The big question about the scheduled 2014 departure of American troops from Afghanistan is whether the country is going to descend again, as it did after the Soviet departure, into ferocious fighting between warlords until the Taliban emerged supreme, or if the semblance of government that exists now can stave off such a scenario. This is the question that Afghan President Hamid Karzai and United States President Barack Obama will seek to answer at their meeting on Friday. The realisation, two years ago, that defeating the Taliban was impossible triggered cautious efforts at exploring ways to deal with them politically. As 2014 approaches, those efforts have picked up speed, with the Obama administration keen to leave behind an arrangement that can help it claim a semblance of political achievement from the military intervention. Through the facilitation of a French think-tank, representatives of the Karzai government’s High Peace Council met Taliban representatives in France last month. The position that the Taliban representatives took at the meeting contained no surprises. They denounced the Constitution, do not want the 2014 elections to be held, and believe their Islamic Emirate, ousted by U.S. forces after 9/11, was the best thing that happened to Afghanistan. There was no renouncing of ties with al-Qaeda. With the underlying tone one of contempt towards the Karzai government, it is hard to escape the impression that the Taliban are not so much interested in negotiation with Kabul as a deal with the U.S. for a return to power.
Given this, the High Council’s “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015” sounds unrealistic. It visualises a deal based on respect for the Constitution — a ceasefire with the Taliban and other armed groups by the end of 2013, their transformation into political parties and participation in the following year’s elections. In reality, it makes a huge pragmatic concession to the Taliban by envisaging “non-elected” positions in the “power structure.” This has already raised concern within and outside Afghanistan, not least because it is no secret that Pakistan has been working both sides of the table. Pakistan’s stakes are understandable: post-2014, any instability in Afghanistan is most likely to first wash across the Durand Line, adding to its existing woes. But it is not clear if it realises that any attempt to use its influence with the Taliban to create instability in the neighbourhood after 2014 would rebound on it. Locked out of the process after all the talk of a ‘regional’ solution, India’s primary worry would be Pakistan’s intentions. New Delhi, which has not yet articulated an official response to the Chantilly talks, must flag its concerns.