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Taliban announce “suspension” of dialogue with the US

March 16, 2012

On Wednesday 15th March the Taliban published a statement on their website entitled “Declaration of the Islamic Emirate about the suspension of dialogue with Americans, office in Qatar and its political activity”.  The statement described the Taliban’s rationale for establishing an office in Qatar as necessary to “establish contact with the international community”, to “quash” international criticisms that the Taliban were making themselves unreachable and to demonstrate that the Taliban had wider plans and policies for Afghanistan beyond jihad.  In this announcement, the Taliban reaffirmed their belief that the Afghan government was “pointless” to talk to and that the US was a necessary interlocutor, but declared that the dialogue process was suspended until the “shaky, erratic and vague standpoint of the Americans” was addressed.

Analysis and Outlook

As usual, Taliban intentions are at best opaque, but the statement is interesting and potentially very significant, coming, as it does, at a time of public relations crises for the US, ISAF and the international community as a whole.  Such an announcement might be as part of a calculated position shift to pressure the US for greater concessions, or a result of internal dissent over the decision to have an office in the first place or an opportunistic lurch intended to capitalise on current poor publicity for the international community.  The Taliban have an increasingly confident view of themselves and their position in the region and internationally, and this is clear within the text of the declaration.   At one point the Taliban leadership, talking about dialogue with the international community, confidently declare: “…we are prepared for such interaction with everyone as is done between any two sovereign nations” (my italics).

It was never entirely clear to what extent the Taliban were genuinely committed towards the notion of a Qatar-based office and the implied associated dialogue – they have previously rejected the notion:

May 2011: …the allegation that Taliban want to open office in a certain country is not true. We have not asked for the opening of office in any country including Qatar. More than half of the country is under our control and we have active presence there. This is our permanent address which is evenly well known both to friends and enemies…

It is very possible now that, with the current negative press surrounding the international military presence, the Taliban see the office (and the implied associated dialogue) as something that the international community seems to need much more than they do.  Now might be a good time to opportunistically ditch or at least halt the process (“suspend” does not mean abandon) and reap the media benefits.

But this announcement might not be pure short-term opportunism – it could form part of a more long-term calculation.  True opportunism might have seen the Taliban abandoning talks on the grounds of the “inhumane crime” of the Kandahar shootings and presenting themselves as the avengers and protectors of the Afghan population.  But perhaps the Taliban now judge that they really do not need to press on with talks unless they can get some really strong concessions.  From their perspective, international domestic opinion is pulling ISAF out (the recent destruction of a British armoured vehicle with the loss of six UK soldiers, the crash of a Turkish helicopter over Kabul with the loss of 12 Turkish soldiers) and the Afghan population is correspondingly pushing (numerous collateral damage incidents, the Koran burnings and the killing of 16 Afghan civilians in Kandahar).  The international community seems ever keener to leave (and sooner rather than later) and the population are increasingly frustrated with the ISAF presence – from the President downwards – and seemingly happier to see them go.  As a separate, but very related issue, the Karzai regime has been very firmly rejected as anyone that the Taliban want to talk to.  Karzai, perhaps with an eye on his historic legacy, has been very keen to present himself as a key interlocutor in the dialogue process.  There is a real risk that Karzai will cast further afield to involve himself – or at least give the appearance of involving himself – in forms of dialogue.  This may mean striking independent (and unsustainable) deals with, for example, arch-opportunist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami or other fragments of insurgency.  This is likely to be a hindrance rather than a help.

Furthermore, the Taliban have claimed that the Qatar-based talks were about nothing more than prisoner exchanges and initially making themselves more accessible to the international community.  It seems plausible that the Taliban claims that the US position on these talks was “shaky, erratic and vague” could be broadly true.  This could reflect US administration attempts to push these preliminary contacts faster, harder and in directions in which the Taliban currently have little interest – a growing pre-US election desperation to see results, perhaps.  The view that a deal with the Taliban can only take place if the Taliban lay down their weapons, renounce Al Qaeda, respect the current Afghan constitution and uphold human rights (which I summarise thus: “of course we can talk to the Taliban – as long as they are seen to surrender first”) still seems to be strongly held in US government circles.

Anti-Taliban media operations may also have been the last straw for the Taliban leadership “…[the Americans] turned their back on their promises and started initiating baseless propaganda…”, who have always been a little sensitive to “media trickeries” from the West.  Some parts of the international community clearly seem to think that the Taliban can be caused to collapse from the inside by spreading rumours (e.g. Mullah Omar’s death) or false instructions (e.g. to limit fighting while negotiations are ongoing).  I suggest that there is little foundation for this view, the Taliban media machine is now actually quite competent at identifying and coping with such attacks and that the negative results (i.e. loss of dialogue and confidence-building opportunities) far outweigh the short-term, but ultimately repairable, confusion sown amongst some elements of the Taliban hierarchy.

Clutching at straws for the international community, it may be that Taliban internal division and arguments about opening a Qatar office and what it implies (talking to the infidel) may have caused the Taliban to judge it ultimately in their best interests to pull out, but this will be only small cause for comfort if the only significant avenue for interacting with the Taliban has closed.  Suspending talks at least implies that there were talks and that the talks can resume.  But this looks now to be in the hands of the Taliban and the timings and calculation behind this announcement would appear to make their position stronger – ISAF efforts at reintegration and kill/capture appear to be having little strategic impact upon the Taliban.

For now, the Taliban seem happy to simply watch international resolve crumble away.

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