After years of conflict, the contours of a viable course towards an agreement between Kabul and the Taliban have begun to emerge
Of the many challenges awaiting the incoming US president, winding down four decades of war in Afghanistan will certainly be one of the most complex. Recent developments, however, offer some insight into what a lasting peace deal might look like. Though the path to end the Afghan conflict will no doubt be long and treacherous, Kabul’s newfound willingness to explore other means of negotiating with the Taliban – and the militants’ willingness to parley without Pakistan by their side – have begun to spur the process forward.
On April 27, 1978, a group of communist officers in the Afghan army fired the opening shots of a conflict that continues to this day. The coup that ousted and killed then-President Mohammad Daud Khan triggered the chain of events that gave rise to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the ensuing civil war and, eventually, the Taliban.
Now, little by little, a deal to bring an end to Afghanistan’s decades-long conflict has begun to take shape. A little over a month ago, the Afghan government struck the first major peace deal of the war with a small militant outfit known as Hizb-e-Islami Gulbuddin. The group agreed to lay down its weapons in exchange for amnesty and a place in Afghan politics. Kabul’s decision to pardon the group’s members and its leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (whose brutal tactics during the Afghan civil war earned him the nickname ‘The Butcher of Kabul’), has created controversy to say the least. Yet it is just one of the many concessions the Afghan government will need to make to achieve a lasting peace. And, should the deal prove successful, it could give authorities a template to use in reeling in a much larger foe: the Taliban.
The Taliban’s recent battlefield victories might seem to suggest that the prospects for peace in Afghanistan are dim. In October alone, the group conducted a spate of attacks across the country, striking Kunduz in the north, Lashkar Gah in the south and Farah in the west. Nevertheless, the Taliban have made it clear that they are interested in dealing with Kabul. Over the past two months, the group reportedly hosted a delegation of Afghan officials, including intelligence chief Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, at its political office in Doha, Qatar. Though details of the meeting are scarce, a Taliban leader tempered expectations by announcing that the talks were inconclusive – a statement not entirely unexpected, since neither Kabul nor Washington has budged on meeting the Taliban’s demands for the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. (NATO has already committed to keep some 10,000 troops in the country through 2020.) Moreover, the Taliban have engaged in negotiations with Afghan officials before without success, so a new round of talks might understandably appear to be a non-starter.
That said, the true significance of the Doha meetings is not in the talks’ outcome but in their setting. In choosing to hold negotiations at the Taliban’s political office, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani broke with his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who refused to do so for fear of lending legitimacy to the group’s claims that its office represents ‘the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’. (This was the name the Taliban gave to Afghanistan when they ruled it from 1996 to 2001.) Coupled with Ghani’s ability to coax the Taliban to the table in the first place – something the Quadrilateral Coordination Group comprising the United States, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan failed to achieve earlier this year – this marks a significant step forward in the negotiations. It also indicates that Doha may become the venue of choice for any future peace talks with the militant group.
Pakistan’s absence from the Doha meetings – and the United States’ presence – is noteworthy as well. The United States and Afghanistan have long viewed Pakistan as an obstacle to the Afghan peace process because of its support for the Taliban, and they are likely trying to speed talks along by excluding Islamabad. But Washington and Kabul recognise, however begrudgingly, that Pakistan cannot be left out of the peace process entirely. Pakistan’s history, geography and ethnic makeup overlap with Afghanistan’s in many ways, and Islamabad – whose biggest imperative is to prevent its regional rival, India, from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan – has ways of securing its seat at negotiations. On October 23, for example, a Taliban delegation travelled from Doha to lodge a complaint with Islamabad about the arrest of Taliban commanders living in the Pakistani city of Quetta, on Afghanistan’s southern border. The Pakistani government undoubtedly made those arrests to signal its dissatisfaction with not being invited to the Doha meetings, a signal the Taliban clearly received.
As a whole, the Taliban have grown weary of relying on their foreign benefactor to the south. Yet they are divided over what the insurgency’s future relationship with Pakistan should look like.
In a striking demonstration of the rift this issue has formed within the group, Muhammad Tayyab Agha (the Taliban’s former chief negotiator in Doha) recently wrote a public letter to the group’s leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. In it, Agha made several bold suggestions about the nature of the peace talks and the insurgency itself. Chief among them was an appeal to Akhundzada to permit the Taliban to transition from a militant group to a political movement capable of governing. Agha also suggested that the removal of foreign troops from Afghanistan was not a necessary precondition to opening peace talks with Kabul and that all Taliban figures based in Pakistan should leave the country to reduce their dependence on Islamabad’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
Of course, the Taliban’s ties to the ISI are something of an open secret. They began in 1994, when the agency aided the movement’s rapid sweep across southern Afghanistan as it captured a major highway linking Quetta with the Turkmen city of Ashgabat to the north. The highway, which was guarded by numerous Afghan warlords at the time, was an important trucking route that, if cleared, would enable Pakistan to trade with newly independent states in Central Asia. The ISI’s constant (if rocky) relationship with the Taliban ever since has contributed to Afghanistan’s political instability and physical insecurity as Pakistan and India have vied for influence in the country through proxies. (Ironically, the unrelenting turmoil has also undermined Pakistan’s original objective of keeping Afghanistan’s trade routes open.)
So far, there has been no indication that Akhundzada has responded to Agha’s letter, or that he has considered implementing Agha’s proposals. Nevertheless, Agha’s decision to publicise the correspondence is a clear indication that some elements within the Taliban have begun to give serious thought to their role in Afghanistan once the conflict has died down. Yet it also shows that the question of how best to end Afghanistan’s protracted war will have few easy answers and will require tough compromises from all of the parties involved.