February 14, 2016
Kabul attempting to negotiate with the Taliban is a worthwhile endeavor for symbolic purposes alone, not to mention the brute fact the war will never end if parties to the conflict never communicate. With that being said, however, expectations should be set that striking a peace deal is highly unlikely in the current environment, especially given Taliban preconditions, Afghan government infighting and political legitimacy issues, along with the not-so-hidden agendas of certain external actors, most notably Pakistan.
At a minimum, both sides, the Afghan government and Taliban, must see the indisputable reality that the war is unwinnable, and there is little reason to believe the stalemate on the battlefield will end in the foreseeable future. The Taliban managed to avoid complete defeat after more than a decade of war against one of the most technologically-advanced international military alliances ever assembled. Plus, the Taliban have made impressive gains within the past two years and now control more territory than it ever has since 2001. On the other hand, the Taliban will not run roughshod through the government’s mammoth military enterprise. Plus, Washington will not sit idly by and watch Kabul fall into Taliban hands, given the billions of U.S. dollars that have been invested in keeping the country stable – well, at least stable enough to prevent it from reverting to an Al Qaeda or ISIS stronghold.
Even if everyone agreed there is no military solution to the conflict, it is delusional to think the “roadmap” to reconciliation crafted by senior diplomats from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the U.S. last week will bear fruit. The roadmap is pure fantasy because the Taliban refuse to negotiate until foreign “occupiers” are entirely extirpated from Afghan territory, which is a nonstarter given the U.S. and its partners apparently plan on occupying the country indefinitely. On Saturday, for example, outgoing U.S. Afghan forces commander General Joseph Campbell announced that coalition forces “are here to stay.” In addition, earlier this week FOX News reported that the U.S. was sending 500 troops to Helmand Province “where the Taliban have made a comeback.”
Moreover, recent progress by the insurgency has strengthened the hand of the Taliban who will unlikely negotiate in good faith if they sense desperation emanating from Kabul. According to Middle East Institute scholar Marvin Weinbaum, negotiating and fighting simultaneously is a time-honored strategy but comes with great risk: “[W]hen the strategy is taken from a position of growing weakness, it is more likely to be used to stave off defeat than to facilitate compromise.”
Much has been written about the fragmented nature of the Taliban and its affiliated militant groups, like the Haqqani Network, as an obstruction to talks, but the same holds true for the state. Facilitating insurgent military advances is the tenuous unity of Afghanistan’s supposed national unity coalition. Further, the legitimacy deficit has widened between the state and the Taliban in the eyes of many Afghans because of government corruption and abuse. Lack of unity and legitimacy have formed a vicious cycle that strengthens the insurgency while undermining government bargaining power.
Government insiders, according to scholars Michael Semple and Theo Farrell, recently claimed that the rivalry between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah has “played out” in Kunduz province, which has enabled Taliban gains. The Pashtun provincial governor appointed by Ghani “is at loggerheads with the deputy provincial governor and provincial police chief, both Tajiks appointed by Abdullah.” Afghan local police used clearing operations as an opportunity to go on a “looting rampage” in Kunduz in Pashtun-dominated areas, enabling the Taliban to consolidate their grip over the region. The populace also grew disillusioned by the “ineffective and corrupt provincial government,” which the Taliban shrewdly exploited by infiltrating Kunduz city in advance of last fall’s offensive. In Uruzgan, a similar development was witnessed, wherein abusive behavior – including the rape of children and murder of civilians – turned local communities against pro-government factions, thereby empowering Taliban shadow governance.
Finally, the elephant in the room is Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban and doubts about its ability to be a neutral interlocutor. The conventional wisdom is that a peace deal in Kabul must run through Islamabad, a flawed paradigm that makes any settlement with the Taliban – at least one that adequately meets Afghan interests – nearly impossible. Pakistani leaders are unlikely to surrender support for their extended expeditionary force in Afghanistan until they can ensure India will be blocked from having any influence in Kabul and can put to rest fears over the potential rise of Pashtunistan. Considering neither of these scenarios are viable, the international community should stop pandering to Pakistan and focus on containing it.
To be sure, not talking to the insurgents is not an option. However, until the Taliban bend on their demand for wholesale withdrawal of foreigners and the U.S. is willing to shrink its footprint, do not expect much progress. And unless Kabul works to find true internal political unity and legitimacy and Pakistan is prevented from undermining negotiations, any semblance of peace will remain forever elusive.