International headlines were made that day, but given the barrenness of attempts by Kabul or Washington at making conversations with the Taliban over the years, it was hardly a prescient move on the part of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to propose on February 28 that his government was ready to recognise the insurgent outfit as a legitimate political group.
In return, the Pakistan-backed extremists were required to agree to a pause—not suo motu, but in response to a “ceasefire” by the government—in their vicious campaign of shootings and bombings, which has lately hit new lows, so that talks may take place with “no pre-conditions”.
The Taliban were unmoved by the appeal made from the forum of the second edition of the so-called Kabul Process Conference (KPC), whose inaugural round last June too had been fruitless.
The KPC, set up obviously under US guidance, is a platform to negotiate with the Taliban (since Afghan and American efforts have been unproductive) with the endorsement of the principal regional powers, including India, and the major world players, besides the UN, EU and Nato. Presumably the enlarged forum is meant to signal that the 20-odd countries, and the international organisations, involved will support Taliban’s entry into the mainstream and financially back the process.
It is useful to note that the idea of recognising the Taliban as a political entity, and making a place for them in Afghanistan’s power structure, is not a new one. Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, whose term ended in 2014, had brought up political recognition several times in the course of his attempt at Reconciliation with a capital ‘R’, and had even urged the Taliban to take part in the election for the presidency that year. Nothing came of any of that.
The difference between then and now, however, is that in the Karzai period, there was always the caveat that the Taliban accept the present Constitution of the country, which was adopted by the ‘new Afghanistan’ after the extremists were evicted from power at the end of 2001, a time that has marked the present—somewhat more modern, and somewhat more democratic—phase in the country’s public affairs.
In contrast, the process of reconciliation that Ghani seems to be speaking about is a dilution of the Constitution. This is surprising since the earlier insistence that the Taliban accept the current Constitution, with its noteworthy emphasis of women’s rights and human rights in general, goes back to the 2010 London conference, where especial emphasis was laid on this aspect by the principal backers of the post-Taliban arrangement, India among them. But this is now conspicuously missing.
There is another thing. The Constitution created in the aftermath of the ouster of the Taliban may undergo key changes in course of time to produce democracy in the country “with Afghan characteristics”, but is Ghani in his present avatar the man to lead such an effort?
This question can hardly be suppressed. The reason is that the national unity government that Ghani leads exhausted its technical legitimacy in 2016 since the US-imposed constitutional innovation which helped produce the NUG was not endorsed by a Loya Jirga, a grand national assembly of the Afghan people, in two years’ time, as required. Thus, the government in Kabul lacks legitimacy. Moreover, the term of the Afghan Parliament too has expired. It is therefore wholly unclear what serves as a footing for Ghani to give a call to the Taliban in the name of the country and the people, unless one alludes to the veritable compulsion of the US to ensure that the Taliban issue settles down to the satisfaction of all concerned, and the violence abates.
The American compulsion arises from the fact that the Afghan war has become deeply unpopular at home. At the end of 2014 the Obama administration had declared that USA’s “combat mission” in Afghanistan had ended. Nevertheless, US prestige will suffer internationally, and especially in the present-day context of fighting terrorism in the world, if the Americans leave Afghanistan in the midst of violence of a much higher order than before.
Under the Trump administration, the combat mission has not been re-opened, although in August 2017 President Trump unveiled a policy for South Asia, which raised US troop numbers by 3,000 (raising the total to 14,000-as against 1,35,000 at its highest point after the post-2011”surge” in the US troop strength, which did nothing to check the tide of violence).
There is another compulsion for the US. If some day in the foreseeable future the Americans decide to remove their war materials and equipment from Afghanistan (not likely), they wouldn’t want harassment on their flanks from the Taliban or the Pakistani forces fitted out to look like religious extremists.
The Taliban regard the US-backed government in Kabul as a “puppet” regime. So, there was no surprise that they didn’t bother sending a formal reply to the February 28 proposal. But they responded with swiftness anyway.
Considering the scale of Pakistan’s backing to the Taliban, it appears unlikely that Taliban will act as unfettered agents to conduct their own policy. Moreover, the Taliban actually hold some territory in Afghanistan today for the first time and contest some districts. Estimates vary, but it is widely believed that the government in Kabul holds only around 70% of the territory. This means the insurgents have gained ground since the present government came into being. Would they negotiate reconciliation in these circumstances or will they be emboldened to aspire to take Kabul even if such an attempt led to an open civil war-like situation?
The chief spokesman of the militant group replied to an Open Letter by Barnett Rubin, a New York-based political scientist well known for his pro-Pakistan writings on Afghanistan, published last week in the New Yorker magazine. Predictably, Rubin, who had served as an advisor on Afghanistan to the US State Department in the Obama years, had urged the Taliban to accept talks with the government in Kabul.
Answering him, the Taliban said, “Our country has been occupied, which has led to a US-style supposed Afghan government being imposed upon us. And your view that we talk to them and accept their legitimacy is the same formula adopted by the US to win the war.”
As President Ghani had made his proposal at the so-called second KPC, the Taliban reminded Rubin that the Kabul process was aimed at securing the “surrender” of the Taliban.
This would suggest that the platform of the Kabul Process is dead on the water unless Pakistan—which strongly influences the Taliban—genuinely agrees to play ball, going beyond pro forma affirmations. There can be little question that if the Taliban have not come forward to show interest in the reconciliation process over the years, it is on account of the Pakistani veto.
The political hold of the Pakistani military over the Taliban is complete. In the Karzai era, several top-flight Taliban leaders had tried talking honourable return terms with Kabul, and appeared keenly interested in peace in their own lives and for their country. Each paid a price.
Some were killed, some tortured. Mulla Baradar, then the second man in the Taliban hierarchy after their charismatic one-eyed founder-leader Mulla Omar, is a case in point. The death of Omar himself was announced by Pakistan two years after the man died, feeding suspicions that he may have met his end in unpropitious circumstances in Pakistani captivity. Omar’s successor Mulla Mansour also died in hazy circumstances, apparently in an American drone strike.
Given this backdrop, and considering the scale of Pakistan’s backing to the Taliban, it appears unlikely that Taliban will act as unfettered agents to conduct their own policy. Moreover, the Taliban actually hold some territory in Afghanistan today for the first time and contest some districts. Estimates vary, but it is widely believed that the government in Kabul holds only around 70% of the territory. This means the insurgents have gained ground since the present government came into being. Would they negotiate reconciliation in these circumstances or will they be emboldened to aspire to take Kabul even if such an attempt led to an open civil war-like situation?
Last Tuesday, just the day prior to President Ghani’s proposal to the Taliban, the chief of the US CENTCOM, General Joseph Votel, told the House Armed Services Committee that while the Trump administration’s block on foreign aid to Pakistan was the “current posture”, trust must be re-built with Pakistan as “success in Afghanistan will require a strong level of cooperation with Pakistan.” This is America’s reality. It was in line with this compulsion that in June 2013, the Obama administration had worked behind the back of the then Karzai government to work on the Doha Process. With the blessing of Islamabad and Washington, a so-called Taliban facilitation office was inaugurated in the Qatari capital with the Taliban flag and emblem of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”.
Thus, the Taliban virtually became the Afghan government-in-exile, with the elected Karzai regime losing status. Rubin had some role to play in this dubious venture, which was exposed by the present writer in an article at the time.
When Karzai discovered that all this had been done in violation of the undertaking given to him by President Obama, he was furious. The Afghans mobilised friendly countries to protest, and first Russia, and then India, issued strong political statements against the US-Pak caper in Doha. The Americans retreated and the game unravelled. Then US secretary of state John Kerry was contrite when he at last got to speak to President Karzai, who for days refused to take his calls.
It is not unlikely the US would seek to make similar moves to insinuate the Taliban into the Afghan political mainstream since a battlefield victory over the extremists is ruled out. Pakistan can be brought on board in such a game through a lucrative enough package. A pliable regime in Kabul will also be needed, unlike Karzai’s.
The Kabul Process forum has evidently been produced out of thin air to give legitimacy to moves to bring the Taliban back in political play without a mechanism to consult the people of Afghanistan. It is a pity that New Delhi has played along. There is no report that at the Kabul Process meet last week India in any manner refer to the idea of fidelity to the present Afghanistan Constitution, as it had done in London earlier.
Anand K Sahay is a New Delhi-based journalist and commentator. He has lived in Afghanistan during the war years