Persistent efforts by multiple western players finally paid off. The Taliban and the Kabul government met officially in Chantilly, a suburb of Paris, on December 20 and 21 under the aegis of a French think tank called the Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique. The Taliban was represented by senior leaders Shahabuddin Dilawar, former Taliban ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and Naeem Wardak — both based in Doha.
The government side was represented by the Higher Peace Council chairman Salahuddin Rabbani. Also participating were Yunus Qanuni, the ideologue of the opposition National Coalition of Afghanistan led by Abdulla Abdulla, Ahmad Zia Massoud, brother of the legendary Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, as well as representatives of the hardline Hizb-ul-Islam of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar. In all, there were about 20 delegates participating in the talks.
For an understanding
It is noteworthy that the Kabul delegation included a sprinkling of non-Pashtun tribes — Massoud, a Tajik, Mohaqqeq, a Hazara leader, and Faizullah Zaki, an Uzbek. Mr. Massoud said there was a new generation which did not believe in war and sought an understanding with the Taliban. The Taliban, for its part, clarified in no uncertain terms that no negotiations with anyone were involved and that the Taliban “wants the world community to listen to our goals;” in other words, the Taliban approached the Paris talks as a platform to air its ideology and demands.
A few weeks prior to the Chantilly meeting, Kabul had disclosed a ‘Peace Process Roadmap’ consisting of five steps, which sought to outline a vision in which, by 2015, the Taliban, the Hizb-e-Islami and other armed groups will have given up armed opposition. There is reason to believe that this ‘roadmap 2015’ is a joint Afghan-Pakistan draft, prepared in close consultation with the United States. The ‘roadmap’ assumes that all the armed insurgencies will have transformed themselves into political groups and will actively participate in the political and constitutional process, including national elections. The first step focuses on securing Pakistan’s collaboration which would include Pakistan releasing specific Taliban detainees. Pakistan has already repatriated several mid-level Taliban prisoners and might release Mullah Baradar. The second step envisages direct talks with the Taliban, which Pakistan should facilitate, in Saudi Arabia in the first half of 2013. Step three calls for ceasefire and transformation of the Taliban into a political party. The final steps include securing peaceful end to the conflict during the first half of 2014 and moves to sustain the long-term stability of Afghanistan and the region. Lip service is paid in the ‘roadmap’ to the principles of respect for the Afghan constitution and renunciation of ties with al-Qaeda.
This was the first time senior Taliban representatives sat down with the government and other opposition groups. This, in a way, amounts to a concession by the Taliban which had, thus far, refused to talk to the Kabul government which it did not regard as legitimate. There was no joint statement after the Chantilly meeting. In the words of the sponsoring think tank, the objective was to encourage the Afghans to “project themselves towards the horizon of 2020.”
Nonetheless, the importance of the talks having taken place should not be minimised. The Taliban issued a statement after the talks in which it rejected the present constitution on the ground that it was made “under the shadows of B52 bombers of the invaders.” “We need a constitution based on the holy Islam, national interest, past achievements and social justice,” the Taliban declared. How much should be read into the fact that the Taliban talked of ‘holy Islam’ and not ‘based on sharia’? It also referred to ‘social justice;’ does it suggest an implied pledge to go slow on women’s issues? Turkmenistan offered to host a follow-up meeting to Chantilly but Kabul refused; did Kabul feel that the meeting was more meaningful for the Taliban than for the government?
It is obvious that this flurry of activity has only one, perfectly understandable objective from the American and the West’s perspective: to provide a respectable screen behind which to implement the withdrawal from Afghanistan. As for Hamid Karzai, he too would wish to leave behind some legacy whereby there will be at least an agreement on paper which, hopefully, will avoid the country’s descent into chaos which many analysts anticipate post-2014.
The announcement of the Paris talks signifies several things. Firstly, it means that the U.S. and NATO have given up, once and for all, the objective of defeating the Taliban. Secondly, there is more than a tacit admission that the Afghan National Security Force will be incapable of ensuring security in the country post-2014,considering that only one out of 23 Afghan brigades is considered capable of operating on its own. The ‘green on blue’ attacks have also played their part in this. Thirdly, it proves that the British are still far ahead of the Americans in understanding the region. The U.K. called for co-opting the Taliban in the government years before even Mr. Karzai did, as the only way out for the country.
Fourthly, and importantly, it must be borne in mind that the West, especially the Americans, never had any problem with the Taliban. It was the treatment of women that made the then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright anti-Taliban. The forceful action after 9/11 was aimed at al-Qaeda, not the Taliban. Had the Taliban agreed to cut ties with al-Qaeda then, it would still be ruling in Kabul. The West by and large would have nothing to worry as and when, not if, the Taliban obtains a share in the government. The roadmap explicitly states that the Taliban will be included not only in the state power structure but will also be given non-elective positions at different levels. This is a clear reference to governorships in provinces such as Paktia, Paktita and Khost.
India should watch these developments most warily. There is no reason for us to rejoice at the possibility of the Taliban becoming a part of the government. We did support the reconciliation process some time ago, but it was probably more theoretical at that time when the three ‘red lines’ were still in place, namely, respecting the constitution, renunciation of violence and severing ties with al-Qaeda. These red lines have since been given up and are now projected as objectives to be considered at the end of the process rather than as preconditions for talks. It is one thing to support the efforts to achieve stability in Afghanistan and another to welcome an arrangement which will guarantee the Taliban a share in power with all the negative consequences that might follow for us.
Pakistan, the winner
Pakistan has emerged the clear winner. We should have no illusion. Mr. Karzai has decided to throw in his lot with Pakistan, his ‘brother’. Pakistan, for all its protestations of not wanting the Taliban returning to power in Kabul, has been given the pride of place in Mr. Karzai’s roadmap which confers key role on Islamabad in the whole process. Pakistan has succeeded in convincing its western interlocutors that there is a paradigm shift in the political mindset in the country. Once the Taliban manages to get a share of power in Kabul, it will eventually endeavour to grab total power. Since it will remain the most cohesive force, ideologically, politically and militarily, it would be imprudent to exclude this possibility. In other words, the Taliban might well achieve around a conference table what it failed to achieve in the battlefield.
(Chinmaya R. Gharekhan served as India’s special envoy to the Middle East and is a former U.N. Under Secretary General.)