Afghan negotiators insist peace talks with the Taliban will resume despite the recent collapse of efforts to get them started. Don’t bet on success. By James Kitfield
If there is anyone who has a right to be skeptical of the Taliban’s “good faith” in reaching a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, it is top Afghan peace negotiator Salahuddin Rabbani. He’s the chairman of the Afghan High Peace Council, established by the Afghan government in 2010 to reach out to the Taliban with an olive branch. The Council was initially led by Rabbani’s father and former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was assassinated by a Taliban suicide bomber in September 2011.
And yet this week Saluhuddin Rabbani insisted that peace negotiations would resume, even suggesting that a cease-fire might be reached ahead of a final peace agreement. In a triumph of hope over experience, State Department officials back that optimistic assessment. This after Afghan President Hamid Karzai nearly blew a gasket over a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new Taliban office in Qatar. The office bore the trappings of an official embassy opening, complete with the Taliban flag and a plaque pronouncing the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” That’s the name the Taliban assumed when they governed the country with a tight fist in the 1990s. In a typical fit of pique, Karzai suspended talks with U.S. officials for brokering the effort to get talks with the Taliban started in Qatar.
By now that “one step forward, two steps back” has become a familiar move as the stakeholders in the Afghan war dance around the issue of talks with the Taliban. Who can forget Akthar Mohammad Mansour, the presumed second-ranking Taliban commander who in 2010 was feted by Karzai and senior NATO officials in Kabul, only to be later unmasked as an imposter and lowly shopkeeper from Quetta? With the last Western combat forces now scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of next year, here are five of the best reasons to doubt that familiar “Dosey Doe” will dance the parties across the finish line of a negotiated peace deal.
U.S. Lacks Leverage
When President Barack Obama announced two years ago that most U.S. forces would be out of Afghanistan by 2014, he argued that the deadline was necessary to send a message to the Afghan government that it must begin assuming more responsibility for its own security. Not coincidentally, it also sent a message to the American public in advance of the 2012 election that Obama was winding down a second unpopular war.
As a tactic for negotiating peace with the Taliban, however, the announcement that the Western forces were surrendering their biggest chit before the poker game even started was questionable. In the recently released report “Talking to the Taliban: Hope Over History?” researchers for the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence in Britain concluded that signaling a deadline for the departure of coalition troops was “a real game-changer.”
“By announcing an end to the troop surge and the withdrawal of NATO troops in advance of talks, we took away the biggest stick we had in negotiations with the Taliban,” said Ryan Evans, the assistant director at the Center for the National Interest, and a co-author of the report. “From that point onward we were negotiating from a position of weakness, so it was a terrible negotiating tactic.”
Clock Winding Down
The realistic window for reaching a negotiated peace is closing with the departure of most Western forces. The fact that more than ten years into the Afghan war all sides are still just talking about talking is not a hopeful sign.
“If you look at the history of talks to end conflicts in Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and Columbia, the negotiations typically go on for many years because you need time to institute confidence-building measures, develop trust and sell the deal to skeptical constituencies on all sides of the conflict,” said Peter Neumann, another co-author of “Talking to the Taliban.” “Even if talks with the Taliban were to begin soon and proceed without any major set-backs, which is highly unlikely, I’d still be astonished if all sides could reach a sustainable peace agreement with this timeframe.”
Taliban Moderation a Myth
From the beginning, advocates of negotiations believed talks would divide the insurgency and empower more moderate Taliban leaders at the expense of hardliners. Some Taliban officials may indeed be more pragmatic in how they pursue the movement’s goal of an Islamist state governed by a harsh interpretation of Sharia law. Assuming they are true moderates willing to accept the Afghan constitution, free elections or reforms such as the empowerment and education of women, however, is likely a mistake. The fact that Taliban assassins killed the brother of Afghanistan’s national security adviser this week, even as senior Taliban officials continue to float the prospect of negotiations, suggest that the group has not changed its stripes.
Even in the unlikely event that a negotiated settlement were reached, there are serious doubts among some experts whether Taliban leaders could enforce their edicts over a scattered movement that is fractured and factionalized. Unlike the “Sunni Awakening” in Iraq that saw tribal sheikhs turn decisively against the foreign fighters of al Qaeda in Iraq, many Taliban foot soldiers are local boys fighting on behalf of local grievances.
With Western forces headed for the exits, there’s also the question of whether the Taliban might actually think it is winning the war. “Historically negotiations to end conflicts are successful when both sides believe that the stated outcome is better than the status quo,” said Neumann. “Because foreign troops are leaving, the Taliban think they are winning and they thus have no incentive to make the necessary compromises to reach a peace deal.”
Key Players Missing
To date, the most obvious obstacle to peace talks has been the Taliban’s steadfast refusal to negotiate directly with President Karzai, who they viewed as a stooge for Western forces. In the late 1980s the Afghan mujahedeen similarly refused to negotiate with former Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah, who they viewed as a puppet of Soviet forces. In 1996, Najibullah was captured by the Taliban, who dragged him behind a truck through the streets of Kabul before publicly hanging him.
Karzai is scheduled to hand over power next year after new elections, however, which will represent the first democratic transfer of power in Afghan history. A new Afghan leader with a strong mandate from the public could conceivably reinvigorate peace talks with the Taliban. Yet even that prospect presupposes that a popularly elected president would find significant common ground with a Taliban movement that remains deeply unpopular with a majority of Afghans.
“We Afghans have a long history with the Taliban, who when they were in power imposed their belief system of radical Islam on the people and invited foreign terrorists onto our soil to set up training camps and attack other countries,” said former Afghan Ambassador Omar Samad, speaking recently at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. The estimated 30,000 Taliban fighters represent a tiny fraction of Afghanistan’s population of more than 35 million, he said, and the Taliban never poll above single digits in terms of public support inside the country. “The idea you can have unconditional and unrestricted talks with such people strikes many Afghans as wishful and unrealistic thinking.”
There is another empty seat at the proposed negotiating table that speaks to the dim prospects for success in Taliban talks. Though absent, Pakistan remains the real power behind the group as it continues to offer the Taliban sanctuary and, in some cases, support in hopes of avoiding strategic encirclement by India.
“Afghans don’t believe the Taliban are the real issue, because they are just a proxy army fighting on behalf of a larger strategic agenda,” said Samad, now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “Talk to any Afghan about the Taliban, whether they are Pashtun or not, and they will point to the group’s sanctuaries and support networks in Pakistan as the real source of the problem.”