Features | Security

Afghan Peace Talks: Road to Nowhere

As security in Afghanistan deteriorates, the GCQ continues to struggle to make progress.

Afghan Peace Talks: Road to Nowhere
Credit: REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Making peace with a violent extremist group was always going to be difficult and dangerous for a fragile government. When the group is one of the most viciously radical and intransigent in the world, it becomes all the more tricky to persuade its leadership to enter into the peace process. Governments that are accountable to the electorate invariably find it ethically uncomfortable talking to people whose hands are “stained with blood” and who have committed horrifying acts of terror. Mindful of the fact that they walk a thin moral line when they engage with terrorist groups, the governments do not want to be seen negotiating under the threat of violence. But one can hardly dispute the fact that ending a conflict means talking to all those who are parties to the conflict.

Arriving at that momentous moment when two enemies shake hands takes years of exasperating groundwork, often far longer than outsiders realize. Before a peace process can end in a formal agreement meant to end a violent conflict, a number of other agreements usually must be achieved, including pre-negotiation agreements, interim agreements, framework agreements, and implementation agreements. Each type of agreement has a specific purpose, although sometime they may overlap. Pre-negotiation agreements are “talks about talks” as they tend to deal with issues such as who is going to negotiate with what status, and what will be on the agenda. At this stage of negotiations, the preconditions of talks are discussed, such as the release of political prisoners, or the cessation of hostilities, or a ceasefire during peace negotiations.

In Afghanistan, unfortunately, the peace process is still stuck in this primary stage.

The Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), comprising Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the U.S., has taken a much-needed initiative to pacify the conflict-ridden country. The QCG mechanism, set up on the margins of the Heart of Asia Conference on Afghanistan held in Islamabad in December 2015, became operational in January 2016 when it met officially for the first time. And just before the fourth round of QCG discussions in February, Pakistan’s army chief traveled to Doha to persuade all Taliban factions and groups to return to the negotiating table. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that any substantial breakthrough in peace negotiations remains as remote as ever. It is worth asking why the performance of QCG has been so disappointing.

The QCG will not prove to be a balanced and efficient mechanism to bring lasting peace to Afghanistan as it effectively blocks Russia and Iran, two of the most important players in Afghanistan, from the negotiating table. Most importantly, multiple rounds of talks among the quartet have failed to convince the Afghan Taliban to talk peace with the government in Kabul. Although Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami, formally allied with the Afghan Taliban, has decided to join the peace talks, it will not have a significant impact on the peace process because Hizb-e Islami’s ability to conduct an insurgency has been declining over the years and it has little influence over the Taliban.

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Why does the latest refusal by the Taliban to join the peace negotiations seem so much more frightening today than it did a few years back?

Afghanistan remains a violently contested and unsettled land. There are serious concerns about the deteriorating security situation. Jihadists and insurgents pose multiple challenges to the prospects of peace and security in the volatile country. This is borne out by the recent observations of Nicholas Haysom, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan. Haysom has painted a very grim picture of the situation in Afghanistan, where conflict has grown in intensity and scope, presenting critical challenges on all fronts to all Afghan government institutions, including security forces. The two most disturbing features of the report are the rise in security related incidents in 2015 as compared to 2014, and the deterioration in security in areas that have not previously been the Taliban’s stronghold. The Taliban has undoubtedly expanded its territorial reach over the past year, reflected in the temporary capture of about two dozen districts in almost all parts of the country, the temporary seizure of the provincial capital of Kunduz being the most notorious and audacious. Control over Helmand is now a Taliban priority, as most of its attacks last year focused on the province.

For the Kabul government, the Taliban must end the attacks if talks are to take place. Another symbolic but significant demand from the government is that the Taliban must give up the use of banner of “Islamic Emirate.” On the other hand, some of the Taliban’s demands include the removal of their officials from the black list, the release of prisoners, and the unfreezing of their funds. But the central Taliban demand, which seems to be non-negotiable for them, is the complete withdrawal of the U.S.-led foreign troops from Afghanistan and direct negotiations with the U.S. to finalize the withdrawal deadline.

Meanwhile, the Afghan “unity” government seems to have neither any viable peaceful conflict settlement plan nor any overarching war strategy. To make matters worse, the political, economic and social angst and discontent of a large segment of the Afghan people with the Kabul regime have not been properly addressed, and this has allowed the Taliban to exploit real or perceived grievances. There is no doubt that a decade-long democratic process in Afghanistan has provided political leadership that can claim some semblance of legitimacy, but the quality of its governing institutions has been severely criticized. A government that is incapable of defending the country’s territory from both internal and external enemies cannot be expected to deliver elementary public goods to its struggling people.

Afghanistan is also badly plagued by awfully high levels of corruption, which in turn undermines the legitimacy of its government. The Afghan state in its present shape may not survive if its internal and external supporters do not address the problem of pervasive corruption and chronic insecurity. And the country has yet to recover from the prolonged political uncertainty and crisis generated by the highly controversial 2014 presidential election, with the delicate power-sharing arrangement between President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah continues to be contested by the two men and their networks.

With the Taliban having once again rejected the latest peace offers from the QCG, insisting on their own terms and conditions, the already fragile peace process has entered its most crucial phase. It is unrealistic to expect the inadequately trained Afghan security forces, supported by an insufficient number of U.S.-led NATO forces, to attain a military edge over their opponent. Besides ethnic fragmentation, factionalism, and a high level of desertions, the Afghan security forces have been suffering from financial problems and deficiencies in logistics, deeply affecting their performance and sustainability. In fact, Western military support for the Ghani regime is more of a background psychological factor than a physical one, since the U.S. has almost quit Afghanistan.

If the Afghan Taliban escalates the fight in the coming months, the country faces the prospect of sliding down a perilous path towards turmoil and mayhem. Faced with a rapidly intensifying insurgency, Afghanistan is at risk of being carved up into rival fiefdoms. The emergence of the Islamic State, or ISIS, which is trying to recruit from among the disgruntled Taliban ranks and other terrorist groups, has further diminished hopes of the country returning to a state of normalcy anytime soon.

Pakistan’s Role

It is only to be expected that once again the focus of attention has shifted back to Pakistan’s role in contributing to the peace process. The conventional wisdom is that Pakistan has great influence over the Taliban. It must be emphasized here that Pakistan’s Taliban policy has shifted along with broader geopolitical trends, with the balance sometimes swinging towards closer alignment and at other times towards permitting greater autonomy. Sartaz Aziz, adviser to the Pakistani prime minister on foreign affairs, acknowledged Pakistan’s sway over the Taliban, when he recently said that “We have some influence on them because their leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities, their families are here. So we can use those levers to pressure them to say, ‘come to the table.’” This suggests that it is fundamentally impossible to achieve peace in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s willing support and involvement.

But attitudes within Pakistan’s security elite are complex, divided between those who support the resolution of conflict at the earliest on the grounds that continued hostilities will only worsen the security situation in Pakistan, and those who insist on first protecting Pakistan’s strategic interests, defined in straightforwardly realist terms. Thus there is a powerful section within Pakistan’s military establishment that defends the notion of a tightly integrated geopolitical region on both sides of the Khyber Pass, with Pakistan’s informal control over Afghanistan policies. In constant denial about the costs and tragedies perpetrated by its India-centric “strategic depth” policy, this powerful lobby argues that Pakistan’s strategic needs stretch well beyond the Durand Line, and that it is only pragmatic to act on those needs. The excellent relations the Afghan political elite enjoy with India has been a chronic irritant into Afghan-Pak relations, making Rawalpindi profoundly paranoid about collaborating in any effort that might possibly give India any meaningful say in Afghan political affairs. India’s exclusion from the QCG peace initiative is also indicative of Pakistan’s policy of restricting India’s footprint in Afghanistan to the economic sector only.

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Pakistan continues to augment Afghanistan’s instability. Rawalpindi’s lopsided geostrategic vision is the greatest impediment to ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan. The Pakistan army’s selective counterterrorism policies are decided as much by ineptitude as by double-dealing manipulation. As is clear from Sartaz Aziz’s public admission, Pakistan continues to cultivate the Afghan Taliban. By allowing the Pashtun insurgents to enjoy safe havens in FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Baluchistan and Karachi, the Pakistani intelligence community greatly influences the insurgents’ strategic decision-making and tactical operations. But it would be a serious blunder for Pakistan to believe that the Afghan Taliban is an easily controllable asset.

Of course, the Afghan Taliban can seem very powerful now, but it is hardly invincible. For one thing, it is riven by splits and fissures. The Afghan Taliban has been through a turbulent leadership transition in recent months, with new leader Mullah Mansoor still struggling to consolidate power. Those who are challenging Mansoor’s succession to Mullah Omar are of the view that they have acquired a decisive edge against the Afghan security forces. Hoping to avoid internal rebellion and further dissension, Mansoor does not want to show any haste in joining the peace talks. His fighters are also being forced to battle against rival ISIS, who has posed a grave danger to Taliban’s supremacy and monopoly over the terrorist-backed insurgency in Afghanistan. Whether the threat from ISIS will enhance the likelihood of a negotiated deal between the Taliban and the Kabul government is an open question.

If the dominant section of the Taliban leadership is not prepared to strike a deal with the Ghani government on Pakistani terms, then the very credibility of Pakistan is at stake. Islamabad will face tremendous pressure from Washington and Kabul to take action against the recalcitrant Taliban elements that are based in Pakistan. China is also taking a greater interest in stabilizing Afghanistan, for security and economic reasons. Therefore Pakistan seems to be doubling its efforts to bring the Taliban leadership to the negotiation table. But the dynamic between the Taliban and the Afghan government is very likely to remain troubled for some time to come.

Vinay Kaura is an assistant professor in the department of International Affairs and Security Studies, and Coordinator at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India.