What To Expect from Peace Talks with the Taliban

The idea of putting a negotiated end to the Afghan conflict is finally gaining some traction. The Taliban recently reversed a long-held position and agreed to open an office in Qatar from which they could negotiate. That same day, Hizb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) – the other insurgent group – sent a delegation to Kabul to talk peace.

Taken as is, this momentum is a positive development. But the variables involved in this calculus are many and this is but the first step in a thousand-mile journey. The biggest challenge to the effort is choosing the parties to the negotiation. The Taliban have so far completely sidelined the Afghan government and have indicated that they only want to talk with the United States. They are participating not as an insurgency, but as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the country’s legitimate government – attempting to negotiate the withdrawal of the occupying foreign forces.

And so Afghanistan’s High Peace Council is sitting idle as the Taliban initiate talks with the USA. Also excluded are Afghanistan’s civil society and political groups. Their exclusion means that effective interest articulation on behalf of women, minorities and the political opposition does not occur at the negotiations.

Concerns about representation also extend to the Taliban, where doubts exist about whether their leaders engaged in talks truly represent the interests and incentives of their foot soldiers and younger battlefield commanders.

Given all of this, nobody should expect that negotiations can completely end the Afghan conflict because high-level talks cannot remedy smaller-scale, localized conflicts motivated by tribal competitions, personal rivalries and the opium trade. The most positive outcome would involve neutralizing a critical mass of the insurgency to decisively reverse the momentum for much of the rest of it so that they can either be vanquished or they lose the appetite to fight.

To accomplish any of this the international community and the Afghans must first harmonize the dissonance in their respective objectives. The international community’s main hope from the negotiations is a semblance of peace to allow them an honorable exit, while Afghans also want some form of reconciliation involving justice for the victims of the Taliban’s humanitarian and political crimes. Reconciliation would involve prosecution and punishment, and the Taliban are not negotiating to put themselves in jail or on trial. Besides, they can point to others involved in crimes who, sitting in the Afghan parliament, passed an amnesty law exempting themselves from trial. Transitional justice is a potential alternative, but that is hardly on the agenda in the current negotiation efforts.

Reconciliation has to be a process, and processes take time. This means that by the time negotiations turn into reconciliation, the international community will likely have moved on from Afghanistan. Reconciliation processes always carry the latent possibility of failure; that likelihood is even greater in non-inclusive processes such as this one. Given this, what are the contingencies for when peace and reconciliation don’t work and conflict erupts once again? What are the safeguards that can dis-incentivize the temptation to go violent? These questions are important because, while no one wants the Taliban to dominate the country, the insurgent group is not negotiating to obtain a status of secondary importance in the future of Afghanistan. And that can be a flashpoint for conflict.

The position of Pakistan, another important actor in the equation, is also a matter of great concern. The country’s security establishment has used the Taliban as a bargaining chip to maintain some leverage on the developments in Afghanistan and ensure a prime seat in any negotiating table. Pakistan has exercised control on Taliban leaders either by limiting their physical movement or by putting their families under house arrest. But surprisingly, Pakistan seems to have looked the other way as the Taliban negotiators and their families were flown out to Qatar. Could this be a tacit change in Pakistan’s strategy? If so, what are its new demands? And how do they square off against the interests of its arch-rival India and those of China, whose stakes in the country have been increasing?

Iran, Afghanistan’s western neighbor, has its own reservations about the idea of Taliban returning to Afghanistan’s mainstream and about the American demand of keeping about 30-40,000 soldiers in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of its combat troops. The problem with Iran is not its reservations but the fact that nobody wants to make it party to the negotiations, essentially giving it license to pursue any and all means to safeguard its interests in Afghanistan.

Some of these concerns will likely be addressed as the negotiation efforts take shape. However, Afghanistan and the international community are putting all of their eggs in the basket of negotiations. A lot is at stake on this flawed, failure-prone initiative. Think of it this way: if the Taliban can produce a stalemate fighting NATO and Afghan forces, they can do a lot more when the Afghans are left on their own.