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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 30, July 13, 2013

Talking to the Taliban

Tuesday 16 July 2013, by Mohan K. Tikku

The proposed talks with the Taliban on the future dispensation in Afghanistan appeared to be teetering close to the brink on June 22 when Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai announced in Kabul that his government will not be available for participation in the talks in Doha any more. What was galling for the Afghan President was that Washington, in its apparent keenness to reach a quick-fix deal with the Taliban, was marginalising Kabul’s role even before the talks had actually begun. The Afghan President’s announcement came a day after the Taliban had formally opened their office in the Qatar capital where the talks were supposed to be held. This was followed by a bomb blast near the President’s Palace in Kabul. The Taliban later said that their real target had been the CIA headquarters in the Afghan capital located in the same vicinity. Clearly, the Taliban were sending a message through the bomb blast that the Americans could not but take note of.

The Taliban office in Doha itself was inaugurated with considerable fanfare. It was styled as if it was already a diplomatic mission with a signboard declaring it to represent the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. It was clear that the Taliban had been emboldened by the indulgence shown to them by the American Government. An official spokesperson in Washington, however, later clarified that the way the Taliban’s Doha office was styled and inaugurated went beyond the assurances sought and given by them.

Following President Karzai’s warning, Washington did not take long to realise that it was time to engage in some course correction before the talks with the Taliban could be put on track. Ambassador James Dobbins, who had been named as the main points-person on Afghanistan and Pakistan a few weeks earlier, was sent for discussions with the Afghan President. En route, he also met Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad to ensure that the new Pakistan Prime Minister was fully on board.

At the end of detailed discussions with President Karzai it was agreed that the Afghanistan Government will be the principal player at the negotiating table. Durable peace could not be established by reaching an agreement with the Taliban behind the back of the Afghan Government. President Karzai’s earlier insistence that the present Afghan Constitution should be accepted as part of the prevailing reality and then onwards the talks may advance was equally accepted.

Ambassador Dobbins’ detailed discussions were followed a few hours later by a telephonic conference with President Barack Obama. The ninety-minute conversation between the two Presidents in the early hours of Wednesday (June 26) finally put the seal of approval on the roadmap for talks with the Taliban. The White House later clarified that the two Presidents had “reaffirmed that an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process is the surest way to end violence and ensure lasting stability in Afghanistan and the region”.

With that some of the basic concerns of the President Karzai had been met. Now, as the principal stakeholder in the talks, the Afghan Government had to be in the front seat at the negotiating table. It may now be expected that gradual progress in talks with the Taliban may be achieved if all sides play by the rules. But will the Taliban do so? That is the big imponderable.

Even as Dobbins was talking to President Karzai in Kabul, Secretary of State Kerry was assuring New Delhi that the United States will not abandon Afghanistan (as it had done following the Soviet withdrawal) even after its proposed pullout was completed by December next year. Moreover, some troops will continue to be around, and continued military assistance will seek to strengthen the Afghan Army. But whether that would be good enough for the Afghan Government forces to stand up to a Taliban onslaught remains to be seen. If the Americans and their allies could not put the Taliban in their place, will the Afghan troops be able to do it? For that to happen, the terms of the discourse have to change. In other words, there is no place for the gun as an instrument of Taliban policy and a factor in the dialogue process. That is the second course correction that the Americans must undertake.

The Americans’ primary concern appears to be to cut their losses by exiting as the prime movers on the Afghan chessboard. And then try to bolster the local forces to the extent that a government in Kabul can be made viable. This is not an innovative strategy and has been tried in other places with mixed results. After a shift in the American emphasis in agreeing to make the talks process essentially a game to be played between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, it may no longer be as simple an exercise as the initial American indulgence towards the Taliban had indicated. The issues at hand, in any case, are complex. And if the concerns of the whole region as a whole are taken on board, it would add to the complexity of the issues. On top of that, the Taliban may prolong the talks process. While the Americans will be keen to abide by their December 2014 deadline for the pullout from Afghanistan, the Taliban are under no such deadline pressure. They are likely to prolong the process to increase the pressure on the Americans. Trying to tire out the other side is a familiar tactic in such engagements.

In the longer term, another possible scenario might be that the Taliban themselves may feel persuaded to enter the fray in a future election. That again is not a totally innovative model. In so many cases, the extremists (whether of the religious or the ideological kind) have opted to enter the fray in case they see themselves winning. They might even choose to do that in 2014, when President Karzai has indicated his disinclination to stand for another term. But for that to happen, the dialogue process has to move at a frenetic pace, which appears unlikely.

Meanwhile, one lesson that the Americans may take home is that they have to learn to make haste slowly. The US Government has to realise that if a peace deal with the Taliban has to be durable, it has to address the concerns not just of the Afghan Government but other countries of the region as well. It has to be appreciated that given the complexity of the issues, reaching a solution cannot be a single-shot affair. It is likely to be slow and long-winding. So, it is important that the Americans make it clear to the Taliban that for the talks to progress, the bombing raids—such as the one carried out in Kabul in the past couple of weeks—have to stop. Talking and bombing cannot go on at the same time. That is the minimal precondition the Americans must insist upon, if their project to do business with the Taliban has to get anywhere!

The author is a senior journalist and writer who has specialised in developments in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

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