Taliban talks – “not underway”
By Tim Foxley
Summary: Talks of any use with the Taliban are probably still not underway.
Just a brief reminder that whatever is hoped for with “talks” and however desirable is the process, the blunt statement here probably most accurately sums up the situation – certainly from the US perspective.
The Guardian, 17 Jan: There are no significant peace talks under way with the Taliban, the US ambassador to Afghanistan has said, despite years of western and Afghan government efforts to broker a political end to the decade-long war in the country, and some recent signs of progress.
James Cunningham, the US ambassador in Kabul, described reconciliation as “a process that hasn’t even really begun”, although he added that one of Washington’s goals was ensuring “at least the beginning of a serious process”.
Of course, it is highly likely that the Taliban (and other insurgent groups) have contact with a range of other actors – Afghan government and political opposition (e.g. former Northern Alliance), neighbouring countries – particularly Pakistan, other international nations (Saudi/Qatar), international groups (UN).
Talks does not necessarily mean “talks”. Setting up offices, having contact capability and hosting informal discussions (Paris and Japan last year), although useful pre-cursors, are merely that – pre-cursors. With the process of international military withdrawal now fully underway, I struggle to see why the Taliban would be interested in making deals and concessions now, when the security situation – in their judgement – is likely to shift in their favour over the next few months (and, of course years).
We are still in a “wait and see” mode. There has been no significant strategic shift in any direction that might change the calculations of either the Taliban or the Afghan government and force them into each others arms. The rights or wrongs (and success and failures) aside, if there was one thing that was pressuring the Taliban, it was the intensive targeted killings programmes. If this hasn’t actually finished, it has certainly greatly reduced. This takes the pressure of the Taliban and allows them breathing space. It is becoming harder to track the levels of Taliban control in the provinces – information is just not so readily avaliable anymore. The Afghan govenment have a big army which they would need to see fail first before they engage in serious dialogue (ie dialogue beyond the “renounce AQ, renounce violence, support human rights, support wome’s rights, support the constitution” mantra) – but then it would be dialogue from a position of defeat.
But who has the strategic longevity here? Taliban or Afghan government? I still incline towards the Taliban – the government seems to struggle with basics – corruption, efficiency, coherency, control… This will only get harder for them as the internationals scale back. For the next few years, the government looks more likely to spin out of control than their opponents.
And it is therefore more likely that key players, the US in this case, will re-define the “success” goalposts, as is suggested here by Mr Cunningham:
“he added that one of Washington’s goals was ensuring ‘at least the beginning of a serious process’”
The strategic narrative in 2014 would thus read: “we got rid of Bin Laden, gave Afghanistan a government and an army, set the stage for peace talks between the factions – they are now ready to stand alone”
When it all starts to fall apart, in or around 2018, there will be sufficient time, memory and Presidential distance for the US to be able to say: ““we got rid of Bin Laden, gave Afghanistan a government and an army, set the stage for peace talks between the factions – what more do they want? Its not our problem anymore”