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Northern Ireland Lessons Offered to Afghanistan

  • Al Pessin

The New York Times reports U.S. officials now believe there will be no political settlement in Afghanistan before most foreign troops withdraw at the end of 2014. But the paper says they hold out hope for an Afghan-led settlement later. Meanwhile, some politicians from a perhaps surprising location are trying to help. A member of the British parliament from Northern Ireland has been to Kabul to suggest that Afghans apply some of the lessons learned from the resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict to their reconciliation effort.

On the surface, there would seem to be little in common between these Taliban fighters preparing to attack a NATO base -- and the youths in Northern Ireland attacking British policemen. But the ethnic and political tensions behind the violence do have some parallels.

One of Northern Ireland's representatives in the British Parliament, Jeffrey Donaldson, packed his bag for a trip to Afghanistan to share some lessons he learned back home with Afghans who are struggling with their own reconciliation process.

"I think people want to hear more about our experience in Northern Ireland. Not that there is a Northern Ireland template that can be applied readily in Afghanistan," said Donaldson. "But I think, there are parallels that we can draw on and lessons that can be learned."

Donaldson says chief among those lessons is the need to include even the most extreme and violent elements in the process.

In Afghanistan, that means the Taliban, who have been responsible for attacks like this one in September that killed 12 people in Kabul. A year ago, the Taliban assassinated the top Afghan government peace negotiator, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani.

"I can remember back to the early days of the peace process in Northern Ireland, and I have to say I was a skeptic. And I sense that among people in Afghanistan at the moment," stated Donaldson. "And yet being able to look at the process there from a distance, I think it has all the ingredients, if they can just be put together, to bring about a successful outcome."

At one time, such an outcome seemed as far-fetched in Northern Ireland as it appears to be in Afghanistan today.

But Afghanistan expert Michael Clark, director of London's Royal United Services Institute, says the prospects for reconciliation are not as bleak as they seem. "There are a lot of indications that the Taliban are really more moderate, that they calculate more, that they are more realistic now than they were five or six years ago," Clark explained. "But that will not be revealed until the eleventh hour. There's a reasonable chance that out of nothing, some sort of reconciliation might emerge, because ultimately the Taliban seem to know that they do not want to be responsible for another 20 years of civil war."

Clarke says that could lead to more scenes like these of Taliban fighters who agreed to a local reconciliation program with the Afghan government. But Northern Ireland's Jeffrey Donaldson says that will require strong leadership, the inclusion of all groups and, like in Northern Ireland, a lot of time and patience.
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