The Afghan government announced a temporary unconditional ceasefire for eight days starting from June 12th. The truce, which coincides with the Muslim Eid festival marking the end of Ramadan, was an endorsement of a recommendation by a grand clerics meeting in Kabul on June 4th, in which about 2,000 religious scholars from across Afghanistan denounced suicide bombing and declared the war in Afghanistan religiously illegitimate. Although unilateral, the ceasefire drew support from the region and the world, including the United Nations, NATO, the European Union, Iran, Pakistan, China, and the United States. The commander of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan also announced that the United States would observe the ceasefire.
In response, on June 9th, the Taliban also announced a ceasefire, but only for three days of Eid ul-Fitr, making it the first time in the past 17 years both sides have halted their offensive attacks, although only temporarily. While the security situation in Afghanistan throughout the first half of 2018 has been challenging, with deadly incidents leading to a near-record of 2,258 civilian casualties in the first three months, the hope for peace talks begins to make sense when one places into the picture the fact that most analysts are now convinced the war is not militarily winnable.
Despite hopes that the ceasefire will lead to much longed-for peace talks, there remain several hurdles in the way of achieving this goal: the Taliban’s strong narrative and internal divisions present are one formidable obstacle, while the entrenched and evolving interests of regional actors are another altogether.
Divided but Strong Taliban
The existence of these internal divisions can make decision making difficult for the Taliban while creating confusion on the Afghan government side on the group’s intentions.
After nearly two decades of fighting against the Taliban by the Afghan government and its international allies, the group remains at the apex of its power, controlling close to half of Afghanistan’s territory. They have proven unexpectedly resilient, continuing to claim new territory while Afghan and coalition forces are unable to turn the tide. However, the group split into several groups after the news of its charismatic leader’s death was announced in 2015. The existing group is currently divided into at least five shuras (consultative councils). The existence of these internal divisions can make decision making difficult for the Taliban while creating confusion on the Afghan government side on the group’s intentions.
Despite the group’s divisions, the Taliban has a united narrative about the war, and this narrative has been fueled by foreign troops presence, the recent surge under Trump, and the collateral civilian casualties. On the other hand, the Afghan government and its international partners have been slow to craft a counter-narrative. Only recently have they tried to do so by organizing a series of meetings between religious scholars in Jakarta and Kabul in an attempt to get a religious fatwa (an authoritative legal ruling under Islamic law) against the actions committed by the Taliban. While this is an important step in creating such a narrative, it is only one initial step towards that end.
Regional Consensus on Peace Talks
Afghanistan’s war is more than an insurgency, as its outcome is rooted in the actions of regional stakeholders like Pakistan and Iran. Therefore, peace talks require the endorsement from all regional actors. The Afghan government has sought to bring about such a consensus through various platforms, including the four-nation Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) comprised of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the United States. The group has convened six meetings since its launch in January 2016, but latest meeting fell apart last fall before any solid ground for peace talks could be made.
Another attempt was the more inclusive Kabul Process. The first meeting, in which 24 countries participated, was held in June 2017 and aimed at “building security alliances” against terrorism. The second Kabul Process meeting, which was attended by 26 countries and included all involved regional and global actors in the Afghan war, was held on February 2018, during which the Afghan government put on the table a generous and detailed offer for peace talks without any preconditions. The Kabul Process, while garnering international attention to the situation in Afghanistan, did little to move the needle towards achieving a regional consensus towards peace talks.
The Taliban in Afghanistan is a mix of an insurgency and a proxy group. This fact makes any efforts towards peace talks more difficult, as the strategic calculations of regional actors must also be considered along with the Taliban’s stated bargaining position.
The prospect for peace talks becomes gloomier as Afghanistan’s regional dynamics become increasingly complex. Russia is reportedly becoming more engaged in the Afghan war by arming the Taliban. Moreover, Iran is becoming more assertive in supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Mashhad Shura, one of the five main shuras of the Taliban, is based in Iran. When the provincial capital of Farah province in western Afghanistan was overrun in mid-May, Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Tariq Shah Bahrami accused Iran of waging the war for control over the water that flows from Afghanistan into Iran.
The influence of the entrenched interests of regional actors on peace talks unveils an unpleasant fact about the dynamics of the current war in Afghanistan: peace talks with the Taliban may appear to be within reach when only the insurgency is taken into account, but become elusive when Taliban’s position as a proxy group is considered as well. In reality, the Taliban in Afghanistan is a mix of an insurgency and a proxy group. This fact makes any efforts towards peace talks more difficult, as the strategic calculations of regional actors must also be considered along with the Taliban’s stated bargaining position.
Many Obstacles, One Hope
Thus, although one cannot disregard the possibility for the ceasefire to lead to peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, neither can one ignore Taliban’s internal divisions, their strong narrative, and the lack of a regional consensus on what peace in Afghanistan might look like.
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Image 1: Al Jazeera English via Flickr
Image 2: Shah Marai via Getty