BACKGROUND: Not every commander and foot soldier of the Taliban militia is ready to accept negotiations with the U.S. or its allied Karzai regime, although this may change whenever the negotiations begin and more information trickles down the ranks of the Taliban. The first formal round of negotiations among the U.S., Afghanistan’s High Peace Council and the Taliban may not result in a breakthrough.
The Taliban’s interest in a negotiated settlement can be gauged from the fact that its Supreme Commander Mulla Omar has appointed none other than his brother-in-law and spokesman Mulla Mohammad Omar Tayyab Agha as top negotiator in the Qatari capital. The militia’s former ambassador in Saudi Arabia Maulvi Shahabuddin Dilawar, alongside some key commanders, forms a multi-faceted negotiation team. The entourage has been in Qatar since January 3, 2012, holding several rounds of talks with U.S. delegations, without any major breakthrough. Meanwhile, their wives have enjoyed the time in cosmopolitan Doha malls and restaurants while their children attended modern schools and colleges.
Since U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton coined the term “good Taliban,” negotiators and diplomats have had scores of rollercoaster rides. For the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, the primary goal was to defeat and disable the militia, a disastrous failure across the country including the Afghan capital. U.S. commanders then requested troop reinforcements in the so-called surge and zoned the country’s troubled regions based on insurgent groups. This did win partial success but at a slow speed and a high price. Exhausting all other options, the U.S. chose to do the right thing. The Taliban are now recognized as legitimate stakeholders. By actively engaging Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry could gain what Clinton failed to achieve owing to a catastrophic decline in relations between Islamabad and Washington.
A confident Taliban team has now added leverage particularly after Afghan President Karzai’s outbursts against the U.S. administration, NATO and Pakistan. Mulla Omar’s men have already tested the patience of U.S. and Qatar by hoisting their white flag and branding the office as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The symbols were removed on the request of Qatar’s government.
The Taliban may be following the outline of a draft reconciliation agreement prepared in 1996 during Benazir Bhutto’s government in Pakistan. Islamabad was a go-between then as well but short-sighted U.S. policies underestimated the militia’s resilience besides miscalculating the strength of warlords allied with Washington.
The content of the negotiations reveals that the Taliban had limited connection with al-Qaeda while Osama bin Laden was invited to Kabul from Khartoum by none other than President Burhanuddin Rabbani. The Taliban supreme leader had even agreed to hand over bin Laden to any neutral Muslim country such as Turkey. The talks broke down as the U.S. refused the offer and later opted to fruitlessly fire cruise missiles. The angered Taliban embraced “Shaikh” Osama bin Laden and adopted a hard line posture. Engaging the Taliban, again with the help of Pakistan, the U.S. demands are no different from what the militia was offering 16 years ago.
IMPLICATIONS: The softening U.S. position vis-à-vis the Taliban can be a game-changer, even more so with Pakistan onboard. The Afghan High Peace Council (HPC), led by Salahuddin Rabbani, has proven functional despite the brutal murder of its chairman, Burhanuddin Rabbani. While the U.S., the Taliban and the HPC are set to engage with more contentious issues, President Hamid Karzai is getting increasingly isolated. With his second and final presidential term ending next year, Karzai has been desperate to preserve the political office in his vicinity. Intensive negotiations with likely but temporary hiccups imply an uncertain future for Hamid Karzai, who has no supporters in Islamabad – a much bigger problem for Washington than for New Delhi.
On the negotiating table, the U.S. will push the Taliban to reject al-Qaeda, accept an effective ceasefire in the wake of a security handover, and to respect and participate in the political process. The Taliban, on the other hand, find the existing political, bureaucratic and military setup discriminatory against the majority Pashtun population. The militia will push for a greater role for the marginalized ethnic segment.
The Taliban are eager to have five Guantanamo prisoners released, i.e. Mulla Fazal Akhund, Khairullah Khairkhwa Noorullah Noori, Abdul Haq Waseeq and Mohammad Nabi in exchange for U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl who has been in their custody since 2009. In a symbolic move, U.S. President Obama has re-initiated the process for closing Guantanamo. Pakistani media reports that Islamabad has also facilitated low profile interaction between the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance and the Taliban to strengthen the trust of all stakeholders including the U.S.
Once a serious bone of contention, the Taliban’s Haqqani chapter is no longer an irritant in Pakistan-U.S. relations but a partner in the Doha peace talks, a development that annoys President Hamid Karzai as well as his ally New Delhi. Pakistan will have to release more Taliban prisoners on Afghanistan’s request of as gesture of goodwill. Islamabad has already freed 26 Afghan prisoners belonging to the militia.
The opening of a Taliban office followed by initial statements from both sides has already started to benefit Pakistan. Islamabad experiences reduced pressure to carry out a military operation in the restive semi-autonomous Waziristan region. Instead, its army chief General Kiani has called upon the internally displaced persons to return home. With the financial assistance of the United Arab Emirates, a 50 kilometer road linking it’s the region’s two key cities, Wana and Angoor Adda, has been inaugurated while other healthcare and education projects near completion. Moreover, a smooth transition of power in Afghanistan will help Pakistan tackle its extremist problem in the tribal areas, where Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has safe havens and sympathizers.
The table is set for negotiations but the real task of hammering out a power-sharing formula has yet to be worked out. Afghan President Karzai seems the most uncertain variable, owing to his insecurity with regard to a possible role for Mulla Omar or his rival Abdullah Abdullah. With Saudi Arabia and Qatar being guarantors of the negotiations, Pakistan and the Taliban have little incentive to derail the process.
The sooner the Taliban categorically distances itself from al-Qaeda, denounces global terrorism and announces a ceasefire, the greater the prospects for an Afghan-led transition. The U.S. may have to be patient in the wake of hardline guerrilla attacks against its soldiers and material for some time. The reconciliation process has yet to take roots and Pakistan, Afghanistan, the U.S. and the Taliban must be watchful of any provocations.
The SOFA will surely test the maturity of the reconciliation process as other stakeholders will not accept agreements between President Karzai and the U.S. and its allies. The likely presence of troops in post-2014 Afghanistan is set to become a tricky and divisive question in the Doha talks.
CONCLUSIONS: The stalled Doha process must be speeded up to end the 12-year-old Afghan war by late 2014. A prolonged delay in resuming the Doha process is bound to have serious ramifications for NATO’s withdrawal plans. The U.S. Secretary of State has already had talks with Afghanistan, India and Pakistan on this issue. Washington knows well that a suspension of talks is advantageous to the Taliban. President Karzai, however, has been trying to find leverage over the issue ahead of the April 2014 presidential elections. Afghanistan may confront a chaotic post-2014 future unless stakeholders avoid hardline posturing.