As representatives from four nations meet again to discuss how to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government and end the war, George Friedman considers whether the planned peace talks can prevail.
On the weekend of February 6-7, officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the United States convened in Islamabad to discuss how to bring the longest war in American history to an end. Prior to the meeting, Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s chief executive and a key stakeholder in the talks, announced that certain factions of the Taliban had agreed to enter negotiations and renounce violence. He did not, however, offer any more details. Still, Abdullah’s expectation is that these factions will enter peace talks in less than six months.
Abdullah’s announcement comes at a time when the Taliban’s 15-year insurgency is escalating. The militant group now controls more territory than at any time since the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001. Worse still, the Taliban’s resolve to continue waging war remains undiminished. Recently, a Taliban suicide bomber targeted an Afghan National Civil Order Police office in Kabul, killing at least 20 police officers. On January 27, the insurgents sabotaged a power line running into the capital, creating sporadic blackouts.
The precariousness of the situation is reflected in the Pentagon’s biannual report on enhancing security and stability in Afghanistan. Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the December report was the most depressing assessment of the country in some time. Echoing Corker’s perspective, Army Gen. John Campbell, the outgoing commander of US forces in Afghanistan, commented that Afghanistan has reached an inflection point, warning that 2016 could be even worse than 2015 if the United States fails to prosecute a consistent and effective strategy. Campbell also urged Congress to extend its annual $4.1 billion aid package to Afghanistan until at least 2020.
A fractured militancy
That the United States became mired in Afghanistan in the 21st century fits into a broader historical pattern. With its harsh, mountainous geography and limited resources, Afghanistan is arguably Eurasia’s most difficult battleground. Since ancient times, great powers have marched confidently into Afghanistan, only to see their dreams of conquest thwarted by the tenacity of the Afghans. Yet foreign powers seem unable to resist intervening. Afghanistan’s imposing geography creates something of a security vacuum in which militancy can incubate, thereby inviting outside powers to fill the void. However, over the centuries, Afghanistan’s fighters have cultivated a vital military tactic: patience. They know that if they wait long enough, the occupying army will eventually leave.
The regional battle against extremism is not limited to Afghanistan. Pakistan—whose cooperation in the Afghan peace talks is critical—received a deadly reminder of its own insurgency on January 20. Students were gathered at Bacha Khan University in northwestern Pakistan for a poetry recital commemorating the pacifist Abdul Gaffar Khan when four gunmen stormed the campus. A Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan commander named Khalifa Umar Mansoor claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed 21. Yet, in an unusual turn of events, TTP spokesman Muhammad Khorasani denied responsibility, labelling the attacks ‘un-Islamic’.
The suggestion of an internal fracture in the Pakistani Taliban reflects the broader challenge of negotiating with an increasingly fragmented body. The overall Taliban organisation does not presently claim allegiance to a single, unifying figure. Even Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, leader of the mainline Taliban, has been silent since December following reports that he was wounded in a gunfight with another Taliban commander. His period of silence may well be attributable to his death. In any case, the fundamental problem of how to engage competing Taliban factions remains.
Despite the Taliban’s reticence in engaging Kabul in negotiations, a recent meeting in Qatar indicates that the militant organisation isn’t opposed to talks altogether. Taliban representatives were among those who attended a forum hosted in January by the Pugwash Conferences on Sciences and World Affairs, winner of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize. During the conference in Qatar, Taliban representative Muhammad Naim Wardak said that the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan was a precondition to peace talks, along with the removal of Taliban members from a UN-sanctioned blacklist. Individuals from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States also attended, though not in an official capacity. The office of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani lambasted the Taliban for holding the meeting at all, and for setting conditions to the talks.
Another shadow hanging over the Afghan peace talks is the strained relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistani military spokesman Lt. Gen. Asim Bajwa said that the Bacha Khan University attackers had phone numbers based out of Afghanistan. And perhaps further rankling Kabul, Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Qazi Khalilullah said that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would visit Qatar in the near future, ostensibly to engage the Taliban. The Afghans would view such a move as granting further legitimacy to the Taliban’s political office in Qatar; the Taliban have made clear that any official negotiations must go through their political office first.
Ultimately, the road to peace in Afghanistan stretches towards a distant horizon. Part of the rationale behind the peace talks is symbolic; a way to engender confidence in a populace sceptical of Kabul’s ability to stabilise Afghanistan. But as all four nations convene to broker an end to the seemingly endless conflict, the unending violence that has ravaged Afghanistan for more than three decades will continue in 2016. Day-by-day, the Taliban continue on their mission of reconquering a nation trapped by geography, and trapped in war.