When you have an election where there is a small voter turnout, massive corruption and bribery, hostage taking in several provinces, several random acts of murder, and fraud at the ballot box and the UN hails it as a 'success', then you know you are dealing in the low expectations of Afghanistan.
That elections were possible at all is an achievement on the very slow and torturous road to solving the knots of problems and disasters that the coalition forces face in Afghanistan. To the public, nothing seems to be working; no strategy seems to be successful. And the idea of embracing the wide range of insurgent forces in Afghanistan (usually bound together by the term "the Taliban") is a deeply difficult sell.
The United States Institute of Peace has just released a very readable report, Navigating Negotiations in Afghanistan. Compiled by veteran Afghan researcher, Matt Waldman, it's more of a crib sheet to negotiate your way around the negotiations. Waldman outlines the pros and cons, the potential process and outcomes.
Working in Afghanistan, he says that he found "that most people I spoke to believed that there should at least be efforts to explore the potential of talks. I was surprised to find so many Afghans, from different parts of the country, different ethnicities and backgrounds, supporting the idea of talks. Many had real concerns about the process and its implications, and some felt that there was simply no other apparent route to resolving the conflict."
A negotiated peace has been the end of every war in modern history. It has been the end-game to every conflict and the reason for lasting peace. It has also often been a deeply flawed process and, with the Taliban sitting on the opposite side of the table you can bet things won't go smoothly. The USIP report states that although the insurgent forces are "fragmented", and are currently displaying little interest in negotiation, should they come to the table there is a grave danger of flawed concessions which could affect women and girls, children and the country's large ethnic minorities. Mr Waldman says that getting to negotiation is a major process in itself, that planning and "confidence building" would take years.
"A rush to negotiations would be self-defeating. (T)he biggest obstacle to talks is mistrust - and to overcome that will inevitably take time," he says. "Confidence-building between warring parties can take years. Spoilers on all sides - whether they are within the Afghan government, political factions, the insurgency, or the region - may try to disrupt the process. If anything, we are seeing and intensification and spread of the conflict - which underscores the difficulty of achieving constructive talks."
There is debate about whether the NATO surge is working or will work (Matt Waldman says it isn't), but negotiations aren't the short straw, or the last ditch effort. Mr. Waldman says that the move towards the negotiation table must be seen as a serious and necessary move. "If insurgents think the coalition - especially the US - is serious about talks, they are far more likely to take them seriously".