Afghans still divided over whether the Taliban is the enemy or a band of "dissatisfied brothers".
by Dr. Massoumeh Torfeh
As the European Union and the government of Afghanistan co-host the Brussels conference on October 4-5, the issues of peace and security are likely to overshadow the agenda for talks on reform, development and continued international funding.
Despite the controversial new peace deal between Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani, and one of the country's most notorious warlords, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, there is no sign that this may lead to peace talks with the Taliban. Indeed, the Taliban has rejected the deal as "criminal".
The representatives of 70 countries that will gather in Brussels know that the international forces have failed in the past 15 years to defeat the Taliban. They also know that the Taliban controls at least 10 percent of the population according to the top US military commander, General John Nicholson, with another 30 percent facing serious challenges.
They would have heard the news of the latest attack in the middle of the night on the northern city of Kunduz, which was briefly captured last September.
In southern Helmand province, militants have also taken a strategically important district to the south of Lashkar Gah, killing the local police chief. Their traditional seasonal attacks have now turned into regular onslaughts leaving the largest ever number of civilian casualties.
Yet there is no consensus among the people and politicians in Afghanistan on how to deal with the Taliban. Views range between the two extremes of calling the Taliban "brothers" to seeing them as "terrorists" and "Pakistani mercenaries".
A recent survey in 15 provinces by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS) showed about 10 percent of the respondents wanted to call the Taliban "dissatisfied brothers" and 63 percent call them "the enemy".More than 16 percent of the population wants no peace talks with the Taliban at all. There are regional and ethnic variations but on the whole support in rural areas where the Taliban has influence is much higher.
In between those two main categories there are several layers of the population who hold differing degrees of distaste and suspicion about the Taliban, again with regional and ethnic variations, but are nevertheless willing to reach consensus if it means stopping the daily bloodshed.
According to the AISS, these groups form almost 70 percent of the population and they want to define the structure, the modalities and the boundaries of any such talks and they question the ability of the government to keep their demands on the agenda of the talks.
The reason is clear: heated verbal exchanges are reported on a daily basis among top officials and between officials in this and the previous regime of President Hamid Karzai.
There is disarray inside the two-tiered National Unity Government (NUG), between it and the High Peace Council (HPC), at the provincial, and municipal levels and between powerful provincial governors, former strongmen and the central government. The mere appointment of the HPC chief took more than a year and soon after he took on the post, six of the senior staff resigned in protest.
Lack of transparency
These divisions are projected inside the society with similar inter-ethnic and regional dimensions.
It could therefore be argued that this overall confusion and lack of consensus on how to deal with the Taliban is one of the main causes of the failure of the attempted peace talks. It is in turn accentuated by government's lack of transparency and lack of consultation with the population at large.
When Ghani signed a peace deal with Hekmatyar, some welcomed it but it infuriated others, especially those who had suffered his relentless shelling of Kabul in 1993.
Many were enraged when the president used the term "excellency" to address a man labelled as a "global terrorist" by the United States and the United Nations.
"Hundreds of social media users in Afghanistan changed their profile pictures to black colour to protest the government deal with Hekmatyar," tweeted Ramin Anwari.
Kabul-e-Man tweeted: "Is there any survey that shows the percentage of the people supporting this deal" and received an answer "no sane citizen of Kabul supports this deal".
Another Twitter user, Madam Frogh, used a photograph of a preparatory meeting with Abdullah Abdullah to tweet "all-male face of Afghan politics. D reason conflict doesn't get resolved".In the AISS survey, 86 percent stressed "the importance of people's role in creating peace in Afghanistan".
So why isn't the government consulting the population? Instead, groups and individuals connected to various NUG, HPC and other power sources loyal to this or that former Mujaheddin group, are acting arbitrarily, holding unofficial contacts, arranging their own secret or private meetings with this or that former member of the Taliban, often without a strategy or a plan usually based on inter-ethnic networks.
That annoys people because they know, for example, that Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami has many officials in the NUG who must have helped bring about the recent deal. Their fear is that more deals conducted in such a manner would bring in even more unelected strongmen with their own entourages and power games.
The responsibility to consult and be transparent have been part of the vocabulary of the Afghan president and the chief executive. Yet the NUG has never had a comprehensive communication strategy in cooperation with the media in Afghanistan for that vital conversation with the people. Afghan TV ownership has more than doubled in the past eight years and almost everyone has a radio in their home.
So when channels of consultation are open and over 86 percent of the population is eager to discuss the structure and modalities of the talks with the Taliban there is no excuse for irresponsible governance.
Dr. Massoumeh Torfeh is the former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan and is currently a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science specialising in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.
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