Afghanistan: The Crystal Ball is Fuzzy
Our foreign affairs primer on recent developments in Afghanistan
Recent developments in Afghanistan have fueled wary expectations that a deal, or at least a truce, could be in the offing. Presidential elections scheduled for April 2019 have been postponed until July. Security considerations; reform of the election commission; and the need for adequate preparations; have all been cited as the ostensible reason. But analysts believe that the rescheduling has been at the behest of the Americans with American Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad hoping to further the negotiations and the peace process to arrive at a deal before the elections.
The process started with the Taliban leadership issuing open letter to the American people last year in February calling on them to persuade their leaders to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan. This was followed by a unilateral ceasefire announced by President Ghani on the occasion of Eid to which the Taliban responded with a three day ceasefire. The fact that the Taliban decision was taken by the leadership without consulting the rank and file commanders, and was honoured, suggested that, contrary to some assessments, the Taliban leadership still held sway over the militia whose members were seen mingling freely with Afghan soldiers and civilians. While the government pressed for an extension of the truce the Taliban did not oblige possibly fearing any extension, without a religious pretext, being seen as a sign of weakness which could antagonize some of the more hardline commanders.
President Donald Trump had in his campaign promised to pull American troops out of Afghanistan. In July 2018 the old standing American policy of no direct dealings with the Taliban was overturned by him. Though backchannel discussions had taken place over the years in July 2018 the first public official contact between the US Administration and the Taliban occurred in Qatar. The head of the US State Department’s South Asian Bureau, Alice Wells met four Taliban officials in the Qatari capital on July 23 for the first face-to-face talks in seven years apparently to “talk about talks”. The Taliban said that the meeting, which was positive, had taken place with the approval of the Taliban leadership. Without calling it a peace process the Taliban said that issues like the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan; the release of prisoners; had been discussed while the Americans wanted to be allowed to keep their military bases in Afghanistan.
Once the talks with the Taliban were made official policy President Trump appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as his Special Peace Envoy. Khalilzad met the Taliban on different occasions in Qatar starting in October 2018. Reports cited the Taliban as saying that there had been some progress in the talks with Khalilzad, focusing on the withdrawal of international forces, the release of prisoners and lifting curbs on international travel by Taliban officials. The Taliban had also upgraded their Qatar office with the appointment of five senior commanders released from Guantanamo-namely Mohammad Fazl, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa, Abdul Haq Wasiq and Noorullah Noori. Representatives of the Haqqani network were present at the talks and Khalilzad had sought to persuade them to free an American and an Australian professor reportedly held by the Haqqanis. Following his latest meeting with the Taliban in Qatar in December 2018 Khalilzad had told the media that the Taliban delegation included the head of its political office and chief of staff to supreme leader Mullah Akhundzada. He said the delegation had told him that they understood that they would not be able to defeat the US forces. In order to persuade the Taliban of American sincerity about the peace process and make them amenable to negotiations, the US Defence Department had sent a plan to Congress for rehabilitating the Taliban in a new Afghanistan including providing them a safety net and job opportunities while addressing US security concerns and the interests of Afghanistan’s neighbours.
On one aspect of the peace process the Taliban have remained adamant—that on no account would they hold any discussions with the Afghan government which they called a “puppet installed by the Americans and imposed on the Muslim Afghan nation," and without any real power. They have also called on the Afghan Government to rescind the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US which was signed in 2014. While representatives of the Afghan government had been in Qatar the Taliban had not met them. They had also demanded that the next meeting, which Saudi Arabia had proposed holding in January 2019 as part of the peace process, should be shifted to Qatar to prevent Saudi Arabia pressuring the Taliban to talk to the Afghan Government representatives. Appeals from the United States, Pakistan, China, Russia and other world powers had not changed the Taliban’s position. The latest reports incidated that Taliban sources said they had called off the talks over the involvement of Afghan officials as well as demands for a possible ceasefire through 2019 and a prisoner exchange. The Americans continued to stress that an intra Afghan dialogue was imperative something the Taliban were not willing to countenance.
The Taliban had all along pressed for discussions with the Americans as the real power in Afghanistan and had told Khalilzad that they would first talk to the US and only then with the Afghan government and resolve the issues through political means. They had also said that a possible peace accord in Afghanistan could not be fully implemented in the absence of an international guarantee from the UN, world powers, the Organization of Islamic Countries and other facilitating countries. President Ghani’s numerous offers to the Talban to enter into talks had been bluntly spurned as had been American exhortations for such talks to take place so that the peace process remained Afghan led. The Taliban refusal to talk to the Afghan government after the string of meetings that had taken place with the Americans had led Khalilzad to voice concerns about their sincerity in ending the war and led Abdullah Abdullah to comment that it appeared that the Taliban simply wanted the instability to continue.
The Taliban had attended multi-country talks in Moscow, Beijing and lately in Iran. Russian President Vladimir Putin had said that given the amount of territory they controlled the Taliban had to be taken into account at peace talks on Afghanistan. According to data from the NATO-led Resolute Support mission published in November 2018 , the government of President Ashraf Ghani had control or influence over 65 percent of the population but only 55.5 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, less than at any time since 2001. The Taliban claimed that they controlled 70 percent of the country. The talks in Iran were, according to the Taliban’s statement, about “the post-occupation situation, restoration of peace and security in Afghanistan and the region”. The wording suggested Taliban confidence that the foreign troops would leave soon.
The Taliban agenda despite all the talks remains unchanged-- oust the foreign occupiers, reclaim Afghan sovereignty, and convert the state into one based on Islam. The announcement of a possible early American troop withdrawal announced by President Donald Trump, much to the dismay of his military commanders, had been lauded by the Taliban as for them it signaled a victory. But the Taliban had made it clear that they would continue fighting until any foreign troops remained in Afghanistan.
If indeed all foreign troops withdraw from Afghanistan-given Trump’s announcement and the absence of any great desire on the part of Nato countries to continue committing their troops to an unending war-the real question is what would be the structure of the Afghan polity? The comments of senior Taliban officials and the reasoning given by them to interlocutors might provide some inkling of what shape post war Afghanistan would take. Zaibullah Mujahid had told Reuters “If peace comes and the Taliban return, then our return will not be in the same harsh way as it was in 1996”. He had also said that their main opposition was to the presence of foreign troops and once they left and a peace deal was reached, a nationwide amnesty would be announced and no one from the police, army, government employees or anyone, would face any revengeful behaviour from the Taliban.
On the question of the nature of the state and the constitution senior Taliban leaders had said the country had to be run as per Islamic laws. But they were not particularly concerned about the Constitution as it stood but more with the manner in which the state and successive foreign installed governments had functioned. The Constitution might need some changes to bring it in line with the Sharia as the Taliban said it was written in response to the needs of foreigners and not the Afghans. They also appeared to concede that it would be necessary to involve others in the matter of governance and maintain a relationship with the international community since Afghanistan would need resources for rebuilding and reconstruction. On the question of the media the Taliban’s own use of this medium in recent years is evidence of their acceptance, though it would be highly unlikely that a completely independent media would be tolerated. The abuse of women’s rights that was flagrant during their previous reign, might not be so virulent. In defence of their changed perspective senior and former Taliban leaders have told interlocutors that the Taliban were not against women’s education or employment outside the house but wanted to maintain cultural and religious codes and would be opposed to alien-culture clothes worn by Afghan women. Interestingly some of them were willing to concede that the excesses of their past regime were due in part to ignorance and an imperfect understanding of Islamic law by some of them.
There is some apprehension that as the senior leadership has aged and possibly mellowed, efforts to reach a deal with those seen as perpetual enemies might not sit well with the younger and more hardline commanders. They would be opposed to a deal that involved too many concessions and weakened the military core of the Taliban. They would likely oppose any integration with the Afghan army. Moreover, many of these commanders have developed their own areas of influence and might not be willing to concede to a central government that might have a preponderance of Taliban leaders but also representatives from other parties. This could explain the ongoing violence even as talks are on; the threat that if the US did not withdraw it would face the same fate as the Soviet Union; the targeting of the capital Kabul etc.
Russia, China, Iran –all three countries have been according the Taliban the status of a legitimate political formation. An American withdrawal would be highly pleasing to them as over the years, they have directly or indirectly aided the Taliban. Pakistan, despite all the pressure from the Americans, remains engaged in obfuscation while doing nothing to dilute its commitment to the Taliban. The recent release of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Mullah Abdul Samad Sani, and Mullah Mohammad Rasul, by Pakistan to enable them to take part in the peace process was possibly motivated by a desire to protect its own interests. All these countries might be advising the Taliban that Donald Trump is the Taliban’s best bet –at the moment. But a President, known to be whimsical and inconsistent, who can shed close advisors and bring his own government to a standstill over a border wall, has to be tapped quickly. Khalilzad’s work could become more difficult since Trump’s announcement of a troop withdrawal since the Taliban might be emboldened to hold on. Or Trump could just dismiss Khalilzad if the peace deal gets delayed beyond July 2019. The Taliban interest would perhaps be best served if they arrive at an early deal since a delay could be a mistake as, in one of his sudden shifts, Trump might just decide to up the military ante.
The other question that is more significant is what will happen as the current Taliban leadership ages and is replaced by the more battle hardened, religiously extreme, younger commanders who have developed their own fiefdoms. Some of them have been critical of the seniors ensconced in Pakistan while they have borne the brunt of the fighting. Would they countenance sharing power with other ethnic and religious groups or would they revert to the Taliban’s original agenda of taking over the whole of Afghanistan and commit the country to another bout of internecine fighting? Is then a defacto partition of Afghanistan somewhere in the future? Time to gaze into the crystal ball—which is quite fuzzy.