The current political crisis in Afghanistan is actually an important step towards a realistic peaceful solution: a political “unsettlement”.

Afghanistan is stranded in political quicksand, again. It was mid-February when its election institutions ended a five-month count and handed Ashraf Ghani a second Presidential term. But his main challenger Dr Abdullah still alleges large-scale fraud and continues the parallel government he setup in protest. Mediation by Afghan elders and the US also continues, with Secretary Pompeo even threatening to strip $1 billion of US aid.

The easy analysis says this is an ego-fuelled spat between an uncompromising winner and a sore loser that stalls progress on peace. Disunity and political crisis prevent substantive negotiations with the Taliban and further erodes public trust in politicians just as COVID-19 takes hold.

Or is there another way to look at it?

First, is it a crisis? Think of it more as a negotiation. Afghan political crises emerge periodically and will continue to, especially on the path to peace. ‘Crisis’ is a bargaining tool, used by certain elites to try to extract concessions and secure interests when they perceive change that threatens their standing or access to state resources.

Second, think of this crisis—or negotiation—as a step towards peace. Afghan peace is not about hugging it out and exchanging guns for flowers. It is about re-shaping the existing elite balance of power in a way that incorporates the Taliban. But to reshape it, it first needs to exist. That is what the current political crisis is doing. It is the negotiation to create a balance of power between the President and the many ethno-political factions that form the political opposition. The National Unity Government of the past five years was that kind of accommodation. It had flaws but it did meld most of the political factions together. Something similar is needed again. Without it, a government-only peace team would have to negotiate peace on (at least) two fronts—with the political opposition and with the Taliban.

What all this highlights is that an Afghan peace process is less about negotiating peace than negotiating power. It should enable powerbrokers, including Taliban, to bargain for access to state resources but without bullets and bombs. It is about reconfiguring the political make-up, i.e. a new division of the pie among those who control—or can rally—constituencies. Political antagonism and historical grievances will not end though: it is about peace, not reconciliation.

Enter the formalized political unsettlement.

This is a concept from academic literature on inclusive peace deals.[1] It is basically a peace deal without resolving core issues. It instead creates institutions—inclusive of key players—that contain and manage fundamental disputes rather than solve them (as a ‘traditional’ political settlement would). Parties agree to continue negotiations but after outright violence ends. It is similar to Northern Ireland or Bosnia where peace deals created power-sharing arrangements with ethno-political divisions constitutionally enshrined in return for ending armed conflict. Put simply, war is translated into political institutions. Call it a move from conflict to politics more than conflict to peace.

Would it work in Afghanistan?

Yes. An unsettlement suits scenarios with intransigence on one or more core issues, like the nature of the state. This is the case in Afghanistan where it will be painful to find compromise between Taliban demands for an Islamic Emirate and everyone else’s insistence on protecting the Republic.

An unsettlement also solves two consistent problems in Afghan peace processes: exclusion of key actors and weak implementation (i.e. someone walks away). Afghans can make peace deals—look at Geneva in the 1980s, Peshawar and Islamabad in the 90s, Bonn or the Hezbi Islami process in the 2000s. But inclusion is the Achilles heel. An unsettlement enables inclusion. It also aids implementation because it forces foes into partnership and incentivizes them to maintain the structures and the balance of power. Paradoxically, no party ‘wins’ everything it wants but walking away is in nobody’s interest. This is why it works: everyone loses but everyone loses equally. 

What makes an unsettlement attractive today is time pressure. Afghan peace efforts are being compressed into a high-speed timeline, especially with the US-Taliban deal signed and US/NATO drawdown underway. The COVID-19 crisis and its ramifications on donor fatigue will inject added haste. There is no time to wait for Afghans to negotiate a ‘comprehensive’ deal. It cannot be foisted onto them either. A political unsettlement is the way to buy time for a more naturally evolving re-balancing of power while ending violence.

The strongest argument is inevitability. Some Afghan parties have already espoused similar ideas dressed up as peace plans. Multiple Afghan politicians, and US negotiator Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, raised international eyebrows by suggesting that intra-Afghan negotiations can be concluded in three months or 100 days. With many incompatible interests and historical grievances, this is only possible if some topics are pushed down the road. Important issues like transitional justice will be shunned for more pressing political inclusion and constitutional change. Formalizing a political unsettlement could at least lock the parties into an agreement that they will tackle forgotten issues eventually, rather than ignore them.

A political unsettlement can be criticized as a ‘no-war, no-peace’ stalemate. It abandons any well-defined ‘end’. ‘Muddling through’ becomes success, which is difficult to sell to the public after the initial euphoria of an end to violence wears off. You could also argue that it was tried—and failed—in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. There are lessons to learn from that period, including the need for a strong international hand to ensure women, youth and non-combatants are adequately represented. It is not perfect. But it is pragmatism, and that is required to create a new configuration of power that will hold.

Peace in Afghanistan is now about dealing in the art of the possible rather than the perfect. A political unsettlement is the best, or least worst, option.


[1] Christine Bell and Jan Popasil (2017) ‘Navigating Inclusion in Transitions from Conflict: The Formalized Political Unsettlement’. Journal of International Development, 29: 576 – 593.