A future with the Taliban

As the talks between the United States and the Taliban draw to the final rounds, numerous capitals in the region stand braced. Reports suggest that a deal is now in sight after all

A future with the Taliban

Saurabh Kumar Shahi

The mausoleum complex of Imam Bukhari is not a remark- able building. At least not when you have experienced the true magnificence of Samarkand, where the mausoleum stands. The building draws a modest crowd of pilgrims, mostly Sunni Muslims, who pay homage to the Imam who compiled the most popular Hadith, Sahih Bukhari. However, the crowd that thronged the campus on the second Friday of August was hardly modest; at least not in its constitution. The Political Deputy and Chief of Political Office of the Taliban–Mullah Baradar Akhund—and the travelling delegation from Afghanistan offered Jumma prayers in the premises at the invitation of the Government of Uzbekistan. The symbolism of the entire endeavour was not lost on anyone.

As the talks between the United States and the Taliban draws to the final rounds, numerous capitals in the region stand braced. Reports coming out of the meetings suggest that a deal is now in sight after all. And with few nips and tucks here and there, it might actually be rolled out before autumn. It is understood now that the Unit- ed States will agree to a drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, except with a symbolic presence here, some- thing that the Taliban was not initially ready for. The deliberations now are mostly on the strength of that remaining contingent as well as the timeline of the drawdown.

Sources suggest that these issues are not “teething” and will be resolved as seemingly unsurmountable disagreements have already been taken care of. A total of 32,000 foreign troops—14,000 from the US and 17,000 from its partner countries through NATO contingent—are currently in Afghanistan in the advisory and non-combative role. Well, at least technically. Of the four key issues—a guarantee by Taliban that Afghanistan will not be allowed as the base for foreign armed groups and fighters to strike other countries; the total drawdown of US and NATO forces; an intra-Afghan dialogue; and a permanent ceasefire—three have been taken care of. The only sticking point is intra-Afghan dialogue.

However, the devil lies in the detail.

The Taliban on its part has insisted that it will not officially commit to point one and four unless the US and the NATO gives a detailed breakdown of the timeline for the troops’ withdrawal. The US on its part wants both the announcement to happen simultaneously. The representatives from both sides—Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the chief of the group’s political office in Doha, and his deputy Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar from Taliban side and the US special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad—are now trying to arrive at a middle ground.

Then, there is the issue of a permanent ceasefire. The Taliban believes that it is negotiating from the position of strength— which it is, considering it now controls the largest territory of land since 2001 and is attacking Afghan Security Forces at will in even those provinces that were previously considered untouchable –and agreeing to a ceasefire while the talks are still going will make it look weak. However, the issue of the intra-Afghan dialogue is a completely different matter. The Taliban considers the government of President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul as an illegitimate entity and is not budging an inch from this position. Consequently, it believes that any dialogue with the government is null-and-void. In a twist of irony, the US appears to be siding with the Taliban here. The US believes that the best course of action was to let the term of the current government expire. That would be a fait accompli without appearing as toeing the Taliban’s line. However, the ruling dispensation in Kabul is hell-bent on conducting the elections, something the Taliban doesn’t want. The US fears that any attempt to conduct polls will provoke the Taliban to mount a very bloody campaign, killing hundreds if not thousands of voters, candidates and Afghan security forces. This has brought Trump Administration to loggerheads with Kabul. Sources say that there is a near-total breakdown of communication between the two. The sentiments in the regional capitals are varied. Islamabad is exhilarated as it has cemented its stature as Washington’s most dependable ally in the region, and this comes with sever- al perks, both tactical and monetary. Beijing has concerns regarding the presence of Uyghurs in the ranks of Islamic State’s Wilayat Khorasan operating out of Afghanistan.

However, rather than panicking, it understands that neither the Taliban nor Pakistan will like Islamic State to gain strength in Afghanistan. Thus, it sees its own agenda dovetailing beautifully with the former’s.

This leaves us with Tehran, Moscow and the five ‘stan’s of Central Asia. Iran, unlike the headstrong mandarins in New Delhi, had started rapprochement long ago. Sources in Tehran say that Iran has managed to extract certain guarantees from the Taliban vis-à-vis the status of Shias in Afghanistan as well as the Taliban not harming Iranian interests. Then there’s the issue of the powerful common enemy; Islamic State’s Wilayat Khorasan. Tehran has helped the Taliban in taking on Islamic State in the past few years, including supplying some arms. The same goes for Moscow, which is more worried about Islamic State at the gates of Central Asian ‘stans than the Taliban, which it now sees as an organisation with more nationalistic bent than pan-Islamic dreams. Moscow has been improving its ties with Islamabad steadily and has used its good office in reaching out to the Taliban. It, like Iran, has also supplied arms to help the Taliban counter a resurgent Islamic State. The Taliban on its part is currently giving all the right signals, even though it may be a tactical necessity. For example, it quickly denied, correctly, its role following a deadly blast that hit a Shia wedding in Kabul last week. That was the handiwork of the Islamic State. It also understands that the days of taking over entire Afghanistan is over and that it will need partners in Tehran and Moscow if it wants to reap the benefits of international reconstruction efforts that will follow. The Central Asian states, especially Uzbekistan, have unleashed the Islamic-charm offensive as was witnessed in the recent visit of the Taliban delegation. It now believes that negotiating with the Talibanis a better option than depending on Uzbek warlords like Rashid Dos- tum who are as brutal and probably even less dependable, not to mention a bottomless pit when it comes to finances.

With the restive Ferghana Valley in mind, it will likely have to join ranks with the Taliban to take on Islamic State that has drawn heavily from among Uzbeks, both in- side Afghanistan as well as Uzbekistan. The sentiment in Tajikistan is similar.

However, this is not to say that non-Pashtun warlords in Afghanistan are also sitting idle. Far from it. According to sources, Tajik warlords close to Jamiate Islami, Atta Mohammad Noor and Bismillah Khan Mohammadi have been seen mobilising their respective militias. Noor controls Afghan Local Police as well as Afghan National Police in the province of Balkh bordering Uzbeki- stan and can mobilise them at very short notice to work exclusively for him. Mohammadi has the province of Panjshir in his control and has been mobilising militia since at least April this year. Dostum, although a shadow of his former self, is also mobilising his contingent of Uzbeks, with rela- tively less success. The same is true for Hazaras as well. Abdul Ghani Alipur and Ustad Mohaqiq are seasoned commanders and can mobilise thousands atone call. And one should never forget the contingents of Hazara Fatimayoun militias who have made their bones against the Islamic State and al Qaeda in Syria and have won laurels and appreciation from all the parties involved.

However, the motive behind these mobilisations is varied and at this point, no effort is afoot to resurrect a Northern Alliance. Of its previous benefactors, only New Delhi appears to be crestfallen over the Taliban talks. While it has sent repeated feelers to Tehran and Moscow, the armageddonesque tone of these feelers has not found expected reception. It is more than clear that Moscow and Tehran at this point are willing to take the Taliban on its word. In case the Taliban renegades, all option will be on the table.

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