A difficult conversation

As Washington establishes a direct line with the Taliban,power dynamics will shift within Afghanistan and in the neighbourhood

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published:January 6, 2012 3:04 am

Once the terms and conditions for the Taliban acquiring an address in Qatar are sorted out in the coming days,the stage will be set for a complex set of negotiations that could reorder the power structure within Kabul and reorganise its external relations. The impending talks with the Taliban are premised on the belief that the international community cannot sustain its military intervention in Afghanistan for too long.

When he ordered a dramatic increase in the US military commitment to Afghanistan in 2009,US President Barack Obama made it clear that the surge will be temporary. Obama understood that American support for an extended war in Afghanistan was rather limited. Even if Obama loses his bid for a second term in the White House at the end of this year,there is little prospect that his successful Republican rival would upturn the essence of the current US policy towards Afghanistan.

To be sure,the US wants to maintain a residual non-combat military presence in Afghanistan after 2014. Such a force is expected to train and support the Afghan armed forces and target terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan and elsewhere. These plans are mere declarations of current intent. Few policy makers in Washington or elsewhere can bet on what the situation in Afghanistan might be in a couple of years.

Of special importance is the balance on the ground between the legitimate government of Hamid Karzai and the opposition forces led by the Taliban and supported by Pakistan. Any significant change,in favour of either side,could radically alter the political evolution of Afghanistan.

Obama’s military strategy was never about inflicting a decisive defeat on the Taliban. It was about handing out enough punishment to drive the Taliban to the negotiating table. In the last three years,Washington has been so eager for talks with the Taliban that it was occasionally taken for a ride by imposters pretending to be Taliban representatives. It has now been confirmed that interaction between the two has taken place and gained some traction in recent months.

As the “talks about talks” with the Taliban await closure,a whole new set of problems are bound to arise from the very launch of formal negotiations. Consider,for example,one simple question on who might lead the negotiations with the Taliban? Is it Washington or Kabul? The Taliban continues to describe the Karzai government as a “puppet regime” and declares that there are only two seats at the table: one for itself and the other for the international community. Washington,which has established direct contact with the Taliban,says the principal interlocutor in the talks must be the Afghan government and its own role will be that of a supportive participant.

There is also no agreement on the specific terms of the dialogue. On the face of it,the Taliban has come down from its earlier insistence that the talks can only follow the withdrawal of international forces. But there should be no doubt that ensuring an early exit of US and NATO remains the Taliban’s most important objective.

The United States wants the Taliban to dissociate itself from al-Qaeda,end violence and respect the Afghan constitution,especially the provisions relating to the rights of women and minorities. But these are no longer preconditions for dialogue.

If all goes well,the two sides will begin to put in place a few confidence building measures,including the establishment of ceasefire zones,release of prisoners and easing of international sanctions against the Taliban. If the CBMs do stick,there will be talks on power-sharing on the national and regional levels. That is the script for now. But the outcome of this dialogue is unlikely to be decided across a negotiating table. Both sides must be expected to fight and negotiate at the same time.

Meanwhile,the talks are likely to produce deep divisions on both sides on the scope,pace and timing of the mutual concessions necessary to move the peace process forward. Karzai,who saw his outreach to the Taliban destroyed by the assassination of his principal negotiator,Burhanuddin Rabbani,had good reasons to be sceptical. While he has now been persuaded to support the Taliban’s opening of an office in Qatar,Karzai can’t ignore the fact that the Taliban will inevitably acquire a measure of legitimacy and even parity with Kabul in the coming months. He can be forgiven for assuming that his interests and those of Washington might begin to diverge sooner than later.

Serious US concessions to the Taliban will also alarm the ethnic minorities in Afghanistan,who have not forgotten the brutal oppression under the Taliban rule. They too will wonder if the time has come to look after their own interests. On the other side,Pakistan has not been too happy with the direct contact between the US and the Taliban. The Pakistan army had insisted all these years that it must be the sole window for talks with the Taliban.

While Pakistan will retain considerable influence over the Taliban,it also has other levers against Afghanistan,including the Haqqani network. Meanwhile,Rawalpindi is trying hard to pacify the various militant groups fighting the Pakistani state and redirect them against the US and international forces in Afghanistan.

While the United States and Pakistan might continue to need each other,the gulf between the two can only deepen further as the next phase in the Afghan conflict unfolds. If the Pakistan army persists in its Afghan adventure,its own internal waters could get more roiled.

India would hope for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan from the long-sought negotiations with the Taliban. But Delhi should also brace itself for the real possibility that the talks with the Taliban might lead to a significant destabilisation of the subcontinent’s north-western region.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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