While momentum continues to shift towards pursuing a peace settlement for Afghanistan, ambiguities remain in the US political and military strategy, and there are questions about the ability of the Afghan government to successfully lead a process and the insurgents’ interest in one. A burgeoning body of commentary focuses on international and US strategy, but to be durable a settlement will need to involve some broad-based political and social agreements among Afghans. This crucial intra-Afghan dimension of the process requires detailed analysis of the views of Afghan stakeholders.

This paper presents findings from a set of 122 interviews with Afghan leaders and opinionformers in political, military, economic, and social arenas about their views on the conflict and the issues that a peace process will have to address. This work forms part of an ongoing project by three leading research institutions to identify and clarify through research and dialogue issues and options for Afghanistan to move towards durable peace.

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Understandings of the conflict

Several themes are prominent among the interviewees’ understandings of what drives the conflict in Afghanistan. The first is that the conflict is driven by a combination of external and internal factors that interact in complex ways. However, as the conflict has gotten worse, the impact of the presence and behaviour of NATO troops and the illegitimacy of the Afghan government have become increasingly important, alongside longer-standing issues grounded in regional politics or factional competition.

Afghans across different groups perceive the United States as a belligerent in the conflict with its own interests, rather than solely the supporter of the Afghan government or people that it projects in public discourse. This view calls into question the sincerity and effectiveness of the US emphasis on the “Afghan-led” reconciliation strategy, and indicates the need for clearer US policy and signalling if Afghan stakeholders are to take the prospect of a negotiated settlement seriously.

There is also a crosscutting perception of the capture and division of the government among a small elite who act with a combination of ethnic, factional, economic and criminal motivations, and parts of this system develop interests in continued conflict. In this sense the conflict is not only a struggle for state power and resources between competing parties, it is also a legitimacy crisis stemming from a system of power and patronage distribution that is proving unable to manage societal and elite conflicts.

This capture and the widespread illegitimacy of many in power have also allowed leaders of all ethnic groups to stoke existing perceptions that other groups are benefitting disproportionately in the current dispensation. Such perceptions exist among all groups, generating an increasingly ethnic “negative-sum” politics. The 2010 National Assembly elections and the discourse of “political reconciliation” of the Government of Afghanistan has heightened these readings, deepening grievances the Taliban can exploit and exacerbating the potential for ethnic conflict.

 This PRIO Paper is the first publication of a joint project by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), and the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) on achieving a durable peace in Afghanistan, funded by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The first phase of the project investigated Afghan stakeholder views on the conflict and issues confronting a peace process. The second phase involves more detailed analysis of the issues framed by the Afghan stakeholders and draws on international experience to identify options to address them.