Afghan Peace Talks: Progress and Pitfalls


2013-01-03 By Richard Weitz

In discussions outside Paris, members of the Afghan Taliban insurgency met with representatives of the Afghan government and its peaceful opposition to discuss how their war might end.

Although not formal negotiations, they seemed to indicate greater Taliban interest than previously in a peace treaty.

Yet, they also showed the wide differences still separating the parties.  

In their post-conference briefings to the media, representatives of the Taliban and their interlocutors confirmed that the Taliban had moderated their stances regarding the rights of women and the legitimacy of some Afghan public institutions created after they lost power in 2001, such as the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. In particular, they said that women would be allowed to choose husbands, own property, attend school and seek work.

They may not look like Vietnamese in the photo. But the Taliban could easily imitate the North Vietnamese strategy of professing to accept a compromise peace settlement in order to secure a foreign military withdrawal.

Taliban representatives Mawlawi Shahbuddin Dilawar and Muhammad Naeem also denied that they sought a monopoly on political affairs, which offers opportunities for a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban. This arrangement 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).

The Afghan Taliban claim they recognize that Afghanistan has changed during the last decade. “We realize we cannot run Afghanistan without the support of educated people, and we will not be tough as we were.”  One reason the Taliban might want peace is to obtain foreign money and other assistance. Their previous government was almost falling apart due to its economic failings, so Taliban pragmatists acknowledge the need to cooperate on some issues with Afghan technocrats and foreign governments.

The Afghan government and U.S. officials have stuck to their demands that the Taliban accept a cease-fire, severe ties with international terrorists like al-Qaeda, and accept the legitimacy of the post-2001 Afghan constitution, with some possible amendments but with the rights of women and children protected.

It is 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.

Many women’s rights groups, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, oppose negotiating with the Taliban for fear of losing guaranteed schooling for girls and other rights. Human rights groups suspect that even if the Afghan government and Taliban representatives profess to respect the constitution in any future peace agreement, they will simply not fully enforce—either deliberately or due to the limited capabilities and authority of Afghan government institutions—some of its provisions in practice.

In contrast, the Taliban still describes the current Afghan constitution as “illegitimate because it is written under the shadow of (U.S.) B-52 aircraft” and insists that all foreign forces leave the country before any more national elections occur.

There are still more than 100,000 NATO forces in Afghanistan, including 66,000 U.S. soldiers, but many of these are scheduled to leave in 2013.  The Taliban also claim that, “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan … is still the legitimate government.”

Although al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders are united in their desire to expel Western troops from Afghanistan and reestablish a strict Islamic government in which they enjoy a monopoly of political and religious power, Taliban leaders profess more moderate goals.

Taliban representatives, have insisted that their political ambitions are confined to Afghanistan and that they would not aide Islamic insurgencies in other countries or assist international terrorism.

Yet, it is 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. 

The Taliban continue to demand, as a prerequisite for any negotiations, the release of certain leading Taliban prisoners, which may be easier for the Obama administration now that the U.S. presidential elections are over.

Securing Pakistan’s support is essential for achieving an enduring peace agreement.

Securing Pakistani support for any peace agreement is even more important. Pakistani officials have insisted on having a key role in any peace settlement, and have disrupted talks from which they have been excluded by arresting the senior Taliban representatives involved. The influence enjoyed by the Pakistani intelligence service within the Afghan Taliban assures them of de facto veto power over an initial agreement.

Even if Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura Taliban were to negotiate a peace agreement, the more radical Haqqani network, which enjoys the patronage of key figures within Pakistan’s national security establishment, could fight on in alliance with local al-Qaeda remnants.  Karzai and Western leaders have repeatedly insisted that their reconciliation offer does not extend to al-Qaeda members, who are seen as alien foreign elements whose extremist convictions and past terrorist activities make them unacceptable negotiating partners.

Finally, the Taliban refuses to negotiate directly with the Afghan government.

Karzai and fellow Afghan government officials fear excessive foreign interference in the peace process and that NATO countries will negotiate a separate peace with the Taliban. Western governments insist that any peace process should be Afghan-led, but they refuse to give Karzai a veto on the talks since Karzai has incentives to keep NATO forces in his country indefinitely while Western leaders are eager to reduce their commitments as soon as possible.

The main ethnic minorities in Afghanistan—such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras –conversely fear that Karzai will negotiate a deal with his fellow Pashtuns in the Taliban at their expense.

After more than a year of talks between the Taliban and foreign governments, the Taliban is finally opening a political office in Qatar.

Such an office is needed so that the Taliban’s interlocutors know they are talking to authorized representatives of the Taliban rather than self-declared but fake emissaries.  In the past, such false representatives have extorted large sums of money or served as suicide bombers, killing their proclaimed negotiating partners.

Conversely, safeguards are needed to prevent the Taliban office from serving as a propaganda font or mobilization center for the Taliban. Recognizing the office will in any case enhance the movement’s legitimacy, though this might be an acceptable concession if it accelerates actual negotiations and does not lead to endless talks in Doha while the Taliban waits out the withdrawal of most NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014.

Perhaps the most serious problem preventing an Afghan peace agreement is the impending NATO military withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Many Taliban leaders believe that they can simply keep fighting for a few more years until the Western publics compel their governments to withdraw their forces, which would place the weak Afghan National Army and National Police in a difficult situation.

They could easily imitate the North Vietnamese strategy of professing to accept a compromise peace settlement in order to secure a foreign military withdrawal.

The photo was taken from the following source and the article is well worth reading as well.