COLOMBO: The Taliban’s lust for monopolistic power was the root cause of the failure of the long drawn out talks between the US and the Taliban to bring to Afghanistan both peace and a political settlement acceptable to all stakeholders in that troubled land.

The collapse of the talks should not surprise observers of the politics of militant groups around the world. Unlike States and governments, militant groups negotiate, not to find middle ground for a peaceful settlement, but to buy time with the aim of attaining monopolistic power.

Unlike States, militant groups think that the winner should take all and the vanquished should get nothing. In fact the militants believe in the annihilation of the loser. Sharing power is anathema for them.

In Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) operated on this credo for years and very successfully too. It took the Sri Lankan State years to understand the Tigers’ hidden game plan. It was only when Mahinda Rajapaksa took over the Presidency in 2005, that it dawned on the Lankan State that the Tigers were after monopolistic power and not a settlement on democratic lines. Rajapaksa abandoned the old line after an effort to talk and went headlong into war with the aim of annihilating the LTTE. With a combination of internal motivation and tacit foreign support, he was able to beat the LTTE at their own game.

As in Sri Lanka, in Afghanistan too, for years, the US believed that meaningful talks could be held with the Taliban and a settlement involving sharing of power with other Afghan groups could be reached. But these efforts failed consistently.

History of Failed Talks

Tracing the history of failed talks, the BBC says: Years before 9/11, the Clinton administration secretly made contact with the Taliban several times to get it to hand over Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden who was then in hiding in Afghanistan. But all that the US got was empty promises from the Taliban.

Eventually, the tough George W. Bush Administration invaded Afghanistan and threw out the Taliban from power. But the Taliban took shelter in neighboring Pakistan, ironically an US ally, and started attacking US forces from there. The bloody insurgency inflicted colossal losses on US and the Afghan security forces.

Even as fighting continued, the US attempted to hold talks with the Taliban in 2004 and again in 2011, but to no avail. In 2013, the Taliban opened an office in Doha in Qatar. But an attempt at dialogue with the US from Doha was scuttled when the Taliban declared it an unofficial embassy for a government-in-waiting, which was an unacceptable position for the US-backed government in Kabul.

In 2015, the Afghan government held its first face-to-face talks with the Taliban in Pakistan. But this too collapsed. The Taliban spurned the offer of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to recognize the Taliban as a political party. In 2018, Ghani renewed his offer and proposed a ceasefire to enable people to celebrate Eid-ul Fitr. The Taliban did not reply, but announced their own unilateral ceasefire for the first three days of Eid. But after Eid, violence resumed.

In September 2018, the US appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as a Special Peace Envoy, launching a new effort to talk. In May 2019, a “Loya Jirga” which is a large assembly of senior Afghan dignitaries, called for an “immediate and permanent” ceasefire. But that the Taliban turned a deaf ear to it.

However, for reasons not known, the Taliban started talks with US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha and nine sittings were held, with the blessings of Russia, China and the cooperation of Pakistan. The Doha talks focused on a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces in exchange for counter-terrorism promises, a ceasefire, and the opening of negotiations with the Kabul government. President Donald Trump even announced that would withdraw US troops (barring 8,000) by September 1 to keep his election promise.

But the Taliban refused to negotiate with the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul branding it a “puppet” of Washington though in July 2018, they had unofficially met Ghani’s representatives in Doha, the BBC report said.

As part of the talks process, the Taliban agreed to meet President Trump at Camp David in the US this month. But at the last moment, on September 7, Trump called off the meeting saying that the Taliban had killed a US soldier and 11 others. Prior to that the Taliban had been conducting attacks against Afghan forces and blasting bombs all over. The US forces were reacting in kind.

The Taliban has slammed Trump for breaking the talks, but, on its part, it had never been accommodative on core issues such as declaring a ceasefire and talking to the democratically elected Kabul regime of Ashraf Ghani. It has also been insisting on a complete US withdrawal, a condition the US armed forces were completely opposed to.

Therefore, it is just as well Trump called off the talks. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that the break up is temporary. But looking at the ground situation in Afghanistan, talks are unlikely to be resumed anytime soon as resumption of talks is against Taliban’s interest.

Taliban Needs War

It is in the interest of the Taliban to continue the war to annihilate the enemy, namely, the Kabul regime supported by the US, and send the US forces packing lock, stock and barrel.

As part of this agenda, the Taliban have to disrupt the Presidential election due on September 28, an election which Ashraf Ghani hopes to win. The Taliban leaders have indoctrinated their cadre with an ideology which demands that the collaborators of the West be annihilated and their regime replaced by one based on the Shariah.

The Taliban already control 70% of Afghanistan, either directly or indirectly, and in their view, they are only a hop, step and jump from full power. The Taliban are aware that their cadres lose motivation if peace is prolonged. It is reported that after the 2018 Eid ceasefire, some cadres who went home did not return.

The Trump administration is not keen on staying in Afghanistan and it will keep exploring ways to talk to the Taliban. This gives the Taliban the hope that the US can be frightened into submission. The Taliban are flush with funds from the cultivation and sale of poppy and from taxation in areas they control directly or indirectly.

The Taliban are a not a rabble. Their administration, in aeas they control, is quite sophisticated though they promote an antediluvian version of Islam. Unlike other groups, including the Afghan State, the Taliban are not alienated from the common Afghan.

“Life under Taliban shadow government,” a study published Thursday by the Overseas Development Institute, describes a “sophisticated system of parallel governance,” with commissions for each area of public service such as health, justice and finance, operating in numerous districts fully or partly controlled by the insurgents. The study surveyed 20 such districts across seven provinces.

According to The Washington Post, the main conclusions of the report researched by Ashley Jackson, are that the Taliban set the rules in “vast swathes” of Afghan territory but are far more concerned with influencing people. They have largely shifted from outright coercion to “creeping influence” over Afghans through services and state activities. They are often part of the local “social fabric,” and they view themselves as preparing to govern the country.