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What Would Peace In Afghanistan Actually Look Like?

"Peace and reconciliation" is the phrase routinely trotted out by almost all actors in Afghanistan when asked what the end-goal is. Yet it is such an abstract, intangible concept that nobody can articulate what it actually means. There is still no clear, realistic vision of what an Afghan peace would look like.

We are all working towards an end-goal that nobody can define.

Afghanistan needs a shared idea of the preferred 'end-state'. Negotiators need to know what to negotiate for. People need an idea of where their leaders are taking them. They will not support a process if they do not believe that compromises will eventually benefit them. They need to be able to imagine the kind of peace that will be created. They need a vision.

Easier said than done, right?

Wrong. It costs nothing to think about. The problem is that imaginative thinking on the future is an unconventional task, especially when those working in Afghanistan are consumed by a myriad of day-to-day threats. The thinking is tactical rather than strategic. Consideration of the future mostly focuses on forecasting or managing emerging scenarios - not creating them.

Afghanistan needs a 'visioning process'. This would help identify the 'end-states' that are plausible, probable and preferred, as well as the challenges that need to be overcome to achieve them. It does not mean creating a blueprint for peace. It means articulating what a peaceful society will look like, including the steps and goals to achieve it.

The starting point is an internal discussion or a 'situational audit' - an honest assessment of why a given community is in the situation it is in. Good negotiators challenge their own people long before they challenge opponents. They recognise that peacemaking requires a process of change within their own community as much as within 'the other'.

This discussion must involve asking new questions about old problems, including the nature and validity of the struggle. It requires extensive outreach to a wide range of stakeholders and citizens to explore their aspirations and fears. Their answers will give clues about what issues people will accept movement on once negotiations do begin.

Benchmarks for success should also be determined. How will you know when the vision has been achieved? The vision itself must be realistic, compelling and achievable so people take it seriously. It must be inclusive - exclusion of key actors undermines peace processes. It must also be honest. Leaders cannot just state what they think the electorate wants to hear. The intent is to shape a new public opinion. This means being direct in stating proposals.

All of this work should be encapsulated in a visionary document - a text that lays out the proposed vision of peace. In Afghanistan, such a document could incorporate specific views on how the community in question understands the root causes of the conflict and how they define peace. What flaws do they see in current peacemaking strategies and what would be their conditions for a cessation of hostilities? How do they understand the struggle of the Taliban or ethnic rivals and what would their proposals be for a peaceful future?

This is an internal process but not a secret process. The visionary document should eventually be made public, where it will be deeply analysed by allies and enemies. Parts will be praised and parts will be criticised. Other parties will respond with their own visioning processes and documents. This is when real progress is made.

Once others begin to respond, their priorities, red-lines and preferred outcomes start to become clear. Common ground and entry points can be identified to help indirect communication or informal dialogue. This can also spark recognition that peace processes do not have to be zero-sum but can instead be a process of change leading to the creation of something new - a process of enhancement for both sides rather than a return to pre-war life.

Visioning is not a novel concept. Visionary documents were used to great effect in N. Ireland where they were hailed for forward-looking proposals that prompted combatants to consider what peace would look like and if their strategies could achieve it. Examples include:

  • 'Common Sense: Northern Ireland - An Agreed Process'
  • 'A Scenario for Peace'
  • 'Proposed Democratic Devolved Administration for Northern Ireland'
  • 'Sharing Responsibility'
  • 'Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland'

These documents were inward-looking, with authors bravely putting their community's fears into words. They forced readers to dig deeper into their hatred of their opponents, asking why divisions exist rather than pointing fingers or claiming victimhood. They were also written in accessible language - a stark departure from the traditionally aggressive, agenda-driven political rhetoric focusing on defeat of 'the other'.

When published, they were dissected by allies and opponents who then began to consider their own 'end-states' and even wrote their own documents. This started to clarify what each party would need in a peace settlement and prepare communities for where compromise could (or could not) be made. It helped foster public support for peace and encouraged public commitment. It ultimately helped cultivate belief that peace was possible.

Most importantly, they were written at a time when there was widespread desire for peace that was not backed by substance on what peace would look like or how to achieve it - exactly the situation that Afghanistan is in today.

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