Talks with Taliban: more hype than hope

After many false starts, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban are now settling on the starting blocks. This will be a marathon, not a short race, and will not end so long as the Taliban and Pakistan talk peace and pursue violence.

July 28, 2015 12:51 am | Updated August 31, 2016 12:30 pm IST

Can negotiating with the Taliban result in peace and stability in Afghanistan? Eventually perhaps, but not under the current circumstances. Not while its government is hobbled by economic meltdown, is short on international assistance, and its security forces are struggling, at great sacrifice, to hold their ground against a resurgent Taliban.

Jayant Prasad

Afghanistan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani thinks he can achieve, through persuasion, what the United States failed to get by coercion. He applauded the first, direct meeting at Murree, Pakistan, on July 7, between a Taliban delegation and representatives of Afghanistan’s government and High Peace Council (HPC) as “the biggest achievement of Afghanistan over the past 14 years.” A follow-up meeting is days away.

At Murree, as at the preceding track-two meetings in earlier weeks in Doha, Dubai, Oslo and Urumqi (China), the Taliban committed to safeguard the “lives, honour and properties” of Afghans. This was flouted within hours of Mr. Ghani’s statement, as the Taliban attacked civilians in Khost, Kapisa and Baghlan, including a congregation gathered for iftar , killing scores of persons.

Deconstructing the Murree meeting The format of the Murree talks was 2 (Taliban and HPC) + 1 (Pakistan) + 2 (China and the United States), the last two attending as observers. Negotiations with the Taliban are meant to be an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, inter-Afghan process. Yet, Pakistan is the guarantor and guide of this dialogue. Afghans are keen to hold the next round outside Pakistan, and with the main leaders of the Shura.

When former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in 2008, offered to talk to Mullah Omar anytime, anywhere, Pakistan denied having access to members of the Quetta Shura. That its horses are kept in Pakistan’s stables was implicitly confirmed the moment Pakistan agreed to facilitate the peace process.

No known senior members of the Shura were present at Murree. A noteworthy inclusion was that of Mullah Yahya, of the Haqqani network, which is known to act as “a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. The exclusion of Syed Tayyeb Agha, head of the Taliban political office in Qatar, adds to the incertitude of the peace talks, as he is recognised as the sole figure authorised to negotiate on behalf of the Taliban.

Pakistan’s National Security Advisor, Sartaj Aziz said that the “key Taliban leaders” at the talks represented Akhtar Mansoor, “the acting head of the Taliban”, and that Mansoor had a clear mandate from the “Central Shura”. The Murree process is going to be as much an Afghanistan-Pakistan dialogue, as one between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Mr. Ghani’s play of the dice has logic, since the Quetta Shura operates under the umbrella of the Pakistan Army. Mr. Karzai had attempted to engage Pakistan exactly the same way. He failed, but not for lack of trying. His later efforts, to contact individual Taliban leaders resulted either in their incarceration or elimination. The former Taliban Defence Minister, Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, arrested in Pakistan in 2007, was allegedly tortured and killed in March 2010.

When, in 2010, Mr. Karzai’s emissaries engaged Mullah Biradar, the seniormost Taliban leader after Mullah Omar, he was promptly arrested in Pakistan and put out of commission. In 2013, an HPC delegation, permitted to see Biradar, found him to be so heavily drugged that he could not utter a single word in the meeting.

Contradictory objectives And when, in a creative move, the U.S. helped Qatar set up a Taliban office in Doha to give Taliban representatives a measure of independence from Pakistan, the ISI sought to infiltrate and control that office. The recent arrest of Tayyeb Agha’s brothers in Pakistan might have been part of this effort.

Indications of the Taliban’s readiness to sit down to talk have been in the air for a few years. The question is, under what conditions and to what purpose? Some Afghan participants who participated in the recent meetings feel that the Taliban has principally used its international exposure to charm foreign interlocutors, instead of committing to abjuring violence and joining the democratic process.

While Afghans suffer intimidation and terror at its hands, the Taliban projects itself as a moderate and nationalist force, promising to protect women’s rights and female education, and provide a clean administration. They claim ideological and organisational disassociation with extremist groups like the al-Qaeda and Daesh.

These talks are unlikely to deliver peace and reconciliation because the objectives of the protagonists do not match. Mr. Ghani hopes to make the negotiations a continuing process, and meanwhile build mutual confidence, outline the agenda issues necessary for peace, and eliminate violence. The Taliban wants the exit of foreign forces, power-sharing, constitutional changes establishing the supremacy of the Sharia , and the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, reversing the gains of the Afghan people over the past 14 years. Its immediate objectives are seeking the release of Taliban prisoners, ending targeted sanctions, and a removal of the bounty lists for information leading to the location and capture of its prominent leaders.

Moreover, not all factions of the Taliban are committed to peace. Large areas have fallen under its de facto control, including in pockets in the north, from Faryab to Badakhshan. No one other than the Pakistan Army knows whether Mullah Omar, not seen for a decade, is dead or alive. Even if the Taliban was to agree to a ceasefire, it will be to bide its time for a more formidable offensive.

The role of the Pakistan Army Mr. Ghani often says that Pakistan has been in an “undeclared state of hostilities with Afghanistan.” For him, Pakistan’s acceptance that the real conflict is between the two States, rather than within Afghanistan, “is the breakthrough.” “The problem, fundamentally, is not about peace with Taliban,” he told a conference co-hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Atlantic Council in Washington DC in March, “The problem is fundamentally about peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

Facilitation of direct talks with the Taliban is not enough to prove the Pakistan Army’s bona fides. It has failed to provide Afghanistan direct access to key members of the Shura, take action against the Haqqani network, and restrain the Taliban from its 2015 offensive.

Instead, since the launch of ‘Zarb-e-Azb’ — the Pakistan Army’s war against terrorism — just prior to Mr. Ghani’s assumption of office, more Afghan soldiers have died in action than the number of U.S. and International Security Assistance Force soldiers killed in the preceding 13 years. The question in Afghan minds is: has the Pakistan Army really done what it can?

Its past conduct reinforces such doubts. Thrice before, it has had the opportunity to help stabilise Afghanistan: first, in 1992, when the Peshawar-based Seven Party Alliance formed the government; second, when the Taliban took over in 1996; and third, post-2001, when Pakistan’s contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom made it a ‘Major non-NATO ally’.

The Pakistan Army is believed to no longer follow a selective approach to terrorism, and to have strong internal and external reasons for pursuing a new policy. Pakistan has paid a heavy price for its complicity with the Taliban. Moreover, a Taliban government in Kabul might not serve Pakistan’s best interests. The U.S. desire to disengage, and China’s decision to invest in Afghanistan’s stability, to deny a safe haven for Uighur insurgents and pursue its regional interests, serve as incentives for Pakistan to alter its behaviour.

Even so, Pakistan still prevaricates on ending the distinction between the “good” and “bad” terrorists. The Pakistan Army is a firefighter in Pakistan and indulges in incendiarism in Afghanistan, dousing the flames within its own territories and fanning them across its borders. It is expelling terrorists from Pakistan and installing them in Afghanistan, thereby shifting the epicentre of terrorism away from Pakistan. The Pakistan Army treats the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as the enemy of State and the Afghan Taliban as a legitimate force, advocating the extinction of TTP and accommodation of the Taliban.

The course of future talks The Murree meeting foretells future conversations, even negotiations, which are bound to be long and complex. Attempts to conciliate the Taliban were made even before its resurgence in 2005-06. The High Peace Council was set up in 2010, with former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, as its head. The Taliban assassinated him the following year. After many false starts, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban are now settling on the starting blocks. This will be a marathon, not a short race, and will not end so long as the Taliban and Pakistan talk peace and pursue violence.

(Jayant Prasad is a former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan. Currently, he is Advisor, Delhi Policy Group, and Visiting Fellow at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries.)

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