The first phase involved a secondary source review on political reconciliation in Afghanistan to clarify existing understanding and gaps in knowledge, and 122 primary interviews with a broad range of Afghan stakeholders on their understandings of the conflict and key substantive and process issues confronting a peace settlement. This phase is now completed, and the findings from the interviews are published in a PRIO Paper titled ‘Achieving Durable Peace: Afghan Perspectives on a Peace Process’.
Several themes are prominent among the interviewees’ understandings of what drives the conflict in Afghanistan. The first is that it is a widespread perception that the conflict is driven by a combination of external and internal factors that interact in complex ways. However, as the conflict has gotten worse, the impact of the presence and behaviour of NATO troops and the illegitimacy of the Afghan government have become increasingly important, alongside longer-standing issues grounded in regional politics or factional competition.
Afghans across different groups perceive the United States a key party to the armed conflict, with its own interests, rather than solely the supporter of the Afghan government or people that it projects in public discourse. This view calls into question the sincerity and effectiveness of the US emphasis on the “Afghan-led” reconciliation strategy, and indicates the need for clearer US policy and signalling if Afghan stakeholders are to take the prospect of a negotiated settlement seriously.
There is also a crosscutting perception of the capture and division of the government among a small elite who act with a combination of ethnic, factional, economic and criminal motivations, and parts of this system develop interests in continued conflict. In this sense the conflict is not only a struggle for state power and resources between competing parties, it is also a legitimacy crisis stemming from a system of power and patronage distribution that is proving unable to manage societal and elite conflicts.
It is also a widely held view that this capture and the widespread illegitimacy of many in power have allowed leaders of all ethnic groups to stoke existing perceptions that other groups are benefitting disproportionately in the current dispensation. Such attitudes are seen to exist among all groups, generating an increasingly ethnic “negative-sum” politics. The 2010 National Assembly elections and the discourse of “political reconciliation” of the Government of Afghanistan has heightened these readings, deepening grievances the Taliban can exploit and exacerbating the potential for ethnic conflict.
Continuation of the project
The second phase of the project, informed by the above, involves detailed analysis on issues and gaps raised by Afghan stakeholders. Interdisciplinary teams with both Afghanistan and comparative experience are preparing theoretical and comparative papers identifying options to approach these issues. These options will be refined through dialogue with focus groups of relevant Afghan stakeholders, including former interview subjects.
Two additional research components are underway: an examination of individual mid- and lower-level commander motivations and incentives, including commander case studies and an analysis of reintegration trends; and an analysis of Afghan media debates on political negotiation with insurgents. Given the fast-moving policy environment, individual outputs will be presented as they are prepared, and it is anticipated that the complete project outputs will be synthesized and assembled as a sourcebook by October 2011.