Abdul Rahman Mangal (left), Deputy Provincial Governor of Paktiya Province, hosted Maj. Gen. Edward Smyth-Osbourne (right), Director, ISAF Force Reintegration Cell (FRIC), to discuss insurgent and Taliban reintegration in Paktiya province.
Photo provided by Resolute Support Mission Media

“The love of independence is such as to make them [Pashtuns] intolerant, not only of foreign rule, but of almost any national or tribal rule. They are a people among whom every man would be a law unto himself.” —Sir George Campbell, British Governor of the Punjab, 1879

“To be a Taliban today means little more than to be a Pashtun tribesman whose fundamental beliefs and customary ways of life, including the right to bear arms or defend the tribal homeland and protect its women, are threatened by foreign invaders.” —Scott Atran, founder of the Oxford Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflict, 2009

Today’s piece focuses on a vital aspect of peacemaking in the context of Afghanistan: legitimacy and how it dictates who sits at the negotiating table in peace negotiations.

You’ve probably heard about Afghanistan’s instability; mostly dismissals that the nation is an ungovernable quagmire that has never seen stable rule due to an inherent “nature” of the region’s tribal peoples. It’s a point of basic knowledge that, as demonstrated from the quotations above, has been repeated by the vanguard of imperialism and further into the vanguard of modern conflict resolution policy.

How then can there be governments to negotiate with what is allegedly a land of anarchy? This is because, as Colonel John Nagl, a major influencer on U.S. strategy during “The Surge” noted, “One has to bear in mind that Afghanistan has never in its history had a strong central control of the country. It has never had the infrastructure that is required to reach out from Kabul into the whole country.”

In place of strong centralization, Afghanistan features decentralized governmental structures who locally hold political authority or legitimacy. Legitimacy is popular recognition and, to a degree, support of an organization as the governing authority. These local authorities align themselves into larger factions that are called negarchies which permit subfactions to maintain their local legitimacy while the pooled negarchy has gained legitimacy derived from its members collective authority. This, in turn, permits it to bid for international legitimacy in the eyes of other governments and international organizations.

The Taliban and the more strongly centralized Afghan government both have negarchical aspects. The Taliban’s factions include tribal organizations and international jihadists. Meanwhile, the government derives their support from a mixture of tribal, urban and minority constituencies.

A recent manifestation of this was seen during recent disputed Afghan presidential elections where the incumbent Ashraf Ghani claimed victory amidst dubious circumstances. His opponent, who represents the interests of several large ethnic minorities, maintains otherwise, and the result has been deadlocked between majority and minority ethnic groups who must work together to maintain the authority of the central government.

Our third party in this, the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission, is a much more familiar creature due to the coalition of nation states that make up NATO. Like a negarchy, NATO derives international legitimacy from its membership of legitimate states. When it comes to negotiations, the nation leading the NATO mission has responsibility. In this case, the United States carries its legitimacy to the table. Peacemaking in the case of Afghanistan is performed between parties carrying international legitimacy, something that is discharged in trust to their more locally legitimate constituencies.

It cannot be repeated enough how often in international policymaking our ambitions fall short of reality. In an ideal world, the Taliban, with their strict interpretation of Islam that has softened little from the days when their ranks were fed by indoctrinated orphans of the Soviet invasion, would be illegitimate raiders. The facts on the ground, however, are that the Taliban and Afghan government each firmly control 20-30% of the country’s districts and 40% of the population lives in disputed territory where IEDs and bursts of gunfire are daily threats.

The United States tires of a nearly 20-year conflict to which an end is needed, but hasty action risks costing what benefits Afghanistan might take from a centralized democratic regime. This includes establishing rights for women, minorities and a wider population who previously had to establish what they could do entirely based on guns and the bodies to man them.

Peacemaking requires everyone. The peace treaty that inspired this column has almost completely frayed over an agreement made by the United States to return 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the central government. The central government has refused to risk what might constitute a significant number of reinforcements to their greatest foe, so regular combat has resumed between the two. That being said, the Taliban are continuing to refrain from direct assaults on NATO forces as NATO bombs strike their more aggressive advances. Chances are high that the agreement’s complete collapse is imminent, but the parties at the next round of negotiations will probably be the same.