Attempts last year to reconcile the Taleban ended where they had started a year before – stuck in stalemate. Two major developments this year, however, could affect the peace process. The departure of President Hamid Karzai and accession of a new leader in the spring provides an opportunity for rebooting the peace process. At best, this could be a game-changer. The withdrawal of foreign troops, however, could potentially cut both ways. It might trigger an attempt by the insurgents to deliver a knockout blow to the government, thereby intensifying the conflict or it might strip the Taleban of their stated raison d’être for fighting – the presence of ‘infidels’ on Afghan soil – forcing them to at least rethink how they sell their call to endless war. AAN’s Borhan Osman examines the current state of the peace efforts with a look back at the last year and also offers thoughts on the prospects for peace in 2014 and beyond.
If the past year’s peace process is to teach us anything about how it might develop in 2014, it is that, as long as the parties stick to a one-sided formula in a conflict that is essentially multilateral, the conflict will be stuck in its present course. During 2013, ambivalence in positions and the tendency for all parties to want to hold talks on their own terms (the Taleban, the Afghan government and the United States) drove any possibility of peace talks into a dead end.
The government in Kabul has merely played around with talks about talks, while simultaneously trying to bar all potential third players except Pakistan from engaging with the Taleban in peace negotiations. The Taleban continue to deny the Afghan government is a legitimate party to the conflict or is worth talking to. Holding fast to this non-recognition stance, the Taleban have consistently denied reports of secret meetings between its representatives and those of the Afghan government outside Afghanistan. (Their latest such denial is here.) They have insisted on talking to the Americans as their real adversary. However, it is not only the Taleban who have been bypassing Kabul. The United States also emerged from 2013 accused of treating the Afghan government as a secondary player, specifically during the aborted opening of a Taleban office in Qatar last summer (see our in-depth analysis here).
The mess around the Qatar office spoilt the one major potential opportunity that could have been a game-changer if it had been handled more wisely. It showed how intricate and fragile peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taleban may be, given the stubbornness and mutual, deep mistrust of the other. The Taleban preferred to close their office altogether – after two years of German and US efforts to open it – than bring down the office flag and the plaque carrying the Islamic Emirate’s name. (That was done by their Qatari hosts.) President Karzai, in his turn, went on a public campaign against the Taleban’s ‘embassy in exile’, citing contradictory conspiracy theories and levelling serious accusations against both the Taleban and the US: from charging the US and the Taleban as co-conspirators against Afghanistan to terming the whole Qatar office affair an ISI conspiracy which had been “successfully thwarted”. This only helped deepen the already profound mistrust between the Afghan government and the Taleban (and the Afghan government and the US), exactly at a time when more confidence-building measures were needed.
Aside from what could have been at Qatar, the Afghan government and its official body in charge of peace-making, the High Peace Council (HPC), failed to offer anything substantial to revive the process. Most of what the government undertook revolved around the Pakistan nexus as if Islamabad was a direct party to the conflict. Frequent meetings between Afghan and Pakistani officials, including two summits, only kept the buzz alive. As always, Pakistan did not prove as helpful as Afghanistan hoped. Islamabad is probably utilising Kabul’s over-expectations to keep Afghanistan in a state of begging for help, but in fact is either not able to deliver since it does not control the Taleban or is unwilling to. While pushing Pakistan for years to bring the Taleban to the table, the most recent response Afghanistan received in December was that Islamabad could not facilitate direct Taleban-Kabul contacts. Nawaz Sharif’s National Security Advisor, Sartaj Aziz, was frank: “We have contacts with the Afghan Taliban but do not have control over them, so it will be unrealistic to expect that Pakistan delivers the Taliban for the peace process.” The only thing Islamabad presents itself as able to do is release Taleban from its prisons.
Pakistan’s help, even in that narrower sense, has yet to be delivered, let alone be found effective. Among the 50 Taleban members whose release Pakistan has announced in various batches since late 2012, it has been possible to verify the actual freeing of only a very small number of them, with the rest remaining as mere announcements without visible results. The most anticipated release was of the Taleban’s former number two Mullah Abdul Ghani, aka Mullah Baradar. When it was finally announced last September, it was denied by the Taleban and no independent source could verify it. A statement to the UN Security Council’s Sanctions Committee by the HPC chairman, Salahuddin Rabbani, in December further confirmed that Kabul had been disappointed. He said: “[We] hope to see his [Baradar’s] full release in the near future.” [emphasis added] Mullah Omar’s former secretary Abdul Ahad Jahangirwal’s freedom was also announced in November, for the third time, but has also been difficult to confirm. And out of those genuinely set free, none has proved useful for talks since they have remained inaccessible to the Afghan government which has not even known their whereabouts. Those in detention have not been easy to meet, either. It took three summits, including the two bilateral and one trilateral with British prime minister, David Cameron, just to facilitate a reportedly useless – or possibly non-existent – meeting between Salahuddin Rabbani and Mullah Baradar (1) (see more AAN analysis here).
Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s obsession with Mullah Baradar made the Taleban release a statement to the effect that he had no authority to talk on behalf of the movement, effectively devaluating Kabul and Islamabad’s trump card.
The government’s roadmap to ‘surrender’
Other strategies used by the Afghan government as part of the peace efforts included talking up break-away Taleban figures who actually have no official authority any more, such as the former head of the Taleban’s political committee Mutasim Agha Jan, now based in Turkey. He failed to deliver anything more substantial than optimistic media interviews. Also among these ineffective ‘strategies’ was the never-muting empty talk around moving the Taleban office to Saudi Arabia or Turkey that Kabul and Islamabad never felt tired of repeating. Afghanistan and Pakistan never spoke of the Qatar office favourably and Kabul had long set its mind on some place other than Qatar, as suggested in its ‘roadmap to peace’, which was then overruled by the US. (See our analysis on that here).
A key reason for the failure of all these strategies and for the overall stalemate on the government’s part lies in the HPC’s overly ambitious peace map, which was released in November 2012. The HPC has continued to cling to the map, however unrealistic it is in giving any detail of how to achieve any of its aims. The roadmap reduces the concept of reconciliation to something the Taleban see as simply a request to ‘surrender in the name of peace’. Or at the least, the plan is not clear about anything beyond that. The underlying assumption in the roadmap is that the insurgents would be persuaded to give up violence simply by providing them with jobs as if their fighting was motivated solely by economic interest, rather than being a political struggle. This is one of the reasons the Taleban have categorically spurned the government’s initiatives to make contact and never used a reconciliatory tone towards it. Pakistan is central to the road map and was busy in the peace efforts seen in last year’s frequent – and unproductive – back and forth between Islamabad and Kabul. This is yet another reason for the roadmap-based peace process to only stagger along. Pakistan might have immense capability to influence the Taleban in certain issues, but this apparently does not amount to controlling them, and therefore it cannot coerce them into doing everything.
In hindsight, the over-ambitious roadmap seems to be frozen in its initial stages. By now, it should have been at its fourth ‘step’, namely in the middle of ‘formal direct negotiations’ with the Taleban, with an agreement on a ceasefire and another on the modalities of cooperation to allow the upcoming elections to take place, with insurgents allowed to participate. All these objectives remain a distant dream.
How the insurgents’ message is lost between two audiences
It is not only the government’s faulty reconciliation policies that have caused the standstill. The Taleban have equally failed to play the right game. The movement’s leadership has expressed some leniency in peace-related stances, including a much-awaited announcement – albeit indirectly – of cutting relations with al-Qaida in its statement on the occasion of the opening of the Qatar office. That statement also put talking to Afghans (but “in due appropriate time”) as one of the five objectives of the office. Other positive words came from Mullah Omar in his Eid ul-Fitr message, where the Taleban leader attempted to dismiss the notion that his group was after power. This was not the first time the Taleban have said so, but this time it came with more emphasis and supposedly from their leader. Additionally, Mullah Omar also put a strong emphasis on the inclusivity of the political system the Taleban is seeking to establish. However, all these nice words are yet to be put into any sort of action. And all the hints of changing positions still fall short of the flexibility needed for setting off a serious initiative for peace talks.
Such statements are also open to scrutiny. They might be meant to simply generate positive attention and make the Taleban sound like a more political movement. They could also be an indication that the Taleban are opening up, given the hardness of keeping up the fighting spirit and possibly increasing war-weariness among their foot soldiers, in the absence of tangible gains. However, such an opening would entail the call to fight among foot soldiers diminishing, which does not seem to be happening. Instead, with the withdrawal of most foreign troops, Taleban propaganda insists victory is just around the corner. The Taleban’s media branch reportedly spends a huge amount of time crafting messages which convey some sort of peacefulness, only to make sure these messages do not discourage the fighters by making the movement appear weak. Given this rank and file-oriented rhetoric in the Taleban’s public statements, it is difficult to know for sure if there is any serious intent towards peace going on behind the scenes (especially bearing in mind that any moves might not be publicised before any concrete deal was reached). All that can be said at the moment is that there is no public indication that the Taleban are serious about anything but carrying on the war.
Behind the scenes and in practical terms, the insurgents reportedly favour as a peace option the creation of an interim administration made up of people uninvolved in the post-2001 government that would re-write the constitution. This idea, which initially popped up during back-channel discussions in the Chantilly Conference in December 2012, has been lobbied for over the past year by various parties, including Zia Massud, younger brother of the Taleban’s erstwhile enemy, Ahmad Shah Massud, Hezb-e Islami of Hekmatyar and the Front Against Foreign Bases, a newly established alliance of Islamists and anti-government, anti-US politicians, which is thought to be sympathetic, and even in indirect communication, with the Taleban (for background on the group, see here.) Such an administration would include the Taleban and would redefine the course of the political process that started with the Bonn Agreement of December 2001 that excluded the Taleban. It would introduce a radical change to that political process, but would be effective only if it enjoyed the agreement of all the relevant political stakeholders.
The Taleban: still defiant, but facing the challenge of credibility
There is little proof in practice that the Taleban have given up its self-image as a widely popular and omnipotent movement that can overthrow the incumbent government. (This feeling is fed by reports in the international media exaggerating the group’s power and reach.) True willingness for peace would come only when that apparently unshakable faith among its fighters that a comeback is possible is eroded.
The Taleban’s vow to fight as long as there is a single foreign soldier left on Afghan soil and their total rejection of the government as a ‘puppet of the anti-Islam alliance of Crusaders’ indicates the insurgents are as stubbornly repudiating of the existing political order as ever. However, such a rigid attitude has set the Taleban on the course of an endless fight which will only end up in a zero-sum game for them. And it does not increase the group’s popularity.
Nevertheless, there are still two developments that could boost prospects for peace. The first is the Taleban’s narrative of war losing credibility as foreign troops pack up. By the time the fighting season of 2014 unfolds, foreign troops will be scarcely visible on the battlefield. It will be the Afghan National Security Forces on their own fighting on the front lines, Afghan versus Afghan. (However, if there is anything that could make the Taleban’s ‘jihad’ resonate with some beyond 2014, it could be a signed Bilateral Security Agreement. President Karzai, by making the BSA arguably the most controversial deal in his reign, has probably played a major role in giving the Taleban’s point of view a wider resonance.) In the absence of a targetable, ‘real’ ie foreign, enemy on the ground, there is the prospect of micro ceasefires, as currently seen in Helmand spreading. We might see a smooth return to a working peace due to “the absence of foreign troops as an irritant” as the New York Times wrote about Kunar. Really, though this does not look implausible. Helmand residents talking to this author just recently reported a still eerie calm, looking much like an informally negotiated truce in places across the province. Such local-level ceasefires would particularly help the Taleban save their war-weary constituencies from further suffering. Much depends on the capacity and appetite of both sides locally to fight; the pattern of the post-withdrawal conflict is still not yet evident.
The second development that could lead to progress in efforts to forge a negotiated end to the war is the new leader to be elected in April. The next head of state and his approach to peace and even his past background could have a clear impact on the peace process. The new man in the Arg would have a great opportunity to build confidence with the Taleban and break with the policies of the past 12 years that have failed to bring the insurgents to the table by redrawing the peace plan.
The silver lining to the 2014 withdrawal
Although 2014 is not as good a time for peace-making as 2002 was (when the war ended and Taliban could easily have been re-integrated instead of being persecuted) or 2009-2010 (the peak of the war), it still provides a reasonable opportunity for peace talks to take hold. This opportunity is created by dynamics different than of the previous two talking seasons. That is, the Afghans themselves will be left at the core of the dispute on both sides. Continuing the war bleeds nobody but Afghans. And making peace is becoming in the first place the urgent priority of Afghans themselves as the West withdraws. That is the silver lining of the 2014 international withdrawal.
However, in order to have fruitful talks, there must be a serious desire for peace by all parties, something that cannot presently be taken for granted. Many of the government elites and the hawks among the Taleban are still out there rejecting reconciliation. Only on the part of the US, although it is very late, it seems there is a real desire to end the war through negotiation soon.
In a situation where it is difficult to envisage the eventual finale being anything apart from a negotiated end to the conflict, this year (and the next) is going to see whether this will happen soon, or if hawks on both sides prevail to try to push for outright victory over the other. In the latter scenario, Afghans’ real desire for reconciliation would have to wait for the hawks to try out the military option, to fail amid more bloodshed and suffering and for negotiations, finally, to seem desirable again. It is an unhappy scenario. One would hope for popular mobilisation, one really on the grassroots-level, to push both parties to talk. The collective will, once mobilised, will force all actors to see that there is no option but to end the war through talking, but whether that comes in 2014 or after more years of grief remains to be seen.
(1) The news of Rabbani’s meeting in November with Mullah Baradar was met with skepticism and confusion. It is still not clear what exactly happened, whether a meeting happened at all, and what was its nature if it really took place. Here, Pakistan Prime Minister’s National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz confirmed the confusion around the reported meeting.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020