Afghanistan: No Peace Without the Majority of the Population

A political analysis by Dr. Almut Wieland-Karimi, Friedrich Ebert Foundation

The Civilian Opposition - Badly Neglected
One central aspect in the current political debate on Afghanistan is being badly neglected: What do the majority of the roughly 20 million Afghans think about their political future? They support neither the Taliban nor the Northern Alliance. Their lives are rather determined by traditional organizational units at a local and regional level, legitimized by local council meetings (shuras or jirgas). These councils include religious, ethnic, tribal, village, or valley chiefs. On the one hand, they certainly depend on the higher political and military framework conditions, however, they have been able to maintain a great deal of autonomy and independence. At the local level, simple forms of a functioning administration have developed. Affiliation with war factions or alternative political groupings is mostly determined by these councils which act as electors or multipliers if one was to translate it into our language. Correspondingly, Afghanistan is not nearly as disorganized as it might seem from the outside.

The major part of the population is first of all war-weary and trusts little in the military-political forces having disqualified themselves over the last 20 years - starting with the Communist DVPA regime, to the Mudjaheddin characterized by rivalries and the Northern Alliance emerging from there, up to the Taliban. After more than 20 years of war, the majority of the population is yearning for peace and especially because the humanitarian need has never reached such horrifying dimensions as today: Up to seven million people, which is approximately a third of the population is on the run and winter has already set in in the mountains. This catastrophe was triggered by the civil war and the inability of the war factions to provide the people with supplies. In addition to that there is a drought having lasted for years and most recently, the fear of the urban population of the current military actions.

As regards a medium-term perspective, it is important that humanitarian aid does not indirectly support one of the civil war factions. Traditional civilian forces and their leaders could be strengthened through material aid (food, reconstruction aid) and a political incorporation in a consultation mechanism. Because one has to be aware of the fact that a lasting political solution - and thus a medium-term improvement of the living conditions - will only be achieved if it is supported by the majority of the Afghans.

The Democratic Movement - A Tender Bud In Need of Care
Apart from the traditional political structures, there is another force which could strengthen a political process of solution: the democratic opposition. Its representatives can be identified, addressed, and questioned. They are not at all anonymous in a way that they could not - or not yet - be included in the political process. However, this is hardly or not at all being attempted. So far, hardly any Western politician has tried to get in contact with the democratic opposition in Afghanistan itself. This needs to happen immediately!

The history of the democratic movement goes back to the beginning of the last century. At the same time as the Young Turkish Movement headed by Mustafa Kemal Pascha (Atatürk) came into being a so-called Young Afghan or Constitutionalism Movement (mashrutiyyat) developed in Afghanistan. In 1923, it scored its first success with the establishment of a modern constitution. Mahmud Tarzi, actively involved together with King Amanullah, was one of the guiding intellectual forces. Contrary to the situation in Turkey, however, their achievements met with strong conservative resistance resulting in the Democrats being driven to the underground in 1929. Nevertheless, a number of well-educated and intellectual circles, the major part of the opinion-makers, committed themselves over decades to democratic values. Depending on the political situation leaders of the national-democratic movement were persecuted by the state or they were given new impetus, as happening in the middle of the 1960s, and stood as candidates in the elections. One part of the success story is that with the Constitution of 1964 Afghan women were given equal rights. During this time different democratic parties came into being, mostly formed around individual people or magazines.

After the putsch of 1973 and even more so after the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan in 1979 and the beginnings of the resistance movement, democratically oriented groups were largely caught in the crossfire: Different groups such as the NEFA (National Unity Front Afghanistan) organized their own resistance incorporating left-wing and moderate democratic forces. However, due to their political motivation they were marginalized by the Islamic or Islamistic Mudjaheddin. Most of all, the democratic resistance was lacking the support of the West: money, logistics, and weapons were given to other political parties. They were a special thorn in the flesh of the Pakistani Intelligence Service and well-known leaders such as Qayyum Rahbar, Massim Ludin, Sayyid Majrouh and many others were murdered, which considerably weakened the movement.

Inspite of all this, their cells have continued to exist in Afghanistan and in exile. The following groups or parties are to be mentioned by means of examples: Afghan Mellat ("Afghan Nation"), describing itself as Social Democratic, includes different wings actively involved in a spectrum from Liberal-Intellectuals to Pashtun-Chauvinists. Wulusi Mellat ("People’s National") split off from this group. Further groups worth mentioning are Setam-e Melli, a splitting-off from the former Communist Party DVPA, Shulah-ye Jawid ("Eternal Flame"), a group dominated by urban intellectuals, and the Pashtun Social Democratic Party. Years of efforts as part of a political process led to the uniting of these groups under one umbrella organization: The "Alliance for Democracy" was founded in Aachen in June 2001 and it incorporates - as of now - eight groups. The majority of their supporters are in Afghanistan. However, due to the politically dangerous situation and the lack of security for the activists, their organization centers are located in Western exile. For obvious reasons there is no empirically reliable data on their strength in numbers but it is assumed that each group has thousands of active members.

It could be promising in the current situation that the democratic forces are joining together with the above mentioned politically independent majority of the population to form a civilian opposition, i.e. an additional force in Afghanistan. The democratic groups have numerous advantages: Unlike others involved in Afghanistan they have not disqualified themselves in the eyes of the people. Women are actively involved in their groups. Taking into account the situation in Afghanistan, they dispose of an extraordinary potential of well-trained specialists (doctors, engineers, teachers, etc.) and they have built bridges to other countries. Furthermore, ethnic and religious identities play a secondary role. There are already first examples of southern and south-western provinces where council meetings are constituting, in which traditional chiefs are represented but which also include democratic representatives and intellectuals. The greatest difficulties these oppositional initiatives are facing are the impending winter and the lack of supplies but also the lacking international support, which, nevertheless, is given to the war parties and the supporters of the king.

Learning From the Mistakes of the Past!
What kind of realistic approaches could there be for a political solution of the conflict? It is generally agreed that nothing but a political solution will lead to an enduring stabilization of Afghanistan and the adjacent region. What has become clear over the last weeks is that the USA as leader of the anti-terror alliance is pursuing a determined military strategy but without a sufficiently clear-cut political strategy for Afghanistan. The more important it becomes that the different interests of the Afghan people, the Afghan political and military players, the bordering states, and the international players are included in the current phase of discussion, consultation, and negotiation in order to enable them to move towards one another. It is already clear that the prospect of real peace will be determined by the fact whether Afghanistan is again in the limelight only temporarily or whether medium- and long-term strategies persistently pursued by a national as well as international pro-peace-alliance will take effect.

One of the mistakes made is that in the 1980s the West exclusively supported religiously motivated but not the democratically oriented resistance groups. After 1992, after the end of the East-West Conflict and the collapse of the pro-Soviet governorship, Afghanistan was left to its own devices or rather in the hands of armed groups. The former Mudjaheddin groups strongly armed by their respective supporters got caught up in a bloody regionalized civil war taking the lives of ten thousands of people and reducing the city of Kabul to rubbles. This war over the power in Kabul connected with massive human rights violations, which the people have never been able to forget, constituted the prerequisite for the success of the radically Islamistic Taliban. Starting in 1995, the troops around Mullah Omar were at first, after tremendous territorial gains, able to establish a certain security and stability. Very soon however, it turned out that the Taliban, formed up as a military force, disposed of no political ambitions or know-how whatsoever: Lacking infrastructure and reconstruction measures combined with massive human rights violations let the Taliban become a terror regime. Usama Bin Ladin and his supporters enjoy the right of hospitality and Afghanistan without the functioning institutions of a state ended up on the list of the "rogue states".

Isolation of the Taliban combined with UN sanctions were the only tools the community of states chose in order to counter this powder keg. As early as with the wanton destruction of the Buddha statues in Central Afghan Bamiyan in the spring of 2001 it became clear that the direction taken by the international community had to be a blind alley since neither the UN nor the Islamic states were able to influence the Taliban leaders. The analysis of the political development in Afghanistan in the last decade finally shows very clearly that the pacification of the region and the stemming of internationally threatening potentials can only be achieved by means of a medium- and long-term commitment by the community of states. These threatening potentials include not only the currently very present terrorist network Al-Qaida but also the nuclear armament of India and Pakistan, drug production, arms trade, low-level socio-economic development, and migration streams.

What Can the International Community Do?
Helping the needy people to survive, a major part of which is fleeing the country can first of all only be done by massive internationally coordinated humanitarian emergency assistance and immediate aid measures. These efforts are already running at full speed. It is important that the search for possible political solutions is to be started now and that comprehensive reconstruction measures are introduced parallel to the humanitarian and military actions.

Although there is actually a consensus on the fact that basically no solution is to be forced on the Afghans from the outside as such a solution would hardly be a lasting one, a clear contradiction to practical politics can be noted: The civil war factions and the king both being discussed as representations of interests for a political solution receive massive support from abroad. However, a political conflict resolution will only be crowned by success if all Afghan interests - including the civilian opposition and the democratic movement - are included on an equal footing, that is without any preferential treatment.

The United Nations’ Security Council will determine what the mandate for a UN mission in Afghanistan will look like. At the moment it is beyond doubt that there will be such a mandate. Due to the divergent national and regional interests and the almost complete destruction of an infrastructure which was only rudimentary anyways, only a comprehensive and medium- to long-term mandate will establish the preconditions for a lasting success.

First of all, the UN will face the difficulties of disarming the civil war factions and of filling up the military power vacuum which can only be filled up temporarily by the anti-terror alliance. The Islamic States Organization (especially with Muslim soldiers under a UN mandate) could play an important role in this context since the American and British military presence will meet with religiously and politically motivated opposition by the war factions as well as by the population. Another option would be to integrate the simple fighters of the civil war factions - not their military leaders - as soldiers in a central military force to be newly constructed, to train them, and to place them for a transitional period under UN command. The disarmament is mainly problematic if one takes into account that weapons are widely spread in the whole country and in the region, that commanders are in principle easily bought, and that an entire generation has learned nothing except for handling weapons.

The fact that they are easily bought can of course be used positively at first in terms of removing the Taliban regime, however, as a second step one will have to raise the issue of how to integrate the warlords of both civil war factions into society. The implementation of a rehabilitation program for the former fighters is imaginable only after a clear-cut ending of the military phase and after a manifestation of intent by the international community to commit itself to the consolidation of peace in Afghanistan. In addition, moderate forces on the side of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban should be granted the right to take up a position in a government as this is the only guarantee that they will be able to see themselves as participants in a peace process. It is also to be examined whether leading warlords of both sides should be taken to an international court and held responsible for their crimes and/or human rights violations.

Another key factor for a successful political solution will be the role of the bordering states: Taking up the "6 + 2 Meeting" (Afghanistan’s bordering states plus the USA and Russia) headed by the United Nations' Special Mission for Afghanistan (UNSMA), they should be included in a comprehensive consultation process where, on the one hand, interests could be negotiated and pressure exerted but which could also offer incentives for the approval of compromise solutions.

Furthermore, the UN should - similarly to East Timor - temporarily take over the administration and the functions of the government while supporting existing administrative structures. Not until a minimum of state structures is functioning and parallel to that basic agreements on a future state are reached by means of a political process with the participation of large sections of the Afghan population, can a loya jirga ceremoniously confirm a consensus on the future structure of this state and thus turn it into a binding agreement. Within this process the former king Zaher Schah will take up the responsibility to summon the loya jirga and to act as its patron. With the help of the UN administration a constitution for Afghanistan is to be drawn up, possibly using the democratically oriented constitution of 1964 as an important basis, and elections are to be prepared. Furthermore, the administration together with the political players in Afghanistan will take up the task to set up or to commission a reconstruction plan and - as a next step - to coordinate it at an international level. In addition, to name just the most important steps on this path, framework conditions for the revival in the economy and the ending of the war-economy are to be established.

What Could a Specifically German Contribution Look Like?
Germany enjoys a high reputation in Afghanistan and has the confidence of all parts of the society. It does not have the negative burden of a colonial past in the region. On the contrary: Until 1979 there was a very friendly German-Afghan partnership felt to be on an equal footing manifesting itself in a strong commitment in the field of development policy in the 1970s and 1980s. With Paktia in the south of Kabul, an entire province was developed by means of a masterplan - a show piece of German know-how and German-Afghan cooperation. University twinning programs fostered a lively scientific exchange. Until today, German non-governmental organizations have been supporting small development projects in Afghanistan. With this background, Germany could take up a prominent role within the framework of its international involvement as mediator between the competing interests.

Taking into account the objective of bringing in democratic values to a greater extent into the conflict resolution process and of expanding the basis of Afghan interests, democratic groupings should receive special support. A specifically German contribution should be to support the democratic movement in Afghanistan and in exile within the international discussion and consultation process. This includes its participation in international negotiations which up to now have been dominated on the Afghan side by the king and the Northern Alliance as a consequence of international support. It is also important to pass on the message to the Afghan people that in the political solution process hopes are not only placed in the king and the civil war factions but that they themselves will also have the opportunity to become actively involved in the political conflict resolution. Well-directed support of local and regional political-administrative structures or civilian forces in the form of the shuras as well as a community building program would be an important starting point to achieve this. These measures could be implemented within the framework of well-tried German institutions and tools in the field of development cooperation.

It is also conceivable to offer a repatriation program for the more than 80,000 Afghans living in Germany. A disproportionately high number of well-trained people can be found amongst them who could play an important role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan - together with German institutions. In this area, one can fall back on the experience with a program for Bosnians on the one hand but also on the Specialists Program Afghanistan provided by the GTZ [German Agency for Technical Cooperation] which finally failed because of the continuation of the war after 1992. The determining factor for the success of such a program will be whether permanent or temporary repatriates can be guaranteed that the implementation of the peace settlement will be persistently supported by the international community.

National Feeling – Basis For Conflict Resolution
Inspite of the 20 years of war in Afghanistan, the painful losses and experiences and inspite of the fragmentation of the society, there is - in contrast to other countries in a civil war situation - a common basis for conflict resolution: an all-embracing Afghan national feeling. Belonging to the Afghan nation links ethnic groups, tribes, as well as religious communities, and political groups. The bordering states, on the other side, try to use these loyalities for their own vested interests in Afghanistan - in Afghanistan itself there are no efforts toward autonomy along ethnic or religious lines. In view of this perspective, the repeatedly expressed demand for an agreement among the Afghans themselves, has - at least in principle - a chance of success. However, this requires international support because up to now regional and international players have constantly intervened in the conflict.

The basis for the main Afghan contribution to conflict resolution will be first of all a basic consensus within Afghanistan itself on the aim of reaching a political solution. Efforts in the field of national reconciliation and a political direction will only be successful if they lead to one process: Through the organization of small shuras and jirgas inside and outside of Afghanistan from the local unit to the regional level delegates can be appointed who will be accepted by all sections of the population. At the end of this first phase, the representatives elected in this way would participate in a loya jirga which could be held to publish these first agreements reached and thus underline them. It is important that by doing it in such a way all sections of the population, but also and above all the Afghan women, are included. Important advisory council meetings in former times used to also include women - although there was not an adequate percentage represented.

The cooperation with the UN has to be an item on the agenda of the local and regional council meetings as well because positive results can only be achieved if the people support their conflict mediation and reconstruction programs in a constructive way. The self-conception of the political forces, however, requires that the military groups, i.e. the Northern Alliance and the Taliban have to be willing to lay down their arms for a political solution. Especially middle-class intellectuals and specialists in the country and in exile should be able to become actively involved in the process of reconstruction whereas returning Afghans could also build bridges between societies which constitutes an important element in international cooperation.

Well-known Interests Having an Influence on a Possible Solution
First of all, the bordering states already mentioned above are to be taken into consideration trying to carry through with different intensities their interests in Afghanistan. It is only the motivation which is similar: None of the bordering states want to have a government in Afghanistan which is ill-disposed towards them - confronted with this option, they would rather prefer a continuation of the armed conflict. The bordering states find their clientele in Afghanistan on the basis of ethnic or religious connections: The Pashtuns, the majority ethnos in Afghanistan and the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, who were spread over the two states by the Durand line drawn by the British colonial power play an important role for Pakistan. The Pakistani Intelligence Service and parts of the Pakistani army are dominated by the Pashtuns. The Iranians have connection especially with the Shiite dominated hizb-e wahdat, a member of the Northern Alliance. Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are linked through ethnic common features primarily with North Afghanistan. They again influence the interests of Russia which is mainly afraid of the Islamistic forces. Based on its arch enmity with Pakistan, India supports above all the non-Pashtun and non-Islamistic forces. Only if the interests briefly laid out above are taken into account and are balanced out when forming a future government in Afghanistan, there might be a chance that the respective clientele will not be supported financially or with weapons anymore.

The Taliban regime is noticeably losing its stability as some of the military, traditional, and religious leaders have already declared their independence or have deserted to the Northern Alliance. Even the Taliban stand for an alliance - dominated by the Pashtun majority - and only its core is made up of "students of religion" (taliban) who received a military basic training in one of the religious schools. The Taliban have lost the backing of the overwhelming majority of the people because over the last years it was mainly the ordinary people that had to suffer in particular from the rigidity and the unwillingness to compromise of the Taliban regime. The extent of the humanitarian catastrophe and the tormenting have provoked resistance even in strictly traditional tribal areas, although the control by the Taliban has always been limited in the rural areas anyways. Nevertheless, one should not underestimate the danger that with numerous civilian casualties as a consequence of the foreign military actions, a solidarity effect among the Afghan people against the USA and with the Taliban might come into being. This will be decisively dependant on the fact whether the message can be passed on that the attacks are aimed at the Taliban and Al-Qaida and not at the Afghan people. With this in mind, one has to be aware of the fact that there is little access to the media in Afghanistan - apart from a few radio sets that can be used to receive the international radio stations Voice of America, BBC, and Deutsche Welle as well as some magazines by the opposition circulating on the quiet.

The Northern Alliance is a heterogeneous military alliance formed for this purpose only whose cohesion is guaranteed by the common enemy in the form of the Taliban. Since the murder of Ahmad Shah Massud the alliance has been considerably weakened and the rivalries among themselves have been strengthened again by the hope for a prominent role. Commanders such as General Dostum, Muhammad Fahim, and Ismail Khan are already disputing President Rabbani’s right to his position who is officially still in office. The core of the Northern Alliance is made up of Islamistic warlords having forfeited everybody’s sympathy as a consequence of not seizing the political opportunities after 1992. To see them as a potential guarantor of a pacification of the country can only be attributed to short-term military objectives. One should not underestimate the memory of the Afghans. In the last weeks, a cautious change in American politics could be noted, moving away from the one-sided support of the Northern Alliance and still owing them the financial and logistical support, the prospect of which had been held out to them.

The international community of states and especially the US administration believe that the former king, overthrown in 1973, today 87 years old and living in Roman exile is capable of taking up a leading role in this process. Three different "processes" (Rome, Frankfurt, Cyprus) strongly influenced by the exile situation involving primarily former Afghan bureaucrats and monarchists in exile view the preparation and summoning of a great council meeting (loya jirga) by the king as a central tool in the process of conflict resolution. The loya jirga did achieve positive results in the history of Afghanistan but it can only be successful if it takes place at the end of a process of negotiations in which all decision-makers of the country were included. This is exactly where the deficit begins to emerge because on the one hand the royal family itself but also the three "processes" or initiatives are at loggerheads with one another. The king, on the other hand, relies on his advisors who, however, do not bring to him all the important political movement and groups but only Afghans coming as individuals. Excessive US support of the king could, in addition to that, have negative effects in the end because it undermines the demand for a self-supported solution by the Afghan people. There is already a list of a 120 head strong "National Council" being set up without a preceding political process during which opinion-leaders and widely spread Afghan interests could have been developed.

Scenarios as a Consequence of US-American Military Presence
The expected, increasingly steady military US presence in Central Asia reacting not only to Usama Bin Ladin and the Taliban but also to the oil and natural gas resources in the region as well as to the emerging global players China and India, will change the geopolitical balance in South and Central Asia. This could have positive effects on Pakistan. Its participation in the anti-terror alliance could lead to a strengthening of Musharraf and to the marginalisation of Islamistic forces. Furthermore, a debt relief and improvement of the relationship with India via a resolution for the Kashmir conflict could save the country from the threatening collapse. On the other hand, the possibility cannot be ruled out that due to the widely spread disapproval of the American presence the Islamists might gain the upper hand, the army might split up and the pulling out of the international alliance might entail an economic collapse. As Pakistan is a nuclear power, this might have incalculable consequences.

The unstable governments in the Central Asian republics could, on the one hand, benefit from the military US presence because the Islamistic opposition with its headquarters located mostly on Afghan territory could be considerably weakened. This would markedly increase the prospects of the implementation of economic and democratic reforms. A failure of the efforts towards reform could, on the other hand, lead to the contrary, that is autocracy and repression of these governments becoming even more pronounced. Iran’s tentative move closer to the Western powers could soon come to an end as a consequence of the military presence being felt as imperialistic. The Conservatives were strengthened and forces of reform around Khatami were weakened. If the mainly Shiite sections of the population in Afghanistan affiliated with the Iran were taken into consideration in an adequate way, the incorporation of Iran as an equal partner in a political solution for Afghanistan could also result in a strengthening of the reformist powers and beyond that in moving closer to the USA indirectly via Afghanistan.

For now, the following possible military scenarios could develop in Afghanistan: The Northern Alliance supported by international military actions is able to take Kabul and additional cities. Or: The Taliban prove their steadfastness, a cohesion which is stronger than generally expected, and they succeed in surviving the winter in Kabul. Thirdly, it is conceivable that British and American troops succeed in occupying the cities, the hinterland, however, remains in the sphere of influence of the Taliban. This would call to mind the negative experience of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan clearly failing in a similar situation. The last imaginable scenario could be that international troops gain the upper hand in terms of military strength in Afghanistan while parallel to the military action an implosion of the Taliban regime takes place.

Depending on these different military variants, the starting position for a political solution for Afghanistan will be better or worse: The Northern Alliance growing stronger or the staying of the Taliban increases the risk of warlordism in Afghanistan as it has taken root over the last decade in different forms and without a political perspective. From the ranks of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance a new warlord faction supported by additional foreign Islamistic mercenaries could develop - this would be the worst case scenario. A consequence of this would be the expansion of the humanitarian catastrophe and the hardship among refugees as well as the strengthening of internationally threatening terror centers. The positive scenario for Afghanistan, on the other hand, could be that international military presence and an internationally coordinated commitment might result in the fact that after stemming the war factions, a new government, considerably improved living conditions, a process of nation-building and reconstruction might come into being. In view of the geostrategic significance of the region this latter scenario is actually the only one which could lie in the interest of the international community - thus, a long-term commitment is what is called for.

There Is a Chance!
There will not be a panacea for the complex questions and challenges on the path towards a political solution. Nevertheless, the experiences and findings from the Afghan past and from international conflict mediation initiatives in other regions of the world could provide a constructive kind of help in this process which has to be used systematically. Even today it is already certain that the prospects of a political solution to the Afghanistan conflict which has lasted for more than 20 years have never been so good: The dismay of the international community emerging from the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 resulted in an unprecedented determination, particularly on the side of the only remaining world power USA. The possible success - a stable peace settlement - depends, and this is to be emphasized again, on the participation of all the important groups in Afghanistan - also including the democratic groups in the country - and on a long-term international commitment in Afghanistan.

Responsible in terms of media inquiries:
Dr. Almut Wieland-Karimi, Phone: 0049-30-26935-915, E-Mail:
Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Hiroshimastraße 17, D-10785 Berlin, Germany