Last autumn, as the largest Taliban military campaign since 1996 swept across Afghanistan, the white-and-black flag of the Islamic Emirate began to fly over the bazaar in the small of town of Postak. Baghlan province, where the town is located, was once home to rich coal mines and rolling sugarbeet fields — as well as a giant military base that guarded the routes into the heart of the country’s anti-Taliban stronghold, Mazar-e-Sharif.
The town hadn’t fallen, though: Baghlan’s Dand-i-Ghori district had been handed over to ethnic Pashtun tribal leaders in a deal brokered by the country’s Borders and Tribal Affairs Minister, Gulab Mengal, with President Ashraf Ghani’s approval.
Like so many of President Ghani’s peace moves, things didn’t quite work to plan: the new Taliban leaders ordered girls out of school, stopped the teaching of some subjects, and imposed shari’a laws. Taliban anthems were played over public address systems. And Dand-i-Ghori became the base for the build-up that helped the Taliban overrun the city of Kunduz last year.
“The accord increased the morale of the enemy, certifying their right to the district,” Baghlan provincial council member Muhammad Hanif recently said. “It was a poisoned deal.”
Today [Monday], Kabul had hoped to begin to engage the Taliban in another round of Pakistan-brokered talks inside days. But the Taliban leadership has said it would not be participating, even though hopes are high Pakistan would be able to draw in powerful factions. Kabul, diplomatic sources say, is considering proposals to call off military operations against the Islamist insurgency in districts it now dominates, creating what will be called “safe zones”.
Inside Afghanistan, many see Dand-i-Ghori as an abyss that the peace talks could fall into — and should that happen, India too could pay a heavy price.
For one, these safe zones could potentially become bases to train and finance anti-India jihadists. Even more important, a deal would almost certainly involve a diminished strategic relationship between India and Afghanistan — which, in turn, would mean India has one fewer lever with which to pressure Pakistan for action against terrorism.
Last week, five suicide attackers targeted the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, the second strike this year on New Delhi’s diplomatic missions in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s intelligence services believe this attack, like the others before it, were likely carried out by Pakistan-based jihadists. They were aimed at evicting Indian influence from Afghanistan’s life — part of the fee Pakistan is demanding for bringing the Taliban to the table.
Afghan leaders insist they are not planning to cede territory to the Taliban — but the facts on the ground aren’t comforting. In February, Afghan forces abandoned their bases in Helmand province’s northern districts, Musa Qala and Nawzad. The forces, the Afghan military says, were needed to reinforce bases at the provincial capital, Lashkargah, and at Gereshk, a small town that sits on the highway linking Kabul to the country’s south.
In practice, this means conceding two more of Helmand’s 15 districts — eleven of which are already held or contested by the Taliban — to the insurgent leadership. Helmand is one of Afghanistan’s most productive sources of opium, and ceding control of its administration would give the Taliban a secure revenue source.
Karmi Atal, the head of Helmand’s provincial council, is among many local residents who suspect a sellout looms.
“We want to clearly tell [Taliban chief] Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur, his rival Mullah Ghulam Rasool, the Afghan defence and interior ministers, and even the Afghan president that they do not own our land,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Our land belongs to all Afghans so only they have the right to decide its future.”
These voices may have moral right on their side — but events are being driven by the cold calculations that the United States, China and Pakistan are making. Following a meeting on February 23, representatives of the three countries along with Afghanistan — which together constitute what is called the Quadrilateral Coordination Group — invited “all Taliban and other [armed] groups to participate through their authorised representatives in the first round of direct peace talks with the Afghan government”.
Islamabad is expected to host the first round of the dialogue — following on from earlier meetings involving the QCG and the Taliban in Pakistan’s Murree resort-town last summer — in the first days of March.
The dialogue process is driven by the great powers’ belief that Afghanistan’s 170,000-odd military just doesn’t have the numbers, equipment or morale to hold the ground. Faced with assault, records a classified report prepared for President Ghani, which was accessed by The Indian Express, the two battalions 209 Corps tasked with defending the lines of access to Kunduz simply “abandoned their base”. The troops, the investigation found, failed even to “preserve and maintain their equipment”.
In many regions, police and militia — tasked with holding ground while the military stages conventional anti-insurgency operations — haven’t been paid for months.
Last year, a staggering 11,002 civilians were injured or killed, up 4% from last year — so Afghans will likely be willing to pay almost any price for a reduction in violence.
For the talks to succeed in reducing violence, though, two assumptions have to be realised. First, Pakistan will need to corral Mullah Akhtar Mansur’s Taliban faction to the table, possibly along with second-rung groups like the Hizb-e-Islami. This, the argument goes, will put pressure on other factions, too.
Second, Islamabad will have to rein in so-called “irreconcilable” groups, or hardline jihadists, by using the coercive tools of its intelligence services.
In order to persuade Pakistan to do this, the Quadrilateral Group has two carrots in hand. President Ghani is known to be willing to bargain away his country’s increasingly close strategic relationship with India — which, in recent months, has seen the first supplies of Indian military aid to any foreign country. The safe zones proposal, in turn, will give Pakistan something with which to tempt its long-standing Taliban allies to the table.
It seems improbable though, that many Quadrilateral Group diplomats would stake their retirement funds on this outcome. The rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, as well as the splintering of the Taliban, so far seems to be leading to greater violence, with the rebels stepping up their campaign to seize the Taliban’s lead role in the insurgency.
The Taliban leadership knows, moreover, that joining in negotiations could lead its field commanders — warlords flush with opium revenues, and with little to gain from a peace deal — to abandon their ageing, Pakistan-backed leadership.
For its part, Islamabad cannot take the risk of mounting too much pressure on the Taliban, for fear of provoking its cadre to help jihadists operating against the Pakistani state.
Like so many past Afghan roadmaps for peace, chances are this one too could end up leading back to the battlefield — and to bloodshed that will continue until one side finally prevails. India, which has enormous stakes in Afghanistan’s future, will have to be prepared for the long war ahead.