When the Chips Fall
The negotiations with the Taliban are realistic this time and much has changed in the group’s dynamics with other stakeholders.
General Nick Carter, Britain’s top general and deputy commander of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan has admitted that the West should have tried talking to the Taliban a decade ago, since it would have been easier to find a political solution when they were on the run in 2002. Prime Minister David Cameron too acknowledged that the original settlement for Afghanistan “could have been better arranged.”
This vindicates Pakistan’s stance, since it has been recommending negotiations with the Taliban for over a decade but its pleas fell on deaf ears. Now the US has been forced to concede concessions to the Taliban and what could have been an effective point of strength, if the Taliban were defeated, has become a position of weakness since it is the US and NATO troops, who have been vanquished in the guerrilla war in Afghanistan.
For the last two years, the US has been keen to hold negotiations with the Taliban but owing to the trust deficit, it spurned Pakistan’s offer of brokering a deal to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and suffered the consequences. Readers may recall the case of Mullah Mansour, a supposedly senior Taliban commander, who was flown to Kabul to meet President Karzai in November 2010. It turned out that he was really an Afghan shopkeeper who had been living in Pakistan and the imposter, who was flown into Kabul on a NATO aircraft, vanished after being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars. Since then the US interlocutors became wary and reluctantly sought help from their Pakistani counterparts.
Pakistan facilitated the move and the result was the establishment of a Taliban office at Qatar’s capital, Doha, which has reset the parameters of the debate and facilitated negotiations. Qatar is an interesting choice, which was acceptable to the Karzai government too as a neutral venue. The Amir of Qatar was hospitable enough to provide space because Qatar has been keen to play center stage in international politics. However, from the very outset, a row over the status of the Taliban office has overshadowed efforts to start peace negotiations there. The Taliban hoisting their flag over their building and the nameplate of their political office of “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, which was the name and ensign used by the Taliban, irked Hamid Karzai, prompting him to call off the peace talks even before they commenced. Since then, the Taliban have removed the offensive icons. The Amir of Qatar, who according to the Taliban, had permitted them to fly the flag and the nameplate, has convinced the Taliban to display the flag and the signage inside the building only.
The US Administration had been keen to negotiate with the Taliban to ensure a safe passage to the drawdown of its forces and equipment. Moreover, for lasting peace in Afghanistan, it is essential that the Taliban are a part of the political dispensation. Even the Afghans do not want a repeat of the repressive Taliban regime but the Taliban constitute an important component of the Afghan demographics and can be ignored at the peril of derailing the peace process.
The Taliban possess an important ace up their sleeves. US Army Sergeant Bowe Robert Bergdahl is a Taliban prisoner since 2009 and the Taliban are demanding the return of five important Taliban leaders being incarcerated at Guantanamo for his exchange. There is a high probability of this exchange taking place, paving the way for the peace negotiations.
General Carter expressed confidence that NATO’s handover of security to Afghan forces would eventually bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Hamid Karzai, on the other hand insists that the peace negotiations, if any, will have to be Afghan owned and Afghan led. A pet phrase used by the Taliban has been “you may have the watches but we have the time”, implying that they could wait out the
agonizing period of US withdrawal and then they would have a free hand beyond 2014.
This is no longer true. The window of opportunity is closing rapidly. Next year in April, crucial presidential elections will be held, in which Hamid Karzai is not eligible to participate. If the Taliban miss the opportunity of participating in the elections, they will also lose the opportunity to be a legitimate part of the government. The worst case scenario is another bloody civil war, which may leave thousands dead, maimed, widowed and orphaned while millions more will be forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Pakistan has already borne the brunt of the previous exodus in 1989, when five million Afghan refugees sought asylum on its soil and it has hosted a majority of them for over twenty-four years.
The US and the Taliban have not reached any consensus as yet. US Secretary of State, John Kerry paints a rosy picture, when he defends the peace overtures made by the US to the Afghan Taliban. After a decade of spending trillions and the human destruction, the US is taking the pragmatic line before it pulls out of Afghanistan next year. The public opinion in the US has clearly tilted towards an early withdrawal and doing all it takes to wrap up the unsuccessful Afghanistan adventure. Secretary Kerry’s rationale is rather linear: he has said that the greatest issue between the US and the Taliban was the handing over of Osama bin Laden, who is now dead. Furthermore, the US also considers al Qaeda to have been defeated in Afghanistan and therefore, a broad- based Afghanistan government, which includes the Taliban as a power stakeholder, makes sense.
Opinion surveys, rather limited to this part of the world, also indicate that both Afghanistan and Pakistan want early peace and the Taliban to be engaged in negotiations. Hamid Karzai needs to shed some of his rigidity because after the departure of the foreign forces, the Afghan National Security Forces will not be able to stop the onslaught of a battle hardened and increasingly confident Taliban, whom the superior and better equipped US and NATO forces failed to deter. Group Captain (R) Sultan M. Hali, now a practicing journalist, writes for print media, produces documentaries and hosts a TV talk show. He is currently based in Islamabad.