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Michelle Barsa

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The Time Is Ripe for a National Dialogue on Reconciliation

Posted: 12/14/11 04:07 PM ET

After the tragic assassination of the head of the High Peace Council -- Professor Burnahuddin Rabbani -- in late September, many pundits took to the airwaves, blogosphere, and Twitterverse to predict the death of the reconciliation effort in Afghanistan. While the brazen killing was undoubtedly designed to derail the peace process, it has instead opened space for a conversation about what is really needed to move beyond 30 years of conflict: a national dialogue on reconciliation.

Secretary Clinton describes the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan as composed of three tracks -- fight, talk, build. The U.S., however, doesn't address the inherent tension in the need to eradicate insurgent elements while courting insurgent leaders to engage in peace negotiations. The peace process in Afghanistan rightly continues to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led, but this has allowed the U.S. to avoid defining a coherent political strategy. The talk pillar falls short of fight and build, undervaluing local political reconciliation as a means to achieve and sustain security gains.

Growing haste and exclusivity of the current reconciliation effort have contributed to reduced confidence in and acceptance of the attempt to devise a viable political solution that will end this war. Afghan civil society organizations, particularly the Afghan Women's Network (AWN), have made a clear argument that a reconciliation process that lacks a national dialogue designed to engage ordinary Afghans in defining the future of the Afghan state will inevitably fail.

When we refer to a process that's Afghan-led, it's important to ask which Afghans are leading. Defining a sustainable solution requires ensuring inclusion of those Afghans committed to peace, not solely those committed to war. Recommendations emerging from last month's Traditional Loya Jirga suggest ways to construct a legitimate and transparent process that the parties to the conflict can trust -- even if they don't trust each other. Perhaps paramount, outcomes of the jirga begin to define a process that is one Afghans can engage with, one they can help shape, and one that results in a final settlement over which they can feel ownership.

A growing body of literature indicates that the durability of peace increases when efforts to resolve conflict and rebuild war-torn societies involve the full range of stakeholders. Despite such growing evidence, the vast majority of efforts to end armed conflict and rebuild involve a very narrow set of players, most often solely belligerents and, almost always, only men. When negotiating an end to violence, either through a ceasefire or peace accord, involving a broad range of armed and unarmed stakeholders has always contributed to increased sustainability of negotiated peace.

Over the past year, The Institute for Inclusive Security has worked to bring together conflict resolution experts to consider models for greater inclusion used in peace processes around the world and evaluate the applicability of those models in the Afghan context. Each time, the consensus is that more participatory peacebuilding is urgently needed to complement Afghan-led reintegration and reconciliation efforts.

South Africa's National Peace Accord holds rich lessons for how to build inclusivity into negotiations and how to increase engagement of civil society in Afghanistan's reconciliation effort. South Africa's pyramidal structure of regional and local dispute resolution committees, similar to the structures of the provincial and national peace councils in Afghanistan, operated in parallel to the national negotiations and had a legal mandate to monitor and mediate conflict. The committees ultimately served a series of critical functions in the South African transition. They: 1) reduced the incidence of violence overall; 2) provided a space to raise issues and build relationships between divided parties and communities; 3) legitimized dialogue and non-violent conflict resolution as an alternative to adversarial tactics; and 4) strengthened accountability, especially of the police and security forces.

Guatemala and Northern Ireland both provide examples of negotiating structures that have increased direct and indirect participation in peace negotiations. Sudan offers examples of how to utilize neutral technical bodies to involve marginalized groups in drafting accords through technical review processes. Civil society can also help shape the agenda for talks, as was the case in Kenya, or monitor compliance with ceasefires, as demonstrated in the Philippines.

The fact is we've done little to engage those Afghans most affected by war in solution-focused dialogue on how to cultivate and sustain peace. The series of jirgas held in Kabul that have dealt with the current peace process, starting with the Peace Jirga in June 2010 and running through the recent Traditional Loya Jirga, have been correctly criticized as not being representative or reasonably inclusive.

The time is ripe to devise a community-based consultation process that begins at the district level and progresses up to the provincial, regional, and national levels. The consultation should provide space for Afghans to define peace, outline the limits of what they're willing to compromise in a national-level negotiation, and devise locally-relevant strategies that will advance districts and provinces towards the peace they've envisioned. Critically, such a dialogue can move forward even while the official peace process is stalled.

As the official Bonn conference communiqué states, "The process leading to reconciliation must be inclusive, representing the legitimate interests of all the people of Afghanistan, regardless of gender or social status." It's time for Afghanistan, in partnership with the international community, to make this a reality.