The largest military offensive since 2002 is now underway in the Helmand province in Afghanistan. At the same time, a consensus is emerging that ultimately, the conflict in this country cannot be solved by military means. I have consistently advocated preparing the ground for a political process, which could lead to a political settlement. Military operations must, therefore, be conducted in a way that does not close the space for such a process.

At the recent London Conference, more than 70 countries and organisations agreed to create a trust fund that would help integrate Taliban and other insurgents who accept to stop fighting. The details of how this fund will work, who will be targeted and how incentives will be provided remain to be worked out.

It is my view that this reintegration trust fund is not in itself a “game changer” as some tend to believe. It could, however, be an important tool if combined with a reconciliation process aimed at those who take part in the insurgency for ideological rather than economic reasons and if at some point that process involves the political structures of the insurgency. I have long maintained that if you want relevant and sustainable results, you will have to involve relevant people with authority in an appropriate way.

There are no doubt fighters who are on the side of the insurgency because of a lack of licit economic opportunities. However, I believe we tend to exaggerate their numbers. We should not underestimate the number of those who fight for reasons of ideology, resentment and a sense of humiliation — in addition to criminal elements. Often, such motivation stems from a conviction that the government is corrupt and unable to provide law and order combined with a sense of foreign invasion — not only in military terms but in terms of disrespect for Afghanistan's culture, values and religion. Offering financial incentives only could be perceived as an attempt to buy loyalties or convictions and generate further resentment. A reintegration fund without a political process could easily harden the insurgency rather than weakening it. While it may not be difficult to buy a young man out of unemployment — even if this could also be unsustainable, it is difficult to buy him out of his convictions, sense of humiliation or alienation from power.

The Afghan government and the international community have repeatedly stated their basic conditions for a political process. At the centre of these conditions stands acceptance of and respect for the Afghan Constitution. The insurgency cannot be allowed — by political means — to bring the country back to the dark years of the 1990s. Those who choose to reconcile must respect the achievements made since 2002 and accept the aspirations of the majority of Afghans for a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan, where each and every Afghan can enjoy the rights given to them.

A political process must be shaped and led by Afghan authorities and cannot be imposed by international civilians or military with scant knowledge of this complex society. However, the international community must support — in financial and political terms — and facilitate where the Afghan authorities desire. This process — when it is launched — will not come about suddenly. Nor will it yield a dramatic breakthrough overnight. It will require careful orchestration among key actors.

Loud and public invitations to the insurgency to join a reconciliation process will most likely be met with rejections. More cautious diplomatic initiatives may produce results. As in many other peace processes, confidence-building measures could be undertaken to test the prospects for a wider process. The delisting of individuals from the U.N. sanctions list could be one such measure. Five individuals have already been delisted as a result of a request by the Afghan government in January. More should be considered. Another confidence-building measure should be the release of detainees from facilities such as the U.S. detention centre at Bagram.

However, such steps would have to be followed by measures undertaken by the insurgency. A commitment from the Taliban not to attack health facilities or schools and to facilitate humanitarian assistance could be initial contributions. In his declaration following the London Conference, the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, stated that he was committed to provide education to all Afghans. The Taliban should demonstrate that this is serious by stopping attacks on schools. In the past, the Taliban has also facilitated access to areas under its control for humanitarian assistance, such as vaccination programmes — at least on a temporary basis. Further steps to improve access for humanitarian action should be taken. Such confidence-building measures would serve to test if a process towards a political settlement is possible.

President Hamid Karzai has announced his intention to organise a peace jirga later this spring. The aim would be two-fold: first, to forge an inclusive nationwide consensus around a political process. A reconciliation policy cannot be allowed to create new fragmentation inside Afghan society along ethnic lines. Second, the jirga process will mobilise religious and community leaders for reconciliation. This effort must also involve Afghanistan's civil society — including women's groups — to ensure that the rights of all are respected and that the reconciliation of some does not happen at the expense of others. The peace jirga must be more than an event. It must be the beginning of a process, an internal and inclusive dialogue, which allows Afghan leaders to approach the process of reconciliation knowing that the Afghan society as such stands behind it.

Furthermore, the involvement of neighbouring countries, especially Pakistan, will be critical. A strong and genuine involvement by Pakistan will be key to any peace and reconciliation process.

The military campaign will continue over the next weeks and months. However, it must not lead us further in the direction of a militarisation of our overall strategy in Afghanistan. There is — particularly at this moment — an urgent need to inject more political oxygen in the non-military areas of our partnership. (Courtesy: U.N. Information Centre, New Delhi)

(Kai Eide is the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Afghanistan)

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