Two weeks ago, senior officials from both Afghanistan and Pakistan revealed that an Afghan delegation had met secretly with former deputy commander of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who has been in jail in Pakistan since he was captured in Karachi in 2010. The goal of the meeting, according to Rangin Dadfar Spanta, President Hamid Karzai’s national security advisor, was to "know his view on peace talks," and move toward restarting the stalled reconciliation process.
In his second stint as the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai has dramatically accelerated his efforts towards peace and reconciliation with the Taliban and its spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, once the host of Osama Bin Laden. The establishment of the Afghan Peace High Council in October 2010 was a part of Karzai’s major strategy for negotiating with the Taliban and other insurgents.
But the assassination in September 2011 of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former Afghan president and chairman of the Afghan High Peace Council (APHC), a body responsible for negotiation with the Taliban, signaled the re-assertion of a clear message by the Taliban and their cohorts: They have no inclination to negotiate or reconcile with the Afghan government.
In the months before Rabbani’s assassination, the Taliban also claimed responsibility for the killing of several senior political and military figures, including Ahmad Wali Karzai, the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan and the younger brother of President Karzai, Jan Mohammed Khan, a senior advisor and friend of President Karzai, Ghulam Haider Hameedi, the mayor of Kandahar, and Gen. Daud Daud, head of police in northern Afghanistan, and some MP members.
The ongoing attacks on civilians in different parts of the country and the chain of assassinations of senior Afghan officials raise several major questions about the feasibility of negotiation and reconciliation with the Taliban and other insurgents:
Is the Afghan government’s offer of peace negotiation from a position of weakness or strength? Do the Taliban and other insurgents have the self-autonomy and willingness to negotiate? Has the government adopted the right approach to negotiate with the insurgents? What is and will be the backlashes of unilateral negotiation offer? Is the composition of the peace council well chosen?
First, to negotiate with the insurgents, whom President Karzai consistently refers to as his "disenchanted brothers," he has set conditions for the Taliban groups to begin peace talks; the terms are to lay down weapons, cut ties with al-Qaeda, and abide the Afghan Constitution, which is not acceptable for the Taliban. These preconditions raise one fundamental question: is it a call for negotiation or surrender? Some Afghan analysts argue that the preconditions set by the Afghan government are unrealistic.
Aziz Ariaey, an Afghan political analyst believes that "In the current armed conflict, the Taliban has the upper hand and President Karzai knows it well," giving the Taliban little incentive to consider peace talks with such conditions.
Ariaey argues that the call for negotiation and the "lack of an inherent strength in the Karzai administration," which exists in large part due to the massive amounts of international aid it receives, has enabled the Taliban to manipulate the situation in their favor.
Some Afghan analysts agree with Ariaey, saying a good example of the Taliban strength is that they are imposing their own preconditions for the negotiations. The Taliban’s preconditions include complete withdrawal of the international troops from Afghanistan, the removal of Taliban names from the United Nations’ blacklist, and the release of all Taliban prisoners, which – at this stage – is neither acceptable for the Afghan government nor for the international community.
Secondly, the Taliban and other insurgents neither have the autonomy nor the willingness to negotiate with the Afghan government. According to Ahmad Saeedi, a former Afghan diplomat and political analyst, all active insurgent groups in Afghanistan are being trained, equipped and inspired by one single source: ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency. Saeedi points out, "Pakistan, particularly ISI, has invested in the Taliban for many years, aiming to ensure its interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan has entrapped the Taliban and other insurgents and there is no willingness within ISI to leave their multi-year investment in insurgents overnight."
Pakistan is not the only obstacle to negotiations and reconciliation; the composition of the peace council itself poses another problem.
According to Vahid Mojdeh, an Afghan political analyst and a former official of the Foreign Ministry during the Taliban regime, "The Afghan High Peace Council is made of three different groups with different opinions and approaches."
"One of the groups, consisting of former Taliban, pushes for talks with the high-ranking Taliban leadership, insisting that without incorporating the Taliban leadership, a peace deal is impossible. However, the second group, namely Rabbani’s team, is pushing for talks with the mid-level Taliban, arguing that this will force the Taliban leadership to begin negotiations. Finally, the third group consists of members of civil society who support the peace process, provided the democratic values achieved in the last ten years are not compromised, a condition which is not welcomed by the Taliban. Given the differences within the members of the High Peace Council, it looks ambitious to expect a relatively successful outcome from the negotiation," Mojdeh argues.
The Afghan High Peace Council is acting as a mediator between the Afghan government and the Taliban. According to Saeedi, "Most key members of the peace council are those who fought against the Taliban for many years. Therefore, before those members act as a mediator, first there is a need for a third party to mediate between the Taliban and those members, who fought against the Taliban for many years."
Members of the peace council are said to have had a series of contacts with mid-level Taliban, a claim frequently rejected by the Taliban. While the government’s level of contact with the Taliban remains unclear, what is very clear is the rigid position of the Taliban: they continuously perpetrate suicide attacks and road-side bombings, and have intensified their attacks against high-ranking military and political figures.
Meanwhile, the relationship between the current U.S. administration and the Afghan leadership has been tense from the start and continues to deteriorate. The Obama administration has accused the Afghan government led by President Karzai as unreliable and ineffective." Likewise, the Afghan President publically criticized the United States and the United Nations in 2010 for supposedly tampering with the Afghan elections, accusing them of coming close to being perceived as invaders. He has also persistently demanded that American troops end night raids and drastically reduce civilian casualties.
Some Afghan analysts believe that the Afghan government, for the sake of its political survival, uses negotiation and reconciliation as a tool to get on good terms with the Taliban. The Karzai administration knows that its relation with the West, and in particular with the United States, is deteriorating. And in the long-run, once the U.S. and international troops leave Afghanistan, President Karzai needs the support of the Taliban and other insurgent groups in the southern and eastern parts of the country. But the question is whether such a move is pragmatic? Vahid Mojdeh points out, "In Taliban’s views any kind of negotiation with crusaders or their associates is a great sin. If the Taliban feel weak, they hide themselves and if they are strong, they fight-not negotiate. And President Karzai knows it very well."
The current peace process in Afghanistan has greatly increased the Taliban’s military manpower, and they are a serious threat to the country’s already fragile status. As Aziz Ariaey, pointed out to me, "The unilateral call for negotiation with the Taliban provoked and encouraged hesitant villagers, particularly in the south and southeastern region to join the Taliban because they feel as if the future of the country will be in the hand of the Taliban. So why not join them now?" The Taliban believe that they are in a position of strength and they have caused a major setback to the Afghan government and its international allies, particularly the US."
Ten years after being toppled, there are no apparent changes in the Taliban’s attitudes and behavior. They lynch anyone opposing them, decapitate those working with the Afghan government and international organizations, and disfigure women if they do not act according to their wishes. To achieve their goal — the reestablishment of the Islamic Emirate — the Taliban continue to kill military forces and civilians alike. The decapitation this week of 17 civilians, including two women, in the southern Taliban stronghold of Helmand is a vivid example of Taliban harsh behavior against civilians. As Ariaey, points out, "They [Taliban] want to achieve their goals by hook or by crook."
President Karzai has been striving to convince those who he refers to as "moderate Taliban" to end the violence, but to a large extent, he has failed. Indeed, those fighting against the government are hard-line and irreconcilable Taliban. Those "moderate Taliban" including Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, former Taliban foreign minister, Abdul Hakim Mujahid, who was Taliban representative in the United States, and Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan, who were against the al-Qaeda network even before the 9/11 attacks, have already renounced violence.
Given the aggressive behavior of the Taliban and other insurgents, the soft policy of the Afghan government, the continuous support of Pakistan for insurgents, and the withdrawal of international combat troops in 2014, it seems that as with previous efforts, the ongoing endeavors by the Afghan government to negotiate and reconcile with the Taliban are not only a waste of time and resources, but also embolden these insurgents to increase their violent activities.
Khalid Mafton is an Afghan writer and analyst.