Is Taliban Serious About Talks? (Page 2 of 3)

The Afghan government is uncomfortable with the entire process. Its representatives haven’t participated in any of the recent talks between Western governments and the Taliban. Many Afghans fear the West is simply looking for an excuse to bail out of the Afghan conflict by reaching some kind of face-saving deal with the Taliban that would delay a Taliban victory for a decent interval until the foreign forces had departed. Powerless to prevent a separate peace or other kind of sell out, Karzai could only offer a bitter endorsement of the Taliban-U.S. talks in Qatar as helping to “eliminate the foreigner’s excuses for and actions to continue war and bloodshed in Afghanistan.”

Another procedural problem is how to include the international parties in any talks. One reason for Karzai’s concern is that the Taliban want to negotiate directly with the United States and other foreign governments rather than the Afghan government. This procedure would enhance the authority of the Taliban while degrading that of Karzai’s government.

In addition, the role of Pakistan needs to be clarified. The Pakistani government can veto any settlement through the leverage it influences over the Afghan Taliban, who use Pakistani territory as their main base of operations. In the past, the Pakistani authorities have arrested Afghan Taliban members who seemed inclined to negotiate with the Kabul government independently rather than through Pakistani-approved channels. Pakistan’s decision to boycott the December 2011 Bonn conference in retaliation for the NATO air strike on its soldiers on November 26 undermined the meeting.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Still, even if the Afghan Taliban were to break with Islamabad, the Pakistani authorities could still employ the more radical Haqqani network, which has a major presence in eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan and enjoys the patronage of key figures within Pakistan’s national security establishment. Indeed, Haqqani operatives have been responsible for some of the most violent incidents in Afghanistan, including a direct attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

The substantive impediments to any peace agreement are perhaps greater. The key parties each made an important but conditional concession to get the talks started. The United States accepted that the talks could begin before the Taliban committed to break with al-Qaeda, renounce violence, and consent to Afghanistan’s existing post-Taliban constitution. Meanwhile, the Taliban set aside its previous demand that formal peace negotiations couldn’t begin until all the foreign military forces fighting on behalf of the Karzai government leave Afghanistan. But both parties still insist that any peace settlement must end with these provisions being included in its terms.

The Afghan government and its foreign backers now demand that the Taliban issue a public renunciation of international terrorism, a statement expressing support for Afghanistan’s constitutional democracy, and agree to commence formal peace talks with the Afghan government. But it’s uncertain whether a Taliban government would or could prevent al-Qaeda from reestablishing bases in any region of Afghanistan under its control, exercising more restraint than before 9/11, or whether it would allow al-Qaeda to again transform Afghanistan into a haven for global terrorist operations.

Some argue that the Taliban, eager to return to power, would want to reconcile with the international community, or at least prevent the further Western military strikes that would ensue should al-Qaeda again use Afghan territory as a base for external operations. The Taliban’s leadership has released statements saying that its political objectives were confined only to Afghanistan, and that it didn’t intend to harm any other countries.

Yet, it’s hard to imagine the Taliban actually using force to prevent their al-Qaeda allies from reestablishing a military presence in Afghanistan and employing these new base camps to organize additional terrorist attacks in other countries. U.S. plans to retain one or more bases in Afghanistan would also offer the Taliban an irresistible and nearby target for their assaults.

It’s also unclear whether the Taliban would genuinely accept Afghanistan’s current constitution, which was adopted after the Taliban lost power. It includes a number of liberal democratic principles that many Taliban consider objectionable if not blasphemous. The Taliban leadership has moderated its formal position on some issues, and instructed its field commanders to do likewise in a recent field manual, but such policies seem like tactical maneuvers to reduce Afghan resistance to their return to power.

Meeting the Taliban demand for the release of some of their former leaders now detained at the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will prove difficult. The figures under discussion possibly include former Taliban Interior Minister Mullah Khair Khowa, former Taliban governors Noorullah Noori and Khairullah Khairkhwa, former Deputy Defense Minister Mohammed Fazl, former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund, former senior intelligence official Abdul Haq Wasiq, and Taliban leader Mohammed Nabi.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief