Words, No Deeds: 2017, another lost year for peace (talks) in Afghanistan
Despite a new offer by the Afghan government through the High Peace Council, there was not much movement toward government-Taleban talks to end the war peacefully in the past year. Both sides continue to engage in general pro-peace rhetoric, while allowing little to happen in practice. Currently, they are bogged down in a dispute over whether the Taleban political office should be in Kabul or Qatar. AAN‚Äôs Thomas Ruttig and Obaid Ali have been looking at peace-related developments in 2017 ‚Äď following up on our 30 December Afghan migration review for the past year ‚Äď and found that this disagreement masks larger issues.
After another year of little movement towards peace talks, or even the re-establishment of direct official contacts between the Afghan government and the Taleban, the High Peace Council (HPC) came out with a new proposal. On 6 December 2017, the president-appointed body announced that the Afghan government was willing to allow the largest insurgent movement in the country, the Taleban, to open a political office in Kabul in order to start peace negotiations and asked them to put forward a ‚Äúmechanism‚ÄĚ for how to best conduct talks. There would be no preconditions.
Akram Khpelwak, head of the HPC secretariat, was briefing the media about a council delegation‚Äôs visit to Indonesia and said:
If they want to open an office in Kabul, [or] in any other country, and require any facilities before starting peace talks, the Afghan government and the High Peace Council is ready to facilitate it. (‚Ä¶)
If the Taleban want mediation through a tribal elders‚Äô council, Afghan religious scholars, jihadi leaders, [or] Islamic religious scholars, the HPC is ready to start peace negotiations. The HPC and Afghan government would not set any pre-condition for negotiation. The HPC is ready to start peace talks through any mechanism that the Taleban propose. If not, the Afghan people will decide who wants peace and who wants war.‚ÄĚ
Khpelwak added that the peace process was not meant ‚Äúas a surrender.‚ÄĚ It was meant as ‚Äúa national reconciliation process in the light of Islamic and national values.‚ÄĚ (see here). He added that the offer of a political office in Kabul to the Taleban was similar to how the government had started peace negotiations with Hezb-e Islami, which ended in a peace deal in September 2016 (AAN analysis here).
Kabul versus Doha
This offer could be read as a new openness to whatever ideas the Taleban might come up with. However, Khpelwak‚Äôs statement ignored the fact that the Taleban had previously rejected the idea that the peace deal with Hezb could serve as a blueprint for negotiations with them (quoted here, for example; AAN analysis here).
The Taleban reacted to the proposal by reiterating, in a statement issued by its political office in Qatar¬†that they were in favour of a ‚Äúpeaceful solution of the Afghanistan problem,‚ÄĚ but that the Qatar office was the only structure that the Taleban leadership had ‚Äúauthorised‚ÄĚ to explore such a solution.
The Taleban further accused the United States and Afghan governments of not being serious about a peaceful solution. They stated: ‚Äúthe opposite side‚Äôs anti-peace stand‚ÄĚ had been ‚Äúmade plain by its spreading rumours about a possible closure of the Qatar office.‚ÄĚ
Indeed, there had been such statements. On 9 December 2017, the Chief Executive‚Äôs office was quoted as stating, through its spokesman Jawed Faisal, that the government had received reports that the Qatar office had been misused for ‚Äúpropaganda and for fund raising‚ÄĚ(see here¬†and that it merely conferred political legitimacy to the Taleban. The government, Faisal added, would have to look into these reports and decide whether the office needed to be shut down (read media report here). This was followed by Defense Minister Tareq Shah Bahrami who, after participating in a Saudi-hosted meeting of its military anti-terrorism (and anti-Houthi) alliance, told the Saudi-financed daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat on 24 December that ‚ÄúThe Afghan government did not expect anything positive from the office and it has not produced anything of note.‚ÄĚ
Bahrami‚Äôs statement might have been merely a diplomatic gesture to the hosts who, in the shadow of Saudi-Iranian tensions, have entered into a spat with Qatar, attacking its small, but extremely rich and regionally active neighbour, for its alleged support for terrorism (media reporting here). There is also a rivalry about who has the lead in regional relations and possibly even as to who hosts the Taleban office. As The Guardian wrote, the closely allied ‚ÄúSaudi and Emirati monarchies have been pressing for [the office‚Äôs] closure since its inception, seeing it as a symbol of Doha‚Äôs diplomatic prestige and US-Qatari ties.‚ÄĚ There were also reports that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had offered to host a Taleban office before one was opened in Qatar, but the Taleban rejected the tough conditions the UAE planned to impose (read here¬†and here).
Even more importantly, there were reports¬†in the summer of 2017 that US president Donald Trump was pushing his Afghan counterpart to close the Qatar office. As Voice of America (VoA) reported, ‚Äúthere has been no official confirmation of such a request being initiated by the Afghan government,‚ÄĚ but, as it added, an Afghan official had anonymously confirmed that such discussions were held when President Ghani attended the United Nations General Assembly in September.
However, there were also statements in October 2017 from within the US government that seemed to indicate that not everyone was in favour of closing the office. The same VoA report quoted US Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, as saying:
“I think the decision will be made shortly,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday [3 October 2017], adding that one of the issues was to make sure the right people representing the Taliban are in the office [emphasis added by AAN]. (‚Ä¶)
He [Secretary of State Rex Tillerson] is looking to make certain we have the right people, so it’s just not an office in existence ‚ÄĒ an office that we can actually deal with.
Internal criticism by serving US diplomats of the proposed closure was reported, a sentiment that was added to publicly by many former leading US diplomats and analysts. James Dobbins and a number of former US envoys to Afghanistan and the region published a joint article in Foreign Policy, titled ‚ÄúExpelling the Taliban From Qatar Would Be a Grave Mistake.‚ÄĚ (Read it here.) VoA quoted one of the co-authors with the main argument against such a closure:
Closing the office “would foreclose on the possibility of a negotiated settlement, the only realistic and honorable way to end America’s longest war,” Jarrett Blanc, a former U.S. deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in a recently published op-ed in¬†Defense One, and news and analysis website focused on U.S. defense and national security issues.
With this, the Afghan and the US government run the risk of becoming instrumentalised in regional issues that have nothing to do with Afghanistan and closing down an important communication channel. Despite its ambivalent status resulting from Kabul‚Äôs aversion against it from the day of its opening (AAN analysis here), the Taleban office in Doha is a much frequented venue for diplomats and wannabe peace negotiators, as well as those wanting to negotiate ‚Äėcross-line‚Äô access for health workers or vaccination campaigns. Ahmed Rashid called it the ‚Äúonly long-lasting avenue for western governments to meet and try to persuade the group to enter into peace talks‚ÄĚ in a commentary for the Financial Times.
As long as there is no viable, mutually accepted alternative ‚Äď in Kabul or elsewhere ‚Äď closing this office could hamper attempts to gauge the Taleban‚Äôs position and to move them to the negotiating table. It could also be exploited by pro-war hardliners within the movement to argue that Kabul and Washington are not interested in peace and fighting is the only course of action.
From the Taleban‚Äôs perspective, opening an office in Kabul ‚Äď without a fallback position elsewhere ‚Äď would leave them at the mercy of the Afghan government and US troops in the country. For the time being, an office outside Afghanistan (and Pakistan!) gives the movement some room to manoeuvre independently.
High Peace Council activities
The offer of a Kabul office is part of the HPC‚Äôs newly-started activities after former Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili became its head (following the death of his predecessor, Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani), in June 2017. Gailani and the council had been given a prominent public role in the process toward the peace deal with Hezb-e Islami although, in fact, much of the serious negotiations were done through the country‚Äôs National Security Council and the Afghan intelligence service, the NDS. Under Khalili, the council has focused on two avenues. First, it has organised a number of gatherings at the local level in order to, as Habib Rahman Fawzi, a member of the HPC, told AAN, bring about ‚Äúa national consensus on peace-talks‚ÄĚ, and to encourage Afghans to initiate peace talks at the local level with the Taleban. (Consensus-building is important, as many in the political class are opposed to peace-making, which is not surprising given the Taleban‚Äôs campaign of terrorist attacks in Kabul and elsewhere. In the first half year of 2017, the movement ‚Äúclaimed responsibility for 10 suicide and complex attacks resulting in 318 civilian casualties (93 deaths and 225 injured) ‚Äď six per cent of all civilian casualties‚ÄĚ, according to UNAMA‚Äôs last complete data set.) (This does not include IED and similar attacks, which are difficult to attribute, but are known to be widely used by the Taleban over many years.)
However, local level talks have been tried over many years, without bringing the Taleban leaders or any ‚Äėreconcilee‚Äô to the negotiating table. Indeed, a number of Taleban field commanders, who had laid down arms, later re-joined the insurgency when the government failed to ensure their safety or continue payments (read media report here: http://www.tolonews.com/fa/afghanistan/28119-insurgents-do-about-turn-after-joining-peace-process-in-jawzjan, here and here).
Secondly, on the international level, the HPC has also sought the support of Indonesian Islamic scholars to rally arguments against the Taleban‚Äôs religious justification of their war, as being against the ‚Äúforeign infidels and their hirelings,‚ÄĚ as it is usually put in Taleban statements. Indonesia, HPC chairman Khalili said, is a country not involved in the Afghan conflict that comes ‚Äúwith a good reputation‚ÄĚ among Afghans and with Indonesians forming the largest national grouping of Islamic scholars worldwide (he mentioned their two largest organisations, the Religious Scholars‚Äô Movement ‚Äď or Nahdat ul-Ulema, in local language ‚Äď with 91 million members and the Muhammadia Forum with 35 million members). It could, therefore, he said, effectively support peace in Afghanistan and had promised to do so: Indonesian scholars are to attend an international Islamic conference and declare the Taleban‚Äôs ongoing war illegitimate (see more here). There is some scepticism about this initiative. Mullah Abdul Salam Za‚Äôif, a former Taleban minister and ambassador to Islamabad, who has lived in Afghanistan since 2007, told AAN that the HPC was merely flagging up its visit to Indonesia to try and show it was more active. He added that Indonesia was a country ‚Äúnot that much aware of the Afghan conflict.‚ÄĚ
In fact, the HPC has tried several times to organise a conference of international Islamic scholars. This happened as early as 2011 with Saudi and other support, as well as on a bilateral Afghan-Pakistani basis. The first attempts were made in vain (read here). Then, in September 2013, the HPC succeeded with the cooperation of the Ulama Council of Afghanistan and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). An ‚ÄúInternational Ulama Conference on Islam and Peace‚ÄĚ was held in Kabul, after which participants from eight countries issued a declaration¬†saying that
‚Ä¶ the current conflict and bloodshed among Afghans clearly have material and political motivations and have no religious basis or justification. Therefore, the Ulama have the responsibility to seek peaceful solutions to the current conflict and end this violence through education and increasing awareness.
The conference also urged both sides of the conflict to seek a peaceful solution. However, its call had no impact on the intensity of the war, and it still fell short of the unilateral condemnation of the Taleban that Kabul was looking for.
The HPC offers came after several new attempts to get direct peace talks with the Taleban started or, at least, that come closer to such an opportunity. This included initiatives from independent organisations. In August 2017, the Pugwash Conference ‚Äď an international non-government network of scientists that sometimes help to mediate in armed conflict ‚Äď organised a gathering in Kazakhstan. (Pugwash had been involved in several earlier attempts to facilitate ‚Äėnon-official‚Äô talks between Afghans of ‚Äėdifferent parties‚Äô with the aim of preparing formal peace negotiations (AAN analysis here). In the Kazakh capital of Astana, prominent Afghan figures, government officials and Taleban representatives were supposed to take part. According to a participant, the Taleban were not granted visas to attend the conference; the Taleban said their visas were blocked at the urging of the Kabul government. From the government side, only low-ranking diplomats from the Afghan embassy in Moscow attended, according to Faiz Muhammad Zaland, a Kabul university lecturer, who participated as a civil society activist. There were also independent political analysts who delivered speeches. Zaland told AAN the absence of Taleban representatives and Kabul‚Äôs low-ranking presence did not help to have any substantial talks and the gathering concluded ‚Äúwithout any outcome.‚ÄĚ
In November 2017, Pugwash failed for the second time that year to convene such discussions. (1) This time, it had planned that eight Taleban members from the Qatar office, independent political figures, civil society activists and government representatives would meet in Dubai. However, according to an invitee to the gathering, it had to be cancelled because the Taleban, once again, were not granted visas.
Other initiatives faced the same fate. This included a planned three-day meeting in Norway‚Äôs capital Oslo from 4 to 6 December 2017 that had to be cancelled. It was supposed to include 40 Afghans, including HPC members, political activists, government officials and Taleban, according to Mullah Za‚Äôif, who maintains relations with the Taleban office in Qatar and is well aware of Taleban positions and, therefore, is often invited by third parties to such meetings. Za‚Äôif said the cancellation happened because ‚Äúthe Palace interfered.‚ÄĚ According to a media report confirmed by diplomatic sources in Islamabad and Afghan participants, a ‚Äúclosed-door conference‚ÄĚ with ‚Äúrepresentatives from 70 countries (‚Ä¶) that provide financial support to Afghanistan‚ÄĚ was held instead in Norway in mid-December to explore ways to start a political process in Afghanistan. Afghan government officials and Pakistani diplomats attended, as well as Za‚Äôif, according to this source. (2)
Za‚Äôif also doubted, when talking to AAN, that the government has any intention of starting direct talk with the Taleban. He sees a sign for this in its blocking of third party initiatives. HPC members insisted, when approached by AAN, that the council would ‚Äúwelcome‚ÄĚ third party peace-talk initiatives, but said they should be Afghan-led. HPC deputy chair Habiba Sarobi said the same to ToloNews in December (see here).
At the same time there have been two reports hinting at regular contacts between the Afghan government and the Taleban. Abdul Hakim Mujahed, a member of the HPC Executive Council, was quoted by Afghan media¬†as saying that both sides had held direct talks several times. Before, in late August 2017, the AP‚Äôs Kathy Gannon had reported¬†that she had seen ‚Äúdocuments describing the conversations between Afghan officials and the Taliban leadership in both Pakistan and the Gulf state of Qatar,‚ÄĚ involving intelligence chief Massum Stanakzai ‚Äď who had ‚Äúnear daily telephone conversations with [the head of the Taleban Qatar office]‚ÄĚ Abbas Stanakzai ‚Äď and National Security Adviser Muhammed Hanif Atmar. Neither Gannon, nor Mujahed, gave details about what had been discussed, although Gannon reported a list of issues the Taleban would like to discuss (which included ‚Äúamendments‚ÄĚ to the current constitution) and that Afghan officials had said, ‚Äúneither side was ready to agree to public peace talks.‚ÄĚ
On official channels, other formats designed to explore a way toward peace talks also continued. In April 2017, Russia hosted a third round of multilateral meetings. In the first round, in December 2016, only Pakistan and China were invited. In February 2017, Iran, India and Afghanistan were added, and in April the Central Asian republics were invited to join. According to official Russian media, the US ‚Äúrefused‚ÄĚ to participate, despite Moscow‚Äôs urging, and the Taleban turned down an invitation as the process, in their eyes, seemed to be motivated solely by the ‚Äúpolitical agenda‚ÄĚ of the organisers.
Afghanistan was represented by Muhammad Ashraf Haidari, its foreign ministry‚Äôs director general for policy and strategy ‚Äď i.e. on a higher level than in the later Astana talks mentioned above, but still mid-ranking. Haidari reportedly told the meeting that the ‚Äúbest venue‚ÄĚ for ‚Äúface-to-face‚ÄĚ talks with the Taleban was on Afghan soil (media reporting here and here).
In mid-October 2017, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), which comprises of the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States, resumed its work at a meeting in Oman. This format had stalled 18 months earlier after the killing of Taleban leader Mullah Muhammad Akhtar Mansur by a US drone in May 2016 (read AAN analysis here). Before the meeting, Chief Executive Dr Abdullah said Afghan-Pakistan relations would be discussed at the meeting (quoted here); a Pakistani Foreign Office official countered by saying that Pakistan attended the Oman parley with ‚Äúlow expectations.‚ÄĚ A senior Taleban official told VoA his group has ‚Äúnothing to do‚ÄĚ with the QCG process. The participants reportedly agreed to stay quiet over the result of the meeting. At the April meeting in Moscow, the Afghan representative had reportedly criticised the QCG for failing to bring the Taleban to the negotiating table, due to ‚Äúthe members‚ÄĚ ‚Äď i.e. mainly Pakistan ‚Äď not fulfilling their commitments (media report here).
In late December 2017, the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, China and Pakistan held a trilateral dialogue in Beijing and issued a joint statement calling on the Taleban to join the peace process ‚Äúat an early date,‚ÄĚ while reaffirming that it needed to be broad-based, inclusive and ‚ÄúAfghan-led, Afghan-owned‚ÄĚ and fully supported regionally and internationally.
A new ‚ÄėIstanbul format‚Äô?
Over the last few days, in mid-January 2018, another reported meeting format created waves in the press. Several media reported¬†‚Äúfour-party talks‚ÄĚ bringing together representatives of two Afghan Taleban factions (i.e. the mainstream and the dissident group led by Mullah Rassul, AAN background on them here), the Afghan government and Hezb-e Islami . This was not the first time such a format has been reported (see here a Pakistani media report from October 2017).
The government, the HPC and the Taleban, however, immediately denied¬†any involvement. Shah Hussain Murtazawi, deputy spokesman for the president, was quoted as saying that presidential advisers Homayun Jarir and Abbas Basir had participated in Istanbul in a personal capacity. Jarir is a son-in-law of Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Basir was the head of HPC chairman Abdul Karim Khalili’s office when he served as second vice president (from 2009 to 2014) and a member of Khalili‚Äôs Shia/Hazara-dominated Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami (Islamic Unity Party). HPC general secretary Khpelwak also denied the council‚Äôs engagement in the talks. He said it was not an HPC initiative and the HPC was not formally represented (read media report here). Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed wrote on his Twitter account that ‚Äúreports about delegation of IEA participating at talks in Turkey are baseless. We have neither sent any delegation nor can any participant represent the Islamic Emirate‚ÄĚ.
The two confirmed participants on the ‚ÄėTaleban side‚Äô were Mawlawi Abdul Rauf, a businessman close to the dissident Taleban group, and Abdul Halim Barits, originally from Kandahar, who has no known link with the Taleban.¬†Rauf was reported by some media to be the deputy head of the dissident Taleban, but two sources close to the group that AAN spoke to denied that he held this function. (3)
Nevertheless, Rauf, who gave a much-discussed interview to Afghan Tolo TV on 14 January 2018 (see here), where he described himself as ‚Äúthe leading member of the Taleban delegation in Turkey‚ÄĚ and representing ‚Äúthe entire Taleban view on inter-Afghan peace talks.‚ÄĚ (This might have led to some misreporting, but is consistent with the dissident faction‚Äôs self-representation as the ‚Äėtrue Taleban.‚Äô) Rauf also claimed there had been three rounds of unofficial talks in Turkey between government and ‚ÄėTaleban representatives‚Äô already, including the recent meeting.
Any progress toward meaningful peace talks is severely hampered by different approaches, priorities and narratives from the actors involved. All of this discord appears to be a cover for an actual unwillingness by both sides to talk, at least under the current circumstances. The Afghan government continues to see Pakistan as the main adversary in the conflict and the main actor behind the Taleban. It denies that the Taleban act (or are able to act) on their own behalf. President Ghani, for example, when addressing a joint session of the Afghan parliament in April 2016, said Taleban leaders sheltering in Pakistan were ‚Äúslaves [of Pakistan] and enemies of Afghanistan who shed the blood of their countrymen‚ÄĚ (read media report here). There are other accusations. Chief Executive Dr Abdullah, for example, during his US visit in November 2017, accused the Taleban of helping ‚Äúother groups, such as Daesh and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to shelter in Afghanistan‚ÄĚ. The Taleban answered back by continuing to call the Afghan government ‚Äúpuppets of the West.‚ÄĚ The US‚Äôs main objective, they allege, ‚Äúis to use Afghanistan as a military base to reach their colonialist goals‚ÄĚ (see the statement quoted above).
The government‚Äôs view of the Taleban was reflected by Ghani‚Äôs approach immediately after taking up office in September 2014, when he embarked on an attempt to push Pakistan ‚Äď with the help of China and the US (via the quadrilateral group) ‚Äď to bring the Taleban to the negotiating table (read here) and see AAN analysis of Murree talks here). (4) When this failed, Ghani suggested that peace needed to be made directly with Pakistan. In his Eid message in August 2017, he stated Afghanistan was ‚Äúready for a political negotiation with Pakistan and peace with Pakistan is in our national agenda‚ÄĚ. In May, he also announced the start of a new ‚ÄúKabul process‚ÄĚ (official statement here) which he described as:
‚Ä¶ reaching out to regional neighbours and the wider international community to secure their support to end the war in the country. (‚Ä¶) The Kabul Process aims to secure support for an agreement to end support for cross-border terrorism. The President said (‚Ä¶) the peace deal with Hezb-i Islami, the first such negotiated end to hostilities in four decades of war, showed that peace is possible. (‚Ä¶) He [also] pointed to the local deals made in Zabul Province, where Daesh and the Taliban were defeated, and their fighters reintegrated, by local villagers.
He apparently hoped that the revival of the Quadrilateral Contact Group (QCG) might serve this purpose, but so far nothing visible has come out of it. While the QCG could facilitate, such an approach would ultimately require the highest-level diplomacy between Afghanistan and Pakistan, involving the Afghan president and those who determine Pakistan‚Äôs Afghanistan policy, the military ‚Äď and yet another thaw in their currently icy relations.
Za‚Äôif and MP Sayed Ishaq Gailani, who was also a participant in several meetings involving Taleban, both see a ‚Äúlack of trust‚ÄĚ as the main hurdle for serious government-Taleban contacts. On the part of the Taleban, Gailani told AAN that this has been caused by Ghani‚Äôs failure to fulfil promises made ahead of the 2014 elections. ‚ÄúDirect talks with the Taleban,‚ÄĚ he told AAN, ‚Äúwas one of the commitments that President Ghani made.‚ÄĚ According to him, Ghani met Taleban representatives in Dubai, promising them to start direct talk if he won the election. ‚ÄúAs soon as he became the president,‚ÄĚ Gailani said, ‚Äúinstead of reaching out to Taleban, he turned to Pakistan to force the Taleban to the negotiating table.‚ÄĚ He added the Afghan government ‚Äúwants the Taleban to surrender, which is not possible.‚ÄĚ
The Taleban have also shown no flexibility toward the government. Apart from their insistence on the recognition of their Qatar office, they did not react to Kabul‚Äôs proposal to present a ‚Äėmechanism‚Äô for talks. This does not need to be a sign of rejection, particularly as the ‚Äėmechanism‚Äô and the Kabul office offer are not necessarily tied to each other, i.e. one could be pursued without the other one. It is also imaginable that both sides agreed that it was not necessary, at least for the time being, to stick to one venue of talks. Even so, some initiative has yet to come from the Taleban.
Meanwhile, each side has tried to escalate the war; most recently the US and Kabul with their increased number of airstrikes and targeted killings of militants. Before that, following the withdrawal of most Western combat troops by the end of 2014, the Taleban had launched a campaign of ground attacks to take over civilian population centres. Add to this the current US-Pakistani tensions, which may further harden positions on all sides (on the new US administration‚Äės policy, AAN analysis here), then the environment is hardly conducive to talking.
More war is likely to strengthen the anti-talks ‚Äėfaction‚Äô in the Taleban, and more Taleban terrorist and other attacks to strengthen the resolve of the Afghan government and parts of the population to reject talks. On the Pakistani side, the US president‚Äôs latest move to exert more pressure by cutting military aid was widely applauded throughout Afghanistan and has already caused some retaliation. Beyond the already unhelpful Pakistani position (if measured in deeds, not lip-service), Pakistan‚Äôs defence minister reportedly announced¬†in early January 2018 that it had suspended military and intelligence cooperation with the United States. (The US embassy in Islamabad said it was not informed about this decision.) Pakistan also continues to control the US‚Äôs main access route to Afghanistan and could close down airspace or roads to military supplies. (It has done so earlier, as in 2012, read here).
And the US?
Much depends on the Trump administration‚Äôs position. This seems to be clear, if only for the moment. In practice, much of the decision-making on Afghanistan had been handed over to the military on the ground. Its top man there, US/Resolute Support commander John Nicholson, stated in November in Brussels ‚ÄúThis is a fight-and-talk approach‚ÄĚ. This position does not represent a change in practice, though, compared with the approach followed under president Barack Obama and, particularly, his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This did not turn out to work, even though there were many more troops to hand compared to now.
However, on the political side, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson might have shown a way out of the conundrum between the Afghan government and the Taleban. In a speech at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington on 18 October 2017 (full text here), he ruled out a US military withdrawal, but indicated that talks about a timetable could be part of negotiations. At the same time, he created worries in Afghanistan when he indicated that the US administration would leave it to the Afghan sides to choose a political system appropriate to their ‚Äúculture‚ÄĚ in eventual talks. This might be meant as a carrot for the Taleban who demand ‚Äėamendments‚Äô to the constitution. But in practice, Western references to culture often mean green light for less attention to rights issues and democracy. He said:
So it is about a commitment, a message to the Taliban and other elements that we‚Äôre not going anywhere. And so we‚Äôll be here as long as it takes for you to change your mind and decide you want to engage with the Afghan Government in a reconciliation process and develop a form of government that does suit the needs of the culture of Afghanistan.
If the issue of an US troop withdrawal is put on the agenda of any future intra-Afghan talks, this requires, of course, a role for the Americans. (This will be the case anyway, despite all the phrases purporting an Afghan lead.)
An author from the Council on Foreign Relations has listed in an article (see here) what else Washington could do in the shorter term ‚Äúto set conditions for a peace process.‚ÄĚ This would include:
‚Äú‚Ä¶ naming and empowering senior diplomats, aligning regional powers in support of that goal, and ensuring U.S. policy does not undercut Taliban moderates‚ÄĒall while continuing to fight the Taliban, develop Afghan security forces, and strengthen Afghan institutions.‚ÄĚ
The issue of a US withdrawal will remain problematic for the Afghan government for quite some time to come. The Afghan forces ‚Äď and the Afghan state ‚Äď continue to be dependent on US and other Western support and, therefore, additional US and other troops are being deployed (read for example here). President Ghani has just admitted as much when he told the CBS earlier in January 2018 (quoted here) that Afghanistan would ‚Äúnot be able to support our army for six months without U.S. support, and U.S. capabilities.‚ÄĚ
The Taleban will have heard this with interest. It is surely grist to the mill for the non-talks faction. Their military leadership may try to use President Trump‚Äôs known aversion to a continued US role in Afghanistan (as expressed before his election), and his tendency for abrupt political reversals by delivering measures that increase US costs. With more US troops on the ground and more involved in direct combat than over the past three years, US military casualties might rise again and contribute to another turn-around, particularly if there is no quick US success.
A summary and what‚Äôs next on the agenda
Most of what we were able to report for 2017 illustrates that most of what occurred was bluster, not actual movement. Both sides have continued to occasionally play with the idea of peace talks, but their positions ultimately have remained inflexible and have led to nothing serious coming out out of it – yet again. The Kabul-versus-Qatar office dispute is just one sign of this. The government‚Äôs position shows a lack of an appetite for third-party facilitation and even meetings of a non-official character to enable an exchange of positions. This reluctance to look for some common ground and possible ideas to build some trust clearly stands in the way of reconciliation and mediation. This inflexibility keeps the much cited, but non-existing, ‚Äėpeace process‚Äô where it has been for years at a rhetorical level. Not for the first time, we have found ourselves skeptical about hyped initiatives and described the ‚Äútalking about talks‚ÄĚ in previous years (see our 2015 dossier here).
Basically, 2017 has been a lost year for Afghan peace.
There is also not much light at the end of the tunnel for 2018. A political breakthrough is not on the horizon. The rather one-dimensional offer by the HPC to the Taleban about an office in Kabul will not change much. However, the offer about a ‚Äėmechanism‚Äô and no preconditions does hold some potential, at least. Instead, a new military escalation is already underway and this is likely to intensify further when the new ‚Äėfighting season‚Äô starts in the spring (see also the International Crisis Group‚Äôs outlook, here). (6)
The next diplomatic activity will take place next month when the Afghan government is expected to present the latest update of its peace and security plan, i.e. its strategy on a political settlement with the Taleban, in the run-up to the next meeting of the Kabul Process in late February 2018. President Ghani has set the stage for it by again calling on the Taleban, in a speech on 12 January 2018 at a civil society, youth and women‚Äôs conference in Kabul (text here), to join in ‚Äúinter-Afghan negotiation.‚ÄĚ In a contradiction to his idea of making peace with Pakistan first, he urged them not to give their ‚Äúauthority to the neighbouring country.‚ÄĚ He also called on the conference participants to give input to the Kabul process meeting which, he announced, would be followed by ‚Äúregional, Islamic countries and international conferences.‚ÄĚ This again, feels more like rhetoric, rather than an actual serious invitation to talks.
Meanwhile, as the war drags on towards its fortieth anniversary since the Soviet military invasion, Afghans continue to die, be injured and be forced to flee their homes in ever larger numbers, whether they are civilian (these casualties last year were at their highest level since 2001), members of the country‚Äôs armed forces (who suffer twice more casualties than civilians according to the most recent US figures, see here¬†(5)) or Taleban foot soldiers (whose real casualty numbers are unknown), it remains a bloody waiting game.
Edited by Kate Clark
(1) Before that, the Pugwash Conference held five gatherings to discuss peace in Afghanistan. Its first conference held in September 2012 (read Pugwash statement here), in Dubai. It followed with the second conference held again in Dubai, in January 2013, Pugwash held its third conference in Doha in May 2015, the fourth Pugwash conference took place again in Doha in January 2016.
(2) Some media reported¬†that there were also plans for a meeting in November in Dubai organised by an Afghan NGO. This failed as well, as the UAE refused to grant visas to Taleban. Relations between the Taleban and the UAE had soured after the January 2017 attack in Kandahar that killed the UAE ambassador and five of its diplomats. The responsibility for this attack was laid at the Taleban‚Äôs door.
(3) The same sources told AAN that group leader Rasul had three deputies: Mawlawi Baz Muhammad, the Taleban‚Äôs former shadow governor of Farah, Mansur Dadullah, who was killed in Zabul in November 2015, and Abdul Manan Niazi.
(4) Over the following more than two years, Pakistan and Afghanistan held several rounds of discussions, both bi- and multilaterally, including some at the highest level. But all of this did not lead to substantive results, or a break-through on talks. On the contrary, the relationship between both countries soon soured again when Ghani felt Pakistan, despite accommodating words, was not cooperating. In 2017, the Taleban carried out several deadly attacks, including against a military base in Mazar-e Sharif and against a guesthouse in Kandahar where Emirati diplomats were targeted and killed. (The Taleban vehemently denied any involvement in the Kandahari attack.) Following this, Ghani accused Pakistan of continuing to provide a hideout for the Taleban. In May 2017, he rejected an invitation to visit Pakistan, saying he would not visit until the perpetrators behind the attacks were handed over to Afghanistan (read media report here).
(5) In the same report, the SIGAR revealed that the US forces in Afghanistan have, ‚Äúat the Afghan government‚Äôs request, [‚Ä¶] classified or otherwise restricted information about the ANSF‚Äôs performance‚ÄĚ, including casualty figures.
(6) Many analysts dispute that there still is something like a ‚Äėfighting season‚Äô and a lull in winter, but this US military report to US Congress indicates that this is indeed the case with its graph of ‚Äúenemy initiated attacks‚ÄĚ (read here, p 24).