In his opening speech at the second meeting of the Kabul Process for Peace and Security Cooperation last week, President Ghani put forth an offer for peace talks with the Taliban. This is not the first time that the Afghan government has asked the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. From the Karzai administration to the Ghani presidency, many such overtures have been made to the Taliban, but neither party has seemed interested in giving these negotiations a real chance. Interestingly, earlier this year, following a string of attacks claimed by the Taliban in Kabul, Afghan officials, echoing U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, were reticent to hold talks with the group.
Afghanistan has been steeped in violence for the past 17 years, with future predictions offering no hope for respite: according to a recent threat assessment by the U.S. intelligence community, the security situation in Afghanistan is likely to deteriorate further this year while the Afghan National Army continues to struggle against the insurgents. In view of this dire security situation and Ghani’s surprising offer for unconditional peace talks with the Taliban, it is important to evaluate what is behind the most recent offer, what the Taliban’s response is likely to be, and what the NUG must do to push peace negotiations forward.
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Firstly, President Ghani delivered his speech in three languages — English, Pashto, and Dari — presumably to appear more receptive to the Pashtun Taliban in his audience. Secondly, he made an offer for peace negotiations “without preconditions,” recognizing the Taliban’s perspective and ultimately granting them legitimacy within Afghanistan’s political sphere. With regard to recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate political entity, Ghani also emphasized that the Afghan constitution would be an important part of these negotiations, going so far as to announce a readiness to review and amend parts of it. In the past, the Taliban have rejected the Afghan constitution in its entirety, even publishing their own version. And finally, Ghani went on to explicitly state that a negotiation process with “armed groups with ties to transnational terrorist networks or foreign criminals,” presumably referring to al-Qaeda, would not be allowed in Afghanistan. On this, there should be no backlash from the Taliban, who have expressed a public disassociation with al-Qaeda in the past.
The Taliban’s Response
The Taliban appear to be strategizing about how to respond to Ghani’s offer with a recent statement indicating that the group’s leaders are “studying the proposal.” In a recent interview, a Taliban leader reportedly stated that, “the United States and Afghanistan have to pitch realistic and non-bullying peace proposals. The Taliban are willing and ready to give a careful read to sensible proposals.” Ongoing political disarray within the NUG makes this an ideal time for the Taliban to participate in peace talks. With an unstable government, the Taliban can maximize their demands. One Taliban leader said that a possible solution could be a fifty-fifty sharing formula “in all ministries and major directorates, in 34 provinces, all over Afghanistan.” While this is a big demand, it is important in that it signals that the Taliban can be lured into a political settlement if an attractive enough deal is on the table.
Obstacles to Peace Talks
The main hurdle to peace talks is what the Taliban refer to as the presence of “foreign invading forces,” whose withdrawal from Afghanistan has previously been a prerequisite for the group’s involvement in negotiations. Since the United States and the NUG are unlikely to budge on the presence of foreign troops as long as there is an active insurgency, the Taliban must be open to perceiving the withdrawal of foreign troops as a possible outcome of talks rather than the condition for launching them. The United States and the NUG can work towards an arrangement to withdraw these foreign forces after seeing some improvements in the security situation on the ground as well as progress towards a long-term peace deal.
Another key obstacle is the legitimacy of the current Afghan government in the eyes of the Taliban, who have barely recognized the government they view as an imposition on Afghanistan. This is also the reason behind the Taliban wanting to directly engage with the United States instead of the NUG on peace negotiations. On this issue, an arrangement can be made where the United States can bolster the NUG’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Taliban by promoting a joint U.S.-NUG peace process.
After Ghani’s Offer: A Unilateral Ceasefire?
For any productive negotiations towards a peace deal to take place, there must be a ceasefire. President Ghani seems to believe that the dynamics of the war have changed enough that this can happen, as the Taliban have suffered heavy casualties from the increasing aerial attacks and coordination between foreign forces and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). However, expecting the Taliban to initiate a ceasefire is unrealistic, especially at a time when they are not only gaining territory, but also acquiring diplomatic legitimacy from neighboring states who engage with and provide them military and financial support.
In the case of a prolonged insurgency being waged by non-state actors against the state, it is extremely difficult for the state to achieve military victory over the insurgent group. Not only does the state lose territory – as in Afghanistan – but it also faces a crisis of legitimacy at home and abroad as insurgents seek to use violence to force the government to appear weak and illegitimate. In a reality in which the insurgent group is at, or close to, its peak strength — such as the Taliban in Afghanistan today — it is unlikely to initiate a ceasefire. For the Taliban, it is even more implausible to concede, considering they were rulers of the country only 17 years ago. With this in mind, it is imperative for Kabul to take the initiative and declare a unilateral ceasefire, with the hope that the Taliban will follow suit.
No Easy Choices Ahead
There has been little consistency in the Afghan government’s approach towards the Taliban, oscillating between periods of open and closed communication. The current stalemate is further shrinking the democratic space within Afghanistan while new militias gain foothold, and the pursuit of military victory — though not impossible — comes with a hefty price. However, the fact remains that Ghani has no easy choices ahead. As reports surface suggesting some members of the Taliban are open to a peace process, the president must capitalize on this momentum by engaging with the Taliban as well as important regional players, such as Pakistan. Now is the ideal time for Kabul to reach out to Islamabad as the two have recently been engaged in a diplomatic initiative, the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS) to resolve differences over the Afghan conflict. In view of the recent downturn in U.S.-Pakistan relations, Ghani must secure Afghan interests by striking a balance between the United States and Pakistan and engaging with Islamabad without straining ties with Washington. Possible cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) could serve as a starting point for greater counterterrorism cooperation.
Yaqoob-ul Hassan is a January 2018 South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington D.C. and a Researcher at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. A version of this piece originally appeared at South Asian Voices, an online platform for strategic analysis and debate hosted by Stimson.