After the recent wave of violence in the country, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s offer for unconditional peace talks with the Taliban at the second meeting of the Kabul Process has drawn the attention of policymakers and analysts concerned with the conflict in Afghanistan. The Taliban have not yet responded to Ghani’s proposal, but have made their desire to have direct talks with the United States instead of the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) known before. American officials, fortunately, are sensitive enough to refuse to engage with the Taliban directly, expressing support for an Afghan-led peace process. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Alice Wells encouraged the Taliban to take the offer seriously, and insisted that any talks must include the NUG. However, President Ghani’s offer to negotiate at this time raises the question of whether either side is serious about peace talks or if this is just shrewd political maneuvering in light of the upcoming Afghan parliamentary elections.
Why has President Ghani extended an olive branch to the Taliban at this time, particularly since until recently he said they were “terrorists” with safe havens in Pakistan? In truth, in the aftermath of the deadly violence in Kabul recently, Ghani had two options: he could try to push the Taliban to the wall, which would likely have resulted in bloodshed in the run-up to the 2018 parliamentary elections, possibly jeopardizing the entire electoral exercise. Or, the president could attempt to negotiate with the Taliban, ensuring a peaceful democratic transition. President Ghani appears to have chosen the latter in view of the election cycle that was earlier scheduled for July but now delayed till October.
The Taliban’s Interest in Peace Talks
Though the Taliban have signaled that they may be interested in peace talks, attacks have remained a constant ghastly reality. Just this week, an early morning Taliban attack on an army base in northeastern Afghanistan killed 17 government forces. As I have noted elsewhere, recent actions of the Afghan Taliban indicate that they are likely to continue to up the ante while calling for all parties to come to the negotiating table in order to gain political concessions.
Firstly, the Taliban are aware that it will be extremely difficult for the government in Kabul to talk peace with them while both engage in warfare against each other. Either peace talks will be fruitless or the Afghan Taliban will temporarily show restraint with regard to violence, though the latter seems unlikely. To this end, it’s clear from the spate of attacks that the Taliban are not interested in toning down the offensive. Secondly, it is hard to imagine that an insurgent group like the Taliban who seem uninhibited in launching attacks at will would ever be interested in peace talks. Unless the Taliban feel some pressure on the military front, it’s unlikely that they are genuinely interested in talks.
Furthermore, despite indications that the Taliban are warming up to Ghani’s offer, they have remained adamant that all foreign forces must leave before the group can join the peace process. A similar situation arose in 2016 when the government in Kabul decided to bring in Hezb-e-Islami and its leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar into the political fold. However, Hekmatyar backtracked on the primary condition for talks, the withdrawal of foreign troops, and as a result, the group was offered general amnesty. Likewise, if the Taliban are serious about joining the peace process, a good litmus test will be whether they agree to join peace negotiations without the withdrawal of foreign troops. It is now up to Afghan Taliban Chief Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada and his troops to decide the future course of action.
How Pakistan Fits into the Equation
Though Afghanistan and the United States might be on the same page regarding the Taliban and counterterrorism, a difference of opinion with Pakistan might jeopardize the peace process or long-term stability in Afghanistan. With regard to Washington and Islamabad, this disagreement is on Pakistan’s counterterrorism approach. General Petr Pavel, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, stated this week that the Haqqanis are to be blamed for the recent kerfuffle in Afghanistan, and that the insurgent group enjoys support in Pakistan. But Pakistan has repeatedly rejected this charge and Pakistan Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua, on a visit to the United States, asserted that Pakistan and the United States need to work in unison to bring peace in Afghanistan.
As for Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan, reconciliation seems to be a win-win scenario for Islamabad. The prospect of peace in Afghanistan will have a positive effect on the security situation in Pakistan. And if the Afghan Taliban become part of the government, Islamabad would have a segment of Kabul that is sympathetic to Pakistan. Thus, Afghanistan may have to contend with the possibility that even if reconciliation improves the domestic situation in some ways, Pakistan may meddle in Afghan affairs using the influence it might have over the Taliban.
Can peace talks and bloodshed co-exist? The Afghan government will have to think long and hard about this. It will also have to reconcile with the idea that actions taken for domestic gain may exacerbate regional tensions.
Image 2: U.S. Department of State via Flickr