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Taliban – planning to talk?

February 24, 2015

Summary: More suggestions that the Taliban might be open for talks with the Afghan government should be treated with caution but some form of “peace with honour” could now appeal to many fighters

Taliban and Afghan government at the same table, Kyoto 2012

Once again some indications that the Taliban might be open to the possibility of talks with the Afghan government. The LA Times points to comments made by Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the government’s “chief executive” and, by all standards, a very senior and credible player:

LA Times, 23 Feb 2015: “The government of Afghanistan is close to beginning direct peace talks with Taliban insurgents for the first time, according to senior Afghan officials.  Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive in Afghanistan’s unity government, said at a Cabinet meeting Monday that Taliban leaders were willing to negotiate directly with Kabul, raising hope for a settlement to hostilities that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.  Abdullah said he had received assurances from Pakistan, where senior Taliban leaders are based, that the insurgent group was ready to hold face-to-face talks for the first time since a multinational diplomatic effort to engage the Taliban collapsed in 2013. The difference this time, officials say, is the peace process would be directed completely by Afghans.”

Also here:

Business Standard, 23 Feb 2015: “A former top Taliban commander has said that Afghan Taliban’s senior leadership has agreed to start “preliminary peace talks” with the Afghanistan government.  A Taliban leader said that the representatives, who met Pakistani and Chinese officials earlier, had sought time to consult the senior leadership, which has now given a “green signal,” reported The Express Tribune.

He added that Pakistani officials had urged Taliban leaders to sit “face-to-face” with Afghan authorities and put their demands before them to find a political solution to the problem, reported The Express Tribune.  Another Taliban leader said that a small delegation of Taliban leaders from its political office in Qatar are expected to visit Pakistan soon for further discussions to explore ways for the proposed peace talks and the re-opening of the Taliban office in Qatar.  He said that senior representatives, Qari Din Muhammad and Abbas Stanakzai, will be among the team.

Taliban had long been opposing any dialogue with former president Karzai’s government by arguing that he had no powers to take decisions. They had the same approach towards the government of incumbent President Ashraf Ghani but they now seem willing to initiate dialogue with Afghan authorities.”

In addition, the reported potential Chinese role in brokering talks that I have mentioned before has resurfaced:

LA Times, 23 Feb 2015: “Ghani has urged Pakistan in a series of meetings to put pressure on the Taliban and enlisted the support of China, a key ally of Islamabad.  One Afghan official with knowledge of the negotiations described the involvement of China as a ‘big, important new development.’  There are also suggestions that a senior former Taliban Minister with still strong connections to the Taliban, Motassim Agha Jan, is being considered for a senior post within government, such as leader of the High Peace Council.”

This type of reach-out has been made several times before, but it is at least encouraging that President Ashraf Ghani seems to be moving quickly on this, after the long hiatus of election and government team-building. The Taliban themselves, via their website, have issued strong denials, something they are always quick to do when flurries of talks about talks emerge in the press:

Taliban flagTaliban website, 24 Feb 2015: “It is a crystal clear fact that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is not only a promoter of peace and security rather it sprung up for this exact purpose and salvaged its nation from insecurity, displacement and the disintegration of the country. The esteemed Commander of the Faithful, may Allah protect him, has repeatedly declared in his Eid statements (twice annually) that the central goals of the Islamic Emirate are ending the occupation, attaining independence, establishing an all Afghan-inclusive Islamic government and peace for our countrymen.

For attaining this purpose the Islamic Emirate, with the help of its believing Mujahid nation, has utilized both military and political mechanisms and will continue to do so in the future. Establishing contacts with world countries, visits, meetings, participation of Islamic Emirate in international conferences and opening a political office in Qatar, which was opposed by anti-peace parties, are clear examples of this.

There have been many rumors swirling around in the media lately about the latest developments in Afghanistan and negotiations with the Kabul administration, these are nothing more than the views and assumptions of these outlets. We have repeatedly declared that every report which is not published or confirmed by the official channels of Islamic Emirate are false and hold no value.

It must be mentioned that if the Islamic Emirate ever takes a step in its Islamic and national interests and towards attaining the above mentioned goals then it will surely announce it to its beloved nation and the world through its official channels.”

This generally doesn’t mean anything either way – they likely remain keen to keep all their sub-commanders and fighters as on-side as possible – even the idea of talks can be very divisive for an insurgency group. Albeit weak, the notion that ISIS might be attempting to push in to Taliban areas in Afghanistan, may be an additional factor that is helping to focus the mind of the Taliban leadership.

But notice that the Taliban do not rule things out in their statement (“…if the Islamic Emirate ever takes a step…) and also what the core Taliban demand is – “the central goals of the Islamic Emirate are ending the occupation, attaining independence, establishing an all Afghan-inclusive Islamic government and peace for our countrymen”.  Three out of four demands here are easy and uncontroversial – in fact they are almost completely unnecessary and designed only to surround the “occupation issue”.  This sort of general demand can surely be smoothed and moulded into something that all parties could accept – all Afghans want independence, an all Afghan-inclusive Islamic government and peace”.  The concept of “occupation” is certainly the tricky bit.  But again, with some intelligent and sensitive wording, perhaps bolstered with some confidence-building actions and statements from the US,  an international military presence could be something that is “managed out” in a timetable.  The down-sizing and ultimate departure of US troops (economic, development and investment advisors – in Afghanistan only to spend money and rebuild – could remain?) could be sold as lightly conditional on a demonstrable reduction in violence.  Even as early as 2004, there were points where I felt that all it needed was some intelligent wording to give something that everyone could sign up to.  The key to talks now – as it always has been – is to remove all suggestions of humiliation from all sides: no winners or losers, no handing in weapons, no treating ex-fighters like prisoners.  Perhaps the “arrival” of ISIS and the existence of a new, external, security challenge actually gives the Taliban and the Afghan government some common security ground to talk about?

It is more complicated than this, but if the Taliban were able to look through and beyond their own propaganda (which has really been looking tired, unimaginative and repetitive lately) and make a clear-eyed appraisal of where they are and where they might be going, they would perhaps note:

a) Major political/military gains by the Taliban – taking and holding provinces and cities – are still beyond them
b) The risks of launching their own large-scale conventional military attacks are great
c) The Afghan security forces are powerful, still in the fight and, for the present at least, loyal to the central government
d) Most Afghans still do not support them and are slowly moving on, politically, culturally and economically, without them
e) An international military presence of 10 – 12,000 in a training and advisory role (with airpower and intelligence support as necessary) could be sustained more or less indefinitely, should the US decide to do so. The US is publicly considering an extension of its 2016 withdrawal deadline at present

I have suggested before that, with both the Afghan National Army and the Taliban still very much in the fight and willing and able to contest the key  battlefields of the outlying provinces, 2015 is more likely to see continued fighting than a peace deal.  A peace deal that maintained honour for the Taliban and supported their inclusion in aspects of government will be difficult to achieve and painful for many.  But there is a real possibility that talks could re-emerge, develop and take root. Issues of “defeat” – who won or lost – ought quickly to be abandoned, in order to facilitate this.

Because of my personal age, experience and background, I am slightly minded of the UK miner’s strike in 1984/85. It is not a perfect analogy, but with the miners as the “insurgents”, by the end of their “campaign”, they hadn’t strictly speaking lost, but were really struggling to keep morale up and strike activity sustained.  There was, by early 2005, little prospect of a realistic and decisive victory. In the end, many (most?) of them wanted nothing more than to be able to march back into their towns and villages with heads held high, banners waving and to be able to claim, then, and in the years to come, that they had been “undefeated”, that they had stood up and been counted when faced with an external threat. The practical realities of politics and economics would kick in later.  There was (and still is) much bitter resentment about who was on which side, but, in the end, time smoothed much of this over.

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