US talks directly to the Taliban in a twist to the Afghan tale
Around July 23, reports emerged that US officials and Taliban representatives held talks in Doha, Qatar. Intriguingly, Afghan government representatives were absent, though both Washington and Kabul have stated that this meeting was held in close consultation with the Afghan government.
Nonetheless, this meeting gave rise to debates in different quarters (in Afghanistan and abroad) on whether the peace process is indeed Afghan-led or Afghan-owned, and on what this would mean for Afghanistan. It also marks a reversal of US policy, which had ruled out direct talks with the Taliban.
One of the Afghan Taliban’s foremost demands is the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country. Additionally, the Taliban have for long held that they will negotiate for peace but that they will do so only with the US and not with the Afghan government. Given this context, the July 23 meeting highlighted two things: First, it was a manifestation of the Afghan government reinforcing the Taliban’s most controversial demand – of not recognizing the former as legitimate; and two, not only are the Taliban not interested in negotiating with the Afghan government, they will only speak to Washington as equals.
In effect, the July 23 bilateral US-Taliban meeting elevates the latter to the status of an equal. Indeed, this is precisely what the Taliban have sought for a long time – their recognition as equal to a “state.” An example of this is their 1996 decision to replace the term “movement” in their title with “emirate” – which they retain to this day.
The background and context of how the Taliban’s philosophy and self-identity are linked to any potential political solution is detailed in a recent analysis published by the Afghanistan Analysts Network, which argues that the Taliban view themselves as a “government-in-waiting” and not merely as a group or political party. Today, the Taliban are evidently also operating and negotiating from a position of strength. Not only have they not reciprocated proportionately with regard to their most contentious demands (especially that of the Afghan government’s legitimacy), they have managed to get a superpower to short-change a country said superpower recognizes and supports.
The July meeting and preceding developments took place merely months after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered the Taliban unconditional talks and the option of integration into Afghan society as a political party.
For his part, President Ghani has demonstrated considerable accommodation and has boldly offered substantial concessions – including suggesting a possible constitutional review – risking bad press and his own political prospects in a bid get the Taliban to end their war. That said, a prevailing alternative viewpoint – and it might be worthwhile to consider it – is that he has been disproportionately accommodating compared with the Taliban’s near-absent reciprocity, and that it may not bode well for the country.
Often, when mediating armed conflicts, some concessions are extended to demonstrate good faith and to incentivize participation in peace negotiations. However, the nature and context of incentives offered; actors involved; timing; and associated symbolism are all among the crucial factors to be considered while extending concessions because the success and failure of processes often depend on these factors.
It is therefore imperative that the design of the process is carefully developed before initiating any mediation effort. It is also crucial that the mediator must not only be impartial but also be perceived as impartial. The case of the conflict in East Timor is a useful example. The choice of International Force East Timor (INTERFET) over the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to take the lead in addressing the conflict and the reasons for that choice could provide useful insights.
US representatives have often stated that Afghanistan’s peace process must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, and that Washington would fully support the efforts. However, its big-power status and its wide-ranging involvement in the conflict render the US unsuitable to take on the role of an impartial or neutral mediator. Reportedly, a Taliban official interviewed after the July 23 meeting stated, “The only demand they [US] made was to allow their military bases in Afghanistan.”
If this claim is true, it will not be surprising if the meeting is interpreted as a bilateral negotiation between the US and the Taliban, positioned in the broader narrative of supporting Afghan peace. It raises the following questions: Why was the US negotiating terms of its military presence in Afghanistan with the Taliban in the first place? Given how the legality of the United States’ military presence in the country rests on the Afghan government’s invitation and consent, why was it negotiating the terms of its military presence with an entity that is not the Afghan government? Whose interests did the US end up serving in that meeting?
While the Afghan peace process and the conflict have indeed been endlessly dragging on and the fatigue is palpable, there are legitimate concerns that the current phase of the efforts appear to be too hurried to deliver a sustainable outcome – casting doubts on the efficacy of this pace and method.
Over the years, there have been numerous references to ‘international consensus’ regarding peace in Afghanistan but relatively fewer nationwide inquiries into understanding the preferences of Afghan citizens across the country on the specifics of any prospective peace deal with armed groups. It is also unclear whether the current efforts are towards striking a peace deal or achieving a sustained end to the conflict–the two are related but not the same as each other. Nonetheless, in a significant development, Taliban representatives visited Uzbekistan from 7-10 August to hold talks regarding Afghan peace with high-level Uzbek officials.
At this juncture, it is vital to ensure that the process for Afghan peace–especially clarity on the mission and mandate–is developed carefully as it is a vital determinant of the mediation effort’s success. For any peace deal to translate into sustained peace and stability, the agreement/document and subsequent policies will require trust, support and legitimacy from all quarters of the Afghan public. Afghanistan’s own contemporary history and experiences with ceasefires, political solutions and nationwide consultations could provide some insights on factors that have succeeded and failed in this regard.