After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, I consistently argued for a comprehensive, UN-facilitated peace process, encompassing all the internal Afghan parties to the conflict, including the Taliban and the regional and other actors implicated in the conflict, as the only way to address all outstanding issues, including in particular Pakistan’s support for militant extremists, driven as it was by its security concerns with India.
I testified before the Manley Commission in 2008 as follows:
The Canadian mantra is no development without security and no security without development. Yet, the truth is that there can be neither security nor development without an end to the war, and that cannot happen by military means. The only solution is a negotiated settlement.
But no matter how the situation worsened – as it did inexorably from 2004 onward – the USA and its NATO allies steadfastly refused to countenance a diplomatic peacemaking approach.
Let us consider the 2008 Manley Report, the only attempt to date by the Canadian government to assess the merits of the western intervention strategy in Afghanistan. Its refreshing honesty about the worsening security situation and its grudging acknowledgement of the need for “an eventual political reconciliation” seemed promising, as was its analysis of the “complicated regional geopolitics” and role of regional actors in perpetuating the conflict.
But incredibly, the critical determinants offered for continued Canadian participation in the quagmire were better coordination of the existing failing military-centric strategy, more diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to end its Taliban support (without any effort to address the concerns driving its actions) and a modest NATO troop increase.
The UN has made many mistakes in its peace negotiation and implementation roles. But it has steadily learned from them that UN peacekeeping offers war-afflicted countries the best chance at building sustainable peace.
The USA and NATO in Afghanistan made no effort to benefit from these lessons but, instead, seemed determined to repeat all the mistakes and more:
– There was no peace process, let alone an inclusive Afghan-led, UN-facilitated, comprehensive negotiation process. In the Bonn Agreement of 2001, the international community denied Afghanistan a chance at inclusive government, excluding representatives of the then defeated Taliban, part of the largest Afghan ethnic and tribal group, the Pashtuns.
- The UN’s role was restricted to humanitarian and election assistance, with vital institution building roles parcelled out to individual so-called “lead nations” who were utterly unequipped for these tasks
- An absurdly centralized constitutional arrangement (drafted in Washington) was imposed on one of the world’s most decentralized countries.
- Unforgivably, aid was militarized by creating US-inspired Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which polluted aid and development plans with counterinsurgency campaigns to “win hearts and minds,” undermining good governance efforts and putting at risk the aid workers and ordinary Afghans alike.
And the subordination of good government to the counterinsurgency campaign meant the West supported corrupt governments with blood-soaked warlords in senior posts, backed by their oh-so-useful militias.
Afghanistan is not a failure of genuine post-conflict peacebuilding. It is a manifest failure of trying to build peace on the battlefield.
The question of the hour: so now what?
First, we need to honestly face up to the state of Afghanistan after 20 years of U.S.-led intervention.
- It was one of the most foreign aid-dependent countries globally, amounting to 40% of its GDP and 75% of its pre-Taliban takeover budget.
- It was in the midst of multiple humanitarian crises brought on by drought, the pandemic and displacement due to conflict; all of which have now been greatly exacerbated by the freezing of foreign assets, and the withholding of IMF and World Bank funds, and development funds from major donors like the EU.
- Yes, significant advances in women’s education, labour rights, and participation in Afghan society more generally were made. But, for the vast majority of Afghan women in rural areas, where the counterinsurgency raged, their reality was a daily struggle simply to survive.
Against this grim backdrop, the West should bring a significant degree of humility to its efforts to develop what the EU now calls “operational engagement” with the Taliban.
We must meet immediate, urgent humanitarian and refugee agency needs. Canada and other donors seem to be stepping up in response to the UN’s latest flash appeal.
Beyond this, we come to the hard part – the politics, the fundamental issue of engagement with the Taliban.
In addition to the Taliban honouring their pledge to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorism, the two key demands, now being put forward by the international community, are an inclusive government and respect for fundamental rights, including the rights of women and girls.
The G7 has pledged to hold the Taliban “accountable” for honouring these promises.
Canada has sent a Special Envoy to Doha to engage with regional allies and partners and to participate in the ongoing Qatari-facilitated political talks, a promising sign.
But the critical question remains – how to hold the Taliban accountable without harming further the Afghan people and increasing, not decreasing, instability in the country to the benefit only of terrorist groups?
As we see repeated promises undercut by reports of serious human rights abuses, the obvious question is whether the Taliban political leadership is willing and, if willing, able to satisfy hardline commanders and meet key international demands.
Here at home, the Canadian government (and all Opposition parties) have a role to play in muting the fevered anti-Taliban rhetoric we saw during the frantic Kabul airport evacuation process. The government needs to articulate that our twin objectives must be helping the Afghanistan people and preventing a destabilized Afghanistan. That, in turn, means working with the international community to find a constructive basis for engaging with the Taliban based on realistic demands and timelines, however difficult that might be.