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Afghanistan peace talks: The beginning of the end?

26 January, 2012

By Syed Iftikhar Ali Shah


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On 3 January 2012, the entire world was surprised when the news broke out that the Afghan Taliban agreed to open up a political office in Qatar. The news came in the backdrop of repeated denials by the Taliban that they were negotiating with the "occupation" forces of NATO and their "stooge" Afghan administration, and would continue to fight until foreign forces are evicted from the country. It was further learned that the secret talks between the two sides were going on for 10 months, and involved US, Germany, Qatar and the Afghan Taliban. As admitted by NATO and Afghan officials, the Afghan government was kept in the dark about the negotiations.

The initial reaction of Afghan President Karzai was to criticise the US-Taliban talks and demanded that they be held in Afghanistan. Later on Karzai grudgingly agreed to US-Taliban talks, and said that it could pave way for a direct Taliban-Afghan government talks in the future. The decision by the Taliban to concede its engagement with the US and agreeing to establish a political office in Qatar is the first positive development ever since President Obama decided to find a political solution to the Afghan turmoil. However, there are certain factors which would determine the final outcome of the talks.

Firstly, there are three important conditions which the US wants the Taliban to comply with in any future peace deal. These conditions are: renouncing Al-Qaeda; ending up the armed struggle; and accept the Afghan constitution. All the three conditions pose serious challenges to the Afghan Taliban.

It is very difficult for the Afghan insurgent groups to renounce Al-Qaeda because the latter has been able to spread its ideology in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. The Afghan insurgency is run by many insurgent groups, including the one led by Mullah Omar. Some of the insurgent groups, such as the Haqqani Network and Jamaat al-Dawa wal Sunna, owe allegiance to Mullah Omar. However, they also maintain close relationship with Al-Qaeda and presently serve as their main hosts. The Mullah Omar group, on the other hand, does not harbour enmity with Al-Qaeda, but also maintains a free degree of independence in its relationship with the latter. The pervasive influence of Al-Qaeda on Haqqani Network and Jamaat al-Dawa may make it difficult for these groups to cut off their relationship with the former. This could create rifts between various Afghan insurgent groups and could result in the weakening of the Afghanistan insurgency. A demonstration of relationship between Al-Qaeda, Haqqani Network and the Pakistani Taliban was witnessed in December 2011, when a meeting held in North Waziristan Agency of Pakistan saw Al-Qaeda's ideologue, Abu Yahya al-Libi pleading the Haqqanis and Pakistani Taliban to bury their differences and unite their ranks to fight NATO in Afghanistan.

Secondly, the acceptance of Afghan constitution and conducting negotiations with the "stooge" Afghan administration could create ripples within the Taliban rank and file. The Taliban field commanders and foot soldiers are ideologically motivated, and have been fighting the "stooge" Afghan government for the past 10 years. To simply accept the same as legitimate would not go down well with the Taliban rank and file, who have given enormous sacrifices in the battlefield and are facing the onslaught of NATO forces on daily basis. It would also be difficult for the Afghan government to agree to incorporate any suggestions which could be made by the Taliban in the Afghan constitution, since a huge segment of the Afghan state and society, particularly the Northern Alliance and human and women rights groups may oppose such changes. This could complicate the task of reaching a compromise on the existing constitution.

Thirdly, the Taliban would not renounce violence unless they are able to reach a settlement on the above two points. The Taliban want foreign troops to leave Afghanistan. However, the US is negotiating a strategic partnership with the Afghan government which could provide the former with an agreement to maintain a long-term military presence by leasing out five bases in the country. It would be very difficult for the Taliban to sell an agreement to its rank and file which does not ensure the full withdrawal of foreign troops from the war-ravaged country.

Fourthly, the US has so far engaged Mullah Omar-led Afghan Taliban, while keeping the Hizb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) out. It was seen that the HIG approached the Afghan government in January 2012 soon after it learnt about the US-Taliban contacts, and put its own conditions in front of President Karzai. The HIG maintains a strong presence in eastern Afghanistan, and lasting peace could only be established if the Afghan government is able to reach a political settlement with all the insurgent groups. A peace deal with only one or two insurgent groups would also see a fratricidal warfare between various insurgent groups as well as against the Afghan government.

So far, the Taliban have affirmed through their subsequent statements that they want to talk to the US and NATO to solve the current ongoing situation. They refused to accept the constitution of Afghanistan or hold talks with the "stooge" Kabul administration. At the same time, the Taliban refused to sign a ceasefire and stated that their armed struggle (Jihad) would continue. NATO's top civilian representative in Afghanistan, Simon Gass, echoed similar views when he said that despite peace talks gaining momentum after a decade of fighting, NATO forces in Afghanistan will keep the military campaign in a "very high momentum" and peace talks will not make an impact on the fight against the insurgents.

It has been seen that US-Taliban talks have resulted in an altercation between the US and Afghan government. It seems that the US wants to lead the peace talks contrary to its previous claims that the Afghan peace negotiations would be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. It has also been observed that external influence or participation in peace talks has always been unsuccessful in the Afghan theatre and the Afghan armed groups have a natural propensity to relapse into fighting sooner than later. Pakistan has a bitter taste of this Afghan psyche, and therefore Pakistan remains firm in its stance that the Afghan should be left on their own to resolve their problems. It is also strange to notice that while the Afghan Taliban are refusing to even share a table with the Afghan government, the Pakistani Taliban are expressing their willingness to talk to the Pakistani government. This signifies that Pakistan is in a better position to solve its problem with its Taliban insurgents in the country's northwest, compared to Afghanistan where the state and non-state actors as well as its society are deeply fractured and polarised on ethnic, religious and ideological lines.

Similarly, negotiation process is normally time consuming and cumbersome. There is a need to expedite the process given the fact that NATO has already announced its withdrawal from the insurgency-torn country by 2014. While NATO claims that its surge strategy in 2010 has paid dividends in terms of weakening the Taliban, the latter remains resilient to regroup and reassert its presence in the future. The recently leaked excerpts of National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), an official report compiled annually by the security and intelligence agencies of the US, reviewed the situation in Afghanistan in late 2011. It concluded that a stepped-up Western military campaign had done real damage to the Taliban's military prowess but "not enough so to change their strategic calculus." The classified document concluded that "the Taliban have not been weakened enough to force the militants to abandon their fight against foreign troops." It said that the NATO-Taliban war has hit a "stalemate", with the Taliban remaining committed to taking back Afghanistan by force as soon as NATO troops leave the country in 2014.

The Taliban have already established their sanctuaries in Afghanistan's eastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. It has been seen that any externally-supported Afghan government does not last long after its patron withdraws its support as was seen in the case of the former Soviet Union. A 2014 withdrawal of the current NATO mission from Afghanistan hinges on an effective Afghan security force able to retaining the progress and solidify the gains achieved so far. However, doubts exist over the capability of such an armed force, as well as the willingness of the international community into sustaining the Afghan economy and its security forces in the wake of a deepening global financial crisis.

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