The peace talks with the Afghan Taliban have apparently reached a high note with U.S. President Donald Trump declaring that the United States is in the midst of very strong negotiations in Afghanistan. Amid reports suggesting this is a crucial opportunity for the United States to settle the seventeen-year war, questions have been raised regarding the feasibility of the Afghan presidential elections that are scheduled to be held in April 2019. Even as efforts are being made to engage the Taliban in talks, the group continues to launch deadly attacks on civilians and Afghan security forces. They also attended the recent Moscow-held peace talks—boycotted by Washington, but attended by members of the Afghan Peace Council–where they repeatedly assailed the Afghan government for its failures. Taliban leaders are playing by their rules, demonstrating that they will continue to undermine the government of Afghanistan, engage in peace negotiations on their own terms alone, and spell trouble for the future of Afghan democracy.
Flouting the Afghan Government
During the recently held multilateral peace talks in Russia, which saw the representation of several regional players, including India, China, Pakistan, and Iran, the Afghan Taliban openly disregarded President Ghani and his government. Touted by analysts as a triumph for Russian diplomacy, the Moscow conference signals the failure of the peace commission that was representing the Afghan government to counter the narrative of the Afghan Taliban. At the recent Moscow talks, the Afghan Taliban, in its statement on the conditions for settlement, raised numbers released by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), according to which American bombardments in Afghanistan have exceptionally increased and are killing more civilians. While these numbers might be true, it is undeniable that raising them at an international platform allows the Afghan Taliban—itself responsible for 42 percent of total deaths in Afghanistan—to promote itself as a potential legitimate government for Afghanistan.
The rising confidence of the Taliban is also reflected in its referral to the organization as “Islamic Emirate” at least 61 times at the Moscow talks, where their remarks were as assertive and contentious as ever. Their insistence on the reestablishment of an “Islamic Government” was also seen in the official statement after the three-day meeting between the Taliban and high level delegation of U.S. officials in Qatar. These developments signal the existence of an emboldened Taliban and an undermined Afghan government that has failed to convince the Afghan Taliban to accept its legitimacy.
Kabul in Disarray
Touted by analysts as a triumph for Russian diplomacy, the Moscow conference signals the failure of the peace commission that was representing the Afghan government to counter the narrative of the Afghan Taliban.
A sense of urgency is palpable in the developments surrounding the Afghan peace process. On a Thanksgiving teleconference call with U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, President Trump, while conveying the United States’ strength in ongoing peace negotiations, also hinted at his skepticism about the success of such efforts. Uncertainty regarding the peace talks seems natural considering the recent developments portraying the weakness of the Afghan government. Per the New York Times, at least 242 Afghan security force members were killed from November 9th to the 15th. Contradicting to the claims of the U.S. military, which says that the Taliban has 28,000 to 40,000 fighters in its rank and file, the Long War Journal reported that the Taliban likely has more than 70,000 fighters. Additionally, the government of Afghanistan has been steadily losing territory. Compared to November 2015, when the central government had control over 72 percent of the country, it now governs only 55.5 percent of the country’s districts.
The Afghan government is also beset with disagreements and internal rivalries. Significant questions were raised concerning the state of the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) after the resignation of National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar in September. The same month also witnessed other top officials such as Interior Minister Wais Barmak, Defense Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami, and Chief of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) Masoom Stanekzai offering their resignations, all of which were rejected by Ghani. Serious differences have been observed between the Afghan political circle and the security agencies throughout 2018. Afghan politicians have criticized security agencies for engaging in political issues and levied accusations that members of the security apparatus collaborate with the Afghan Taliban. The fractious political climate amidst preparations for peace talks and presidential elections will only favor the Afghan Taliban, which has mocked the Afghan government before for its lack of unity.
Our Conditions, Our Rules
With the United States directly engaging with the Taliban, much is being said and written about the conditions defined by the latter to reach a settlement. However, the Taliban’s refusal to talk to the Afghan government while constantly mocking it as stooges of the U.S. government and attacking its legitimacy demonstrates that the road to peace remains far off. It continues to remain adamant about not engaging with the Afghan government, even as President Ghani assembles a team of Afghan government officials to hold talks with the Taliban. As visible from the Moscow talks, its demand for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan also continues to prevail.
As evidenced by the Taliban’s statement in Moscow, the Taliban is cognizant of the U.S. strategy of pressurizing and bringing the group to the talking table. There is a sense of hastiness in the actions of the United States, as evidenced by its abrupt decision to directly engage with the Taliban and even to discuss the presence of U.S. bases in Afghanistan. However, the Taliban’s actions haven’t suggested that it is seeking to compromise on its preconditions. On the contrary, its tone has become stronger with every negotiation. At present, it does not appear willing to depart from its preconditions.
If American policymakers were to disagree with the Taliban on their preconditions and conditions, they would likely put an end to the peace efforts that have been gaining momentum since the Eid ceasefire. The United States would once again have to opt for the same old strategy of hoping to pressurize the Taliban through tactical military victories, a policy which has been failing until now.
As the debate in Afghanistan now begins to shift towards whether the government should delay elections in favor of peace talks, there are concerns that such concessions could weaken the democratic set up of the country. Even so, the move has received support from within the Afghan government and the academic community on the grounds that the likeliness of deal would decrease as long as the Taliban can’t be sure that the incoming Afghan president will be on board with the tenets of a newly-inked peace deal. While the argument does possess logic, it is certain that the Taliban will leverage its position in negotiations if elections are delayed. The Taliban believes that it is their religious duty to oppose Afghan elections, as they are “un-Islamic” in nature. Postponing of elections would support their propaganda about the illegitimacy of the Afghan government. Thus, any delay in elections in favor of peace talks would bolster the confidence of the group. Importantly, there is no guarantee that the Afghan Taliban would stick to their promises even after the decision to delay the elections.
It is conceivable that the United States, which appears to be both hopeful and desperate for a peace deal, might give into the pressure of the deteriorating security situation and agree to some of the Taliban’s preconditions and conditions, including the removal of its leaders from UN sanctions list, a formal recognition of its political office, and the elimination of U.S. presence in Afghanistan. But if American policymakers were to disagree with the Taliban on their preconditions and conditions, they would likely put an end to the peace efforts that have been gaining momentum since the Eid ceasefire. The United States would once again have to opt for the same old strategy of hoping to pressurize the Taliban through tactical military victories, a policy which has been failing until now.
Image 1: U.S. Department of State via Flickr