A Tale of Two Reconciliations
The people of Afghanistan must be given a break from three decades of violence and bloodshed. Warring factions must bury the past and move forward on the road to peace, progress and stability.
Afghanistan is the only country in modern history which has experienced military interventions by two superpowers: the Soviet Union and the United States. Great Britain also tried to establish its military foothold over Afghanistan but failed. Since December 2001, Afghanistan is experiencing the longest spell of military occupation in its modern history and still, there is no clear indication that the U.S. and NATO forces plan to completely wrap up their military operations after 2014. The whole effort on the part of the United States and the Karzai regime to have covert talks with the Taliban is to maintain the status quo in terms of keeping control over the power structure while also accommodating the moderate elements.
While making a comparative analysis of the policy of national reconciliation outlined by the then Afghan President Dr. Najibullah on December 30, 1986 and the present one by President Hamid Karzai in 2010, one can come up with a narrative that history is repeating itself. The two processes of reconciliation launched with different purposes and at different times, however, converge on the fact that the issues of legitimacy and ideology still shape the internal dynamics of Afghanistan.
Following the assumption of power by Dr. Najibullah from Mr. Babrak Karmal in May 1986, the Soviet backed regime in Kabul ventured on the policy of national reconciliation with a major purpose to seek legitimacy for his fragile power base and provide a safe exit strategy to the Soviet occupying forces. Furthermore, in order to appease Islamists, who had waged a ‘Jehad’ against what they called Com- munists, he tried to move from left to the center position by changing the name of ruling People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) to Hizbi-Watan party, allowing multi-party system and by giving a religious color to his government. But time was not on his side. Despite his passionate appeal which he made while addressing the UN General Assembly in June 1988 for supporting his policy of national reconciliation, his position weakened with the passage of time. Back to back events like the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the failure of international community, particularly the United States to help Afghanistan cope with challenges emanating from the Soviet military withdrawal and the heightening of civil war ultimately led to his resignation in April 1992 and eventual brutal death at the hands of Taliban in September 1996.
Dr. Najibullah, being the architect of the policy of national reconciliation however failed to win the support from the major stakeholders in the Afghan conflict, i.e. the Afghan Mujahideen groups, Pakistan, Iran and the United States. The Soviet Union itself was passing through a turbulent phase in late 1980s and was unable to play an assertive role in Afghanistan,
a fact which was narrated by Heela Najibullah, presently a researcher at the Delhi Policy Group and daughter of Dr. Najibulah in her illuminating talk on, “Reconciliation Process in Afghanistan: Past and Present” given at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, University of Erfurt, Germany recently.
Mujahideen groups not only possessed extreme lack of trust and hostility vis-à-vis Dr. Najibullah but he was also held responsible for brutal killing of hundreds of Afghans when he was the head of the Afghan secret service, KHAD. His government was considered illegitimate, devoid of popular support and incapable of pursuing the ambitious program of national reconciliation. Neither the domestic, nor the regional or the international situation favored his vision of uniting the Afghans regardless of their political and ethnic discords for peace and stability in Afghanistan.
President Hamid Karzai’s initiative to launch the process of dialogue with Taliban is given the name of the policy of national reconciliation. As the U.S. and allied forces face growing resistance from Taliban groups and President Obama’s resolve to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan by 2014, one can observe fresh impetus given to Karzai’s drive to build a new Afghan society by seeking reconciliation with warring groups.
It is another question that Taliban leadership under Mullah Umer, the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network reject Karzai’s drive for national reconciliation. They are however willing to talk to the United States but not with Karzai government which they term as illegitimate. Reports about secret talks going on between Taliban and the U.S. under Berlin’s mediation in Germany depict a fundamental change in Washington’s approach on dealing with the resistance groups, a fact which also existed during Dr. Najibullah’s time when the Soviets supported his policy of national reconciliation and offered to include a key Mujahideen leader Ahmed Shah Masood as the Defense Minister in his proposed broad-based government.
While examining the tale of two reconciliations, one is amazed to observe several analogies rather than contrasts. The contrasts may be that Dr. Najibullah’s reconciliation drive was carried out when the Soviet forces had occupied Afghanistan and Moscow in view of its failures was desperate to seek an honorable withdrawal. Furthermore, the United States and Pakistan were not supportive to that type of an initiative because they considered him not only a protégé of Moscow but also involved in ruthless persecution of his adversaries. President Hamid Karzai’s strategy of national reconciliation has been launched when the U.S. led coalition is battling with the Taliban resistance groups and is in dire need of an exit strategy but major actors including Pakistan are supporting the present reconciliation drive. Both processes however fail to learn lessons from history and try to evade some of the basic requirements which the parties involved in a conflict must keep into consideration for a successful national reconciliation process.
Three important flaws in the two processes of national reconciliation launched in late 1980s and in 2010 are primarily responsible for putting a question mark as far as peace prospects in Afghanistan are concerned. First, unlike South Africa and Northern Ireland, where the very idea of reconciliation had domestic support and ownership, the situation in Afghanistan is quite different. The Afghan society, in view of its tribal, ethnic and sectarian cleavages is not amenable to the requirements of forgiveness, healing, trust and flexibility which form the core of any reconciliation process.
A society where, regression, ven- geance, rigidity, suspicion, violence and retributive justice shape human behavior, it is difficult to create space for a reconciliatory approach. Second, the pursuance of a rejectionist approach by those who are a major stakeholder in the Afghan conflict situation also makes Karzai’s policy of national reconciliation a non-starter. Same was the predicament which was faced by Dr. Najibullah as those who were the main opposition parties to the conflict situation at that time followed a rejectionist approach. Third, reconciliation process must have homegrown constituency and should not be launched to appease external powers or secure a legitimate power status. In both the reconciliation processes in Afghanistan, the very purpose of such type of a policy is to secure a safe exit of foreign forces and keep hold over power but by offering slots to resistance groups.
The question whether President Hamid Karzai’s policy of national reconciliation is a non-starter or with the passage of time will gain support from opposition forces, the time is ripe for uniting the people of Afghanistan and giving them a break from more than three decades of violence and bloodshed. If the warring factions in Afghanistan are ready to bury the past and move forward on the road to peace, progress and stability, national reconciliation will certainly become a part of the Afghan society. Certainly, other stakeholders in the Afghan conflict belonging to the region and outside also need to play a positive role for transforming Afghanistan from a conflict and violent ridden to a peaceful and stable country. The writer is Professor, Department of International Relations, University of Karachi and currently Visiting DAAD Professor, Program on Conflict Studies and Management, Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, University of Erfurt, Germany.