Tamana Saket




Reconciliation in Afghanistan


After eight years of continuous war in Afghanistan, the international community, the US and its international allies are talking about a possible surge and reconciliation for Afghanistan. A number of articles and analysis as well as arguments have been published in different magazines and newspapers in the US. I found one of them very realistic and logical. Thus I wanted to discuss the reconciliation in Afghanistan with a relative argument.

The article titled “Flipping the Taliban” from Foreign Affairs Magazine[i] demonstrates how US reconciliation can win the war in Afghanistan and how US reconciliation with Taliban insurgents is possible. The authors Christia and Semple believe that it is feasible because for warlords’ opposing sides in Afghanistan and for many insurgent commanders war is not a matter of ideology. The authors, for example, address security issues from a realist perspective, which is the perspective used in this critique. But the article is not acceptable from a social constructivist perspective. The authors also discuss the opinion poll on Afghan reconciliation conducted in February 2009, and the results were that 64% of voters felt reconciliation was possible.[ii] The reconciliation model in Afghanistan could be similar to the Washington strategy of military-political counter-insurgency in Iraq that details insurgents who are willing to reconcile and those who are not. The authors suggest that the Saudi Government acts as a mediator to facilitate the reconciliation process with the Taliban. The article ends with a discussion on a “tea-drinking diplomacy” and the issue of insurgent safe-havens in Pakistan.

Although the reconciliation idea is noteworthy, the authors do not adequately consider the Afghan context. In every country people’s behavior is based on a set of main thoughts which reflects their behaviors. No nation in the world wants to reconcile with alien insurgents. How could the national and international community and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Afghanistan reconcile with the Taliban when many insurgents are not Afghan? There are many non-afghan Talibs who have emerged alongside the Afghan Taliban and they have affiliated and gathered to fight NATO forces in Afghanistan, not necessarily due to any specific goal for Afghanistan.[iii] Since not all insurgents are Afghan, the reconciliation idea does not seem feasible in Afghanistan nor a realistic security solution.

Furthermore, the opinion poll on Afghanistan reconciliation[iv] is not acceptable. The survey is not clear on who was surveyed or on how applicable the data is for the total Afghan population. The poll is inadequate because it does not assess factors such as the historical background for making important decisions, the current insecurity, the role of religious clergies and tribal leaders, and the difficulty Afghans may have in reconciling with non-Afghans. A better alternative to the survey could be the Loya Jirga (the Great Assembly). The Loya Jirga is a widely accepted Afghan entity which has more credibility to Afghans than an opinion poll. The Loya Jirga is not only traditionally accepted in Afghanistan but also according to the Afghanistan constitution, the “Loya Jirga is the highest manifestation of the people of Afghanistan.”[v] In the Loya Jirga, all representatives of the people such as tribal leaders, clergies and elders of Afghan society participate and their decision on an issue is the most acceptable decision for Afghans.

The authors further suggest that the Saudi Government has an influential role in bringing about this reconciliation.[vi] However, this influence by its nature negatively affects Afghan independence. The Taliban ideological ties with Arabic Osama bin-e-Laden and Saudi Arabia’s influence on the Taliban contradict Afghan freedom of thought and threaten Afghanistan’s newly established state. Consequently, the authors suggest securing safe havens for insurgents in Pakistan during reconciliation.[vii] However, the safe haven suggestion may not be welcomed by the Pakistani government since Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani leader, is not willing to stand for long-term agreements regarding the Taliban.[viii] On the other hand, according to Roy Stewart, a Harvard University professor, Al Qaeda is in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan.[ix] Thus it is not logical to create safe havens in Pakistan for those who have safe havens already.  

The governing power of the state cannot be shared with heterogeneous factions and if this happens the state will be demolished. Afghan history and reconciliation experiments demonstrate that this strategy may not succeed. Dr. Najibullah, the President of Afghanistan from 1989-1992,[x] also declared reconciliation with multiple factions of the Mujahidin, but it failed because they were diverse groups, which is the same as today’s Taliban. Nick B. Mills in his book titled Karzai mentions that: “...vicious clashes among the Mujahedeen factions rendered the government unable to function.”[xi] It is also written in the book, “How We Missed the Story,” about Mujahedeen that “their rivalries weakened their military efficiency.”[xii]

The authors interestingly mention that the US must make friends especially among its enemies using the rules of war in Afghanistan.[xiii] For example the US can use the concept of “side with the winner” as one of the rules of war in Afghanistan. The Uzbek general, the Tajik commander, the Hazara leader and the Pashtun headman are examples that the authors mentioned. I can strongly say that the strategy of changing sides only happens in internal wars between groups of Afghans in Afghanistan. According to Robert Rotberg the author of Building a New Afghanistan, “when there is a common interest, such as repelling invaders there has usually been some degree of cooperation among the different groups.” Rotberg also gives the examples of the British in the nineteenth century and the Russians in the 1980s. Both these armies experienced failure in Afghanistan.[xiv] Thus, if insurgent warlords consider the international community as invaders, reconciliation will not bring an end to this war. 

We cannot look at Iraq as a reconciliation model for Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not Iraq and is not similar to Iraq. Afghanistan has its own unique war context. Iraq was not dealing with as many economic problems as Afghanistan, or a history of 30 years of continuous civil war. In other words, there was already an established state in Iraq, while Afghanistan has had, and continues to have an unstable state.

The authors go on to say that “reconciliation in Afghanistan requires distinguishing the "good" Taliban from the "bad".”[xv] However, this is not a practical argument. A few months ago the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, responded to this argument in many Afghan newspapers and the official Taliban website and stated that there is no good and bad between the Taliban. He emphasized being united in this war. [xvi]

Reconciliation could be an effective strategy in Afghanistan if the historical backgrounds, behaviors, ways of thinking and the Afghan context are considered. For instance, the Loya Jirga could be used as a way to understand the people’s ideas rather than an opinion poll. Afghans do not consider all Taliban to be Afghans and so mediation with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan could interfere with Afghan independence and Afghan freedom. The war can only be turned around if it is an internal war, not when there are outsider ‘invaders’ in the country. Last but not least, Afghanistan cannot implement a successful model of reconciliation based on Washington’s strategy in Iraq due to the significant differences between these two countries.


[i] Fotini Christia, Michael Semple, Flipping the Taliban, Foreign Affairs, New York: Jul/Aug 2009. Vol. 88, Iss. 4; 34, 13. http://proquest.umi.com.proxy.miis.edu/pqdlink?index=4&did=1768605561&SrchMode=3&sid=1&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1251315970&clientId=944&aid=1

[ii] Fotini Christia, Michael Semple, Flipping the Taliban.

[iii] Laura Hayes, Borgna Brunner, and Beth Rowen, Who Are the Taliban? Their history and their resurgence


[iv] Fotini Christia, Michael Semple, Flipping the Taliban.

[v] Atricle one hundred and ten, Afghanistan constitution.

[vi] Fotini Christia, Michael Semple, Flipping the Taliban.

[ix] Rory Stewart, The Places in Between. http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/09252009/watch.html

[x] Laura Hayes, Borgna Brunner, Timeline: The Taliban;Key dates in the history of the Taliban and Contemporary Afghanistan. http://www.infoplease.com/spot/taliban-time.html

[xi] Nick B.Mills, Karzai; The Failing American Intervention and the Struggle for Afghanistan, 2007, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 7.

[xii] Roy Gutman, How we Missed the Story; Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan, United Nations Institute of Peace, Washington DC, 2008. 223.

[xiv] Cindy Fazey, Responding to the opium Dilemma in, Building a New Afghanistan, Robert Rotberg Ed. World peace foundation, Cambridge Massachusetts, 181.

[xv] Fotini Christia, Michael Semple, Flipping the Taliban.

[xvi] Messages, Declarations, Declaration of the Islamic Emirates leader about the Obama’s speech to the Islamic world, http://www.shahamat1.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=181:2009-06-05-08-39-37&catid=10:2009-03-12-06-27-50&Itemid=5