Paying high price for peace: A quagmire that Afghan High Peace Council is
Ever since the Red Army had descended on a land that is notoriously known as the ‘graveyard of empires’, stability and security in Afghanistan became the ghosts; as elusive as they could be. The holy war (jihad) against the ‘godless Communists’ that had begun in 1979 laid open a continuum of violence which continues to unfold to date. Not only as after effects of the four decade long war, civil war and the war on terror, the continuing turmoil in Afghanistan has very much been the result of the present actions going wrong. Be it the inefficient, unaccountable and highly corrupt political institutions, or the dilapidated condition of the economy or the deliberate extraneous attempts at keeping the country destabilized, Afghanistan continues to be mired in stale and fresh causes for instability and insecurity alike.
While the atmosphere of despair and dejection is very much apparent, what has made the situation look even gloomier is that those very bodies that were entrusted with the task of creating a blueprint for peace in the country are far off the mandated mark. Yes, the task of bringing peace to a country which has been the playground of many regional and international rivalries, will require more than just a domestic push.
One such body that was invested with powers and charged with the responsibility of churning a peaceful, stable and secure Afghanistan has been the High Peace Council (HPC). Conceived under the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP), this powerful body of ex-Mujahedin, ex-Taliban and ex-Northern Alliance members was hoped to provide a platform for the reconciliation process to be launched in Afghanistan. But six years down the line since it first came into existence, it has managed to achieve very little besides getting a few members from the rivaling sides in the same boat, and that too for vested political and economic interests. The desire for peace that was hoped to be the common thread between all those who were nominated to this Council, became the one link that no one really cared about.
Vital to any post-conflict transformation is the process of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) and the HPC was precisely tasked with the responsibility of setting these forces in motion, albeit through the softer approach of motivation. Unlike a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), it was not expected to be a book-keeper of atrocities, excesses and violations that were committed during the course of protracted violent conflicts that the country had witnessed, and redress them. Rather, it was expected to convince those on the rebels’ side to join the government forces, assisting them in this transition and reintegration with ‘transitional assistance packages’ (cash incentives). The fact that it could manage to get some ex-Talibs on board as ‘negotiators’ and convince 10,578 rebels across Afghanistan to renounce violence and be reintegrated into the mainstream could perhaps have been construed as success, but for the conscious neglect that has retarded the progress.
Apart from a mammoth political task that has been cut out for it, the HPC is also expected to play the role of a ‘social and cultural reformer’. The Council is expected to promote and encourage participation by persecuted communities, ethnic minorities and women, in the nationwide dialogue. To this end, the HPC through the sub-national entities of Provincial Peace Councils (PPCs) and the Provincial Joint Secretariat Teams (PJST) have been organizing public awareness campaigns and involving the ‘target audience’ in the process of planning and executing such initiatives. While they have been successful in some areas (like Badhakshan), but the success rate has been pretty marginal compared to what their finance and human resources (of 888 members at the provincial committee level and 142 administrative staff at HPC) should have achieved.
The HPC’s house was put in order in September 2010 following a Presidential decree (formal functioning began in October 2010), placing it under the direct supervision of the governments that were to assume power from time to time. However, assuring the Council of a great degree of autonomy, the then President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai assured the HPC of full governmental assistance and cooperation and maintained that while this body was meant to be a government apparatus, it owed its existence to the National Consultative Jirga (conducted in June 2010), leveraging it a moral highground.
Thus, as a 70-member strong Council that it began as (now the strength is 50), the HPC had the former Mujahedeen and leader of Jamiat-e-Islami, Prof Burnahuddin Rabbani chosen to lead the flock of ‘negotiators’ as the first chairman. An ‘elder’ leader who had fought the Taliban, this appointment had however, made many rue about the ‘true intention’ of the government towards the peace process.
Calling it a political appointment, members of the civil society doubted if the Council would ever manage to get the Taliban on the same page given that it was being headed by an individual who they had fought. Maybe out of sheer angst at not being involved in the peace process or perhaps out of genuine concern, even those in the positions of power, such as the former President Sibghatullah Mojaddedi dissed the Council for being an aggregation of those who ‘had blood on their hands’.
Composed of ‘former’ warlords, the above mentioned statement was (and is) surely not far from the truth, making the whole peace process look like a charade. After all, if the Council that is meant to ‘negotiate’ finds itself steeped in controversies related to appointments and succession, little confidence would remain in its ability to reconcile with those who are staunchly opposed to it. Even in the recent times, the acrimony surrounding nominations did not only undermine the sanctity of what has been dubbed as an ‘important milestone on the road to peace’, but also shook the international confidence placed in it. In fact, the donors (which are of 3 categories besides the UNDP) threatened and then withdrew funds that were meant to be allocated to this body the last year. As of now, the HPC as recently as a few days ago saw a change in its leadership, with Pir Saiyyad Gailani of the influential Qadiriyyah Sufi order having taken over the reins as the chairman.
Mired in controversies related to appointment, its functioning, or rather the lack of it became another reason for many in the domestic and international circles to believe that the HPC would crumble under its own weight. Much like its predecessor, Program Tahkim Sulh (Strengthening Peace Program/ PTS) that had to be wound up in 2010 to make way for the APRP, the HPC, which is the political arm of this new program, was chided as a financial contraption being used by the former warlords who could not make it big in the governmental structures. While the official estimates related to expenditure incurred by the HPC are not out in the public, but it is believed that upwards of USD 700 million have been spent by this body in trying to get peace to Afghanistan. Though the members of the HPC refute these claims, but it is known that their luxury trips to foreign lands (such as Turkey and Dubai) were funded from the coffers of donations that have been extended to this Council.
What perhaps confounds the situation even more is the absence of a practical, working definition of what ‘reconciliation’ means to and in Afghanistan. Even as more than a decade has passed, a persistent undefined scope of peace and reconciliation processes has come to imply that while attempts are being made to build bridges, no one really knows where those are expected to lead. For one, where the world would like to believe that ‘war’ has formally ended in Afghanistan, it still continues to manifest itself in evident and latent ways every now and then, with precious little being done to alleviate the people of Afghanistan from the daily misery.
Adding to this, the might of Taliban, no matter how fractured it might have become from within, is far from being reduced to rumps so as to convince them that their antics would no longer work. They have their preconditions set and so has the government in Kabul making it difficult for the negotiators in the Council who are expected to mediate between the two to play any effective role.
Perhaps, the seeds of this immense confusion and lack of clarity were sown at those many instances (Geneva Accords of 1988 or the Bonn Conference of 2001) when the road ahead was not envisaged beyond the point of formal political negotiations between the recognized, legitimate government of Afghanistan and Taliban. Even if we go by what reconciliation stands for in theory- which is more comprehensive and involves components of justice, accountability, truth telling and transparency to say the least- the international efforts to ensure the same were clearly off the mark. In fact, flagging of deadlines for drawdowns and withdrawals only added to the precariousness of the situation, convincing those in power to make hay while the sun shines. Personal aggrandizement, conscious attempts at carving local militias without adequate alignment with the national security forces have made the terrain of security and stability in Afghanistan look terse and treacherous.
Riddled with a variety of conflicting personal interests and motivations, the lack of security and stability in Afghanistan are the constant refrains in almost any assessment that circulates on this country today. While achieving peace in a vitiated, volatile and incendiary environment is certainly difficult, it is neither impossible nor impracticable. It is high time that Afghanistan begins the charity of peace at home before turning to others for assistance and cooperation.