There has been a lot of excitement lately in the press about the supposedly snow-balling talks with the Taleban leadership and what this could mean for the prospects to end the war. The major news outlets have been trying to outdo each other in terms of talking up details provided by spokespeople and unnamed officials. Most Afghans remain largely underwhelmed. So what to make of all of this?
Well first of all, there are talks. There always have been talks and there always will be. It has been said many times and it can’t hurt to repeat it: faultlines in Afghanistan tend to be fluid and not very clear-cut. Adversaries tend to stay in touch with each other as much as they can. Seeming opponents share tribal ties, years in the trenches, histories as former classmates, neighbours, business partners, brothers in arms. There is always a backlog of favours that can be called in or mutual friends that can be brought to bear when you want to mediate, petition or persuade.
Much of the talk is simply to keep channels of communication open. A fair share of it is focused on practical issues, most prominently the release of detainees and property, safe access to the wounded and dead on a shared battlefield, and safe passage in general. These are largely low- or mid-level contacts and much of it is done without explicit authorisation or high-level backing on both sides (although it is unlikely to be done without any). However, given the nature of Afghan patronage politics, petitioners will go as high up the chain as they possibly can – on both sides – to get their requests granted and to establish contacts that may prove useful in the future. This means that even relatively minor issues can involve quite high-level contacts.
On top of that, there have been regular bursts of preliminary contacts and feelers, by those claiming to represent senior levels – on all sides – and there have been the various strands of facilitated talks, the importance of which was generally talked up, as seems to be the case quite spectacularly at the moment as well. Such talks were mainly aimed at figuring out what was on the table and whether the talk of talks – which, let’s not forget, has been going on for years now – was serious and was taking place at the right level.
This is not to say that the contacts that are currently being advertised and the ones that are likely to follow, have no relevance or that they do not hold the potential to gain more traction than past attempts. But the case is being intentionally overstated, by suggesting more fire than the smoke warrants and by feeding the press information about events that are likely to have taken place in the past. The latest instalment is today’s article in the New York Times, Taliban’s Elite, Aided by NATO, Join Talks for Afghan Peace, which opens like with: “Talks to end the war in Afghanistan involve extensive, face-to-face discussions with Taliban commanders from the highest levels of the group’s leadership, who are secretly leaving their sanctuaries in Pakistan with the help of NATO troops, officials here say.”
The message is carefully crafted to imply that we are moving towards the much coveted momentum. But it sounds quite different from earlier statements in some of last week’s – otherwise quite optimistic – media reports.
We had Karzai on 11 October 2010 talking to Larry King: “We have been talking to the Taliban as countryman to countryman talk in that manner […] Not as a regular official contact with the Taliban with a fixed address, but rather unofficial personal contacts have been going on for quite some time.” Then Rabbani on 14 October 2010: “The Taliban have not rejected peace completely.” (Although in a later interview he is quoted as saying that it gave them hope for peace and stability in the country that the Taliban wanted to talk: “They are ready”.) A senior NATO officer in Kabul: “You’ve got to put pressure on the networks to get them to start thinking about alternatives to fighting […] We are not at the tipping point yet.” An ‘official involved in talks about Afghanistan’ (whatever that means): “The outcome is not in sight at the moment […] but we can say that the political process has been set into motion.” A UN source: “At the moment it’s talk about talks […] This is not a fast-moving process. Let’s not over-egg it.” And finally Muttawakil to a TOLOnews reporter “Things can not be solved only by establishing a council. It is good that the Afghan government has put a step forward for peace efforts, but if nothing is done to build trust, the opposite side will never take this peace process seriously.”
This is stating the obvious, but first of all the fact that NATO spokespeople and unnamed officials think of something to say to the press every other day is not the same as events speeding up. And secondly, the fact that leaders on the different sides seem ready to – not even talk, but to consider talking about entering into more formal talks, is not quite the same yet as moving towards an ended war – however much we would all like to believe that it is.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020