- By Michael Wahid Hanna Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow at the Century Foundation.
In the rush to judgment following the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Tajik head of the Afghan High PeaceCouncil and a former president of Afghanistan, opponents of pursuing apolitical settlement with the Taliban presented the spectacularattack as proof of the Taliban’s perfidy and the misguided naïveté ofproponents of reconciliation. This sentiment was aided by theconfusion surrounding responsibility for the attack, following an initialclaim of responsibility by the Taliban that was retractedthe very next day. Rabbani’s killing hasexposed the frailties and vulnerabilities of the incipient Afghan politicalprocess, but the logic of pursuing a political settlement, even if only withfactions within the insurgency, remains. And if this admittedly fraught processfails, the United States, the Afghan government, and their allies will have atthe very least clarified whether a political settlement is practical, and providedclearer guidance as to the futureboundaries of strategic planning in Afghanistan as American and allied forcesaccelerate the transition and withdrawal process.
It has often been repeated, tothe point of cliché, that there is nopurely military solution to the ongoing war. As the conflict settles into aform of military stalemate, this truism is being borne out by the realities ofthe war we are fighting. With the recent series of spectacular attacks in Kabul, Wardak and Kandahar, the insurgency has again demonstrated its resiliencyin spite of the surge of troops and increased tempo of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operations, which have taken a serious toll ontheir war-fighting capacity. While a political settlement might not be apossible outcome, all other options represent decidedly sub-optimaleventualities, with unfettered civil war representing a worst-case scenario.Most other alternative strategies also have the distinct disadvantage ofrelying upon two critical factors that will not be satisfied: first, afundamental transformation of the Afghan political order and, second, adefinitive break of the Pakistani security establishment’s longstanding ties toAfghan militants.
Beyond the polemics of public rhetoric, some amongthe Taliban view themselves principally as a political movement and they mustbe accepted as a legitimate Afghan actor if a political settlement is to bereached. Recent developments indicate that there are, however, obvious divisionswithin the insurgency regarding the advisability of engaging in political dialogue as a means to achieve the Taliban’s political goals.
For a political process to continuethere is now a great deal of pressure on the Taliban and their centralleadership to heighten their level of engagement with the process to reassurethose on all sides who favor a political resolution. The apparent Taliban retraction of the claim of responsibility was a necessary first step todistance the Quetta Shura from an action that would, if definitively linked tothem, undermine any purported claims about Taliban interest in a negotiatedsettlement. If the attack represents a fracturing of the centralized leadership,then the fundamental shape of political outreach would have to adaptaccordingly, with an emphasis on cooptation of portions of the insurgency.
As the weaker party, the Taliban haveoften placed the onus on the United States and its allies in terms of initiatingconfidence-building steps. In light of the current, tenuous circumstances,however, the initiation by the Taliban of appropriate and far-reaching confidence-building measures is also likely a pre-requisite to the continuationof a peace process.
Recent developments, including high-level contacts between U.S. officials and Tayyab Agha, a confidante of Mullah Omar, indicate a serious interest on the part of the Taliban leadership toexplore the parameters of a political settlement. Exemplary among recent developments was the August 2011 statement issued in the name of Mullah Omar commemoratingthe end of Ramadan. While the statement portrayed past contacts with the Afghan government or United States as tactical in nature, it explicitly recognized those contacts and endorsed the possibility for adopting political means to achievethe Taliban’s goals. The statement was partly the product of ongoing backchannel talks with the Taliban with various intermediaries who have urgedsuch public signaling. As such, it represented an important indicator regarding the understanding among some Taliban as to the necessity of enunciating theirintent to their enemies and preparing their supporters.
This context, however, raisesimportant questions about the ability of the Quetta Shura to speak for theinsurgency and bind the rank-and-file to any political agreement and cessationof hostilities. This is particularly the case if, in fact, the Rabbani assassination was an unsanctioned military action carried about insurgentsseeking to derail any political process. Michael Semple has describedthe nature of this growing divide within the insurgency, which is largely anoutgrowth of the divergent trajectory of Waziristan-based militants. Even themost optimistic rendering of a political resolution to the conflict should notbe seen as ending all violence and instability in the country. However, theQuetta Shura and Mullah Omar still represent the central node of authoritywithin the insurgency, and Mullah Omar himself still retains substantial moralauthority among Afghan fighters and militants. Of course, it also possible thatthe Shura itself is divided and that the assassination was an unsanctionedreaction by hard-liners among the leadership to recent openings.
Questions about fragmentation and radicalization within the Taliban’s ranks, however, cannot be answered intheoretical terms, and require actual testing that can only come through anactive political process. Such a process might result in further fracturing. But, such fracturing would also provide clarity as to the limitations ofpolitical engagement and channel political efforts toward a factional approach tothe insurgency.
Any viable peace process willalso require unanimity of purpose among the Afghan government and its loyalopposition. Despite its manifest limitations, the High Peace Council played animportant role in the delicate task of constructing broad-based politicalsupport for talks. In the wake of Rabbani’s assassination, many of those Afghanleaders hostile to the very possibility of a political settlement with theTaliban escalated their rhetoric, with the possibility of civil war lurking not far behind.
The leaders of the formerNorthern Alliance secured their positions of power and influence when theAmericans joined them to oust the Taliban, and their dominance was ratifiedthrough the Bonn process by which the Afghan constitution was written and thecountry’s current government structure put in place. However, their position is at present precarious, reflecting the brittleness of the Afghan government and the expansion of the insurgency. The military campaign by the Taliban threatenstheir personal security and, while unlikely, the specter of the Talibanoverthrowing the current regime represents the ultimate threat to their security,authority, and networks of patronage.
The death of Rabbani was also coupled with the political death of M. Masoom Stanekzai, who was seriouslyinjured in the attack. Stanekzai, the director of the Council’s secretariat, wasone of the few Afghan advisors trusted by both President Hamid Karzai and theinternational community, and had played a key role in recent attempts toestablish consistent channels of communication with the Taliban, including thecontact that nearly cost him his life. In the wake of the attack, Stanekzai’scredibility is likely damaged beyond repair and the weak leadership guiding thepolitical process has now been further eroded. This growing leadership vacuum highlightsthe continued need for an internationally-designated facilitator to coordinatethe political process. The upcoming December 2011 Bonn conference wouldrepresent the logical forum to announce such an appointment, which could serveto refocus currently faltering efforts.
A peaceful resolutionaccommodating the Taliban within the Afghan state remains the most durable pathfor security and stability for Afghanistan, the region, and the internationalcommunity. A political settlement is a route for limiting the ambitions of theTaliban and securing a sustainable and enduring framework for Afghangovernance. With ongoing discussions regarding a U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement that would entail a post-2014 U.S. military presence inthe country, such a settlement increasingly appears to also be the only avenueby which the Taliban could rid themselves and Afghanistan of foreign forces ontheir soil. As recent events have demonstrated, however, the prospects forreaching such an end-of-conflict political settlement are uncertain. If apolitical settlement is to be attained, it will now require heightened efforton the part of all interested parties, including the Taliban.
Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellowand program officer at the Century Foundation.