Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Talks with the Taleban, Again: This time for real?

Thomas Ruttig 20 min

Over the past weeks, Kabul buzzed with rumours that talks with the Taleban would begin soon, specifically, in the first week of March. That particular week is now past and nothing has happened. But this does not mean that rumours were completely false or that no movement is being made towards new talks with the Taleban or, importantly, that direct talks between them and the Afghan government might be possible. AAN co-director Thomas Ruttig looks at recent events, Pakistan’s and China’s roles and how these countries are perceived by different Afghan players. He also assesses latest developments within the Taleban and how these might nudge the movement away from its position of not talking with Kabul. He concludes that Kabul’s push for direct talks with the Taleban reflects the president’s philosophy: to achieve peace in order to kick-start the country’s economy. But that is easier thought out than done.

The first indication that the Kabul government was hopeful about Taleban talks came from an anonymous Afghan government official who told the Wall Street Journal on 19 February that “there will be face-to-face negotiations in the next three to four weeks.” This seemed to be more a leak than a planned move to project some sense of government progress – although, with stagnating political reforms across the board, from cabinet formation to electoral reform and empowerment of the provincial councils, this progress is bitterly needed. Some in the president’s entourage, or at least with connections to the palace, still seem to oppose talks with the Taleban and are ready to sabotage them. This was already the case in 2011, during a German-driven attempt to establish talks with the Taleban: the Kabul daily Wisa disclosed the name of the Taleban’s chief negotiator, leading to a temporary breakdown of contacts (see here and here).

On the very day of the leak, both the US, through a National Security Council spokesperson, and the Taleban, through theirs, Zabihullah Mujahed, denied that any talks were scheduled in Qatar. The Ghani government had already stated the day before that it would not hold any talks “hidden from the people of Afghanistan.” This swiftness of denial, in rare unison, was a sign that both sides wanted to prevent on-going contacts from being blown apart by premature reports. According to a Pakistani newspaper, Taleban leaders complained about “the way some Afghan government leaders are dealing with the highly sensitive issue of the peace process”. According to information AAN has received, the Taleban have insisted that no news of any talks will be disclosed before a meeting actually takes place.

But only some days later, CEO Abdullah confirmed publicly that talks were being planned. On 23 February, he made known that he had informed the Afghan cabinet they would start “within weeks.” But after blowing hot, he had to blow cold only three weeks later. Through his spokesman, he stated on 12 March that – in the summary of Tolonews – “no date, no venue and no Afghan delegation” have been set up yet. The leak had done some damage already.

What has changed?

The first major change increasing the likeliness that some progress on talks could be made was Ghani’s takeover of the presidency in September last year. This reconfigured the personnel for prospective talks on one of the sides. Over the previous years, the Taleban had refused to talk with the government in Kabul. But it was never fully clear whether this only referred to Karzai, whom they considered a US puppet, or to any president in Kabul and whether this might change under a new one. Members of Ghani’s presidential campaign team have confirmed to AAN that they had already reached out to the Taleban before the second round of presidential elections.

The prospects for direct talks, however, received a blow when Ghani signed the US-Afghan bilateral security agreement (which Karzai had refused to do; Ghani also did not sign in person). This angered the Taleban leadership who took it as a sign not for peace but for continuing the war. Following this development, according to AAN interlocutors in Kabul, the head of the HPC secretariat, Massum Stanakzai, visited Qatar twice in recent months but failed to meet the Taleban’s delegation there. (One of these trips was confirmed by a HPC member in December last year.) This was followed on 24 February by talks in Qatar between the Afghan National Security Adviser, Muhammad Hanif Atmar, with the country’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Bin Khalifa al Thani, as confirmed by the state’s Qatar News Agency.

More multilateral contacts were going on to pave the way for talks, despite these set-backs. It is, however, too early to say whether recent reports (for example here) that the US might slow down the planned reduction of its troops (from a current 9,800 to 5,500 by the end of the year) would affect any of these attempts. It might anger the Taleban further, but at the same time the Afghan government needs to boost its defences against an expected Taleban onslaught in spring.

Meanwhile, Ghani also internally continued to push for “peace” (as the issue is now called under his tenure, previously, the issue went under the title of “reconciliation”). Already during his visit to Beijing in October last year, he called “peace” the “highest priority of the Afghan government.” This year, he held a series of consultations with the so-called jihadi leaders, civil society and political party representatives, asking all to submit written suggestions on how to achieve peace.

This push for direct talks with the Taleban reflects the president’s philosophy: Peace is a requirement for kick-starting the Afghan economy, which continues to be unsustainable and dependent on the West. What the World Bank calls the structural 20 per cent “financing gap” is a key symbol for this situation: the costs of the security sector must be reduced and this can only be achieved by ending the war with the Taleban ­– or, at least, by improving the security situation by persuading significant numbers of them to leave the battlefield.

At the same time, the president, like his predecessor Karzai, insists towards the international community that talks must be “Afghan-led” and all contact with the Taleban must go through the Kabul government. He has apparently decided to increase the role of the National Security Council (NSC), led by former interior minister Hanif Atmar. This is at the expense of the High Peace Council (HPC), established by president Karzai in 2010 but seen as ineffective, even more so after the assassination of his first chairman, Ustad Borhanuddin Rabbani, only a year later. (The assassination incidentally came after a first attempt by the Karzai government to engage with the then new civilian Pakistani government, in circumvention of the Pakistani military, to come to terms on peace talks.)

Ghani, however, seems to accept support by third sides. First, he approached Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan – the destinations of his first trips abroad after he took over the presidency. (His recent third visit to Saudi Arabia can also be seen in the context of possible peace talks with the Taleban – see for example here and here.) Also, the US and possibly other Western countries seem to have facilitated contacts: reports have arisen that US representatives have met Taleban negotiators in Qatar to discuss the modalities of talks – apparently because the Taleban leadership has not decided yet whether to talk directly to Kabul – and that the Qatar office will be re-activated (see here, here and here). Reports have also indicated that US-Taleban contacts were on track again. These had resumed tacitly after the row following the breakdown of the Qatar Taleban office opening in June 2013 and broken down again after Afghan security forces arrested two leading Haqqani network activists in October last year (allegedly in breach of assurances that the five leading Taleban would be released from Guantanamo; both are relatives of one of the released). (1)

A Pakistani about-face?

The rumours about imminent Taleban talks have also been fed by two parallel developments. First, a series of reports said that the Pakistani government – or, more precisely, the Pakistani military and its intelligence, the ISI – was about to persuade the Taleban leadership to enter into talks (see for example here). More so, as Ahmed Rashid recently wrote, army chief Raheel Sharif has visited Washington, Beijing, London, Kabul and the Arabian Gulf states to deliver the message that from now on “all terrorists will be treated alike” – the closest, Rashid comments, that “the army will come to admitting or apologizing for its past policies.” Second, China – Pakistan’s strategic ally in the region, thought to be able to influence the Islamabad establishment – has started to play a more active role with regard to the on-going conflict in Afghanistan, pushed by the withdrawal of most Western soldiers from its south-western neighbour.

AAN also understands that Kabul, with the support of major allies and possibly China, have gained an assurance by Islamabad during meetings in late February that, for six weeks, the Taleban would not carry out any massive attack in Kabul and that no cross-border shelling would occur – in order to pave the way for Taleban talks.

The Afghan government, diplomats in Kabul and many foreign media (Afghan media are more doubtful on this point) had reached the conclusion that Islamabad, finally, understood that Islamist terrorism was a danger for its own country and that a peaceful solution in Afghanistan would further its own national interest. This change of mind, they assume, has been initiated by a series of attacks by Pakistani Taleban on army installations, including the army headquarters in Rawalpindi in 2009, on Karachi airport in June 2014, on an airbase in Quetta in August 2014 and, finally, by the TTP attack on an army-run school in Peshawar in December last year, during which more than 100 children were killed.

Already in the summer of last year, Pakistan launched a military operation under the code name Zarb ul-Azb in its tribal areas – particularly in North Waziristan – against locally deployed militants. After the Peshawar school attack, Islamabad put a 20-point national anti-terrorism plan into action, reached out to Afghanistan and promised, after years of prevarication (see details in this report), to push the leadership council of the Afghan Taleban, the so-called Quetta Shura, to the negotiating table and meet government representatives from Kabul directly. The message that it has succeeded in doing so was reportedly conveyed to Ghani by the visiting army chief Sharif and ISI chief Rizwan Akhtar in mid-February. According to the same report, the Pakistani military has even “warned the insurgents that if they do not join the talks, they will be driven from their sanctuaries.” At least in rhetoric, Pakistan’s about-face culminated in army chief Sharif’s statement during his visit to Kabul that “enemies of Afghanistan are also enemies of Pakistan.”

Kabul has abetted this perceived change of mind by starting military operations against hideouts of the Pakistani Taleban umbrella movement TTP on its side of the border in Kunar, assisted by US drone strikes that killed some TTP commanders. For the first time, it sent a small group of military officers for training to Pakistan. Already in December last year, the US handed over Latif Mehsud, a leading TTP commander captured by Afghan forces, to Pakistan, allegedly over the heads of the Afghan government.

Criticism in Afghanistan

In the Afghan society, scepticism is widespread in general about whether Pakistan’s about-face on the Afghan Taleban is genuine, and in particular about Ghani’s overtures to Islamabad and the possibility of talks. There is even some sniping against them, particularly among what many Afghans see as an emerging ‘opposition’ to the national unity government in the shape of a group consisting of former president Karzai and some of his closest allies, who have independent channels to make their voices heard. Karzai’s former NSC chief Rangin Dadfar Spanta called Ghani’s unilateral steps of confidence-building with Pakistan an “absolute appeasement.” Abdul Rabb Rassoul Sayyaf, the leader of one major mujahedin party and a chief advisor to Karzai, complained that because Ghani made this decision alone, he was “dictatorial.” Karzai himself warned against Afghanistan sliding “under Pakistan’s thumb.

In addition, Afghan politicians from outside this circle contacted by AAN are sceptical about Pakistan and warn against “putting all eggs in one basket.” Key Abdullah supporter Atta Muhammad Nur demanded that the Afghan government accommodate all of the country’s political factions in talks with the Taleban. Amrullah Saleh, former head of the Afghan intelligence service and now an opposition politician, tweeted that “sharing the state with the Taliban” would not bring peace, but in actuality it “institutionalizes conflict” (quoted here).

But both Sayyaf and Nur – speaking to Afghan media – moderated their opinion, the former after the president consulted him in person on the matter and the latter after it became clear that his (the Abdullah) camp was involved in preparatory contacts.

China entering the fray

Even before Pakistan, Ghani had courted China to take up a supportive role. After Ghani participated in a ministerial meeting of the so-called Istanbul Process in Beijing in late October 2014, Chinese leadership proposed to set up a “peace and reconciliation forum” that Afghan officials said would gather representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the Taleban leadership to discuss how to end the Afghan war. At the same occasion, the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, laid out five principles for an Afghan solution, including “a broadly-based, inclusive political reconciliation” (full speech here). In February, during a visit to Islamabad, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, reiterated the offer for “necessary facilitation at any time if it is required by various parties in Afghanistan.”

On November 29, Sun Yuxi, China’s special envoy for Afghanistan, for the first time publicly confirmed that he had met with representatives of the Afghan Taleban in Peshawar, Pakistan, to discuss the modalities of their possible participation in peace negotiations. After some initial denial by the Taleban, their office in Qatar finally confirmed in early 2015 that a delegation of the movement had indeed visited China late last year. It was reportedly led by their former planning minister Qari Din Muhammad Hanif, who is based at the Qatar office and already had participated in an academic conference in Kyoto in June 2012. The Taleban spokesman, however, denied that the visit had anything to do with possible peace talks and claimed it was just a ‘normal’ diplomatic move:

We have not sought China’s mediation in any peace talks with the government… The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has had longstanding relations with the world, and has paid visits globally, particularly neighbours, and China is one of them… The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will continue visits, and maintain and expand relations and contacts with China and other neighbouring countries to convey its stance.

… We have not visited any country for mediation. We have also not positively responded to any mediation offer and media reports about the issue are not true. I want to point out that many countries, which have sympathies with the Afghan nation and the Islamic Emirate, have floated suggestions to play a role in solution to the problems. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan respects all these efforts but has not taken any decision.

As he had done with Pakistan, Ghani made some political and security concessions to China. In January this year, Kabul handed over 15 alleged Uighur militants arrested in Afghanistan. Already during his 2014 visit to China, the Afghan president promised, according to Chinese sources, to “support China to fight [Uighur separatists]” and “not [to] allow any activities that threaten China’s (security) on Afghan territory.” Ghani also adopted Beijing’s position on its sovereignty over “Taiwan, Tibet and other issues.”

One of the results of Kabul’s overtures to both Pakistan and China was the start of trilateral Afghan-Pakistani-Chinese security meetings. Then, on 13 March, Afghan CEO Abdullah confirmed that the Chinese government has held “one, two or three” rounds of talks with the Taleban in the past few months. He said at a conference organised by an Indian media group that the Chinese “asked the Taliban to have talks directly with the Afghan government, that’s a good message.”

In contrast to his overtures to Pakistan, Ghani’s Chinese moves did not cause criticism in Afghanistan. One of the staunchest critics of Ghani’s involvement of Pakistan, Rangin Spanta, with his Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies in Kabul, is even a major conduit for Afghan-Chinese dialogue.

What stands in the way?

a) Pakistan

Caution about the Pakistani about-face is reasonable. Pakistan has promised time and again to support peace initiatives in Pakistan, but so far this has all remained rhetoric. The Afghan government has not forgotten how the head of their HPC was humiliated when he finally was allowed to visit former Taleban deputy leader Mullah Baradar, incarcerated by Pakistan in 2010 (see AAN reporting here), but found him unable to communicate at all, either due to illness or, as some assumed, having been drugged to prevent him from speaking (details in this AAN dispatch and here). There were also reports over years that, in addition to Baradar’s case, Pakistan has arrested war-wary Taleban commanders who were pondering reconciliation with Kabul.

The question is also whether the Taleban’s eagerness to talk peace will be boosted if they (or some of them) are pushed to the negotiating table against their will by the Pakistanis.

It is also far from clear whether the Pakistani military’s operation in North Waziristan has targeted all militants in the area. Independent media in Pakistan have reported that the Pakistani military has allowed those they consider to be “good” Taleban (including Haqqani network militants) to relocate in Pakistan or slip over the border to Afghanistan and only hit those they consider to be “bad” Taleban, namely those factions involved in the wave of attacks in Pakistan. The Pakistani daily Nation reported in August 2014:

It is alleged that members of the Haqqani network – the good Taliban – were allowed to evacuate their bases in North Waziristan prior to the operation. According to local tribesmen, the militants are now being resettled . . . in Upper Kurram. . . . This raises serious questions about Pakistan’s counter-terrorism policy. If the idea is to target only those who present an imminent threat to internal security, while accommodating the ‘good militants’ who are only interested in Afghanistan or India, then really, nothing has changed.

That approach is confirmed by another Pakistani source that alleges that “seven out of the nine tehsils, or sub-districts [of North Waziristan], have been excluded from the overall operation, which [includes an area, Data Khel, where] Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the prominent militant commander . . . has been harboring the Haqqanis” (more detail here). An Afghan who recently visited the area told AAN that, after the destruction in the larger towns of North Waziristan, a new centre for the Haqqani network has “been constructed” in Karak, near the town of Bannu, where he has seen large numbers of armed Haqqani militants moving freely in the streets.

Some foreign militants may possibly have escaped across, or were allowed to cross, the border with Afghanistan. This might explain the increase of alleged Islamic State (“Daesh”) fighters in different Afghan provinces who are often described as “Arabs,” “Chechens,” Central Asians” or “Pakistani” – a description previously reserved for members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Also, factions of the so-called Punjabi Taleban in Pakistan have ‘decided,’ incidentally just after Zarb-e Azb had commenced, to stop fighting and focus on dawat and tabligh (proselytising and propaganda) in Pakistan but to continue to operate in Afghanistan.

Pakistan, despite its claimed change of attitude, is also seemingly trying to keep ahead of anyone else, take credit for any progress and, above all, control the process. This impression is supported by the flurry of often unattributed and sometimes premature ‘breaking news’ reports in the Pakistani media (usually fed to them by the Pakistani military) about talks and the Taleban’s willingness to join them. Pakistan seemingly is even trying to slip Taleban into talks with the Afghan government who are not authorised by the movement’s leadership. (Even the case of ‘mistaken identity’ belongs in this category, in which a Taleban leader told the Turkish Anadolu news agency in early March of an immediate start of peace talks, which was then vehemently denied by the Taleban.) It is also striking how easily Pakistani officials and media now mention that the Taleban leadership is currently meeting in Pakistan to make up their minds about talks and is also meeting with Pakistani officials (see for example here). This belies decades of denial that Pakistan had anything to do with the Taleban.

b) China

China faces what a leading expert on the country, Richard Weitz, in an article for Jamestown’s China Brief, called “major challenges:” “First, China has found it difficult to apply its potentially most powerful tool, its economic wealth, to Afghanistan due to many local obstacles.” He mentions China’s comparatively low aid promises to Afghanistan of, in US dollars, 32 million for 2013 and China’s “effectively halted showcase project,” the Mes-e Ainak copper mine. He adds, “Second, China has few negative sanctions that Beijing can employ against the parties to prod them to make concessions. The government has generally opposed applying sanctions on principle and in any case does not provide any of the parties with much economic assistance that Beijing could threaten to withhold.” It must be added that China has maintained contact with the Taleban since before its recent offers to facilitate a peace process, to make sure that Uighur militants in the insurgency’s ranks are not allowed to cross over to China. A former Taleban diplomat who has been part of these contacts recently confirmed this to AAN. “Finally,” Weitz writes, “whereas Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India and Western governments have cultivated politicians, warlords and other influential Afghans, the Chinese government has sought to avoid getting bogged down in Afghan internal politics. Yet, whereas Russia and India have renewed their former Afghan partnership, and [the Chinese have] recoiled at Islamabad’s political instability, ties with regional terrorist groups and faltering economy.” Weitz finally quotes a Chinese author explaining Beijing’s stance on Afghanistan as follows:

A comprehensive involvement in Afghan affairs by China will bring huge risks. It will have to confront the mess that the US experienced, the different views of Afghan sects in addition to the remaining US influence, making it a nearly impossible idea. But the West insists China is taking a free ride in Afghanistan, urging us to offer more. Kabul also has high expectations on China over its rebuilding. China has many interests in Afghanistan. No matter how risky Afghanistan’s peaceful reconstruction is, China needs to be there. . . . This is the cost of being a major power and we need to get used to it.

A Chinese scholar told AAN at a recent conference in a Central Asian country that the country’s foreign policy has long lacked any interest in Afghanistan and therefore sufficient knowledge about the problems involved. It might therefore rely on Pakistani insights into these problems – if true, this might result in a pro-Pakistani bias.

c) The Afghan government

Afghanistan’s new government faces its own problems. A number of Afghan politicians have told AAN that they are concerned that the peace talk initiative has taken so much precedence that it overshadows, and sometimes completely blocks, work on other crucial issues – and that they have the feeling there is premature optimism with regard to the hoped-for Pakistani about-face as well as and exaggerated expectations that a breakthrough is imminent. Some of these interlocutors also take the difficulties between the two former competing presidential camps, now united in the government, in establishing the cabinet or appointing provincial governors as a sign of their general unwillingness to share power. This will be exacerbated, they say, if both are forced to share power with a third, strong, contender.

Ghani’s plans to make the HPC more effective, appoint a new chairman, or transfer responsibility to the NSC make sense, given the council’s almost complete lack of any countable achievement. However, even if he should decide to keep it, those who will lose their membership (and they already expect to) will join the growing legion of enemies of the government who have lost their positions. (These include old cabinet members and current MPs who have been excluded from being candidates for the new cabinet, officials of the presidential office who have been summarily fired, and attorneys who have had to undergo exams to prove they are up to their current jobs – although such scrutiny is no doubt overdue).

As said above, Ghani’s prioritisation of peace talks makes sense, as peace is a precondition for sustainable economic development (and maintaining the – still feeble – achievements of the past 13 years in the social sectors). But not everything depends on Kabul. That it now feels ready for peace negotiations is not sufficient; the other side also must agree. This is what the US and its allies also had to learn.

d) The Taleban

As their spokesman Mujahed said after the talks leak, the Taleban have not finally made up their mind whether (a) they want to talk at all and (b) whether they want to enter into direct talks with the Ghani-Abdullah government. So far, they had declined to talk to the government in Kabul, saying it is not a master of its own decisions and that the US continues to have the final say in Afghanistan. It is said that any green light must be given by Mulla Omar, who has not been seen or heard in public for many years, although in general the Taleban Qatar office (as part of their political commission led by Tayyeb Agha, a close confidant and relative of the Taleban leader, and his deputy, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai) has been authorised, by him or the Quetta shura, as the only channel for talks. Taleban representatives are also clearly joining in on-going preparations for eventual talks.

Some Taleban military field commanders seem to continue to lack confidence in the Kabul government’s independence. A recent report claimed that the head of the Quetta shura, military leader and deputy amir ul-momenin of the Taleban, Mulla Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, is still trying to persuade the strong commander networks of his former deputy Abdul Qayum Zaker (who officially ‘retired’ in April last year, read here) to support the talk option (see here).

The Akhtar-Zaker conflict shows that cohesion within the Taleban leadership has weakened. This is the result of a conjunction of personal aspirations and tribal differences amplified by the (grossly inflated) rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan (here is our take on this) and, above all, by the long-term physical absence of Taleban leader Mulla Muhammad Omar. The Akhtar-Zaker conflict can be interpreted as about power – Zaker was in fact sidelined in 2014 in an internal struggle for the deputy leadership position immediately below Mulla Omar. The secession of Mulla Rauf Khadem from the Taleban (another former deputy military leader who had declared his switch to the Islamic State in January this year and who died in a drone strike shortly after) was triggered by tribal tensions in the Taleban leadership. Akhtar had been promoting his own Ishaqzai over the Alizai tribe, to which Khadem belonged (more background in this AAN dispatch).

The Islamic State (IS) factor also provides a potential alternative for Taleban who do not want to follow a peace talks strategy, if it is what the movement’s leadership finally goes for. In the past, Taleban dissidents did not have many organised alternative options (Hezb-e Islami, the other insurgent group, was never one for them) and usually ended up rather isolated. This was the case with early ‘reconciled’ Taleban like Mutawakel or Za’if or the group around Mutasem Agha Jan, former head of the Taleban political commission who ended up in exile, much sought for track II meetings but rather isolated. Khadem – until his quick demise – and Bakht Muhammad drew that card. Bakht Muhammad, who has worked outside the Taleban movement for several years, is the younger brother and successor of notorious Mullah Dadullah (also known as Mullah Mansur Dadullah; see my 2007 paper on him, in German, and here).

On the other hand, reconciliation between Akhtar Mansur and Zaker (in combination with Mulla Omar’s ‘spiritual leadership) might have an advantage. If the Taleban can prevent fragmentation and come to the talks with unified leadership, dissidents will find it more difficult to opt out of an eventual agreement. It would not only bring along most field commanders but also delegitimise those who continue fighting. If ones looks at it from this angle, the Afghan government and the Taleban might have a common interest to hold the IS at bay. Otherwise, the new IS ‘brand’ could develop into a grave danger for the success of any peace process, as Taleban dissidents could attach themselves to it, continue the insurgency and possibly even give it a new, internationalist-jihadi face.

Last but definitely not least, the conditions the Taleban might lay down for a peace agreement might be hard to swallow for the Kabul government and many in the Afghan public: a complete withdrawal of foreign troops that would include the trainers of Mission Resolute Support and the US special forces (details in this AAN dispatch and this AAN paper); the release of all Taleban prisoners (15,000, according to one source) and changes in the country’s constitution at the expense of rights and freedoms, particularly for women and the media. A former Taleb now residing in Kabul told AAN that the Taleban would stipulate that no law can be against Islamic values and would eliminate laws and constitutional articles they deem un-Islamic.

A look ahead

While the former Afghan government has pushed for direct talks with the Taleban without success – not only blocked by the Taleban’s refusal but also by Pakistan’s to be helpful (Islamabad considered President Karzai’s position unfriendly) -, chances are that the current government might be able to turn the tide. For the first time, even the Taleban leadership seems to be considering talking to Kabul. But there remain many hurdles to clear.

Even if the Taleban leaders decide to join peace talks, and bring most of their commanders and fighters along, it is completely open whether they are sufficiently ready for compromise to reach an agreement. This would require the Taleban to acknowledge that they are not the only relevant political force in the country and to subscribe to a form of genuine democratic, constitutional pluralism. In a statement issued by its political commission during the 2012 track II talks in Chantilly (France; quoted here) they state that “the current constitution of Afghanistan is illegitimate because it is written under the shadows of B-52 aircraft.” That is not a complete rejection of constitutionalism, however. In the same statement they agree that Afghanistan needs a constitution and even a separation of power between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary:

The personal, civil and political rights of all citizens of Afghanistan shall be regulated through the Constitution. . . . With the blessing of constitution, the way shall be paved for political power balance and all Afghan parties to participate in the upcoming government.

But this might still be a push for sharia law in disguise. They insist that a future constitution “shall be written by Afghan scholars in a free atmosphere and will then be presented to the nation for approval.” The reference to [Islamic] scholars (ulema) indicates that they want to reverse what scholars have termed the “major innovation” of the “modernising” 1964 constitution (which also has been maintained in the 2004 constitution): “resolving the formal order of priority between sharia and statutory law in favor of the latter.” (2)

The Taleban have also reportedly rejected – so far – any notion of a ceasefire before talks. This hints at them planning to strengthen their military position before they finally decide whether to come to the negotiating table, leaving the option open for a strategy of “fighting and talking” at the same time. Many observers in Kabul, both national and international, expect a violent spring ‘fighting season’ – although there was not really a winter lull (3) – despite Kabul’s comparably peaceful appearance, at least since the end of the wave of bombings in November and December. If the “fighting and talking” option materialises, it would not help to win over those sceptical of such talks, be it in political forces of the former Northern Alliance civil society or in the broader civilian population. But, nevertheless, even a ceasefire option seems to be at least on the table.

What also seems clear is that Pakistan may have changed its methods on how to achieve its national interests, but it has not changed these interests as such. As Barney Rubin put it in a paper in late 2014:

While Pakistan no longer wants a Taliban-controlled government in Afghanistan, Pakistan wants to use its “influence” with the Taliban as leverage with Afghanistan over bilateral issues like India’s presence in Afghanistan, Kabul’s longstanding refusal to recognize the border, and the apparent use of Afghan territory as a sanctuary by some Pakistani Taliban.

This thinking is reflected in a recent quote from “a senior Pakistani official”: “This is a big opportunity for the Taliban to enter the mainstream.”

Despite all warranted urgency and optimism, let’s be realistic: a peaceful solution might still be years away. But it would be good if attempts to find one started now – finally. Therefore, it is necessary to make a first meeting – if it happens – meaningful and to avoid hyped expectations and possible embarrassments if they are not met, so that a failure of such a meeting cannot be turned into an excuse for having no new talks for a long time to follow. Maybe, an approach of “let’s sit first and work out an agenda then” – not the other way around, as is usual – might be the best option for making first steps toward an end of the war.

 

(1) The two were Anas Haqqani, Jalaluddin Haqqani’s son, and Hafez Rashid. They were apparently trying to meet their released relative, Abdul Nabi Omari, near the Afghan-Pakistani border in Khost province.

(2) This, as well as pros and cons of an amendment of the current Afghan constitution as a result of peace talks with the Taleban, are discussed in detail in this January 2015 USIP paper. This paper also states that the 1931 constitution (enforced under Nader Shah) and the constitution of the Islamic State of Afghanistan (1992–96) prioritised sharia law. On this point, the interests of the Taleban and at least some former mujahedin now part of the current Afghan political system might converge.

(3) By far the most activity was seen in the south – far ahead of the next most violent region, the ‘east’ (which comprises both the ‘traditional’ east around Jalalabad and the southeast,  that is, Loya Paktia, where the Haqqani network dominates) – although the latter has received much more attention over the past months. The south still has the highest level of Taleban activity, countering the argument of some who claim that the original mainstream Kandahari Taleban are fading out.

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