Professor Michael Semple
21 July 2019
Perhaps the most important aspect of the July intra-Afghan dialogue is that it took place without any major upset. It was important for the theatre of the broader peace process to maintain confidence that talks are making progress. But both the composition of the delegations and the substance of the discussions were also significant. The Taliban’s public stance of refusing to deal directly with the Government of Afghanistan forces them to come up with new devices allowing them to talk. Back in 2015, good stage-management by the Pakistani hosts ensured that the Taliban’s representatives held talks in Murree with an Afghan government delegation. This time round the device used was a formula that participants came to Qatar in their personal capacity as Afghans. This enabled the Taliban’s Political Commission team (in their personal capacity, presumably) to meet with officials of the Afghan government, including confidants of President Ghani.
The joint declaration consisted of a set of broad principles that few Afghans would find objectionable. Combatants should not attack public facilities and everyone wants Afghanistan to be governed by an Islamic system (agreement on what constitutes an Islamic system can be postponed to another time). This is not a “peace road-map” to be implemented. Rather, the point of the declaration was that, by allowing their talks to be summed up in this communique, participants indicated goodwill and willingness to play along with the process. Organisers can now turn their attention to convening another round.
What was actually discussed in the dialogue was more interesting than is reflected in the declaration. Abbas Stanakzai and his team of Qatar Taliban have become expert at presenting the movement’s line. According to their presentation, the Taliban is a responsible movement, which looks forward to working with all Afghans, just as soon as foreign military forces can be removed from Afghanistan. They claim not to be seeking a political monopoly. But, by claiming only to have fought to expel US troops, they did not offer any plausible explanation of why the Taliban are in the midst of a nationwide offensive against Afghan government forces, or why one thousand Afghans are dying for every American the Taliban kill.
This left the Kabul participants with the strong impression that the Taliban war effort is part of an attempted power-grab. For their part, some of the Kabul delegation had challenging things to say to the Taliban. They used religious arguments to question the legitimacy of the Taliban’s attacks against fellow Afghans, especially the tactic of suicide-bombing. And they talked about the future of government, saying that Afghans want their state to be both Islamic and democratic – i.e. an Islamic republic, rather than the Taliban’s preferred model of an emirate. These discussions were uncomfortable for the Taliban precisely because the movement’s official line is that the principal cause of conflict is the presence of foreign troops and political differences among Afghans can easily be resolved once the foreigners leave.
In contrast to the Taliban’s customary orchestrated optimism about peace through troop withdrawal, this round of dialogue highlighted some of the difficult issues that Afghan politicians will have to find agreement on if the forty year war is to come to an end.
The general spirit of cooperation showed by those involved in the dialogue was helpful in avoiding alarm when the seventh round of negotiations ended inconclusively. But these negotiations are critically important because they are meant to establish the conditions in which the Afghan parties can pursue a viable political settlement. The US team and Taliban have consistently acknowledged that they are working for agreement on four headings – counter-terrorism guarantees, US troop withdrawal timetable, cease-fire and negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government. Secretary of State Pompeo has now increased the pressure by personally briefing President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah and acknowledging that he aims for his team to reach agreement with the Taliban by 1st September. Both the US side and the Taliban have been disciplined in maintaining the confidentiality of the details of the negotiations and the outstanding differences. This gives each side helpful leeway to explore options without having to justify everything immediately in the court of public opinion. During the seventh round, Dr. Khalilzad and the Taliban maintained their optimism. But they ended the round without finalising the agreement.
The background to the impasse in negotiations is the series of compromises which the Taliban will be required to make if they are to sign up to an agreement with the US. The easiest section for the Taliban leadership to sign up to is the counter-terrorism guarantees. They have previously given public assurances that the Taliban will not allow Afghanistan’s soil to be used against any other country. The leadership can therefore justify the latest guarantees as a rehash of an existing position. Indeed, this point has been debated in jihadi ulema circles in Pakistan in recent days and it seems that ulema loyal to the leadership are prepared to defend the idea of Taliban guaranteeing that terrorists will not operate from territory they control.
On US troop withdrawal, the Taliban have demanded a short timetable – say nine months start to finish. To get a deal they will no doubt have to agree to lengthening this a bit. But the Taliban are accomplished propagandists. Whatever timetable they sign up to, even if it is more like 18 months, the Taliban leadership can sell this as a victory, not a compromise.
The problem for the Taliban starts with the ceasefire. The leadership calculation is that, even if there is a short period of ceasefire, their fighters will melt away, leading to a rapid reduction in Taliban leverage. The leadership knows that it was their fighters’ performance on the battlefield which persuaded the Americans to negotiate with them. If fighters conclude from the announcement of a ceasefire that the jihad is effectively over, the leadership worries that it will not be able to use those fighters to beat the Afghan government into submission. The Taliban leadership is highly averse to anything other than very short or highly localised ceasefires. Anything more ambitious would be a real compromise for the Taliban.
The Taliban leadership has also chosen to make direct negotiations with the Afghan government a major sticking point. To the uninitiated, it is puzzling that the Taliban should be so adamant on this. After all, the two sides have met before, sitting down to negotiate does not commit either side to agreeing anything and the Afghan government is internationally recognised and elected by the Afghan people. However, the Taliban leadership has taken the position that negotiating with the government would be tantamount to recognising it, which it says it is not prepared to do. The resistance to dealing with the Afghan government is closely related to the resistance to a ceasefire. The leadership worries that if it is seen to sit with the Afghan government, this will immediately undermine the movement’s claim to be doing jihad and its ability to motivate fighters. In the light of the Taliban’s relentless propaganda about waging jihad against the US and its “puppets”, the leadership now considers any agreement to negotiate with the government as a risky compromise.
In addition to their concerns about specific points in the envisaged settlement, some in Taliban leadership circles argue that they are better off without any agreement with the US. They argue that domestic pressure in the US will push the Americans to pull their troops out before the 2020 election in any case, even without an agreed timetable. According to this logic, the Taliban can achieve the key goal of a troop withdrawal, without making any compromises. The movement can thus protect its jihadi credentials, proclaim victory over the US and continue to mobilise fighters against the Afghan government, without signing anything.
The Taliban leadership’s confidence that the US will withdraw in any case suggests that it will give its Qatar-based representatives a tough negotiating brief and minimal scope for compromise. None of us should be surprised if the Taliban negotiators push to change the rules – agree the easy bits for now, counter-terrorism and troop withdrawal. And postpone the issues which are difficult for the Taliban – ceasefire and negotiations – until after 1 September.
But, if we are really to understand the Taliban’s strategy on the talks in Qatar, we have to look at what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan. Memorably, a suicide bomb attack on the NDS headquarters in Ghazni, causing heavy civilian casualties, coincided with the start of the intra-Afghan dialogue. The Taliban have stepped up their suicide operations in Kabul and surrounds, launched an offensive against Daesh in Kunar, and attacked government security posts in multiple provinces. Instead of attempting headline-grabbing raids on provincial headquarters such as Kunduz and Ghazni, this year the Taliban forces have concentrated on extending their control over rural areas and pushing in closer to each of the government-controlled administrative centres or urban areas. While their political representatives are supposedly negotiating about peace, the Taliban military are redrawing their map of Afghanistan to cut off as much of the population from the government as possible. For their part, the government and US have tried to increase military pressure on the Taliban through a campaign of raids and bombardment and reoccupying two or three district centres. Although this has helped to shore up the government position, it does not seem to have altered the Taliban’s strategic intent.
Taken together, all of these developments indicate that achieving peace in Afghanistan will still require a long, hard struggle. The Taliban leadership’s confidence in its ability to attain objectives without agreeing anything, the same leadership’s aversity to the compromises required for agreement with the US and the Taliban military’s success in grabbing territory all constitute formidable challenges in the way of reaching even initial agreement with the movement. And the dialogue hinted that there are, further down the road, even bigger challenges regarding the shape of Afghan state and society.
However, the key opportunity, which may help in overcoming these challenges, is the war-weariness on all sides and the profound sense among Afghans of all backgrounds, civilians and combatants alike, that the time has come to end the war. To get a settlement agreed and implemented it will be necessary to harness this desire for peace. Whether the Taliban leadership signs up to a framework agreement or successfully resists the current pressure to compromise, attention should next shift to practical efforts to wind down the fighting. If the leadership is sincere in its professed desire for a settlement, it will cooperate. If, rather, the Taliban leadership still entertains ambitions to grab power and enforce its will on the Afghan people, it will find it increasingly difficult to justify this to its own fighters and war fatigue may be the greatest asset available to those plotting the way to peace.
Professor Michael Semple, George Mitchell Institute for Global Peace Justice and Security, Queen’s University, Belfast.