Orzala Nemat, the Director of Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit

Orzala Nemat: Third party mediator is necessary to break obstacle in peace talks

Etilaat-e-Roz’s peace reporter, Abass Arify, sat with Dr. Orzala Nemat, the Director of Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), a Kabul-based think tank, and asked her opinion on obstacle in Afghan peace negotiations. On September 12, for the first time in 19 years, the Afghan government peace negotiators sat with the Taliban representatives in the Qatari capital, Doha, to discuss a power sharing deal but the two sides became bogged down in setting agendas and conflict resolution mechanism.             

Q: Dr. Orzala Nemat, thank you for time. What is your view on role on a mediating party in peace talks?

A: To begin with, I would like to point out that the intra-Afghan peace negotiations is undoubtedly complicated and arduous. The two parties have initiated talks, but with month passing, they have yet to agree on a procedure for the negotiations. Nonetheless, in the initial days of talks, the two sides agreed to avoid mediator or facilitator in peace negotiations.

Q: Why do you think they have opposed the role of mediator or facilitator in the negotiation process?

A: Before discussing necessity and sensitivity of the role of mediator in Afghanistan peace process, let’s review how today’s set up came into being. The conflict in Afghanistan drags on for than four decades. Looking at post-2001 era and presence of the US and its allies in Afghanistan, around which the current peace talks is centered, we are reminded of what the then US president, George W. Bush, said in his first statement on military operation in Afghanistan, a clear message to Afghanistan and the world: “There is no third option, you are either with us, or with the terrorists”.

This is an underpinning element for all post-2001 political and economic alliances. Therefore, it seemed very likely to form alliances, even the three countries that had recognized the Taliban regime, were quick in withdrawal of their recognition after 9/11 attacks. Once military operation began, the Taliban were forced to abandon their strongholds and flee. They disappeared in an unprecedented retreat. The resulting gap was then filled by other groups at that time. However, this is a fact that in Afghanistan, the region and world, nobody sided with Taliban, either genuinely, somewhat dishonestly or completely dishonestly.

For example, despite its edgy relations with the United States, Iran supported the global anti-terrorism alliance due to a mutual understanding on Afghanistan and because it did not see the Taliban and terrorism in Afghanistan as its ally. Looking into complexity of war in Afghanistan, we are certainly in dire need of what is customarily termed as “well-intended third party”. [Mediator] is undeniably necessary but why has it triggered controversy? Mediation has become controversial because most individuals, countries and world political leaders do not view this conflict in a way that should end “killing of Afghans”. Nobody is willing to assume responsibility of another nation or country. They largely perceive this as a global problem. International forces from numerous countries came here to launch a military campaign, generating some results and damaging some others. Hence, solving this conflict will earn them global credit or satisfy their unique political interests in the process. Therefore, both parties of negotiations, i.e. Afghan government/state and the Taliban representatives, react to the process sensitively for they are aware of lack of an impartial force, particularly government force, as governments picked their preferred side in 2001.

Q: Before intra-Afghan negotiations started, emphasis was put on an Afghan-led peace process. Assuming there is a mediator, do you see it as opposing to Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process?

A: Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process has been treated as a commercial ad, unfortunately propagated by people who have no belief in it. We saw the initial phase of the process that led to the US-Taliban agreement. [To every Afghan’s surprise], not a single Afghan [leader] was present in the room where the agreement was signed. Apart from the Taliban representatives, there was no other Afghan—not even an independent Afghan journalist.

The statement that says the peace process should be owned and led by Afghans is a “commercial announcement”. Afghanistan is totally a tradition-oriented country. Besides that, every part of the country has suffered from foreign interference. Foreign interference does not exclusively come from Russians and Americans but countries like Iran, Pakistan, Britain, China, Russia and US are involved. Let’s keep in mind that Afghan villages have not been safe against interference. My studies and researches have particularly [been] focused on Afghanistan villages and the aforementioned interferences. I would like to remind that in addition to being a tradition-oriented nation, we also carry this past, which is now part of our life. In view of this fact, at community and village and the higher levels of “Jirga and council systems”, Afghanistan has had a robust history of Jirga—which is a local mechanism for conflict resolution. Conflicts between individuals or family members are not addressed at the family level, rather a number of people are gathered to resolve the dispute through Shura or Jirga. Afghan culture welcomes the role of mediator to the extent that an acclaimed mediator, if faced with a dispute in his own family, does not take part in mediation despite his notable role as mediator, in fear of acting as a party to the dispute. He needs to gather two or three people for mediation. We follow this culture.

In view of the above, the two hostile parties, with little prior communication, have travelled to Doha to sit together and talk, if both parties adhere to this cultural characteristic of Afghanistan, there is no way, they will reach a conclusion. They have nothing in common on intellectual and ideological grounds, nor in political or value systems. Every party holds to their unique set of values and pay in blood for those values. There would be no risk to ownership of the peace process as the third party’s role is distinctly defined.

Q: Based on your understanding and as suggested by your field studies conducted across different regions of Afghanistan and based on your knowledge of the conflict in Afghanistan which mostly involves numerous countries, and given the conceptual differentiation of the terms: mediator, facilitator or guarantor, which of the afore-mentioned concepts would you propose to engage one or more countries in negotiations? What role and function would each concept hold?

A: Assuming countries act as mediators, as I stated earlier, Afghanistan’s conflict has several aspects: domestic, regional, transregional and global. I also mentioned that all regional, transregional and world actors hold particular roles and backgrounds and have been funding and influencing either side of the hostile parties. So, it would be very difficult for these countries to mediate. However, guarantee or guarantor is treated differently. With regards to guarantee, countries with relatively direct involvement in the process, e.g. countries who provide them accommodation, process their passports, documents and facilitate travels could be appropriate guarantors. Likewise, donor countries for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan may serve as the right guarantors on this side; countries that have been funding Afghanistan for several years, e.g. neighboring and European countries. But where does the problem stem from? Facilitation and mediation are not the same as guarantorship. These countries may also serve as guarantors, given their influence on the two hostile parties. But facilitating talks is not what they should do. My researches and studies on various conflicts suggest that mediation here will not be easy for any entity or government, including international organizations that has a history here, e.g. the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). They can’t do this; contemporary history has indicated that they are lacking the right experience in this area. Moreover, such organizations are funded by the same countries, triggering a “conflict of interest”.

What I as a researcher propose is that we look in those countries and beyond them at the regional and transregional levels for some individuals with high technical authority in mediation. Individuals from private sector, academia, research and study centers with technical facilitation skills are trusted by both parties. There should be a combination of individuals who possess technical experience in similar conflicts. I know we can’t ignore political aspect of the problem but if countries are going to engage as facilitators, the process will be politicized again. For this same reason, the two parties have not agreed to employ mediators.

Q: If I may ask, what particular countries, international institutions or actors have the potential capacity to undertake mediation role? Is Qatar not acting as mediator today? How this country’s role would impact negotiations?

A: Qatar’s facilitation is more of a mechanical nature. For example, it has provided space for negotiations, but we do realize that the space is one aspect of the problem. That is valuable. We would not have had this opportunity had there not been that space. The opportunity has yet to prove effective for Afghans but, at least, provides a path that could one day lead to peace. For Afghans, bloodshed continues and the war has not ended.

Qatar plays a significant role. For facilitating such processes, one of the requisites is the space in which both parties feel confidence and trust, are able to travel there and utilize physical facilities to hold talks. Another issue about mediation is the content of discussions. The major challenges of the process in the two-year period can be assessed thoroughly at different stages but what I like to point out here is that the talks never focused on contents. In the recent phase, there have been some religious arguments and talks about the official designation of the government system, but they are not a part of the negotiation contents.

Why should we have contention over religion and sect? Ninety nine percent of Afghans are Muslims. Islam was not introduced to Afghanistan in 1994, so we do not have to base our arguments on it to show which political movement demands what. Thus, while talking about mediation, it is important to focus on the contents rather than politics and power sharing. Experiences of other countries have clearly demonstrated that mediators have been successful when they have helped conflict parties concentrate on the content of discussions and various dimensions of it, rather than focusing on format or controversial issues, which are very likely to fail.

Q: As pointed out earlier, the current conflict in Afghanistan is not only Afghans’ war. Countries at the neighboring, regional, transregional and world levels are involved in Afghanistan war and its recent peace process. The agreement by the two parties of negotiations to avoid mediators suggests sidelining countries. However, these countries are pursuing their interests in Afghanistan war and peace, so they would do their best to influence the process, results and the agreed political system. Do you think the countries should be formally engaged in the process or they better remain sidelined?

A: We witnessed, and the forty years of our history shows that any country or group that was marginalized, created trouble. So, it would be very skillful to define a role for the countries involved in the conflict. Of course, Afghanistan’s international allies, given their economic aids to and military forces in Afghanistan, play a different role. For example, the US and European countries’ role has not been equal. Neither the number of their troops nor level of their economic assistance in the past twenty years have been the same. Accordingly, their roles [in the peace process] will differ. Hence, unless the process is genuinely Afghan-led, it is very hard to keep the process balanced. For the moment, the process is far from balanced. The two parties accepting to live in the same city does not mean balance and agreement. For an entire month, they have failed to agree on the basic principles let alone ending the war. With people dying every day, this is proving very costly for us.

Finding a way out of this conflict and developing a mechanism to engage relevant countries are contingent upon two critical conditions. First, there is an urgent need for a strong and inclusive leadership on the government side, a united Afghan party which authoritatively represents Afghans and face the Taliban on negotiation table. We have been watching an abundance of disagreements among different political groups in the past twenty years, leading to today’s shortcomings. It took us two years to form a negotiation team that represents Afghanistan’s political elites.

This indicates that the political agreement by Afghanistan’s leadership has been a mechanical settlement; somebody has sent his son, the other has dispatched his symbolic representative though we can’t ignore a number of genuine representatives from various institutions. Overall, it is unfortunate to say that the political leadership is not honest in making a deal to achieve true sustainable peace. While suffering from absence of leadership, we cannot succeed in engaging non-Afghan mediators in the [peace] process. We distrust commitment of our own leadership in Afghanistan. We can define role of mediators, put forward proposals and gain trust of the other party only after trust is built in Afghan political leadership. Of course, Taliban also needs to have a strong leadership. They are still sending the same message, mostly for media and propaganda purposes, primarily saying “we will regain the power”, no reference to a settlement for establishing unity. Both the Afghan government and Taliban leaderships are far from appreciating their standpoint and presenting a clear explanation of the peace process. They have yet to take the initial steps. When they will start talking on the content, it would be very difficult for them to reach a conclusion in absence of a mediator.

Q: Given the fact that regional countries, particularly Afghanistan neighbors, are pursuing their interests in both war and peace in Afghanistan and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, chairperson of the High Council for National Reconciliation, has embarked on trips to achieve regional consensus on Afghan peace, how do you perceive regional consensus when a formal framework is nonexistent and the role of these countries in the Afghan peace process remains undefined?

A: When I am talking about lack of unity and harmony in Afghanistan leadership, it also refers to the many trips by government and nongovernment institutions for the past twenty years, but how successful have they been? There may be small achievements; awareness on Afghanistan is raised, people understood that Afghanistan is not the epicenter of plight, there is talent and capability, we have had good achievements. But on the regional political consensus, it is very hard to build consensus by making a trip unless a functioning plan is developed and executed. This is because the trip at final stage is for protocol and media purposes. More than anything, we needed a strong political leadership to gain people’s trust but trust has been eroding rapidly. Afghans risked their lives to vote during elections so that the state represents them but now they fear for their lives and those of their children. The political leadership should, on the other hand, ensure inclusivity. Inclusivity should go beyond a limited number of political groups. Afghans from all provinces, ethnicities and tribes should be able to see themselves represented at the political leadership. We know that development programs and distribution of resources have been imbalanced. Therefore, unless political leaders act based on a predefined plan, the trips would remain ineffective even if they announce the agenda for moving forward, reaching separate agreements with regional countries and getting their written commitments in presence of international community representatives. If it is a matter of trips, Khalilzad has never stopped travelling to Kabul. Can anybody claim if such trips have ensured Afghan inclusivity and Afghan ownership of the process? Making trips is better than nothing but, I believe, a trip without an agenda and a preplanned result would lead to nowhere.

Q: Since the beginning of the intra-Afghan talks in Doha, a group called “Supporters of Afghanistan Peace” was established, comprising of Germany, Norway, US and Qatar representatives. The Group is reportedly providing advice to the negotiation parties using informal frameworks. How do you evaluate the role of this group in the peace process? Do you think the Group could possibly become formal mediator or facilitator?

A: The countries you mentioned have played a significant role in the process. However, their roles are defined based on the number of troops and the amount of aids they have provided to the Afghan government. So, they are seeking to play role in view of these realities. They have effective role in facilitating the process, have been effective so far. For instance, Qatar plays a clear role. The US also has a clear role and a clear agenda. Nobody can ignore it for its significant role in the past twenty years. The European countries are also enjoying a similar role. However, Norway and Germany have had a more noticeable role. Both countries are members of the European Union (EU) and can represent the EU in Afghanistan. Yet, they can’t be guarantors or mediators in the process as they were directly involved in the Afghan war and had deployed troops here. The twenty years of war can’t be overlooked. In the same way as Afghan Government and security forces are fighting Taliban today, all of those countries were in fight with the Taliban until 2014. A basic feature of mediating institutions or individuals is to have no engagement in the conflict. It is possible but very unlikely to find countries that did not follow the 2001 slogan of the president Bush. If there are countries who have remained relatively impartial and are trusted by both parties, we could identify individuals there with expertise and experience in conflict resolution. Nevertheless, Afghanistan remains the spotlight of foreign meddling. This does not solely refer to the neighboring countries but also beyond it. They have been pursuing their interests in both war and peace times.

Q: Looking at reconciliation practices in other countries with similar experience, what role could an individual, group or entity, who could be considered as mediator, can play in the Afghan peace negotiation?

A: I feel there is an urgent need for a mediation group. The mediation group should necessarily be associated with institutions who have had no direct involvement or role in Afghanistan. A part of the confidence building measure comes from the fact that they have not been involved in Afghanistan. I don’t name any, but I am sure such institutions exist. We talked to people with relevant expertise and we were told such institutions exist. Let’s not forget that the political process we are talking about is highly sensitive and extraordinarily complicated. So, the individuals or institutions whom we consider for the role of mediator, based on their clean record of no involvement in Afghanistan and no association with countries who deployed troops here, should possess negotiation skills and be aware of conflict resolution and mediation techniques. We may identify persons inside Afghanistan at the villages to create a combination of individuals who are well-informed about Afghan traditional culture in conflict resolution and people with international expertise from around the world. So, taking the problem beyond politics and treating mediation as an expertise can hopefully expedite the process.

Q: If they insist to avoid employing mediator in negotiation and assert to continue talks in the same way that has produced no agreement, how do you evaluate informal intervention of countries with influence on Afghanistan on the peace process? For example, a number of politicians have been recently visiting regional countries, claiming that they discuss Afghan peace process.

A: The stronger the political system in Afghanistan, the more likely it is to prevent irresponsible political moves of Afghan politicians. A strong system is not necessarily achieved through use of force, despotism and tyrannical policies. Unfortunately, Afghanistan has gone through all of those during the past forty years. Strength of a political system comes from its inclusivity, credibility of its policies among all stakeholders; nobody will need to go seek others’ help, allowing other countries to exploit the opportunity.

There is a colloquial saying “power favors power, the weaker is the loser” meaning the weaker one gets, the more likely others will exploit him. In the same way, the weaker party in this process will be oppressed and the powerful party does his job. In relations between Afghanistan and the regional countries, the weaker the political system in Afghanistan becomes, the more the leaders of neighboring countries will exploit it. The principle of “respect for borders [sovereignty]” is only a slogan; every country is pursuing their own interests. Every nation has list of interests that are not compromised at any cost. If we become as strong, no neighboring country will dare interfere in our land; they know the consequences. The weaker Afghanistan becomes, the more likely neighboring countries will be looking for opportunities to exploit. A recent trip to Pakistan by one of Afghanistan’s not so much reputable politician is a clear example. Our neighboring country has apparently identified weaknesses that let her exploit for her interests. After all, every country seeks to have allies. They see what other options they have in absence of Taliban.

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