As U.S. and Afghan officials negotiate the myriad details of their pledged strategic partnership, they will be pushed by war-weariness and political and economic pressures to settle for Band-Aid approaches to complex problems. This is the trap of formality, and it threatens the prospects for a solid, long-term relationship between the two nations.
Negotiations ruled by formality are marked by surface-level conversations, carefully crafted talking points, unilateral proposals, political pressure and tight timelines. They tend to produce vague or costly solutions to the wrong problems, no implementation or enforcement mechanisms and impotence in the face of conflicting interests.
Effective negotiations, on the other hand, employ communication strategies that develop deep understanding, relationship strategies that develop real trust and alignment strategies that ensure creativity and genuine buy-in. This patient approach is particularly important in a highly complex environment characterized by violent enemies, media scrutiny, risk-averse cultures, electoral impact and declining economic strength.
Have Better Discussions
When an American senior leader spends two hours with three senior Afghan leaders but feels that the conversation never got past introductory formalities, you have a classic case of being unable to move past cultural differences to meaningful discussions.
Interpersonal understanding is central to cross-cultural interactions involving complex challenges, multiple stakeholders and high-stakes outcomes. Yet being culturally sensitive without understanding how to apply that knowledge actually leads negotiators to retreat from important talks for fear of giving offense.
After four decades of conflict, many Americans and young Afghans associate Afghanistan with violence, war, terrorism, external interference, corruption and drugs. For American strategic policymakers, Afghanistan is a problem to be solved. Meanwhile, Afghan leaders, wary of trusting long-term American commitments, focus on extracting as much as possible now. Such assumptions engender strategies that do not help the relationship or either parties’ long-term objectives, and they limit leaders’ ability to comprehend multilayered issues comprised of intangible concepts such as honor, relationships and historical memories.
Take the highly sensitive issue of civilian casualties. A U.S. senior leader met with an Afghan governor to discuss such an event. The American, following a set of talking points, described the incident, the investigation and the intent to provide financial compensation to the affected families. The Afghan official nodded, expressed his own talking points and declined the financial offer as insufficient. The leaders kept the conversation formal and safe and when it ended, they had lunch. But if they had tried exploring different perceptions of the incident, new understanding could have led them to develop shared solutions.
Many such incidents lead to the same dance, involving tactical positioning and very little joint action. These kinds of formal point-and-counterpoint conversations that debate whose perception is right or wrong waste time and fail to address true concerns.
Instead, leaders should seek conversations that develop a deep understanding of differences in objectives, cultures, ways of operating and values. Being willing to learn something from the other party, aiming to understand, even if you do not agree, makes joint problem solving possible.
To improve communication, senior American and Afghan leaders might consider some time-tested advice:
• Adopt a mindset of caring to learn about your counterparts.
• Understand their interests (objectives, aims, fears, concerns) that sit beneath locked positions (single solution or demands).
• Avoid debating conclusions until you have a conversation about perceptions.
• When you find that both parties have different perceptions about each other, the problem, a solution, the context, etc., ask them to share what data (information, events or facts) they are looking at and through what interpretive filters (assumptions or values) they are analyzing it.
• If they will not share a perspective on their own, share what you think it might be. Let them correct, critique or acknowledge your assessment.
• Discuss your own data, assumptions and values; not just your conclusion. Invite them to ask questions about your differing perceptions.
• Present options — that is, multiple possible solutions instead of a single one — and provoke criticism of them while also explaining your interests behind them.
Keep in mind that the goal of effective communication is not to prove you are right, but to build understanding. This approach is neither about being nice or compromising. Communication is about working to understand their perspectives, objectives and constraints. Accomplishing this and sustaining it throughout negotiations, provides real information and new insights that then enable the development of well-founded, creative, lasting solutions.
Build Better Relationships
Failure to build deep, working relationships hinders one’s ability to get beyond formality. Without such relationships, parties are unlikely to share concerns and desires, commit to a process for developing solutions, or be open to persuasion based upon objective standards. Both parties will lack confidence in the others’ commitment to implementation, while sharing alternatives to working together may be viewed as threatening or interpreted as malicious. Without trust and rapport from managing well-developed relationships, the ability to conduct joint problem solving breaks down.
In Afghanistan, the lack of such relationships often leads to negotiations that do not address either parties’ true needs. Instead, leaders bring proposals and ask counterparts to pick one. This process fails to demonstrate respect because one side provides all of the evidence for the problem, consequences of inaction and reasons why these solutions are in their counterpart’s interests. It fails to build trust because the two parties do not share in creating the menu of what either might or must do. This approach often results in an agreement but rarely achieves follow-through, further damaging the relationship.
Establishing trust begins with both parties believing that counterparts care to understand them and their perspectives. Afghans value relationships, not least because of the lack of reliable infrastructure and systems. The shallow, temporal nature of relationships between U.S. and Afghan senior leaders stems from artificial appearances and posturing. This contradicts the Afghan concept of friendship, where breaking bread with another person signals a vow of brotherhood greater than any contractual commitment. A further illustration of deep relationship, forgiveness (as defined in Sufism and Pashtunwali) is the reconciliation between retributive justice, accountability and peace.
Nuance is key. For example, asking someone to “forgive me” implies openness to a participative conversation and allows the affronted party to express thoughts about the offense. In contrast, saying “I’m sorry” implies a transactional, self-focused posture that lacks humility and does not admit error. The nuanced approaches, not the words used, demonstrate different attitudes between making a calculated apology versus offering respect, honor and a pure intent.
To build more than a superficial relationship, leaders should consider these strategies:
å Find common experiences or even interests. Both parties often subscribe to dichotomous viewpoints: of Muslims vs. infidels, or us vs. them. Establishing commonality, not necessarily common objectives, through sharing religious, family and experience backgrounds, helps Afghans see Americans as fellow human beings, as “people of the book.” For Americans, disclosing the presence of millions of Muslim Americans communicates U.S. religious freedom and plurality. While different cultural values, beliefs and characteristics exist, leaders are also bound by universal concepts: fairness, mutual respect, justice, family and peace. Rather than debating exclusionary arenas, leaders can demonstrate mutual commitment to these precepts. Connecting at these basic levels makes it impossible to simply think of counterparts as “the other side.”
å Acknowledge feelings. This goes beyond hearing them out or saying “I understand.” Effective negotiators listen, probe, test what they heard and listen some more. They avoid debating counterparts’ feelings, seeking instead to understand what drives them, often uncovering useful insights. If they contributed to those feelings, these leaders seek to separate impact from intent, exploring joint contribution to fix the underlying causes rather than taking all the blame, putting the blame on the other party, or making feelings disappear. Emotions are essential to any negotiation, especially when parties are in conflict. Effective negotiators want to hear these feelings now, knowing that they will eventually leak out or block progress. It is impossible to build trust without discussing how people feel about each other, the situation, history and the future.
å Tackle problems on the merits instead of making random compromises. Years of research and experience suggest that most negotiators’ primary interest is in being fairly treated and being able to demonstrate this — defend an agreement — to constituents and critics. Focusing on objective standards or fair process leads to better solutions. Exerting leverage to demonstrate power or manipulate other parties erodes even the best relationships. Relationships are strengthened when a party can explain or test a decision with others based on past practice, law, custom, real data, or third-party assessments. When relationships break down, effective leaders determine how this occurred and deal directly with the causes, avoiding the urge to make the other party feel better by making substantive concessions which are unlikely to be based on any standards.
å Separate the relationship from the issues. Be unconditionally constructive by working to build the relationship regardless of whether your actions are immediately reciprocated. While it may be unwise to trust others before they earn it, it costs you nothing to be trustworthy, treat counterparts with respect, be reliable, engage in side-by-side problem solving and unilaterally engage in any of the previously described strategies.
Choosing to lead moves you closer to your desired outcome. Getting beyond surface relationships requires hard work, necessitates bonding at a human level and demands showing concern to get at core issues and sustainable solutions. Enacting these strategies often requires taking the first step (and, perhaps, the second and third) to foster real trust. Doing so, however, is critical to future negotiations with harder issues and more divergent interests requiring the ability to find more creative solutions.
Align Everyone’s Interests
Negotiating with multiple parties creates tension due to disparate interests that make consensus challenging. Failing to align internal actors leads to irreparable external breakdowns. By improving their ability to align stakeholders who might derail potential agreements, senior leaders can get beyond formality.
This is nowhere truer than in Afghanistan. Ethnic divisions challenge national unity, threatening the country’s immediate stability and future prosperity. Afghan leaders struggle in negotiations because constituents refuse to move beyond historical purviews and focus on issues with future implications. Political parties, ethnic groups and regional influencers exacerbate internal factions’ concerns, rather than seeking shared interests. Afghans view the recent past through different lenses, believing that their experience is unique from others’. Instead of a past that binds, perceptions and emotions foster mistrust, a short-term mentality, false formalities, generalities in discussions and manipulative tactics. Overlaying this complexity is a government focused on political compromise rather than taking a determined problem-solving approach. Afghanistan requires unification before external negotiations with international partners, regional neighbors, or the Taliban.
American leaders also struggle to unite the many international governments and agencies involved in discussing needed reform in critical Afghan institutions. One example involved hours of preparation and weekly meetings lasting several months, concluding in an executive-level briefing. Following the process, the officer responsible for identifying which organization or individual owns each measurable action is often unable to do so because the agreed outcomes are vague. Discussions had to remain general to avoid disagreement. When agreement was impossible, leaders owning the final document simply assigned tasks without obtaining buy-in. Limited time, complex issues and conflicting perspectives of success and actions to take resulted in “getting agreement” rather than systematically aligning stakeholders around an actionable, realistic product that gets commitment for follow-through.
More specifically, negotiators often craft solutions without clearly considering their counterpart’s constraints when explaining it to others. The negotiation is not complete until your counterpart can defend the solution to their constituents. This requires taking ownership for what they care about and why they might say “No.”
The solution, simple in concept, is challenging in practice: Involve key constituents in the negotiation process. The perceived obstacle is this will slow down or kill the process. That can be avoided, however, by following three strategies.
å Be clear about constituents’ roles. You are consulting them, seeking input, but not giving them a vote. People want to be heard and often have useful perspectives, but they also understand that everyone cannot have a final say. Feeling like their opinion is considered, even if it cannot be incorporated into the final solution, will help get buy-in.
å Allow counterparts and their constituents to help develop solutions. If they help build it, they are more likely to accept, effectively sell to constituents and implement the solution. One proven method for doing so is the One-Text Procedure. The process develops a single negotiating text, then asks constituents, “What would be wrong with something like this?” The joint drafting team uses the criticism to improve the next draft — and then repeats the steps several times. This allows the team to understand concerns, ensure people are heard and allow for creative thinking and drafting. Ultimately, the process defines a clear choice between the evolved draft and the status quo, as well as consequences for each.
å Arm counterparts for internal negotiations. Understanding their critics and strategizing how to answer them helps your counterpart be more effective when explaining how the agreement satisfies core interests and meets fair standards. Additionally, floating draft options with key constituents may create ownership and improve the ability to defend the final solution.
Leaders must consider both their and their counterparts’ constituents and involve them in negotiating agreements. Ask, “Who will not agree to this and why?” or, “How can we better understand and address their key concerns?” Making their constituents your problem delivers agreements that get signed and implemented.
Continued success in an increasingly complex environment requires strategic leaders to get beyond formality and engage in real joint problem solving. Communication that builds new and deep understanding will be required to get to the core of tough issues. Developing real trust and mutual respect will allow for creative thinking in addressing challenges riddled with risk. Engaging and aligning stakeholders in solution development will lead to negotiated agreements that get implemented.
Strategic leaders need to diligently employ each of these strategies and they must visualize the potential Afghan-American relationship. There are several historical examples — from the ancient Greco-Bactrian alliance to the modern American-South Korean model — that demonstrate the mutual benefit that results when nations actively participate in dialogue, combine strengths and align interests for shared action. America might profit from an Afghan intermediary to Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan, China and the Islamic world community. Afghanistan, as a successful example for intervention through empowering communities to build a new life, would provide leaders with a third choice apart from the extremes of aggression and isolationism. America could help Afghanistan re-establish a pluralistic identity — Muslim and Afghan — reconciling national character with becoming a modern nation. American leaders, using a vast pool of national experiences, might share the responsibility with Afghan leaders for developing a post-conflict national narrative.
Getting beyond formality requires patient persistence and positive persuasion to achieve these aims, but is best summarized, perhaps, in a simple Afghan proverb: “A real friend is one who takes the hand of his friend in times of distress and helplessness.” AFJ