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Talking to the Taliban

by Ejaz Haider
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File Photo. Noorullah Shirzada—AFP

The problem for the Taliban was—and is—not whether they need or want to talk; it’s about who to talk to and when

On June 7, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani took to Twitter and declared a unilateral ceasefire against the Taliban: “The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan announces ceasefire from the 27th of Ramadan until the fifth day of Eid-ul-Fitr following the historic ruling [Fatwa] of the Afghan Ulema.”

Three days before the ceasefire announcement by Ghani, the Afghan Ulema Council had issued an edict asking the Taliban to end violence against the people of Afghanistan.

Ghani, however, made clear that “#Afghan national defense and security forces will only stop offensive maneuvers against Afghan armed Taliban and will continue to target Daesh and other foreign backed terrorist organizations and their affiliates.” In a string of tweets, Ghani reiterated the government’s desire for peace while asking the Taliban “to introspect that their violent campaign is not wining [sic] them hearts and minds but further alienating the #Afghan people from their cause.”

Three days later on June 9, the Taliban reciprocated the offer, though they limited the pause in attacks to the three days of Eid celebrations. While the Taliban leadership has for years issued Eid missives, accepting Kabul’s ceasefire offer was a unique first.

How did this come about?

Let’s rewind to Feb. 28. On that day, using the platform of the Kabul Process, which was attended by delegates from 30 countries and international organizations including the United Nations, NATO and the European Union, Ghani extended the olive branch to the Taliban. To wit, that offer stands as the most comprehensive attempt at getting the Taliban to begin negotiating peace and add value to the insurgency that has now entered its 16th year.

To recap, the offer recognized the Taliban as an element in Afghan society and politics that cannot be ignored; accepted them as a political opposition; set no preconditions for starting talks; accepted reviewing the Constitution that forms the basis for the governing mechanism in post-invasion Afghanistan; did not insist that the Taliban lay down arms as a prerequisite for talks; sought to bring them to the table to create space for the insurgency to transform itself, overtime, from an armed to a political opposition. It also hinted at opening a Taliban office and the removal of the names of Taliban commanders from sanctions lists maintained by the U.N. and other states.

Further, the offer promised other guarantees to the Taliban, including the release of prisoners, safety, travel etc, if and when they did decide to come to the table. Interestingly, the Ghani offer came on the heels of a letter written by the Taliban to the American people, reminding them of the futility of continuing to fight and hinting that there was growing space for peace if Washington could get rid of its hubris.

The Taliban, normally very prompt in their responses, chose to keep a low profile, avoiding putting out a formal response, though they did respond to a letter by Barnett Rubin who had replied to their earlier letter to the American people. Their informal response to the offer was cold, referring to Afghanistan as ‘occupied’ and branding the peace offer an attempt to get them to ‘surrender’ their gains.

Equally, avoiding a direct, formal response to the offer meant that they knew the ball was in their court. The offer, made without any preconditions, could not be dismissed casually.

As I wrote then, the problem for the Taliban was—and is—not whether they need or want to talk; it’s about who to talk to and when. Since the start of the insurgency, the Taliban have referred to governments in Kabul as illegitimate and U.S. puppets, insisting that they will only talk to the U.S., the occupying force. Sitting down with Kabul means tacitly accepting the legitimacy of the post-2002 politico-constitutional dispensation that has come about through U.S. force of arms.

That problem persists. Yet, as we saw during Eid, the Taliban not only reciprocated the gesture but also kept their word. The pressure on them is mounting. In the run-up to Pakistani Taliban chief Fazlullah’s killing and Ghani’s phone conversations with President Mamnoon Hussain and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa authenticating the militant leader’s death, relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have shown an uptick. Pakistan has given the Kabul government, as also the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, coordinates of TTP and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar elements on Afghan soil, stressing that action must be taken against them. On its end, Pakistan is also pressuring the Taliban leaders to start talking with Kabul.

In the midst of this Ghani, again, took to Twitter on June 16 and dropped another major hint: “We’re ready for comprehensive negotiations, all those issues and demands that have been put-forth we are ready to discuss them at the peace talks. The Afghan government is ready to discuss issues of mutual concern with neighboring countries, and presence of foreign forces.” (emphasis added)

The last bit, about the presence of foreign forces, is vitally important. Taliban have consistently demanded that the U.S. withdraw its troops. A June 17 statement issued to the media announcing the end of the three-day ceasefire also talked about ‘all’ [Afghans] wanting the withdrawal of foreign forces. Now Ghani is hinting that everything is on the table, with no preconditions. So, what should we expect?

Some things are clear: Ghani, despite opposition from some quarters, is serious in his offer; he has the Americans onboard, as is clear from wide support for his Feb. 28 olive branch as well as the ceasefire announcement; he is also prepared to address Pakistan’s concerns; Pakistan, for its part, has been leaning on the Taliban and must push them in the direction of talks; this is exactly what Beijing also wants.

That said, there are some problems. Insurgencies ultimately must add political value to armed struggle. It makes eminent sense for the Taliban to move in that direction. This, however, is also the time when the finer details need to be worked out. Take the ceasefire: it allowed the Taliban to claim that the movement is not divided; at the same time some quarters within the movement are worried about fighters fraternizing with the enemy, the Afghan National Security Forces. The statement that the movement will take disciplinary action against such fighters is an expression of that. And yet, it was this very mingling of the fighters with the Afghan people that got the Taliban to also claim popularity.

On the Afghan government side, some detractors have raised concerns about the Taliban coming into cities, which provides them a rare opportunity to leave some fighters behind that can be used for attacks when hostilities resume. In other words, even if everyone wants to talk, there’s not enough trust to carry the initiative further, bogging it down in paradoxes.

Sources, however, indicate that some of these hardline positions on the Taliban side are more a public relations exercise and the back-channel remains open. One way of offsetting the trust problem would be to reach a modus vivendi on a partial, unannounced ceasefire—i.e., the Taliban could agree to not attack targets in Kabul while the Afghan security forces stay away from some designated Taliban strongholds. If something like this could hold for a few months, the two sides could move further.

As I wrote for Jinnah Institute’s Take One, “One way could be to open provisional talks by freezing the gains on the ground with Taliban setting up local governments in the areas they control and participate in coalitions in areas they control partially. The issue of the legitimacy of the Kabul government could be sidestepped and taken up at a time when talks have advanced to the point where the Constitution can be reviewed. Also, the Taliban could announce that they are entering into the talks for the greater good of the Afghan people while eschewing the issue of the legitimacy of the Kabul government.”

The ceasefire has been a major development. There will be violence in the coming days but steps can be taken to reduce its impact in exchange for solid movement on the ground. The Taliban now face the challenge every insurgency faces: how effectively they can transition from an armed to a political opposition to see their long struggle bear fruit.

Haider is the executive editor at Indus News. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider 

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