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Special Report
Last Updated: 12/09/2010
Non-State Conflict Management: Opportunities and Limitations of NGOs Engaging Non-State Armed Groups
Muhammed Nawaz Khan

Muhammed Nawaz Khan provides a comprehensive analysis of opportunities and challenges for interaction between non-state armed groups (NSAGs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Afghanistan. If such interactions are approached strategically and in a principled way, Khan argues, NSAGs may be brought into development and peacebuilding efforts, and provide the necessary space for negotiation and conflict resolution.

In the face of highly volatile chaotic scenario in Afghanistan, the international community must realize the significance of long-term engagement of Non-state Armed Groups (NSAGs) in Afghanistan. Exclusively military solutions to conflict are inadequate alone to make lasting peace as these often fuel antagonism and violence, resulting in civilian casualties. To end violent conflicts, preventing failed states, protecting civilians and promoting democracy, it is indispensable to explore how best to engage with NSAGs. Here come the Non-governmental Organizations’ (NGOs’) potential, non-conventional and modern roles, addressing complexities of post-conflict Afghanistan, requiring conflict-management and nation-building projects by engaging the Afghan NSAGs, thereby producing durable peace.

The international community must go beyond traditional conceptions of using hard military tools of conflict-management and nation-building to see how NGOs can fit into the broad social transformation necessary to bring Afghanistan into the realm of modern community of nations. NGOs will have to struggle in Afghanistan to develop more appropriate, conflict-sensitive and context-specific engagement strategies and approaches against the backdrop of growing NSAGs’ phenomenon, state breakdown, competing military structures, growing black poppy economy, widespread destruction and humanitarian distress. NGOs need to be instrumental in introducing “do no harm” concepts to aid agencies in Afghanistan.

Engagement tends to strengthen moderates and pro-dialogue elements within armed groups, while lack of engagement tends to strengthen hardliners, who believe that force is the only effective strategy. Minimal levels of engagement ought to be the norm, not a concession. Dialogue with armed groups is key to peace processes that can end violent conflict, protect populations and address underlying conflict issues. Under coherent agenda, political and humanitarian policies should complement and mutually reinforce one another to strengthen engagement of NSAGs, promoting disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs and processes. Improving long-term conflict-management and peace-building in Afghanistan, we need to link security to development, where both NGOs and militaries have supplementary and complementary roles to play in disentangling these needs and challenges.

Shaped by their organizational structures over a specific period of time, NSAGs include: liberation movements, rebels or guerrilla fighters, militias, clan or tribal chiefs, big men, paramilitaries, insurgents, warlords, terrorists, criminals, mercenaries, pirates, bandits, partisans and private security or military companies. NSAGs are central figures in many of today's armed conflicts. Their objectives and use of violence spark debate about engaging them, particularly in the context of the 'war on terror'. The category of NSAGs could now also include transnational terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda. NSAGs are often an expression of real and perceived political, social or economic exclusion or the result of poorly addressed historical grievances.

This paper intends to explore the potential and novel role of NGOs in engaging NSAGs, the rationale behind engagement of NSAGs, feasible methodologies and approaches available to NGOs in dealing with NSAGs, and finally the problems or challenges confronting NGOs in crisis-management in Afghanistan.


Deeply enmeshed in civil society, NGOs may play a non-traditional role in Afghanistan in helping pacific engagement of NSAGs and extending nation-building beyond government institutions to include a more robust engagement of marginalized civil society and conflicting militant factions, in addition to building a more diversified economy in post-9/11 paradigm.

NGOs’ Broadly-scoped Initiatives

Dealing with the Afghan combatants has presented the aid community and NGOs with the challenge of engaging with the “unlike-minded”, who follow violent policies relating to terrorism, human rights, gender, international humanitarian law, drugs pursuit of a military solution etc. In Afghanistan, on the one hand, peace- and state-building activities have to be implemented against the vested interests of NSAGs in order to achieve positive results in the long-run. On the other hand, progress regarding a secure environment is often only possible if at least the most powerful of these actors can be involved in a political process, which grants them some kind of political influence or economic and financial privileges. With limited impacts in dealing with the Afghan NSAGs, various instruments have been used by donor governments, now it is indispensable to promote NGOs’ broadly-scoped endeavours towards DDR programs.

While delivering aid and humanitarian relief to populations, NGOs need to enter into dialogue with an armed group, thereby attempting to influence and change their coercive as well as terrorist behaviour. For example, under an inclusive approach, in March 2000, the Swiss NGO Geneva Call (GC) got signed its pioneering initiative, called the Deed of Commitment (DoC) for Adherence to a Total Ban on Anti-Personnel Mines and for Co-operation in Mine Action. Geneva Call engages armed groups to persuade them to sign the DoC, which is essentially a public promise by the group in question that it will either stop or refrain from using landmines, and collaborate in different forms of mine removal activities. To date, almost thirty-one NSAGs (seventeen from Somalia alone) from Africa, the Middle East and Asia have renounced the use of anti-personnel mines (AP mines) by signing the DoC. Though the DoC instrument is exclusive to Geneva Call, a similar NGO-sponsored wider-ranged tool can be devised for other issues concerning conflict-management in Afghanistan, such as to provide for a more systematic, conflict-sensitive, context-specific and pragmatic engagement with NSAGs until they are effectively demobilized, disarmed, and reintegrated into normal society by implementing large relief projects.

In engaging NSAGs there is a need to explore and determine the available modalities, approaches, parameters and scope of responsible engagement with NSAGs. There are multi-purpose ‘soft’ instruments and measures for directly engaging NSAGs by dialogue, persuasion, direct contact, negotiation, capacity-building and education through mutually reinforced efforts of indigenous and international NGOs. NGOs are not bound by the same political restrictions as states, thus may employ dialogue and persuasion to engage armed groups. The multiplicity of interveners in the Afghan armed conflict requires greater cooperation between the state and NGOs in the face of sensitivities of engagement processes, strictly ensuring that confidentiality does not result in contradictory efforts to engage with armed groups.

Unlike official development actors, local and international NGOs have far more latitude and ample room for manoeuvre in developing forms of engagement with NSAGs. NGOs clearly have pragmatic options for reaching target groups with NSAGs’ involvement. In Afghanistan, the weak civil society, politically divided landscape, informal economic and justice systems are promoting strong opium trade and protecting terrorist networks. To truly pursue conflict-management and nation-building, Afghanistan needs engaging NSAGs by NGOs, to restructure the Afghan institutional outfits, social fabric and stabilize its four pillars of nation-building: promoting security, reforming judicial system, overhauling the poppy-nurtured economy, and forming democratic governance and institutions with citizen participation. International community should cautiously continue to support and aid NGOs as part of the long-term conflict-management and nation-building effort in Afghanistan.

Coordination between Local and International NGOs

A blend of indigenous and international NGOs can best achieve conflict-management and peace-building goals in Afghanistan. Local NGOs are able to better identify specific community needs and communicate with local groups to restrict their recruitment by combatants. Credibly reputed big international NGOs may pour in massive resources for undertaking major tasks of negotiation, coordination, poverty eradication, and related duties.

The Potential Role of NGOs in DDR Programs and Processes

NGOs can significantly supplement military actions by providing humanitarian and developmental assistance and by tying such aid to DDR programs chiefly as part of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), besides serving as negotiators, monitors, and consultants for the DDR process. However, aid must not serve the needs of a corrupt regime or warlords in Afghanistan’s case. Trusted NGOs with proven experience as neutral negotiators may be able to serve in this role during the DDR process and Afghan reconstruction. Flourishing conditions necessary for an effective DDR program, NGOs may provide reintegration assistance and social services such as skills training, trauma counseling, disarming, reintegrating female and youth combatants back into the community, bringing together former enemies or warlords, building trust, and strengthening commitments to peace, in addition to meeting the humanitarian objectives in accordance with the International Humanitarian Law (IHL). DDR is a process of ‘social engineering’ indicating link with NGOs’ efforts to affect the attitude, behaviour, norms and values of NSAGs. Furthermore, efforts to affect the behaviour of armed groups need to operate on a case-to-case basis. NGOs may also fund initiatives to guard prisoners’ rights in coordination with other international actors.

Broader Sensitization Programmes

A precondition for strategic engagement with NSAGs until they are effectively demobilized is a more frank dialogue between affected parties, including affected states. Leaders of armed groups should be geared toward crisis-management and peace-building by making them more sensitive to IHL and human rights through broader sensitization programmes. Various external actors, in particular UN agencies, international civil society organizations (CSOs) and NGOs, have long been conducting such programmes, often in the form of information dissemination and educational campaigns. NGO-run engagement of the Afghan NSAGs may facilitate networking and training of peace activists, for rendering a forum where peace practitioners could share experiences on addressing armed groups in the context of post-conflict peace-building.

The involvement of local communities is a key priority within the peace-building agenda. For initiating peace processes in Afghanistan, the cardinal principle is to capitalize on local leadership capacity in coordination with international ones for converting ‘warlords into peace-lords’. If peace is going to last, there is a clear need to ‘talk to the bad guys’ or spoilers, who mainly cause and trigger violent conflicts, besides making it increasingly difficult to end wars and restore peace and stability. Giving more attention to transition after conflict necessarily involves engaging all armed constituencies, and may be seen as an incentive for indigenous Afghan leaders and community tiers to promote good behaviour.


The term 'engagement' refers to initiatives offered either to the warring parties or intermediaries to explore and sustain opportunities for establishing contact with or between the parties. Humanitarian protection, pragmatism and sustainability are three main reasons to develop constructive engagement with armed groups.

Terms of Engagement and Legitimacy Dimension

Engagement does not equate to appeasement or complicity in violence. It does not confer legitimacy on an armed group's struggle or tactics. In Afghanistan, an armed group’s confidence in political dialogue cannot be built overnight. It demands a significant investment of time, energy and constant follow-up. However, the range of available options means that support for low-key engagement strategies led by local community groups or NGOs may keep the option of dialogue alive without appearing to legitimize a group.

Understanding Armed Groups and Stakeholders

Direct or indirect meaningful engagement with NSAGs to address conflict requires a sophisticated and holistic understanding of the armed groups in conflict and knowledge about their politico-economic agendas, leadership dynamics, constituency support, internal debates, decision-making processes, connections with allies, criminal networks, and other groups. The different stakeholders in the Afghan armed conflict include local communities, national government, international organizations and foreign governments, all of which will have different thresholds at which engagement becomes appropriate or effective. They will also have different engagement modalities at their disposal.

Engaging NSAGs in Afghanistan: At Core or Peripheral Level?

The factors that have allowed the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to survive militarily and to bring the conflict to its current stalemate, essentially moot political engagement with it at the center. If the center of NSAGs has less control over its periphery, the focus of engagement should increasingly be on the periphery instead of the center. Communicating directly with these peripheries may help isolate and neutralize the center, and make it more amenable to political or humanitarian concessions, or perhaps even make it irrelevant. Therefore, engaging NSAGs means engaging a wide range of dispersed and decentralized groups and agents at peripheral levels, with different structures and goals.

Engaging NSAGs: Effectiveness and Reliability

In engagement with NSAGs, the key to success is the reliability of the agreements reached. The reliability of agreements depends on (a) NSAGs’ capability to adhere to the agreement, and (b) willingness of NSAGs to comply with the terms of the agreement and their receptiveness to humanitarian demands. Capability and willingness of NSAGs are determined by their objectives, distinctive characteristics, organizational structure, command and control structure etc.


Generally, there is no well-defined blueprint for the engagement approaches and methodologies. NGOs dealing with armed groups need to be aware of the existing range of approaches as well as of their pros and cons. The international community and NGOs need to understand the changing organizational-structural nature of NSAGs during and in the aftermath of a conflict in order to apply an appropriate mix of approaches. Instead of a minimalist or a maximalist approach, pertinent approaches have to be flexible enough and adjustable according to sensitivity of conflict dynamics and changing contexts, given the organization, structure, hierarchy and degree of discipline within the NSAG in question. These approaches should be based on strategic coordination, involving the UN, the local military and political actors, NGOs and rebel authorities.

Direct Strategies of Engagement

Direct engagement takes place either with top or field-level commanders. Relatively, direct engagement is a more viable option. Direct engagement approaches involve conflict resolution training, peace education and peace-based conditional aid. In general, transparent and open engagement to keep NSAGs to their commitments is always to be preferred over secret or confidential contact. In most cases it is advisable to advertise the fact that engagement with an NSAG is taking place, in order to promote recognition and respect for the agreed conditions.

Indirect Strategies of Engagement

Contacts cannot always be made directly, as the NSAG may operate in a subversive fashion, or its leadership may be in a remote area. Indirect or confidential contact may also be preferred in cases where competing NSAGs are sensitive to such engagement. In these cases, indirect contact may be facilitated through parallel channels by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or diplomatic envoys, but this is not always a viable option. The main donor agencies attempting to mainstream peace-building are UNDP (PEACE programme), HABITAT (Community Fora) and NCA (Norwegian Church Aid) in their work with Afghan NGOs, such as ADA (Afghan Development Association). The experience of ADA shows that conflict-sensitive long-term donor support combined with strong NGO leadership and a community-based approach can yield important benefits. ADA’s transformation by indirect or confidential approach has helped support local leadership, create alternative livelihoods and nurture social capital. Indirect engagement approaches involve community development and empowerment, civil society strengthening, aid does no harm principle, protecting human rights, co-operation on IHL and public welfare etc.

Options for Spoiler Management

Under the direct-indirect engagement versions, the international community has a number of options at its disposal for “spoiler management”. Three systematize strategies or approaches for dealing with NSAGs are: (a) positive propositions or inducements as part of institutionalist approaches in order to counter demands made by NSAGs; (b) socialization within the framework of constructivist paradigm in order to bring about situational or even normative changes of behaviour; and (c) arbitrary measures introduced under realist approaches in order to weaken armed groups or force them to accept certain terms. All these three approaches try to persuade NSAGs to accept, respect and, eventually, foster long-term transformation processes that not only involve different behaviour but also a genuine and sustainable change in the NSAGs’ policies and self-conception or identity.

Realist Approaches: Arbitrary Measures Realist approaches force NSAGs to adapt to a new situation by application of force, which may precipitate a behavioural change only as long as force is applied. It is non-sustainable because it is based on the constant application of force.

Institutionalist Modalities: Inducements Institutionalist engagement modalities, aim at changes of interests and policies of NSAGs by focusing on bargaining as its key mechanism, which may achieve a sustainable result, by offering enough incentives and guidance in order to first change policies of NSAGs and later possibly their preferences. Institutionalism opens a room for arguing, bargaining, negotiations, informal contacts, multi-track diplomacy, extensive pre-negotiations, or mediation processes to reach a political agreement. Under this, Afghan warlords may be integrated into the newly established political system.

Constructivist Paradigm: Socialization Constructivist paradigm concentrates on a change in norms (such as non-violence) and in self-conception (such as identity) of the respective actor. Constructivists rest their efforts on arguing and persuasion: a result may be difficult to achieve but if a behavioural change occurs it is sustainable. It involves socialization, whereby spoilers may be successively socialized into accepting certain norms, which would alter their strategies and, eventually, their self-conception. This medium- to long-term strategy may work best for those armed actors with clear political ambitions, who have to address long-term expectations of their constituencies and desire to improve their local as well as international image. It also includes public campaigns condemning NSAGs’ terrorist acts and granting general amnesty as part of a greater political package.


Engagement with the Afghan NSAGs is fraught with difficulties for NGOs. In conflict scenarios like Afghanistan a particular problem that has attracted greater international attention of foreign organizations is that of traditional authorities that are held in high esteem at local level and are capable of exercising extra-legal power in their territory, rivalling the central government. An overview of the challenges facing NGOs in engaging NSAGs, is presented in ensuing paragraphs.

Blacklisting and Labelling: Disincentives to Engagement

Serious consequences for engagement with NSAGs are the compilation of official blacklists of organizations or individuals by many states they regard as terrorists. The effectiveness of such lists is disputed. Efforts to promote respect for human rights standards amongst armed groups have been complicated by the global counter-terrorism agenda. The use of the label ‘terrorist’ and the application of counter-terrorism policies have even impeded efforts to deliver aid to populations affected by armed conflict. In some instances labelling or listing as a terrorist has antagonized negotiating parties,which can have a number of counterproductive effects on conflict resolution efforts.

In the case of Afghanistan, it is defective analysis which depoliticizes armed conflicts and demonizes all armed groups as fundamentalists or extremists. Describing all armed groups as terrorists can close down opportunities for pacific engagement. A distinction between different types of groups and between tactics and objectives must be made.

Intricate Tapestry of Challenges to NGOs, while Reforming Justice, Economy, and Democracy in Afghanistan

Imposed Judicial Reforms

NGOs involvement in judicial reform in Afghanistan can lead citizens to reject the new judicial system because they resent interference with national self-determination. Laws developed by international players may be viewed as “imposed by foreigners”. Consequently, they may not gain popular acceptance, which would create incentives for the local warlords to enforce their rules.

Financial Instability

NGOs have a role to play in Afghanistan’s financial stability; however, the presence of a significant number of NGOs can destabilize currency by creating aid inflow into the country that increases demand for the local currency, raises general prices, increases exchange rate and creates inflationary tendencies.

Laundering the Country’s Drug Revenue

Hawala system (the informal and undocumented monetary transactions) is the primary mechanism of laundering Afghanistan’s drug revenue, a process that has only become easier with an increase of funds in the country from international aid agencies and NGOs. Ultimately, NGOs have the capacity to facilitate change in market institutions but are unable to induce change or even force change in the market place.

Problems in Using NGOs to Promote Grassroots Democracy

The NGOs’ role of filling the gap between population and state may prompt the Afghan people to see the state as incompetent. In turn, the state may come to consider NGOs activity as a threat to its legitimacy. Furthermore, NGOs are also not held accountable to their constituents. Focusing on international NGOs as a main vehicle for democratization may overlook traditional forms of government such as shura and jirga.

Hindrance to Growth of Civil Society and Community-driven Empowerment.

As NGOs are an imported organizational form, they may lack broad-based local support or strong community roots. International NGOs are often dominated by western values and agendas and as a result may unfairly privilege certain groups. International NGOs are often reluctant to engage the local population, and local NGOs also resent the imposition of international expertise on local participants.

Battle for Funding

The constant battle for funding and renewal prohibits NGOs from developing the long-term vision and projects required to tackle the underlying causes of a failed state.


Access to Target Groups: Humanitarian Objectives By engaging with NSAGs, NGOs can pursue the objective of reaching target groups in an area that are partly or completely under NSAG control.

Responsibility for Personnel By working in a region where NSAGs are active, local and external NGOs personnel may be exposed to considerable danger, where more deliberate engagement, agreements and mediating role can greatly reduce some of the risks.

Commitment to Norms From the development angle, NGOs may persuade an NSAG through engagement to commit itself to rules and standards of human rights, etc.

Conflict Transformation Engagement has greater potential and relevance in the Afghan conflict by contributing to conflict transformation.

Providing Non-warring Alternatives The assistance provided by the NGOs-run projects may have provided a safety net to chronically vulnerable groups who could otherwise fall prey to terrorists’ networks, serving as insurgents, displacement, criminality, etc.

NGOs Performing a Witnessing Role By maintaining an international presence in Kabul, the NGOs-run projects may work as a disincentive to rights’ violations, and helped bring the attention of the international community to the plight of the Kabulis.

Nurturing a Future Afghan Leadership Aid projects could have provided employment for educated Afghans who would otherwise have left the country. The role of aid agencies and NGOs in keeping a future Afghan leadership in ‘cold storage’ until the return of peace should not be underestimated.


NGOs in applied international conflict transformation work, derive recommendations and lessons from their various experiences and accords, programmes etc., highlighting how to choose to engage armed groups and initiate peace processes by consulting representatives from states, armed groups and intermediaries:

  • Direct and open contacts are always preferable to indirect and confidential ones, since under the former approach the NSAG will respect the agreements made, and that other stakeholders, principally civilians, will tolerate engagement.
  • Develop flexible policies that reflect the situation on the ground. Inflexible policies developed abroad with little consultation from the field are part of the problem. Any engagement with NSAGs should take a highly conflict-sensitive form and be situationally appropriate.
  • Level of contact with the NSAG should be adapted to the latter’s structure and degree of discipline. However, high-level contacts never guarantee or replace low-level contacts, whereas low-level contacts remain necessary at all times.

· It is vital to achieve greater commitment from all stakeholders to dialogue with armed groups in order to end violent conflict and strengthen democracy.

· Engagement can take many forms, from simple or unofficial contact to substantive negotiations, involving a myriad of possible third parties. Practitioners and policy-makers should focus on identifying appropriate tactics and effective strategies and forms of engagement tailored to the situation.

· Proscription of armed groups (e.g. terrorist blacklisting) is a blunt instrument and can be counterproductive. There is an urgent need to review such laws and to develop more sophisticated mechanisms to allow appropriate engagement and encourage peacemaking.

· Improved interaction, coherence, complementarity and cooperation between governmental and unofficial intermediaries would benefit all parties pursuing effective engagement strategies.

· Engagement with NSAGs should not be an end in itself but a means to an important, clearly identifiable end. NGOs and development actors should be able to identify the value possibly added by their engagement with NSAGs.

· Engagement with an NSAG requires very extensive international agreement and backing on the choice of engagement approach to be applied to the groups concerned.

· Information on the goals, nature, structure and approach of NSAGs is vital for fundamental aspects of engagement.

· In many cases, it may be an option to communicate with NSAGs indirectly, through intermediaries or civil contacts.

· NGOs should be realistic about the ability of humanitarian aid in engineering wider political or economic change.

· It is imperative to be more conscious of a project’s potential for doing harm or doing good; develop monitoring systems which explicitly take peace and conflict dynamics into account.

· NGOs should place a strong emphasis on analytical and listening skills. A greater emphasis on monitoring and evaluation, community consultation and stronger political analysis are required by agencies working in chronically unstable, politicized environments.

· The principle of “doing no harm” must be observed.

· The form of engagement should be legally defensible.

· Engagement must also form part of an overall foreign policy strategy that commits all external policy actors (especially in the areas of foreign, security and development policy) to a coordinated and coherent approach.

· Engagement should be ethically defensible to justify public acceptability of certain forms of engagement.

· NGOs must have clearly defined goals and operate under strict rules.

· NGOs should promote organic institutions that can operate independently of extensive funding from outside Afghanistan.

· It is essential to strike equilibrium between the developmental work of NGOs and the legitimacy and authority of the central government.


Strategic, principled and sustained engagement with armed groups in Afghanistan is key to build necessary confidence among belligerents for a sustainable resolution of the conflict. The nature, depth and quality of interaction with a group, both direct and indirect, all affect the quality of analysis. Engagement can assist an armed group in developing a better understanding of its opponents and can encourage change by introducing non-violent options to reach a settlement. It can lead to improved understanding of the root causes of the Afghan conflict, identify obstacles to settlement and pinpoint possible ways forward. Moreover, the case for engagement is strengthened by the responsibility to protect the local populations who are affected by conflict and its consequences.

Engaging with NSAGs does not automatically mean any kind of recognition or legitimating of the objectives of these groups, their behaviours or the means they use. The aim is to carefully take advantage of any room for manoeuvring over NSAGs, so as to exercise constructive influence over them, and to avoid any adverse effects.

Creative procedural agreements can help overcome the Afghan crisis by systematically engaging the NSAGs and addressing their concerns about domination at the negotiating table. Engagement-propelled reconstruction and humanitarian package may be essential parts in transforming the war-torn nation into a peaceful one, thereby resolving the Afghan conflict on a long-term basis.

Muhammed Nawaz Khan is a former police officer currently working as a research analyst at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)