Amid continuing violence in Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani laid out a path for unconditional peace talks with the Taliban during the second meeting of the Kabul Process last week, an Afghan government-led initiative aimed at peace and reconciliation. A document published by the National Unity Government (NUG) mapped out Ghani’s suggestions on the building blocks of peace.
In response to this recent initiative on behalf of the NUG, the Taliban have three options: first, they can enter into peace talks; second, some factions of the Taliban can enter into peace talks and participate in the democratic process, in which case the Taliban will be divided and weakened; third, the Taliban can decline the proposition to talk and continue with violence. This piece assesses the likelihood and implications of each of these three scenarios.
Scenario One: Taliban Acceptance of a Peace Deal
Last month, the Taliban published an open letter addressed to the people of the United States, indicating how America has failed over the last 17 years to eradicate terrorism, establish a legal government, and reduce opium production in Afghanistan. Furthermore, following Ghani’s statement on the NUG’s openness to talks with the Taliban, the organization responded by demanding the initiation of a peace process directly with the United States.
Given these statements, the Taliban appear to be battling to gain the upper hand before conceding to peace talks. The United States is undertaking a similar strategy: in her remarks at the Kabul Process, U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Alice Wells said, “[The United States] will make sure that the Taliban cannot achieve their objective on the battlefield,” so that the insurgent group is forced to enter negotiations from a position of weakness. Though General John Nicholson, the Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, pronounced the war a stalemate in November, President Trump’s new South Asia strategy aims to turn the tide by simultaneously pushing for peace talks, bolstering support for the Afghan government, and redoubling U.S. efforts to defeat the Taliban militarily.
With the United States and the Taliban both pressing to achieve favorable strategic conditions for peace negotiations, the scenario in which the Taliban immediately go for peace talks is unlikely. At the same time, any scenario in which the Taliban enter negotiations from a position of strength is improbable to be accepted by the United States and the NUG.
Scenario Two: Limited Involvement of Certain Taliban Factions in Peace Talks
In a declaration released a few days ago, the twenty-three participants of the Kabul Process—which includes major players like United States, China, Russia, Pakistan, India as well as international institutions like the United Nations and the European Union—have “collectively [agreed] that direct talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban—without any preconditions and without the threats of violence—constitute the most viable way to end the ongoing agony of the Afghan people.” Meanwhile, in response to the Taliban’s peace offer, the United States stated the door for dialogue is open.
By keeping the option for dialogue on the table, both the NUG and the international community may be appealing to a different faction of the Taliban—those who are ready to consider laying down arms and joining mainstream politics. As U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated last October, the United States hopes there are some “moderate voices” within the Taliban who may be amenable to a peace process even while others within the group are not. For those moderate individuals in the Taliban who wish to put an end to violence and join the political mainstream, accepting President Ghani’s offer has some appeal. If they can gather a contingent together to accept this deal and move forward with peace negotiations, it will create a clear distinction between the legitimate Taliban and other terrorist groups who are operating under its umbrella but would not like to participate in the peace process. If these factions join in an Afghan-led peace process, this would result in lowering the intensity of violence and improving the strength of the political establishment in Afghanistan. This would then give the security apparatus a free hand to eradicate the “real” terrorist groups wherever they are located.
Scenario Three: Taliban Rejection of the Peace Deal
If the Taliban continue to remain adamant regarding their demands—such as only negotiating with the United States ,and a complete withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces prior to entering into negotiations—the status quo will continue. As President Ghani stated, “Peace is our desire. But war is our current situation.” In this prevailing scenario, it is difficult to conduct representative parliamentary and presidential elections, yet failing to do so will further weaken the legitimacy of the Afghan political establishment. If this scenario plays out, it will be essential for the United States and other regional actors, including Pakistan, to continue to push for a peace process, despite the current military stalemate.
Image 1: U.S. Department of State via Flickr
Image 2: Shah Marai via Getty