The South Asia Channel

Peace Talks With the Taliban Are Risky Business

Signals indicate that peace talks may start soon but talks still carry tremendous risks for all involved.

Northern Alliance/US Speical Troops Battle Cold
398080 01: Northern Alliance soldiers huddled in a bitter cold snowstorm December 3, 2001 as they prepared for a possible military operation against an estimated 2,000 Taliban fighters who have yet to surrender outside Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. (Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images)

Despite a swift denial by the Afghan Taliban, all the signs and statements emerging from Kabul and Islamabad show that a certain degree of progress has been achieved on opening a formal channel for talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Since the visit of a two-member Taliban delegation to China in January, which was also initially denied by the Taliban, a constant stream of efforts has been underway with a key role being played by Pakistan and its powerful army, along with Afghanistan and regional players like China. All parties are working to overcome the trust deficit and bring the Afghan Taliban face to face with authorities in Kabul.

To gauge the level of efforts and the degree of seriousness on parts of all the three major players — Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Taliban — a Pakistani parliamentarian told this writer that “if things stay well on the track, a formal announcement of talks is likely by the end of March or early April.”

Despite a degree of alarm in Kabul about President Ashraf Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan — particularly the Pakistan army, which is seen as the key arbiter in Pakistan’s Afghan policy — some available signals show a positive progress on peace talks:

— In February, visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a Foreign Office briefing in Islamabad that his government is ready to facilitate the Afghan peace negotiations, which was the first-ever public signal by China to play a role in ending the decade and a half old conflict in its neighborhood.

— During an unannounced visit to Kabul on Feb. 17, Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif was quoted by the military’s media wing, Inter-Services Public Relations, as saying that “Afghanistan’s enemy is the enemy of Pakistan,” after he met with Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul.

— On Feb. 18, Ghani held meetings with several officials and leaders in Kabul in an apparent move to brief them on his government’s peace initiative with the Taliban.

— And on Feb. 23, Abdullah told a cabinet meeting in Kabul that peace talks with Taliban will start soon.

Whether it’s due to a change of mind or heart this time, the fresh effort is unprecedented since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001 that brought Hamid Karzai into power in Kabul. The progress achieved so far is seen as a positive step both in Kabul and Islamabad.

However, the peace process, if it’s continued, also carries tremendous risks for all involved. Let’s have a look at them one by one:

Risks for Ghani:

In a Guardian interview in March, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in a reference to Ghani’s reliance on Pakistan, said that “we want friendly relationship, but not to be under Pakistan’s thumb.”

In the same token, national security advisor in the then Karzai-led government, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, told the same newspaper that “the policy amounts to humiliating appeasement of a hostile power who would never change its ways.”

While Afghan leaders such as Karzai and Spanta are wary of Pakistan’s increasing influence and dominance in Afghanistan, others such as former jihadi leader, Abdul Rab Rasool Sayaf, and the speaker of Afghanistan’s Upper House of Parliament, Fazl Hadi Muslimyar, doubts Pakistan’s sincerity in bringing peace in Afghanistan.

“I am in support of peace and stability in Afghanistan, but I don’t have much faith in Pakistan’s honesty over peace talks,” Muslimyar was quoted as saying by Reuters.

In this backdrop, if anything goes wrong on any side, it could cause a serious blow to Ghani’s peace initiative, both with his relationship with Afghanistan’s western neighbor, Pakistan, and with the warring Taliban.

Risks for Pakistan:

In an apparent move to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table with the Afghan government, Pakistan has exerted a certain degree of pressure on their leadership, the majority of whom have families in Pakistan and run their operations from the Pakistani territory.

For years, it was alleged that the Pakistani security establishment supported the Afghan Taliban in the hopes of retaining a say in Afghan affairs, where Pakistan’s archrival India has also achieved much leverage.

Arm-twisting may cost Pakistan its decades-old alliance with the Taliban, who are not only being used to maintain a strong say in Afghan affairs, but also as a bulwark against any possible Indian invasion into Pakistan.

An action beyond the friendly push and nudge against the Afghan Taliban may likely also develop bad blood among the Kashmir-focused jihadis, who like the Afghan Taliban, are being seen as the strategic assets against a much larger eastern neighbor. Further, enmity with the Afghan Taliban, who are allies with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, may worsen Pakistan’s internal security, which has already jeopardized by rising attacks from Pakistani Taliban.

Risks for the Taliban:

For over a decade, the Taliban’s reclusive chief, Mullah Omar, enjoyed the undisputed leadership of Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the major challenge to his leadership emerged last year when a group of Taliban members announced allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS. Among them was a former Afghan Taliban commander, Mullah Rauf Khadim, who was made the leader of ISIS in Afghanistan.

Khadim, until he was killed in a drone strike earlier this year, created an ISIS support base in Afghanistan’s southern province of Zabul. Locals told this writer that Khadim used to question the existence of Mullah Omar. The same question is being asked by and discussed among Taliban field commanders at a time when a major part of the U.S. and international forces have withdrawn from the country.

The peace initiative with the Afghan government is also not sitting well with a number of field commanders, who believe their armed struggle is at the verge of victory. Many feel that it is not useful to compromise at this stage, according to an Afghan journalist who had spoken to Taliban commander.

Deal or no deal, reports about peace talks with the Afghan government are likely to have some costs and the Taliban may lose some more commanders, mostly the aggrieved ones.

Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images

Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. He has worked with Pakistan’s English dailies The News and Daily Times, Afghanistan’s Pajhwok Afghan News, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor and London Sunday Times. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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