If Canada's newly announced post-2011 military mission in Afghanistan is to amount to more than training Afghan forces for perpetual war, it needs to be accompanied by a parallel diplomatic surge in pursuit of a political settlement of the conflict.
The Harper government's continuing commitment to regional diplomacy is a welcome step in that direction, but the point of regional diplomacy is to create a constructive context for national peace-making diplomacy in Afghanistan itself - a formidable challenge that also requires energetic Canadian and international support.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already acknowledged that the war in Afghanistan can't defeat the insurgency - and that holds true whether the war is fought by Afghan forces with international support or by NATO-trained Afghans on their own. The point is underscored by the Obama administration's assertion that the aim of the current U.S. military surge is not to defeat the Taliban but to set them back on their heels.
A stalled insurgency, the reasoning goes, would create more favourable conditions for weaning young Taliban fighters away from the insurgency and for inducing their leaders to seek negotiations with the Afghan government and its international partners to end the war. Whether this is a workable strategy will be much debated. Meantime, there's no denying that the years of military effort to downgrade the Taliban have paralleled the insurgency's steady ascent.
Despite this, argues Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid, the Taliban had hit both a military and political wall well before the military surge. Though "they are a nationwide guerrilla insurgency … they cannot take or control major population centres given NATO's firepower. There is no populist insurrection they can lead against U.S. forces as there was in Iraq." And Mr. Rashid adds: "The majority of Afghans do not want the return of a Taliban regime."
In other words, Afghanistan is now in the kind of "hurting stalemate" that should be conducive to negotiations.
The Afghan government and its partners in the International Security Assistance Force can't defeat the Taliban, and the Taliban can't defeat the government and its security backers. It's a stalemate that hurts both sides politically and economically, and that calls out for a political solution.
Canada's in a position to answer the call.
A stable political solution can't be built on backroom deals among armed factions and warlords. For reconciliation processes to produce sustainable outcomes, they must be transparent, inclusive of all sectors of society, include mechanisms for public consultations, and honour basic civil and human rights.
That's a tall order that must be Afghan-led, as Ottawa has rightly insisted, but Canada's in a position to support a constructive process.
First, as a country that has invested heavily in the future of Afghanistan and has acknowledged that the war isn't winnable and that diplomacy is required, Canada needs to find a public voice to encourage pursuit of a transparent and inclusive reconciliation process.
Second, an important way for Canada to engage more directly in support of reconciliation efforts would be for the Foreign Affairs Minister to appoint a special reconciliation envoy to Afghanistan. In addition to monitoring and supporting regional diplomacy, the envoy's mandate would include encouraging national reconciliation efforts and exploring mechanisms through which the international community could more effectively support them.
Third, Canada should support, through funding and international partnerships, an institutional framework within Afghan civil society to engage in any peace process. The best way to ensure that basic rights are advanced is to ensure that rights advocates have access to the process. And for civil society to be a genuine participant, it needs a formalized structure to monitor the reconciliation process, to hold public forums and consultations, to conduct research and to generally give leadership to citizen involvement in a process that will forge a new future for their country.
And finally, it's important that reconciliation and confidence-building also be carried out in local communities or districts throughout the country, both to address local conflicts and concerns and to generate local support for a national process. Canadian financial support for Afghan and international organizations that bolster local governance mechanisms and peace-building and that have a capacity to work with traditional and informal authorities at local and district levels would aid this effort.
Recognition of the traditions and advantages of decentralized governance in Afghanistan, along with the potential for local and informal authorities to serve as vehicles for conciliation, is part of the process of encouraging Afghan ownership of any reconciliation processes.
Canada may not be in a position to play a decisive role in the move toward reconciliation in Afghanistan, but we can certainly play an important supportive role. And that support should be an increasing part of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan.
Ernie Regehr is co-founder of Project Ploughshares, a Waterloo-based ecumenical agency of the Canadian Council of Churches. Mr. Regehr has made three visits to Kabul in recent years to explore reconciliation programs.