A 'Third Option' for Canada in Afghanistan

Is peace in Afghanistan attainable? Can Canada help? If so, how? An approach to these questions through an understanding of peace processes suggests an emphasis on dialogue rather than war-fighting. Is this feasible in this case? A team from the McMaster University Centre for Peace Studies -- which has been working since 1999 on conflicts in Afghanistan -- suggests that it is.

By Joanna Santa Barbara

Conflict analysis

The present situation is best understood as a "suppressed civil war," a term applied by a member of this team, Dr. Seddiq Weera, who has spent much of his time in Afghanistan over the last five years. Before the US invasion in 2001, Afghanistan was locked in a deadly battle between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban/Party of Islam groups. All groups were responsible for immense suffering of the Afghan people. The US took issue with the Taliban and supported the Northern Alliance with arms and money, vanquishing the Taliban. There was a tendency, in imposing a "story-line" on this episode, to see the Taliban as wholly bad and the Northern Alliance as good. There is little appreciation that these groups contain diverse factions, many of whom are more moderate than the most extreme ones.

The Bonn Peace Agreement of 2001, whereby the subsequent governance arrangements for Afghanistan were set in motion, excluded the losers from the accords. Elementary understanding of conflict dynamics would suggest that the excluded losers would be likely to take to arms to push their goals forward. That, of course, is what happened. Worse still, al-Qaeda, whose goals differ from the Taliban/Party of Islam, has joined the latter. These are not a few bedraggled remnants of a fighting force, easily "mopped up." The violence is worsening. Unhappy young men are attracted to join these militias.

There is no military solution to this conflict; Canada is fighting on one side of a civil war -- this embroils Canadians in an unwinnable and destructive situation. Beyond battle action, this conflict is bogging the country down in the capital, Kabul. To a large extent, the civil service does not work. Against the Bonn Agreement, the Northern Alliance entered Kabul and grabbed key ministries for itself, excluding those not connected with their parties. These ministries refuse to conduct normal civil service procedures for hiring employees, for example, offering jobs to those with the right connections. Those from opposing parties do not feel safe in returning from the periphery, and know they will be excluded.

Is dialogue a possibility?

Some of the grievances of the Taliban, then, are legitimate. Other demands, especially regarding girls' education, would be likely to be seen by the population as a whole as illegitimate. But this is the usual state of conflict dynamics when parties to a deadly conflict enter into negotiations.

Dr. Weera -- currently a consultant to the Afghan Ministry of Education and a member of the Independent National Commission on Strengthening Peace in Afghanistan -- set out to probe the possibility of dialogue earlier this year. He met with key players in the Taliban, in the Party of Islam and with the leader of the Northern Alliance. They were all supportive of the idea of peace dialogues and the cessation of military violence. Some of his interlocutors were sufficiently serious that they brought lists of conditions for peace. Since then, Dr. Weera has secured the support of at least ten cabinet ministers for the idea of peace dialogues. The president, Hamid Karzai, has countered the tendency to dehumanize the Taliban by insisting that they are Afghan brothers. This August, Dr. Weera described growing interest at high political levels in this option.

In the actual war zone of southern Afghanistan, there have been approaches by Taliban groups to allied troops expressing an interest in dialogue. And in Canada, Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party, has recently spoken of the need for dialogue with the Taliban.

Canada's role

Canada began its role in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Forces, beginning with establishing security around Kabul, and with the intention of expanding from there. The US, at the same time, was fighting a counter-insurgency war against the Taliban in the south of the country. With the withdrawal of US forces at the onset of the war against Iraq, Canadian forces were most unfortunately, and without consultation with the Canadian people, drawn into replacing them, fighting a US-style war against one side of what is, fundamentally, a civil war. This is not where Canadians should be. The Canadian people observe the growing death toll of young men and women in what is, essentially, an unwinnable war. Support for this engagement, never strong, is steadily waning. A far more constructive role for Canada would be:

Should Canadian troops pull out now?

It is highly likely that the civil war would worsen if foreign troops were withdrawn at this time. The fragile gains in democracy, education, women's status and other areas would be lost in resumption of a wider-scale war. The most courageous reformers, for example, in human rights and women's education, would be at high risk of being killed. Canadian troops are needed for peace support at least to the end of the time promised by the current government. There is considerable agreement among Afghans that foreign troops are needed for the time being.

Opposition to these ideas

This is likely to come from "spoilers" in the Afghan armed opposition, those who don't want peace because they benefit from war. Opposition may come from hard-line Northern Alliance people who want power to reside mainly with that party, and from Canadians who can see only military solutions to violent conflict, and support the "war on terror" as a means of currying favor with the current US administration. If any success for a negotiated solution looks possible, US administration may not want a "bad example" to suggest a negotiated solution could be possible in Iraq.

There may be opposition from those who fear that negotiation with the Taliban may lead to a return to hated Taliban policies, especially as they affect women and girls. But working toward peace with the Taliban does not mean accepting these policies. It does mean working towards a situation where Taliban policies, constructive and destructive, are worked through in a democratic process and not at the point of a gun. There may be opposition from elements of the Canadian armed forces who prefer war-fighting to peace-keeping.

Third Option

Canadians have repeatedly been presented with only two options regarding our role in Afghanistan -- either to continue war-fighting in the role prescribed for them by the US or to withdraw troops as soon as possible. A 'Third Option" has been presented here, one which draws on Canadian strengths and values.

Next steps for Canadians:

Joanna Santa Barbara has worked with the McMaster Centre for Peace Studies on Afghanistan issues since 2000, visiting the area three times.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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