Small Wars Journal

Here’s How U.S.-Taliban Talks Can Succeed

Sun, 12/15/2019 - 12:45pm

Here’s How U.S.-Taliban Talks Can Succeed

Aziz Amin Ahmadzai

Following the prisoner swap between the Afghan government and the Taliban – a deal facilitated by the United States, Qatar and Pakistan – it appears that the Afghan peace talks may soon resume. US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is reportedly in Qatar holding informal talks with the Taliban. While the year-long marathon peace talks failed for several reasons, a new round of talks may present an opportunity to redress the mistakes.

The US-Taliban peace talks were problematic from the outset as they excluded a key player in the Afghan conflict—the democratically elected Afghan government. Many critics voiced concern that the exclusion of the Afghan government, civil society and public from the process cast serious doubts over the integrity of the negotiators and their intended end game, with the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) saying peace would only come through direct talks between the Taliban and Afghan government.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani raised objections over a process that appeared to undermine – even delegitimize – the elected government’s position and legitimacy at the national, regional and international levels. And when Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib’s comments stirred controversy in Washington last March, his words merely reflected the frustration of the Afghan government as well as large segments of the Afghan public. Similarly, Washington appeared divided on the issue, with widespread skepticism over whether or not the talks would yield the desired outcome. With signs now that US negotiations with the Taliban may soon resume, once the Afghan presidential election results are announced, the US and other international partners must acknowledge the elected government as the only legitimate representative of the Afghan people at the negotiation table.

The Taliban’s Miscalculation

From the start of the negotiations, the Taliban’s approach was no different than the approach of the former Mujahideen when they were fighting the Soviet-backed Afghan government led by Dr. Najibullah. In the run up to US presidential elections, President Donald Trump feels compelled to show signs of progress on what he has called the “endless” war in Afghanistan. The Taliban has seen this as an opportunity to pressure the Americans to kowtow to their demands. They dismiss the Afghan government as a US puppet regime and refuse to speak with the Afghan delegation. In seeking the complete surrender of the Afghan government, the Taliban appear may have reached some undisclosed arrangement with the Afghan political opposition which includes former government officials and warlords – individuals who have no executive authority and cannot legitimately take any decision on behalf of the Afghan nation. In miscalculating the role and legitimacy of the Afghan state, the Taliban strategy demonstrably backfired.

Failing to Form a Unified Team

For its part, the Afghan government’s failure to form a consensus among the established and un-established political elites did not help its case. These differences emerged when the Afghan government wanted to form a unified Afghan delegation to meet the Taliban in Qatar. These divisions and differences were exploited by the Taliban.

As an elected government, it carries an obligation of safeguarding the values of the republic, the interests of the country and the aspirations of the people. It worked to form an inclusive team that would represent all strata of Afghan society. But the inclusion of Afghan government officials and removal of names from the list provided by opposition politicians led by former President Hamid Karzai who met the Taliban in Moscow proved problematic. Secondly, those Afghan politicians who were in constant contact with the Taliban saw this as a window of opportunity to return to power by throwing the government under the bus and establishing direct contacts with the Taliban. This, of course, was a golden opportunity for the Taliban to woo the opposition with the promise of overthrowing the Afghan government. Nevermind the fact that many among the opposition are Mujahideen and warlords who had once fought the Taliban and were part of the very government the Taliban now denounces as a US puppet regime. 

US Election and Reducing the Cost of War

As the US election draws nearer, President Trump grows even keener to sign a quick peace deal and reduce the cost of war with the Taliban. He needs to show American voters that he has achieved a tangible victory on a major foreign policy front—something that the previous administrations failed to do. This hasty deal aimed at helping President Trump’s reelection bid was actually a major part of his campaign promises. But for Afghans it is a different story. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has repeatedly stated that he supports and will pursue a peace deal that is durable and not just a quick fix. He knows that the 40-year Afghan conflict cannot be resolved on terms that nullify the sacrifices of the Afghan people and go against their interests for the sake of short-term gains.

Talks About Afghans Without Afghans

As the US and the Taliban were holding talks to end the Afghan conflict, one of the major questions that remains un-answered until today was: who represents the Afghan people? Are we referring to an Afghanistan that was once ruled by the Taliban or a new Afghanistan that has transformed in so many ways?

Today, Afghanistan is made up of a vibrant civil society, women who play an active role in the development of the country, and an educated youth from around the world that have returned to work for the well-being of their country. Today, civil liberties are respected in Afghanistan. In the post-Taliban era, Afghan society has turned into one of the pluralized societies of the region. You cannot talk about youth that constitutes almost 75 percent of the country’s population, women, civil society and other minorities groups without their due representation. Their exclusion will cast a shadow on any negotiations.

Zero Sum-Game Mindset

Since the very start of the peace talks, the Taliban were rigid, uncompromising and arrogant. Their attitude stemmed from the belief that they had the upper hand because they had bested the Americans in the drawn out war, and as such, the Americans would acquiesce to any conditions, including the dissolution of the government they had installed.  They did not want to change their position of speaking and meeting the Afghan government official despite the Afghan government has been the key party to the Afghan conflict. Their behavior resonated with the behavior of the former Mujahideen who rejected the continuous peace offers from the government of Dr. Najibullah although the dynamics of today’s conflict is totally different than the 1990s. Today’s government enjoys significant national and international support and the Taliban are certainly not seen as valiant Mujahideen. The Afghan government showed a lot of flexibility but the Taliban language, and approach lacked mutual respect and their persistence to impose the Islamic Emirate and continue knocking the doors of Moscow, Islamabad, Tehran and other countries than Kabul for a successful peace agreement led to the failure of the peace talks.

Rift Within Taliban

As the US and Taliban were on the brink of clinching the peace deal, an attack on US servicemen in Kabul proved that the Taliban leadership based both in Qatar and Pakistan are not on the same page. The Quetta and Miranshah based Taliban perceived that they are not in the loop of what is happening in Qatar between the US and the Taliban. When they felt sidelined and neglected, they opted to sabotage the peace talks by killing the US service member which led to the cancellation of peace talks. This happened days before the Taliban were set to meet President Trump in Camp David. Different backdoor channels were engaged to resume peace talks but in early October, the Taliban visited Pakistan and met high ranking government and military officials of Pakistan as well as Zalmay Khalilzad. However, the Taliban stayed for 20 days in Quetta to appease the disgruntled Taliban leaderships and military commanders on their discussions with US negotiations team. Divisions within Taliban ranks further add to the confusion among the international community and the Afghan government that even if the US and Afghan government were to reach a deal with the Taliban, it will not bring a lasting peace if they are not on the same page with their leadership based in Pakistan.

A Way Out

At this critical juncture, the success of the Afghan peace talks now solely depends on the formation of an inclusive team of negotiators that represents all strata of Afghanistan and safeguards the republic. On the national front, the Afghan government should form internal consensus by speaking to the Afghan political oppositions and including their representatives in the negotiation team. Similarly, the Afghan opposition led by former President Hamid Karzai should view this process as a road to peace not their return to power.

Peace is a process, not a short-term project. It is about developing trust between people, between the population and their authorities. As part of confidence-building measures, the Afghan government released Anas Haqqani and three other Taliban leaders as its last bargaining chip to show that it is committed to a lasting peace in the country. The Taliban have to reciprocate in a similar fashion, display unity, flexibility and show mutual respect by changing their arrogant tone and approach towards the Afghan government. The Taliban needs to understand that no matter which door they knock, the road to peace goes through Kabul. And finally, to reach a durable peace in the region, any deal the US hatches with the Taliban should also include a deal with Pakistan with international and regional guarantors. The deal must make sure that Pakistan should forever close the chapter of using militancy as a tool of advancing its foreign policy goals in the region. As Trump called Afghanistan a haven of terrorists, Afghans view Pakistan as the home of these terrorists.

About the Author(s)

Aziz Amin Ahmadzai writes on political and security in South and West Asia. He is a Chevening Scholar and tweets @azizamin786