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Is Taliban Serious about Talks?

Richard Weitz

After years of stagnation and secrecy, the peace talks to end the Afghanistan war are finally making progress. Last week, an Afghan Taliban spokesman said that his group had agreed in principle to establish a political liaison office in Qatar for the purpose of seeking a negotiated settlement to the conflict. The Obama administration and, less enthusiastically, Afghan President Hamid Karzai have welcomed the development as evidence that the Afghan peace process is finally making progress.

U.S. and German officials have been holding clandestine discussions with Taliban representatives for about a year. They’ve been engaged in “talks about talks”—discussing what steps to take to launch formal peace negotiations, what items should be discussed, and what the framework of a possible settlement might look like.

Establishing such an office is an essential prerequisite for launching formal peace negotiations. The Taliban’s interlocutors must know they are talking to authorized representatives of the movement rather than false emissaries who, in the past, have swindled money from the United States and last year assassinated former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the Afghan Peace Council.

But creating such an office is only the first step of many that will be needed for a viable and durable Afghan peace settlement. And, despite recent positive developments, the odds are still against one.

Karzai’s foreign backers have overcome their initial doubts and become enthusiastic backers of any peace settlement. Despite the surge in troops and other resources entering Afghanistan, NATO forces and their Afghan allies acknowledge that they couldn’t plausibly hope to kill or capture all the Taliban insurgents. More practically, their wary publics are demanding an end to the Afghan mission, so most NATO governments have announced they will withdraw all forces by 2014. Foreign governments are already reducing their troop deployments and foreign aid contributions to Afghanistan.

The renewed peace process will have to overcome past problems that have blocked any settlement. For several years now, Karzai has offered to negotiate with “moderate” Taliban leaders, renegade warlords, and other groups and commanders fighting his government, providing they agreed to end their insurgency and accept the legitimacy of his government and the basic tenets of the Afghan constitution adopted following the Taliban’s defeat in late 2001. The Afghan government has also offered various forms of amnesty and other inducements to guerrilla fighters who pledge to cease fighting.

Until now, the Taliban leadership has publicly rejected Karzai’s reconciliation overtures and denounced the reintegration process. Taliban leaders had demanded that all NATO troops leave Afghanistan as a prerequisite for starting the negotiations. In addition, many former fighters who participated in earlier reintegrated schemes subsequently took up arms again because they didn’t receive adequate financial assistance, employment retraining, or protection.

In terms of the procedures, any Taliban negotiators will need guarantees for their safety, while the Afghan government and its foreign partners will need to ensure that the Taliban actually engages in meaningful talks rather than tries to use the office for purposes of propagating its views and recruiting more members. Their merely recognizing the office incurs the risk of elevating the movement’s legitimacy.

The Afghan government is uncomfortable with the entire process. Its representatives haven’t participated in any of the recent talks between Western governments and the Taliban. Many Afghans fear the West is simply looking for an excuse to bail out of the Afghan conflict by reaching some kind of face-saving deal with the Taliban that would delay a Taliban victory for a decent interval until the foreign forces had departed. Powerless to prevent a separate peace or other kind of sell out, Karzai could only offer a bitter endorsement of the Taliban-U.S. talks in Qatar as helping to “eliminate the foreigner’s excuses for and actions to continue war and bloodshed in Afghanistan.”

Another procedural problem is how to include the international parties in any talks. One reason for Karzai’s concern is that the Taliban want to negotiate directly with the United States and other foreign governments rather than the Afghan government. This procedure would enhance the authority of the Taliban while degrading that of Karzai’s government.

In addition, the role of Pakistan needs to be clarified. The Pakistani government can veto any settlement through the leverage it influences over the Afghan Taliban, who use Pakistani territory as their main base of operations. In the past, the Pakistani authorities have arrested Afghan Taliban members who seemed inclined to negotiate with the Kabul government independently rather than through Pakistani-approved channels. Pakistan’s decision to boycott the December 2011 Bonn conference in retaliation for the NATO air strike on its soldiers on November 26 undermined the meeting.

Still, even if the Afghan Taliban were to break with Islamabad, the Pakistani authorities could still employ the more radical Haqqani network, which has a major presence in eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan and enjoys the patronage of key figures within Pakistan’s national security establishment. Indeed, Haqqani operatives have been responsible for some of the most violent incidents in Afghanistan, including a direct attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

The substantive impediments to any peace agreement are perhaps greater. The key parties each made an important but conditional concession to get the talks started. The United States accepted that the talks could begin before the Taliban committed to break with al-Qaeda, renounce violence, and consent to Afghanistan’s existing post-Taliban constitution. Meanwhile, the Taliban set aside its previous demand that formal peace negotiations couldn’t begin until all the foreign military forces fighting on behalf of the Karzai government leave Afghanistan. But both parties still insist that any peace settlement must end with these provisions being included in its terms.

The Afghan government and its foreign backers now demand that the Taliban issue a public renunciation of international terrorism, a statement expressing support for Afghanistan’s constitutional democracy, and agree to commence formal peace talks with the Afghan government. But it’s uncertain whether a Taliban government would or could prevent al-Qaeda from reestablishing bases in any region of Afghanistan under its control, exercising more restraint than before 9/11, or whether it would allow al-Qaeda to again transform Afghanistan into a haven for global terrorist operations.

Some argue that the Taliban, eager to return to power, would want to reconcile with the international community, or at least prevent the further Western military strikes that would ensue should al-Qaeda again use Afghan territory as a base for external operations. The Taliban’s leadership has released statements saying that its political objectives were confined only to Afghanistan, and that it didn’t intend to harm any other countries.

Yet, it’s hard to imagine the Taliban actually using force to prevent their al-Qaeda allies from reestablishing a military presence in Afghanistan and employing these new base camps to organize additional terrorist attacks in other countries. U.S. plans to retain one or more bases in Afghanistan would also offer the Taliban an irresistible and nearby target for their assaults.

It’s also unclear whether the Taliban would genuinely accept Afghanistan’s current constitution, which was adopted after the Taliban lost power. It includes a number of liberal democratic principles that many Taliban consider objectionable if not blasphemous. The Taliban leadership has moderated its formal position on some issues, and instructed its field commanders to do likewise in a recent field manual, but such policies seem like tactical maneuvers to reduce Afghan resistance to their return to power.

Meeting the Taliban demand for the release of some of their former leaders now detained at the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will prove difficult. The figures under discussion possibly include former Taliban Interior Minister Mullah Khair Khowa, former Taliban governors Noorullah Noori and Khairullah Khairkhwa, former Deputy Defense Minister Mohammed Fazl, former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund, former senior intelligence official Abdul Haq Wasiq, and Taliban leader Mohammed Nabi.

But the fact is that ethical and tactical problems abound in any deal. Noori and Fazl are accused of having killed thousands of Afghan Shiites between 1998 and 2001 in their quest to create the perfect Sunni Islam emirate. Many in the United States, meanwhile, would insist that the Taliban release their own American captive—25-year old sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, captured in June 2009—as part of any exchange. Meanwhile, Karzai is insisting that any Afghan prisoners released from Guantanamo must be transferred to his government rather than to Qatar or the Taliban directly. Taliban representatives also want the United States to work to remove their names from international terrorist black lists.

Meanwhile, even dealing with any Taliban rank and file who want to stop fighting has proven challenging. According to NATO, almost 3,000 Taliban guerrillas have renounced violence and reintegrated back into Afghanistan’s civilian society under the government’s Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program.

The defectors are supposed to receive protection, jobs, vocational training, housing, and other benefits in return for laying down their weapons. But thus far, the Afghan government has proved unable to provide them with these benefits. The Afghan National Army isn’t strong enough to pressure many Taliban soldiers to defect or guarantee their safety if they do. In addition, the government’s civilian institutions are unable to generate adequate legitimate employment or curb some of the social abuses, such as corruption, that lead people to take up arms in protest.

Some of the former fighters have been allowed to enroll in the Afghan National Army, Army National Police, and even community-based militias. The risk is that these fighters might rejoin the Taliban again after receiving government-funded training and weapons. Alternately, the militias could reinforce local warlords by placing these experienced fighters under the command of regional elites who rely on force to exploit their local communities.

The Afghan government might not be able to prevent the Qatar talks from being primarily a U.S.-Taliban dialogue, but its members will invariably demand that they enjoy decisive say in any power-sharing agreement with the Taliban. Such a deal could range from a comprehensive coalition government to a more limited sharing of authority in certain geographic and functional areas (such as the Taliban’s having a larger role in Pashtun-dominated areas but limited say over Afghanistan’s foreign policy).

More generally, many Afghans complain they find out little about the peace process and fear they will eventually confront a settlement negotiated among Afghan and Taliban leaders imposed on them. They would like to see a less top-down, elite driven process by establishing some mechanism by which traditionally marginalized groups can express their views. Those Afghans distrustful of Pakistan and the NATO countries would also like to see the United Nations have a larger role in the peace process.

Many Taliban leaders naturally believe that they only need to keep fighting for a few more years until the Western publics compel their governments to withdraw their forces. They could, then, imitate the North Vietnamese strategy of professing to accept a compromise peace settlement in order to secure a foreign military withdrawal, and then resume offensive operations against the still weak Afghan Security Forces, which have yet to demonstrate substantial military effectiveness.

In the meantime, American officials hope to see the Qatar office open in a few weeks and negotiations commence by the time of the NATO summit in Chicago this May. Several Taliban leaders have already begun moving to Qatar in anticipation of their soon leading the office. The fact they are bringing their families with them suggests they believe the negotiating process could last for some time.

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