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Taliban dialogue: does activity equal progress…?

December 19, 2012

By Tim Foxley

Summary: Many angles to the “Taliban dialogue” story recently, but little sense of clarity.  But “hope” remains a poor bet as a strategy.

Afghan map outlineThere are a lot of fragments of reporting concerning dialogue with the Taliban over the last few days and weeks.  It is difficult to sift through them with any particular confidence or, in particular, any sense of clarity as to where it might be leading.  And I think this continues to point to a likely incoherence in aspirations and desired outcomes amongst the numerous actors either directly or indirectly involved.  For example:

High Peace Council Road Map to Peace – a four page document has emerged through the media, allegedly representing the Afghan government High Peace Council’s timeline “for achieving a peaceful resolution of the conflict involving the Taliban and other armed opposition groups”.  It is packed with western/international community phraseology and makes a lot of very positive assumptions about progress that are, frankly, highly questionable.  It assumes that the Taliban will support the Constitution, including the rights of men and women as outlined within the Constitution, “verifiably” renounce violence and denounce Al Qaeda.   I see this as naïve, simplistic and highly aspirational.

Taliban to France (like Japan) Some Taliban members are to travel to France to talk about anything other than dialogue and talks.  There are indications that members of the group historically opposed to the Taliban during the 1990s, the Northern Alliance, are to meet the Taliban representatives:

“Afghanistan’s Taliban have reached out to their historical enemies in the Northern Alliance, opening initial contacts to discuss the country’s future once the U.S.-led forces depart and President Hamid Karzai steps down in 2014.

In the first such meeting between authorized representatives of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and the key leaders of the Northern Alliance, which fought a losing war against the Taliban before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, more than a dozen senior Afghan politicians are scheduled to travel to France this month.”

Economist

The Economist, (“To the Table”), December 15th issue, starts off on an optimistic note:

“A rush of diplomatic activity…brings hopes that the Taliban may yet be brought into peace talks…”

But soon dials down the expectations:

“But Taliban still appear to reject direct talks with the Afghan government (‘…our problem is with the United States, and we do not see a role for any other country…)”…

and suggests:

“The diplomatic frenzy is based mostly on hope.  Some, notably Afghan northerners, will fear a sell out…promises of a deal could easily turn to dust.”

Pakistani intelligence officials have apparently been engaged in discreet talks in Qatar – the site of many insurgency dialogues in the past:

ISLAMABAD: Director General Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lieutenant General Zaheerul Islam has returned after undertaking a significant quiet visit to Qatar where he had some important meetings with regard to the regional situation.

Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam, who has undertaken the visit of Russia and some European countries in recent days, engaged in contacts for smooth transition in Afghanistan in the wake of the withdrawal of foreign troops from that country.

Qatar is known for secret talks between some Taliban groups and the United States, but Pakistan has never been a party in that. One of the biggest US military bases is also situated in Qatar and it is directly linked with the activities in the region.

 Analysis and Outlook

As ever, there are many pieces of the puzzle still swirling around without any sign that they are going to settle any time soon.  But it would be just typical of the style of much of these mystery-shrouded rumours of “talks” for someone – US? Taliban? Northern Alliance? HPC? Pakistan? EU? (haha, only joking about the EU) – to suddenly announce that a deal has been brokered and take everyone – including the Afghan population – completely by surprise.

Getting Afghans to sit down and sign something is no guarantee of a sustainable peace settlement – in fact probably quite the reverse.  There are many actors involved, all pushing and pulling in different directions.  Some actors (you know who you are) are almost pathetically desperate to rush in with an announcement of successful talks and a peace deal.

But any form of discourse – exchanges of views and values – is likely to do more good than harm, so face to face contact between Afghan protagonists should be welcomed, albeit with the caveat that these contacts have probably been on-going for many years with little result.  But I worry that US motivations for talking are likely to be short-term and highly US-centric – release the US soldier held prisoner by the Taliban and get something that looks and feels like a photogenic peace deal in order to say “we won”, before they withdraw.  Getting the Taliban to denounce Al Qaeda will be the cornerstone of such a deal but yet, I don’t see this working for the Taliban.  Making them “say it out loud” will represent an unhelpful humiliation – even though they almost certainly understand the point only too clearly.  Neither side is likely to be support of a deal that looks like they are signing terms of surrender.

Although the Taliban have repeatedly said they will only talk to the US, it seems clear that other dialogues are on-going.  Whether these are authorised by the Afghan government is another matter, however and it highlights the question “who is authorised to discuss what?”.  But my concern is that bilateral talks between the Taliban and the US on the one hand and the Taliban and the Northern Alliance on the other will not strengthen the cause of central government in Afghanistan.  Assuming, of course, that people still want this.

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