Ask anyone working in Afghanistan why peace is still elusive and the answers are predictable. Some will blame Pakistan for harbouring Taliban leaders. Some will point to the meddling of other regional nations. Others claim it is intra-Afghan ethnic and tribal competition. Many rhyme-off reasons like warlordism, endemic corruption, weak governance, resource-competition, overstretched security forces and the lucrative narco-trade.
They are right. All these factors contribute to the slowly deteriorating stalemate that exists in Afghanistan today. Yet there is another factor we are less ready to admit:
The international community is not yet prepared to make peace in Afghanistan.
This may seem controversial given that recent years have seen some of the right rhetoric and some laudable attempts to move towards peace, not least the 2016 Warsaw and Brussels conferences where international partners again ponied-up multi-billions in military and development assistance to set the stage for an "Afghan-led, Afghan-owned" peace process. Yet the simple fact is that we let these successes fade into failure because we cannot translate pledges into progress on the ground.
- We lack the capacity to drive change. Most diplomatic missions have no more than a handful of political staff - an Ambassador, a Deputy and one or two political officers. Few diplomats work solely on peace. Most time is spent on 'bread-and-butter' embassy work like tracking events, holding meetings and reporting back to HQ. In Afghanistan, this is an almost all-consuming task given that war rages on and new political developments, if not full-blown crises, evolve almost on an hourly basis. Even the three 'big' influencers are hamstrung. The US faces Trump-related constraints and still tries to be a facilitator of peace rather than admitting it is actually a primary protagonist of war. The UN is crippled by a crisis of credibility and the EU has chosen political irrelevancy by closing its Special Representative's office and downgrading its diplomatic presence. Other notables like the UK and Germany have strong voices but are equally unable to mobilise for peace.
- We are undermined by our own 'short-termism'. Most diplomatic officers come on one or two year postings, with a sad trend that some come simply for the 'thrill' or because a stint in Kabul enables the pick of the postings in their next rotation. Even those committed to achieving results face timeframes squeezed by normal job-acclimatisation periods and generous rest-leave schedules, meaning it is rare that anyone can cultivate the contacts or credibility to be able to corral key actors down the difficult road to peace.
- We are not peace experts. The average career diplomat may be hyper-intelligent and highly educated but there are very, very few people working in Afghanistan who have firsthand experience of peace processes or negotiations. Yet this does not stymie a widespread assumption that we 'know' peace. It is akin to the Dunning-Kruger effect, but instead of persons of low ability mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is, these are high-fliers who seem unable to recognise that limited peacemaking knowledge is not offset by years of other diplomatic experience. The result is that the diplomatic community is in perpetual stand-by mode, lamenting the lack of progress but unable to drive fresh-thinking or conceptualise innovative approaches.
- We chase visibility rather than change. The "why are we still in Afghanistan?" questions come with intense pressure to demonstrate results. We thus become guilty of defining success in terms of how we looked rather than what impact we had. A classic example is the international exposure visit where various Afghans are sent to other countries to attend a conference or lesson-sharing seminar. The marker of success never seems to be that the participants learned anything or implemented new knowledge upon returning to Afghanistan. It is simply that we made the trip happen and looked good in doing so.
- We are like five-year olds playing football. Such is the nature of nationbuilding in Afghanistan that it is not just a question of war and peace. There is a plethora of important portfolios - human rights, rule of law, anti-corruption, woman's rights, domestic politics, elections, security sector reform and many more. The problem is that the same pool of decision-makers, both Afghan and international, work on every issue. Everyone chases the hottest topic and competes for influence. Attention on issues that need a singular, devoted focus - like peace - is diluted and diverted.
These are certainly not the only factors that limit our ability to drive forward an Afghan peace process. If we undertook intensive introspection then our tendency to let the tail wag the dog would become clear.
Having seen countless well-meaning diplomats come-and-go for the past 16 years, Afghan politicians know how to play us. They know what we want to hear. They recognise our risk-aversion and reluctance to leverage our massive financial investments to force real change. These are not helpless villagers struggling to their feet after years of Taliban persecution. They are astute, intelligent, highly-educated operators who know - far better than we do - how to skilfully manage ethnic and tribal politics to their advantage. Many could very effectively pursue peace if it suited their political interests.
The recent deal between the government and the Hezbi Islami insurgent group demonstrated that peace is possible in Afghanistan and it is achievable relatively quickly if a critical mass of Afghan political leaders thinks it is more profitable than war or if they see that it is their path to future power. It also showed that Afghans can - and will - do it without the international community if they want.
So what if the Taliban suddenly signalled willingness for negotiations or if Afghan leaders decided to seriously pursue a settlement? Do we have the right people on the ground? Could we ensure a process that protects our massive human and financial investments over the past 16 years? Are we ready to accept the moral and ethical costs, including parts of the Taliban entering the political sphere? Could we avoid halting progress or becoming the spoiler? Will we get what we want if we remain nothing more than interested bystanders?
Right now, the answer to all those questions is simple: