them.

This weblog only allows comments from registered users. To comment, please Sign In.

Emeritus Contributors
Sign-up to receive a weekly digest of the latest posts from Democracy Arsenal.
Powered by TypePad


The opinions voiced on Democracy Arsenal are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of any other organization or institution with which any author may be affiliated.
Read Terms of Use