Afghanistan & peace talks: between a maze and a crossroad
In January 2012, excerpts of a 100-page classified annual document, National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), compiled by various security and intelligence agencies of the US government to review the situation in Afghanistan, were leaked to the international media. The revelations made by the Estimate finally laid to rest a lot of confusion that prevailed due to contradictory claims of successes made by warring factions in Afghanistan, namely NATO and the Taliban-led insurgents during 2011.
The Estimate concluded that a stepped-up Western military campaign had done real damage to the Taliban's military prowess but “not enough so to change their strategic calculus”.1) The classified document took a “dim view of possible futures in Afghanistan, especially with respect to the motivations of the Taliban,” and stated that the Taliban have not been weakened enough to force the militants to abandon their fight against foreign troops”.2)
The report concludes that NATO-Taliban war has hit a “stalemate”, with the Taliban remaining committed to taking back Afghanistan by force as soon as NATO troops leave the country in 2014.3) However, US General John Allen, head of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan, and US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, differed from the assessment, calling it overly pessimistic.4)
In the meantime, the US announced that the Afghan Taliban have agreed to open up a Taliban office in Qatar in order to hold talks over Afghanistan’s future. An explicit outline of the future talks either remains unclear or yet to be evolved. The US stance on any future negotiations with the Taliban revolves around three important demands: the insurgents lay down their arms and renounce violence; accept the Afghanistan constitution; and renounce Al-Qaeda.5) While the US in early 2011 described the three demands as a “precondition” for holding talks, it showed more flexibility recently by describing the three demands as a “necessary outcome” of any peace talks.6)
The Taliban posted a series of statements on their official website (http://alemara1.com/) which describes their political approach. On 3 January 2012, the Taliban, while officially confirming for the first time that they are involved in behind-the-scene peace talks with the US, stated: “We are at the moment, besides our powerful presence inside the country, ready to establish a political office outside the country to come to an understanding with other nations and in this series, we have reached an initial agreement with Qatar and other related sides”.7)
On 12 January 2012, another statement by the Taliban stated: “We have increased our political efforts to come to mutual understanding with the world in order to solve the current ongoing situation. But this understanding does not mean a surrender from Jihad and neither is it connected to an acceptance of the constitution of the stooge Kabul administration but rather the Islamic Emirate is utilizing its political wing alongside its military presence and Jihad in order to realize the national and Islamic aspirations of the nation and its martyrs”.8)
"facilitating, mediating, not arbitrating"
It is clear from the abovementioned Taliban statements that they are willing to hold talks with US and NATO, but not with the Afghan government. The Taliban also ruled out recognizing the Afghan Constitution and the “stooge Kabul administration” of President Hamid Karzai. Similarly, the current US-NATO and Taliban talks run contrary to the Afghan government’s demand that the peace talks should be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. Infact, the Afghan government seriously objected to secret negotiations between the US, Germany and the Afghan Taliban, in which it has so far been excluded. Subsequently, President Karzai expressed serious reservations over the opening of office in Qatar, and even recalled the Afghan Ambassador to Qatar for consultation in December 2011.9)
Later, however, President Karzai relented in the face of international pressure from NATO countries, as well as from some pro-Western members of his own administration. While Karzai seemed to have reluctantly agreed to initial peace talks between the US and Afghan Taliban, it nevertheless wants the US role to be “facilitating, mediating, not arbitrating".10)
According to Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, “Our position is very clear. The talks must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned … The talks where nobody represents the Afghan government will not lead to any positive outcome. At the end of the day, both sides will have to come to the government of Afghanistan".11)
Secondly, it remains unclear whether the US-NATO and Taliban would be discussing a whole range of issues that could culminate into a formal peace agreement and an end to violence in Afghanistan, or whether the engagement is merely confined to release of their detained comrades.
The Taliban are also holding a US soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, in their captivity since June 2009. The Taliban have reportedly expressed their readiness to allow the US to release its detained Taliban leaders held in Guantanamo Bay to Qatar, a move which is seriously being resisted by the Afghan government. This describes the gap between the Taliban insurgents and the Afghan government.12)
(...) both sides want to keep their options open in case a settlement could not be reached.
Similarly, both the sides continue to engage in fighting while expressing their willingness to talk to each other. The Taliban on 15 January 2012 stated that they “would not accept ceasefire, even for a single moment, till the foreign forces leave the country”.13)
Simon Gass, NATO’s top civilian representative in Afghanistan, echoed similar views when he said that despite peace talks gaining momentum after a decade of fighting, NATO forces in Afghanistan will keep the military campaign in a “very high momentum” and peace talks will not make an impact on the fight against the insurgents.14) This highlights the fact that both the sides want to keep their options open in case a settlement could not be reached.
Another important issue to be noted here is that the Afghan insurgency is run by many insurgent groups. The US has announced that it is holding talks with the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar, who would also run the Qatar office. Exclusion of other insurgent groups, including the Hezb-e-Islami led by Gulbudin Hekmatyar, would not pave way for a complete peace in the country.
Internal rifts within the insurgency could provide NATO with the opportunity to weaken them. However, a disunited insurgency could also give a headache to NATO to reach a peaceful settlement that could bring all of them to the negotiating table and sign a joint peace agreement. It could also mean that infighting in Afghanistan would continue even if one or more insurgent groups sign a peace agreement while others stay away from such an arrangement.
On 16 January 2012, the US launched a new diplomatic offensive by sending its top envoy for Af-Pak, Marc Grossman to the region to take the Afghan leadership into confidence, and undertaking visits to Ankara, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha. During his stay in the region, Mr Grossman will not travel to the six neighbours of Afghanistan (six-plus-two formula), which are more important to the final settlement of the Afghan quagmire than distant countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia.15) Pakistan, however, made its own move to stay relevant in the Afghan peace process, and renewed its offer to Kabul to help negotiate a deal with the Taliban. Pakistan is persistent with its argument that any peace talks need to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.
Peace talks are an intricate, difficult, time-consuming and arduous process, which becomes more complicated if there are many parties to the conflict. The opening of a Taliban office in Qatar is a first step in a thousand miles journey. Still it is not certain if the peace talks could finally culminate in the shape of a peace agreement.
With NATO determined to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by 2014, time is of essence. The Taliban remain resilient and have been able to carve out semi-sanctuaries in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces. A post-2014 success of the current NATO mission hinges upon an effective Afghan security force, which is able to retain the progress and solidify the gains achieved in the previous decade and establish control over the country. However, serious doubts exist over the capability of such an armed force, as well as its long-term financial sustainment by the international community given a deepening global financial crisis.
1) Mark Hosenball & Missy Ryan, “New Afghanistan Assessment Reflects Split US Views”, Reuters, 12 January 2012.
3) “AP Sources: Intelligence Community Concludes Taliban Committed to Taking Afghanistan Back”, The Washington Post, 13 January 2012.
4) Ken Dilanian & David S. Cloud, “U.S. intelligence Report on Afghanistan Sees Stalemate”, The Los Angeles Times, 11 January 2012.
5) Steven Lee Myers, Matthew Rossenberg & Eric Schmitt, “Against Odds, Path Opens Up for US-Taliban Talks”, The New York Times, 11 January 2012.
6) Abbas Daiyar, “About Talks with the Taliban”, Daily Outlook Afghanistan, 14 January 2012.
7) “Statement of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan regarding negotiations”, Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan-Voice of Jihad, 3 January 2012, http://shahamat-english.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=14202:statement-of-islamic-emirate-of-afghanistan-regarding-negotiations&catid=4:statements&Itemid=4.
8) “Statement of Islamic Emirate Regarding The Ongoing Situation in Afghanistan” Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan-Voice of Jihad, 3 January 2012, http://shahamat-english.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=14391:statement-of-islamic-emirate-regarding-the-ongoing-situation-in-afghanistan&catid=4:statements&Itemid=4.
9) “Taliban Set Terms as US Pushes For Talks”, Al-Jazeera, 12 January 2012.
10) Yaroslav Trofimov & Maria Abi-Habib, “Taliban Pinpoint Limits of U.S. Peace Effort”, The Wall Street Journal, 13 January 2012.
12) “Taliban Wants US to Release Prisoners to Qatar; Karzai Wants Them in Afghanistan”, Jihad Watch, 6 January 2012.
13) “Taliban Not to Accept Ceasefire”, The Frontier Post, 16 January 2012.
14) Lotfullah Najafizada, “Nato Envoy Calls for Afghan-led Peace Talks”, TOLO News, 12 January 2012.
15) Anwar Iqbal, “US Makes New Move to Engage Taliban”, Dawn, 16 January 2012.