Wanted: mediator to end America’s longest war

Afghanistan has lately seen many countries seeking a role in starting a peace process. With the US now open to talks with the Taliban, such negotiations will need a third party well versed in the skills of conflict resolution.

AP Photo
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, speaks during a press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 9. Pompeo used an unannounced trip Monday to Afghanistan to step up the Trump administration's calls for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The war in Afghanistan is now one of the longest in history, born of its origins in the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Yet in recent months, the war against Taliban militants and other Islamic fighters has seen no shortage of countries – from Indonesia to Russia to Turkmenistan – offering to negotiate or mediate an end to it.

The latest suitor for peace: President Trump.

Less than a year ago, the president beefed up American troop levels and training of the Afghan military. “We will push onward to victory,” Mr. Trump declared last August.

Now his officials are dropping hints of direct talks with the Taliban – a goal the group has long sought – with the topic of US troop withdrawal on the table. “We expect that these peace talks will include a discussion of the role of international actors and forces,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a trip to Kabul, Afghanistan, in early July.

If the talks do take place, it may be necessary to have a third-party mediator, or someone with the skills to remain neutral, remove misunderstandings, build trust, and find compromises and common ground – in short, help both sides see that peace, not violence, will achieve some or all of their aims.

Negotiations to end any conflict often take more than a mere balancing of interests. They can entail a lifting of thought to the idea of peace as beneficial, even natural, for all, especially civilians. Often, one side makes the first concession, hoping that such humility will be reflected back.

Last February, for example, the elected president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, offered unconditional talks to the Taliban. He also said he would amend the Constitution to accommodate some of their demands and would welcome the Taliban as a legitimate political group.

Then, in June, the Afghan people got a taste of peace. During a rare, three-day cease-fire, civilians, Taliban fighters, and Afghan forces enjoyed emotional celebrations. The temporary truce, which was not extended by the Taliban, was a result of peace efforts by many players.

China and Pakistan, for example, have become more active in facilitating contacts for talks. China sees itself as an “impartial mediator.” Russia, which wants to be seen as a global power broker and also seeks to suppress Islamic State operating in Afghanistan, has been involved in recent regional meetings aimed at ending the war.

In mid-July, Saudi Arabia sponsored a meeting of international Muslim clerics, who issued a statement on religious reasons for the Taliban to cease fighting. A similar meeting of Afghan and Pakistani clerics was held in April, sponsored by Indonesia, a Muslim country whose leader has also offered to mediate any peace talks.

Twice before in its recent history, Afghanistan has relied on mediators from the United Nations to help bring peace. The first was to end Soviet occupation of the country in the 1980s, the second to set up a post-Taliban government in 2001-02. The same skill set for conflict resolution might now be needed again, depending on which foreign player is best qualified to prepare a path to peace.

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