Beyond the Kabul Process

The second round of the Kabul Process for Peace and Security Cooperation was convened in Kabul on February, 28 on the heels of renewed regional efforts to revive a fledgling peace initiative between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban. This latest move comes in the wake of a deteriorating security situation, and government officials warning that security may worsen in the coming months as the Taliban prepare their summer offensive. It is in this context that Jinnah Institute turned to a panel of foreign policy experts to solicit their opinion on existing mechanisms for peace talks with the Taliban, and prospects for a negotiated settlement.

ejaz haider

Ejaz Haider, Editor National-Security Affairs at Capital TV

Since the invasion of Afghanistan by the US-led coalition in October 2001, there have been attempts, though in fits and starts, to initiate a peace process with the Afghan Taliban. None succeeded. It is with this backdrop in mind that one should analyse the olive branch held out on February 28 by President Ashraf Ghani. He has invited the Taliban to join direct, formal peace talks with the Afghan government, recognising their role as a political opposition. As it stands, the offer is without preconditions and rests on the desire to work towards a comprehensive peace agreement leading, ultimately, to cessation of violence. In a situation where there are no good options, the offer represents the best way forward.

The venue and timing of the offer are both important: the offer came as a result of the Kabul Process which was attended by delegates from 30 countries and international organisations, including the United Nations, NATO and the European Union. It is the most comprehensive peace offer made to date. It is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned (something Pakistan has repeatedly insisted on); recognises the Taliban as an element in Afghan society and politics that cannot be ignored; accepts them as a political opposition; sets no preconditions for starting talks; accepts reviewing the Constitution that forms the basis for the governing mechanism in post-invasion Afghanistan; does not insist on the Taliban laying down arms as a prerequisite for talks; seeks to bring them to the table to create space for the insurgency to transform itself, overtime, from an armed to a political opposition; and, hints at opening a Taliban office and the removal of the names of Taliban commanders from sanctions lists maintained by the UN and other states. Further, once the talks start, it offers other guarantees to the Taliban including the release of prisoners, safety, travel etc.

As Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai wrote in the New York Times: “The peace offer is underpinned by our belief in the common equality of all Afghans and their right to live in peace and dignity. We believe that this offer will give the Taliban the opportunity to organise as a legitimate political force, pursue their goals through peaceful means and join the political process.”

The Ghani offer has been supported by the US and other states, including Pakistan.  Interestingly, the offer comes in the wake of a long letter written by the Taliban to the American people. The letter listed the US objectives in starting the war and presented statistics from US sources to make the obvious case that America, over three Presidential administrations and 16 years, had failed to achieve those objectives. The letter also discussed the nearly USD1 trillion spent by the US to no avail, and resolved to keep fighting if the US chose to continue its policy of using force. Equally, the Taliban made clear that they were prepared to pursue peace and become part of any serious peace effort because they had no international agenda and were fighting to rid Afghanistan of U.S. occupation.

We now know two things: one, the Taliban were nudged into writing the letter by Pakistan; two, Ghani’s peace offer, according to Hekmat Karzai, “was preceded by months of national consensus building in Afghanistan. Members of the High Peace Council, the inclusive body of Afghan elders formed to steer efforts for peace and dialogue; the government’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah; and President Ghani had long deliberations and consultations with Afghan political figures, members of civil society, clergy, women and youth. They found overwhelming support for the initiative to reach a political settlement with the Taliban.”

The ball is in the Taliban court now. So far, they have not responded to the offer. Sources say they are deliberating and, given the comprehensive nature of the offer, taking a decision on it is going to be tough. If the Taliban reject it, they will have to offer cogent reasons for rejecting an offer that does not weigh down the talks with preconditions. Rejecting the offer will also present them as the intransigent actor, forcing even those sympathetic to their cause to pull back. They cannot really afford that.

At the same time, the biggest problem for the Taliban in accepting the offer would be the tacit legitimisation of the Kabul government. Hardliners will argue that the Taliban lose their locus standi the moment they accord legitimacy to the Kabul government. This is precisely why the Taliban have been insisting on talking to the U.S.: as a domestic insurgency fighting an invader and then setting the terms of peace with the invader to get the latter out. In fact, the last serious effort during Hamid Karzai’s time fizzled out because the Taliban raised the flag of their Emirate at the Qatar office and presented the movement as the legitimate, if parallel, government.

This snag still remains and will need clever maneuvering to reduce its salience for the opening gambit. 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 can 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.

Finally, as appears to be clear to all actors involved in Afghanistan — state and non-state — the use of force hasn’t worked and the war is stalemated. The brunt of violence is being borne by Afghan civilians.

Warning: the offer will not automatically reduce the level of violence at this stage. The ability of the Taliban to mete out punishment to the Kabul regime is their nuisance value; equally, the offer notwithstanding, Kabul cannot afford to take the punishment without reacting to it in equal measure. However, if and when the Taliban accept the offer and indicate that they would like the process to move forward, it would be salutary to begin with local ceasefires, including in cities like Kabul. In other words, in a jaw-jaw, war-war scenario, talking, at some stage, will have to begin carrying more weight than fighting.

Afghanistan today is a classic example of a wicked situation, one in which there are no good answers and no good solutions. But in this wicked situation, Ghani’s offer is the best move forward.


Huma Yusuf, DAWN columnist

President Ashraf Ghani’s reconciliation offer to the Taliban at the Kabul Process was a wise political move. It put the Afghan government back at the center of any prospective reconciliation process, which is important, particularly in light of the Taliban’s insistence upon negotiating directly with the US. The olive branch is also a way of acknowledging the Afghan public’s weariness with the conflict, and demonstrating the government’s proactive approach to seeking an end to the violence. This is important following the uptick of major attacks this year, including a horrifying ambulance bombing in January that killed more than 100 people. The Afghan government now has the moral high ground, and with its generous offer has firmly placed the reconciliation ball in the Taliban’s court.

As timely and necessary as the reconciliation offer is, it is unlikely to yield major results. The Taliban’s preconditions for reconciliation, i.e. complete withdrawal of US forces and/or a 50-50 power-sharing agreement, are unacceptable to most parties to the conflict. Moreover, it remains unclear who has the authority to negotiate on behalf of the Taliban, given how fragmented the group is. While moderate elements may be open to talks, hardliners will want to keep fighting. One aspect of Ghani’s offer – the invitation for the Taliban to open a political office in Kabul – could potentially address the latter challenge. The Taliban would have to staff such an office with representatives, and over time it would become apparent who has the clout to negotiate on behalf of the majority of the fighters. Having the Taliban establish some form of political representation within Afghanistan ahead of talks will also initiate a process of accountability, a good prerequisite for the group’s return to government. For example, the Taliban has recently provided security assurances for the TAPI gas pipeline; the political office could be made answerable for any breaches. Similarly, attempts to dismantle the Taliban’s parallel ‘tax’ regime — whereby the group extorts money from targets ranging from telecommunication companies to fruit vendors — could begin in coordination with a Kabul-based political office with an eye to the group’s ultimate involvement in government.

Any progress toward a political reconciliation, if and when it occurs, is also likely to be stymied by the concerns of regional actors. The US, China, Iran, Russia and Central Asian states will want assurances that an Afghanistan with the Taliban in government does not become a militant sanctuary, particularly a new home-base for IS. China and other states seeking to promote overland trade and energy connectivity in the region will also want to ensure that a mainstreamed Taliban does not allow smuggling and other illegal commercial activities to flourish.

Taliban participation in the Afghan government will allay some of Pakistan’s concerns about Indian infiltration via its western border. However, it will raise new Af-Pak tensions, namely, concerns about Afghan support for Pushtun nationalism within Pakistan as well as growing disagreements regarding the fate of the Pakistan Taliban leadership currently based in eastern Afghanistan. While most parties to the Afghan conflict recognise that political reconciliation is the only solution, they, and particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan, should start to consider the long-term impact of the strategy of ‘mainstreaming’ violent extremist groups. A significant rightward shift in the regional political landscape will undermine flailing democracies, particularly in the context of human rights and inclusion. Would the political mainstreaming of militant groups simply set the region up for a different kind of conflict along sectarian and communal lines instead?

Amir Rana

Amir Rana, Security Analyst

President Ashraf Ghani’s latest offer of talks, and his willingness to potentially accept the Taliban as legitimate political actors, has rekindled hopes of a possible resumption of the Afghan peace process. The Taliban leadership, as expected, has responded cautiously, and renewed its demand for direct talks with the US. It appears that domestic and regional realities have forced different stakeholders to reconsider their positions. The Taliban have been afforded a degree of political capital in the process, and have also built pressure on Kabul to take bold decisions. The long-delayed parliamentary and local council elections cannot be delayed for an indefinite period of time without bringing the political system to a standstill and adding renewed uncertainty to the mix. Various segments of the fractured National Unity Government, as well as opposition groups, are playing with the idea of the peace process that will feature high on the priority list in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. It can be said that the peace process with the Taliban will be at the top of the list in the upcoming elections.

President Ghani’s offer can therefore be viewed as a politically calculated move, not only to win the moral support of the international community, but also to satisfy public opinion at home. If the Taliban indicate their willingness for direct talks with Kabul, this could be a big boost for President Ghani given the tenuousness of his domestic political context. The Taliban’s insistence on direct talks with Washington, on the other hand, will reduce President Ghani’s political advantage. It will also be a setback for the US, which has failed to build up an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. Even though there are no indications yet of a possible reactivation of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group comprising Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the US, if pressure is mounted on the Taliban for an immediate resumption of peace process, the Taliban will prefer the QCG so as to avoid direct talks with Kabul. This is the best forum for all stakeholders to fall back on the rhetoric of peace and stability without much happening in actual practice.

Washington has not yet indicated whether it will participate in direct talks at any level. Direct talks with the Taliban have always remained a hard sell for the US. However, this is a viable option that has yet to be explored. US Secretary of State Tillerson once hinted at the inclusion of ‘moderate’ Taliban in the Afghan government, a statement that was viewed by many as a softening of the American position and indicative of a potential new opening. While there is no comparison between Afghanistan and the recent diplomatic thaw in US-North Korea relations, the latter proves that even a little flexibility can usher in a significant change.

Madiha Afzal

Madiha Afzal, Nonresident Fellow, Brookings Institution

The Afghan government has made an unprecedented offer to the Taliban in last month’s Kabul conference, to recognise the Taliban as a political party without preconditions. The offer, and the effort, has been mostly praised. The US ambassador to Afghanistan has called it courageous. It comes as President Ashraf Ghani’s government is weakened by months of heightened terror on the part of the Taliban, which is ascendant once again in Afghanistan. The Taliban has refused to come to the table, saying it will negotiate only with the US. Given history, the idea that peace will be reached is being met with a healthy dose of skepticism. But because it represents a departure, a shift from the current course, there is also a sense of renewed hope that this could, with some small probability, lead to peace. US Secretary of Defense Mattis has said that some Taliban factions have signaled a willingness to come to the table. We will need to wait and see if that is indeed the case. My worry is that if the Taliban does succeed in coming to the table, the fact that President Ghani’s government is negotiating from a position of weakness does not bode well for Afghanistan’s future, i.e. in terms of its development into a modern, vibrant nation. But given the way things have been going for the Afghan government, unfortunately, there was little choice; President Ghani could either extend this overture now, or later from a position of greater weakness. On the positive side, two things stand out. First, President Ghani has indicated he is committed to involving women in the process. And at the conference, the Afghan government’s rhetoric on Pakistan was tempered. For Pakistan, this offers an opportunity to improve relations with its neighbor — one that it should seize.