Some proposals for an agreement with the Taliban could create misgivings in India as well as among opposition and civil society groups within Afghanistan

As we approach closer to 2014, negotiations with the Taliban are gaining importance over other tracks, such as reconciliation and regional relations. To some extent this development was predictable: no successful transition/exit, however low the bar was set, would be possible without settling the Taliban question in one way or another. The military route failed: it remains to be seen whether the negotiations route can work.

Two recent events give an indication of the pros and cons for negotiations: the talks with the Taliban in France a week ago, and a leaked High Peace Council proposal entitled “A Roadmap for 2015,” dated November 2012. The Chantilly talks offered an opportunity for the Taliban to put forward their views publicly, and can be seen as representing a current but not immutable position. On the plus side, Taliban spokesmen, apparently representing Mullah Omar, said they were willing to work with other Afghan parties, might accept the present government structure, and would accept girls’ schools run in an “Islamic way.” On the minus side, they want to rewrite the Constitution, “accept” the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and, most likely, dominate newly established Afghan institutions.

The most important positive of the Chantilly talks was that the Taliban went public, so we now know what their present negotiating stance is. Interestingly, this is not a starting or opening position, given that talks have been on and off for the best part of a year, with several different interlocutors. But it does represent some forward movement.

Five-stage process

When read in conjunction with the leaked High Peace Council Roadmap, however, a number of misgivings arise. The document makes clear that the Chantilly talks were embedded in background negotiations.

It sets out a five-stage process, in which the first stage is an end to cross-border shelling of villages, release of designated Taliban from Pakistani prisons, a Taliban announcement of severing ties with the al-Qaeda, and renewal of negotiations for safe passage. The Pakistani government did release some Taliban prisoners just prior to Chantilly, and while the Taliban did not make an announcement regarding the al-Qaeda, they did indicate flexibility on other critical issues for internal reconciliation. So the document clearly has some bearing on reality.

The bulk of the roadmap proposes agreements between the Afghan government and the Taliban that are geared towards an end to violence and reintegration of ex-combatants. As a set of disarm, demobilise and reintegrate proposals, it would have been non-controversial. But it includes several provisions that go beyond these imperatives and could be a cause for worry in India, not to mention other closely concerned countries, as well as to opposition groups in Afghanistan.

To start with the last first, in stage three of the plan, the Afghan government and the Taliban are to agree on giving the Taliban positions in “the power structure of the state” such as ministerial berths and governorships, which other parties have to win through elections or at the President’s pleasure. Analysts are also speculating that this could mean handing over the southern and eastern provinces to the Taliban in a kind of de facto but not de jure partition. Whether the latter is feasible or not, this proposal is likely to alienate both the existing political parties and sections of civil society in Afghanistan.

More alarming, under the plan, the Afghan government and the Taliban will also agree to “a vision on strengthening the ANSF and other key government institutions to remain non-political and enjoy full public support.” This proposal, if it does actually become a focus of negotiations, will immediately polarise the polity on ethnic grounds. Moreover, the task of creating a vision for security forces, along with rules and regulations, belongs to Parliament not to the Afghan government and Taliban, on the fundamental principle that elected legislators are the best expression of the will of the people.

Pakistan’s role

For India, and many other regional countries that suffered at the hands of the Taliban while they were in power, the idea of recreating the ANSF through exclusive, and largely secret, negotiations is alarming. In our case it is doubly alarming because the roadmap also gives Pakistan a controlling role in the proposed peace process, thereby keeping the door open to strategic depth. Pakistan will mediate between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and will decide, with the Afghan government and the United States, the conditions for Taliban participation, such as delisting and safe passage; Afghanistan and Pakistan will cooperate on fighting the al-Qaeda and any groups that threaten each other’s security.

Again, these proposals would not be alarming in themselves were it not for the ugly security dynamic in the region. Afghanistan and Pakistan are fully entitled to enter into bilateral security arrangements, and if their cooperation can bring the Taliban to the table it must be welcome. But any moves towards the institutionalisation of Pakistani influence in Afghan security structures, however indirectly, are bound to trigger fears of Afghanistan being used again for proxy wars. Indeed, they run counter to the Afghanistan-India Strategic Partnership Agreement.

The good news is that the roadmap was leaked while it is still a set of proposals, and is thus open to reaction and change. Several of the points made above could be accommodated through the inclusion of guarantees that would satisfy opposition and neighbour concerns; for example that any provisional agreements regarding governance and security would be put to Parliament or a specially convened Loya Jirga, as was earlier done, or that the Taliban would simultaneously pledge not to support or give sanctuary to groups threatening a third country.

Out of it

But there is one larger problem that needs addressing by all the negotiators. The roadmap proposes regular monitoring and consultations with countries that have influence over the Taliban directly or through Pakistan, which is useful coordination. But it entirely omits consultations with neighbours who will be directly impacted by the outcome of its proposals. As ever, those who are a part of the solution take a back seat to those who are a part of the problem.

With its strong ties to the Afghan government, and reasonable relations with peace process facilitators such as the U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia, India should seek to be in the consultation mechanism, as indeed should other neighbours that would need to on board if a peace process is to succeed.

(Radha Kumar is Director, Delhi Policy Group.)

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