By Abdul Basit
Much has been said and written about the complexity and difficulties which surround the final and most critical phase of the Afghan endgame. The competing narratives of regional countries, on-gain-off-again pattern of peace talks between the Americans and Afghan Taliban, absence of a consensual political road-map among the Afghan political group about post-2014 Afghanistan, a weak and dysfunctional government in Kabul, acute leadership crisis and increasing level of violence makes it all the more difficult to bring this conflict to a logical end. Gven the unconventional nature of the conflict there will be no victors or losers of this war.
Amid abounding confusions three scenarios of a post-2014 Afghanistan are being discussed; i) a forceful takeover of Kabul by the Afghan Taliban after US withdrawal; ii), Afghanistan’s descent into an all-out civil war; iii) a military deal between the US and Afghan Taliban allowing the Americans to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan not making such deal conditional on having the Taliban agree to form an interim coalition government with Kabul. In all the three scenarios a peaceful settlement of the Afghan jig-saw puzzle looks a distant possibility.
Among various competing narratives of the Afghan endgame one fascinating discourse worth exploring is the debate between the pro-talk and anti-talk elements. The former proposes a negotiated settlement as the only way out f current mayhem while the later opposes such an approach arguing negotiations are a trap which will pave way for the Afghan Taliban to takeover Kabul, after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Anti Talk Elements
The proponents of this approach comprises of non-Pashtun Afghan tribes and some regional countries and the hawks in American administration. They believe that the Afghan Taliban are irreconcilable and non-accommodative. They will settle for nothing less than a Sharia rule in Afghanistan. Moreover, in their statements and interviews the Afghan Taliban put complete withdrawal of US forces as a pre-condition to any negotiation or a peace treaty while the Americans see complete withdrawal of foreign troops as the final outcomes of such a treaty. Since the US has concluded a strategic partnership agreement (allowing the US forces to stay in Afghanistan till 2024) the Afghan Taliban will be least inclined to talks and more adamant to continue their armed struggle.
In furtherance of their argument they opine the Taliban consider themselves as the only legitimate rulers of Afghanistan who were forcefully ousted from power by the invading U.S. forces. So it is solely their right to take back reins of the government from which they were overthrown. For last ten years they have been waging a very robust and successful insurgency against the Americans.
Taliban consider American plan to shift their role from active combat operations to training and monitoring role, a sign war fatigue and weakening resolve. They believe departure of NATO/ISAF forces and reduction of the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan to 15-20,000 troops is their best chance to exact their revenge and take back Kabul from the US clutches.
There is tremendous pressure on the old guard of Afghan Taliban movement from the new generation of Taliban not to pursue peace talks with the US. Even if the ‘old guard’ of (the Quetta Shura) wishes to pursue a path of peace talks the new generation of Taliban, who are more radical and violent, will oppose it. During the exile of the senior Taliban leadership the new generation has kept the movement alive and has rendered sacrifices to liberate Afghanistan from the U.S. occupation. They consider negotiation as an insult to their sacrifices.
Pakistan, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and moderate elements within Afghan government spearhead the ‘pro-talk lobby.’ This lobby believes the security-centric approach has not worked in last 11 years and a political approach centered on a negotiated settlement should be given a chance. It argues pursuing this path is a risk worth taking. However, instead of imposing or importing an outside solution this process should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-initiated.
It believes in last 10 years, since their ouster from power, the Afghan Taliban movement has transformed. They have metamorphosed from a pure ideological jihadi movement to a nationalist-political movement. Politically they have become mature and accommodative. Taliban’s back channel negotiations with the Americans are evident of a shift in Taliban’s approach. Their willingness to open up a political office in Qatar also shows their desire to pursue a peaceful settlement of Afghan confect.
Mullah Omar’s 2011 Eid message in which he clearly signals willingness of the Afghan Taliban to share power with other Afghan groups is self evident of the movement’s transformed nature. The message notes, “Since Afghanistan is a joint homeland of all Afghans, so all Afghans have the right to perform their responsibility in the field of protection and running of the country.”
Allaying fears of the regional countries and international community regarding Taliban’s policies in post-US Afghanistan he maintains,” Our armed struggle in Afghanistan is due to presence of foreign invaders in the land. If the global invading coalition ends the occupation of our land, the Islamic Emirate as a peace-loving regime, will maintain positive relations with countries of the regional and world.”
In last few years the movement of the Afghan Taliban has distanced itself from Al-Qaeda. It portrays itself as a nationalist-political movement purely confined to Afghanistan having no agendas against any other state. A recent interview of a senior Taliban commander corroborates this fact. Talking about the view of Afghan Taliban about Al-Qaeda he says, “”At least 70% of the Taliban are angry at al-Qaida. Our people consider al-Qaida to be a plague that was sent down to us by the heavens.”
Leaving aside a triumphalism approach and striking a realist tone he says only a divine intervention for the Taliban can win this war for them. He openly admits that the Taliban’s chances of capturing Kabul are a very distant prospect. Reiterating the desire of the Afghan Taliban to pursue peace talks, he says, “The Taliban interest in negotiations goes beyond the immediate desire to get its men out of Guantánamo. If that had been the case, they would not have bothered going to Qatar but would simply have established a commission for prisoner exchange.”
Notwithstanding, the challenges and difficulties surrounding the Afghan endgame it also offers a rare and unique opportunity for peace. The final phase of the Afghan endgame is at cross-roads. The path of cooperation, with a nuanced approach, leads to peace. (It is a road less taken and littered with thorns of difficulties) The path of confrontation will further push the already fragile and weak Afghan state into an endless cycle of chaos and instability.
A cost-benefit-analysis will reveal that cooperation suits all the conflicting parties. To the Americans, it presents an opportunity of dispelling the myth that Americans are abandoning the Afghans and desperately looking for quick-fixes. To Afghan Taliban it is a unique chance to show-case their movement as a politically mature and accommodative, repair their dented repute in the eyes of international community and allay the fear of local Afghans. For the regional countries, cooperation provides a chance to unlock the hidden and untapped economic potential of this region by stabilizing Afghanistan through mutual cooperation and policy on non-interference.