Thursday June 30, 2022

More questions, fewer answers

August 29, 2020

After several delays and setbacks, the long-awaited intra-Afghan peace process is likely to begin next week in Doha, Qatar. The announcement came from Dr Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for Reconciliation, following a telephone conversation with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan. Yet, doubts remain about the viability of the intra-Afghan negotiations.

So far, the US interest in finding a politically negotiated settlement and the realisation that there is no military solution to end the Afghan conflict has kept the intra-Afghan talks afloat. Otherwise, there is ambiguity on almost all critical issues related to the post-war political order in Afghanistan between Kabul and the Taliban. This uncertainty raises more questions than answers.

Ahead of the negotiations, the Taliban’s main leverage is the monopoly over violence, which they can stop if they choose. On the other hand, the Afghan government’s main leverage is political power, which it can share if it chooses. At the same time, the Taliban’s main interest in negotiations is to explore the possibilities of constitutional changes (to make it more Islamic) and modalities of power-sharing. Meanwhile, Kabul is interested in an immediate cessation of violence and a long-term ceasefire.

The Taliban’s dilemma of keeping their decentralised and diverse movement’s coherence intact forces them to not only keep their political narrative vague but also engage in the talk-and-fight approach. Resultantly, while it is well known what the Taliban are opposed to, it is not clear what they stand for in purely political terms. There is no official document that articulates the Taliban’s political vision of the post-war Afghanistan. Instead, their political narrative is a patchwork of different statements and interviews of their leaders such as Sirajuddin Haqqani’s, head of the dreaded Haqqani Network, op-ed in the New York Times.

Ahead of the expected intra-Afghan talks, clarity is missing on the following four critical areas.

First, the post-war political structure and power-sharing in Afghanistan. The Taliban have shown flexibility in the emirate vs republic debate, provided Islamic principles are introduced in the amended Afghan constitutions. However, it is unclear that if these amendments are incorporated, will the Taliban join the existing political dispensation, or do they envisage an interim political setup that has the representation of all Afghan factions? The Taliban do not recognise the Afghan government; rather, they consider it as one of the several Afghan groups participating in the intra-Afghan talks.

The Afghan government’s position on the interim political setup is equally important to consider. The Loya Jirga has consolidated the government’s political credibility and position by handing it the carte balance to negotiate with the Taliban on behalf of the Afghan nation. So far, in the US-Taliban deal and the prisoners’ swap, the Taliban have given away very little in return for the fulfillment of all their demands. Kabul’s reconsidered position of not freeing 320 Taliban prisoners indicates that the government’s five-year mandate is non-negotiable.

Second, the future of the Taliban foot soldiers should the intra-Afghan negotiations succeed. If the Taliban are good at something, it is guerrilla warfare. Unlike other Islamist militant movements, the Taliban lack a proper political structure and narrative. The Taliban opened their political office in Qatar in 2012 and its role has mostly been confined to negotiate with the US.

Will the Taliban militants, after the deal, be disarmed, demobilised, and re-integrated in society, or will they be incorporated in the Afghan security structure? The Taliban militants are guerrilla warriors and they know only one thing: fighting. They will not adjust into any other profession. The Taliban are accommodated in the Afghan armed forces, the majority of the Taliban foot soldiers are Pashtuns. In contrast, the top brass of Afghan military are non-Pashtun figures belonging to the former Northern Alliance group.

If the Taliban are to be incorporated into the armed forces, will a new command structure be introduced, or will changes be made in the existing security framework? The questions of funding, training and professional commitment are equally important to consider. So far, the Taliban have waged a war to overthrow the existing Afghan constitutional order considering it un-Islamic.

Third, the future of global terrorist groups and their affiliates in Afghanistan. Even in the Doha agreement, the Taliban refused to term Al-Qaeda as a terrorist group. This, in and of itself, along with recent UN reports, is sufficient to establish how close the two groups are. The only guarantee the US got from the Taliban in the Doha agreement is that the Afghan areas under the Taliban control will not be used for attacks against the US and its allies in future.

Contrarily, the Taliban’s position on the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) is unequivocal and the group has taken stern action in reversing its territorial and organisational gains in Afghanistan. However, the ISKP has bounced back every single time. The Nangarhar jailbreak by ISKP militants is a case in point. So, notwithstanding the Taliban’s demonstrable action against ISKP, it does not inspire much confidence in the face of the latter’s resilience, regenerative capacity and ability to mount high-profile attacks.

Finally, the future of the US and Nato forces in Afghanistan. So far, both the US and the Taliban have kept their ends of the Doha agreement by not attacking each other. Also, the US has reduced its military footprint to 8,600 and vacated five military bases. In line with the agreed timeframe, the US has to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by July 2021 should the intra-Afghan talks progress positively and satisfactory action is taken against the transnational terrorist groups in Afghanistan. So far, the progress on both fronts is dismal. In such a scenario, will the US reconsider its commitment of fully withdrawing from Afghanistan, particularly if the Democrats win the November US presidential elections? If this were to happen, things may move back to square one in Afghanistan as it will constitute a violation of the Doha agreement.

In a nutshell, a deal in and of itself neither guarantees peace nor a stable future for Afghanistan. In fact, no deal is better than a bad deal. The weak political will and rigidity by the Taliban and the Afghan government undermine the prospects of the intra-Afghan negotiations. While the Taliban need to evolve their political structure and narratives, the Afghan government should engage the former in an uninterruptible dialogue to bring the war to a political end.

The writer is a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.