US Taliban talks: A cul-de-sac

President Trump, in a surprise move, cancelled the scheduled peace talks with the Taliban. This has raised questions of whether the move is a negotiation strategy, or have the peace talks reached a cul-de-sac? 

Background

From 100,000 in 2010, the US today deploys about 14000 soldiers in Afghanistan. This is in addition to 17000 troopers deployed by its NATO partners. Responding to popular domestic sentiments for a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in October 2018, President Trump initiated direct peace talks with the Taliban at Doha, Qatar under former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalizad.

The elected government in Kabul was kept out of the talks, to meet a precondition set by the Taliban who refused to deal with the "puppet regime" as they call it.  This exclusion raised fears that the Taliban was being granted de facto legitimacy as the major constituent in the future of Afghanistan.

A safe exit from Afghanistan, based on an honourable exit strategy with the recalcitrant Taliban would greatly help to improve Trump's prospects in the forthcoming US presidential elections.

A recent terror attack, which was claimed by Taliban, which also killed a US soldier, resulted in the Doha talks being called off. On 7 September 19, President Trump tweeted, "If they [Taliban] cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don't have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway." President Trump also tweeted that a secret meeting scheduled at Camp David with Taliban representatives and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was also aborted.

Taliban, in an official statement, threatened that the suspension of talks could "hurt US". 

Analysis

Despite the talks and the signing of agreements to reduce violence, the Afghan Taliban continued to intensify indiscriminate attacks. These attacks showed no sign of abating and peaked in August 2019, when a suicide bombing killed 63 people and left 180 injured. Although ISIS claimed the attack, the Taliban’s complicity was not ruled out.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Taliban for the impasse, stating that the Taliban "..tried to gain negotiating advantage by conducting terror attacks inside the country".   He also said that the Taliban backtracked on earlier promises like cutting ties with Al Qaeda. 

The unexpected suspension of the talks has offered momentary relief to the majority of  Afghans who lived in trepidation of the "Taliban era" – who did to support the withdrawal of US troops.  "There is definitely a silver lining to this," said Haroun Mir, an analyst based in Kabul. "There was total confusion before. Everyone was afraid the U.S. would sign a cease-fire but the Taliban would continue their war against the Afghan government and people. Afghans feared that the withdrawal would lead to concessions to insurgents and re-imposing of stringent Islamic rules". 

This impasse is also an opportunity for the government of Ashraf Ghani to stand up and be counted.  The government spokesman Sediq Sediqqi noted that the Taliban must "stop killing Afghans and agree to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. We have always been behind a meaningful peace process and we will always be the implementer of that process."

The Trump administration was working hard to finish the peace talks before September 28th elections in Afghanistan. While it is still unsure if the stalling of the peace process will affect the elections, Afghans have considered postponing the election dates. This is the fourth election since the Taliban was expelled from power after the 9/11 attacks.   

Regional countries like Russia, Central Asian Republics and India would also be relieved with this move, as they considered exclusion of the Afghan government from the talks as a major concession to Taliban without taking into account the concerns of the Afghan people.

Assessment 

  • Contrary to popular expectations, the US Taliban talks did not significantly contribute to peace and reconciliation  For the common Afghan, there were hardly any peace dividends.  
  • In fact, the continuing violence was a cause for grave concern to the common man, in the vent that the Taliban faced no opposition from  US and its NATO allies. Their disillusionment with the talks was palpable.
  • Taliban attacks in cities, including the major one in Kunduz, were indicative of Taliban intransigence. Taliban has sensed an urgency in the US negotiators to seek early closure and feel emboldened to continue with their insurgency/ terror campaign.  While parlaying with the Americans, they kept up the offensive against the Afghan government to weaken it and keep it destabilised.  
  • The strategy is clearly designed to minimise the waiting period for a Taliban takeover after the US departure.
  • Even if the peace talks were successful, the partial restoration of an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan means that it would create a magnet for global jihadists. This would create fresh security concerns for the regional countries although perhaps not immediately for the US.
  • It is important not to underestimate the resolve of the Taliban leadership, and their powerful backers, who have fought long and hard to regain what they consider is rightfully theirs. Negotiation remains the best option to resolve this imbroglio and we believe that after some posturing, the talks would continue.

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Image Courtesy: army.mil

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