Questions are being asked whether the Taliban are serious in joining the peace process or adamant to continue the fight
By launching a robust diplomatic and political effort to gain legitimacy and expediting their military campaign to capture towns and districts in different parts of Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban are attempting to do two things at the same time .
On the one hand, the Mulla Mohammad Omar-led Taliban expressed readiness to work for peace at conferences recently held in certain European and Arab capitals and decided to increase interaction with Afghans belonging to different walks of life. In a few cases, the Taliban political commission based in Qatar procured visas from the Qatari government for their guests visiting Doha for meetings. Taliban even agreed to meet Afghan notables who have been part of the ruling elite and also those related or close to President Dr Ashraf Ghani. Also unthinkable was the Taliban decision to hold meetings in far away Norway with four vocal, anti-Taliban women activists, including two members of parliament and another two having membership of the Afghan government’s High Peace Council.
On the other hand though, Taliban launched their annual spring offensive, titled "Azm" (Resolve) in April and made their intentions known by putting more men and resources into battle. All accounts of the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan suggest that the last few months have been the bloodiest with the highest number of casualties suffered by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Taliban too have suffered high level of casualties, but they seem to have no dearth of fighters. Studies done by various media and research bodies have recorded the highest-ever rise in ANSF casualties. In fact, one study done by the US-sponsored Azadi Radio recorded 75 per cent rise in ANSF casualties in the first six months of 2015. The figure was disputed by the Afghan Defence Ministry, which conceded that the number of casualties had risen but not to the extent claimed in the Azadi Radio study.
However, American military commanders in Afghanistan came up with a more convincing point by arguing that the current high level of ANSF casualties was unsustainable in the long run.
The Taliban strategy of talking and fighting at the same time isn’t new as it was promoted by the US when Hilary Clinton was the foreign secretary and was tried in Pakistan in early 2014 during the brief and aborted attempt by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government to engage the Pakistani Taliban in peace talks. It didn’t work out in Pakistan and is unlikely to lead to any breakthrough in Afghanistan. However, such desperate options are tried when there is no other way.
With the Taliban, particularly in Afghanistan, the biggest challenge has been to engage them in peace talks. At least, Taliban now have an address and those wanting to interact with them could approach them in Qatar. This is an improvement on the situation of the past when it was almost impossible to reach out to the real Taliban and it so happened that fake Taliban were feted and given money by the US, Afghan and British officials in the hope of striking a conversation through them with Mulla Omar and other top Taliban leaders.
Approaching the real Taliban is no longer a problem. Taliban too are relishing the attention. They are happily accepting invitations for bilateral meetings and for attending conferences. Visitors from the UN bodies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and diplomats from certain countries now visit Doha to call on Taliban political commission members or arrange to meet them in nearby Dubai or elsewhere.
In fact, so frequent have been such interactions in recent weeks and months that the Taliban hyper-activity on the political and diplomatic front gave a glimmer of hope to many people that the Taliban have finally opted to talk peace. In the process, Taliban were able to create a favourable impression even among those who routinely dub them enemies of Afghanistan and proxies of Pakistan.
By accepting invitations to attend recent international conferences in Qatar, UAE, Iran and Norway and earlier in Japan and France, Taliban not only availed the opportunity to explain their viewpoint but also sent a message that they could become part of a solution of the long-running Afghan conflict provided their interests were kept in view.
However, the dramatic increase in the Taliban attacks in recent months has sent a conflicting message that they still believe in the use of force to achieve their objectives. Questions are being asked whether the Taliban are serious in joining the peace process or adamant to continue the fight to gain military ascendancy over the unity government of President Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Dr Abdullah. Some have interpreted the dramatic increase in Taliban attacks as a conscious effort to capture territory and strengthen their bargaining position in case the elusive peace talks finally get underway. Or is the pressure on Taliban mounting to perform better in the battlefield now that the residual 14,000 US-led Nato forces post-2014 in Afghanistan are mostly staying away from fighting and letting the Afghan forces handle the security challenge?
Taliban fighters captured six district headquarters in the last month in different parts of the country, but were unable to hold on to at least three of the captured towns following the Afghan government counter-offensive. This could become the pattern of the ongoing summer fighting season unless the Taliban score some dramatic victories or the high desertion rate of soldiers renders the ANSF weak and vulnerable.
On the diplomatic and political front, progress has been slow. The Taliban have yet to recognise the Afghan government or formally meet its officials. They are willing to meet Afghans having past association with the government, but not those who are presently part of it. Taliban agreed to meet Qayyum Kochi, a tribal elder and uncle of President Ashraf Ghani, but have baulked at the idea of holding talks with the president and his ministers or the government-appointed High Peace Council. That is still a red line for the Taliban and would likely remain so until some of their major demands are accepted. These demands include the immediate and complete withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan, amending the Afghan Constitution to make it really Islamic, removing names of Taliban leaders from the United Nations’ ‘black list’ and releasing Taliban members held by the US in Guantanamo Bay or by the Afghan government.
Another interesting demand was added to the list when eight Taliban members of their political commission attended a conference organised by an international non-governmental organisation, Pugwash, in the Qatari capital, Doha on May 2-3. In presence of Afghan supporters of the Ashraf Ghani government and some international delegates, Taliban delegation head Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai demanded reopening of the Taliban office in Qatar to facilitate contacts with his movement. A Taliban office, it may be recalled, was opened in Doha last year with the concurrence of the governments of Afghanistan, Qatar and the US, but was closed down soon afterwards when President Hamid Karzai objected to the name of the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan inscribed on the name-plate and banners installed at the building. In his capacity as the Afghan President at the time, Karzai argued it sounded like a parallel government and smelled of a conspiracy to divide Afghanistan.
Still the Taliban insistence on having a formal office in Qatar and their efforts to strengthen and institutionalise their political commission inspire some hope that Mulla Omar and his aides could eventually consider mainstreaming their armed group into a political movement. However, this cannot happen without a national reconciliation involving all political and armed Afghan groups.