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The art of a political deal with the Taliban

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Days after reports that the Trump administration is considering to close the Taliban political office in Qatar, the United States has revived the four-nation Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), aimed at seeking to politically negotiate an end to the War in Afghanistan. 

Negotiators from Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States convened in Oman on Monday to nudge the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.

The Taliban did not attend. This comes amid fresh speculations that the Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada crept into Afghanistan early this month to meet with his regional commanders in Helmand province. His purported objective was to chart out a plan to survive the new U.S. rules of engagement, especially the surge in airstrikes.

What does it all mean for the prospects of any future peace settlement?

The QCG talks follow a recent visit to Kabul by Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Although the Taliban have not shown interest in negotiations, the central question before any serious talks begin remains: Who are we really negotiating with?

The significance of this cannot be overstated, mostly because of the divergent views of the different actors that are party to the Afghan conflict, with each expecting some accommodation in any future settlement.

By any measure, Pakistan is both a problem and a solution to the Afghan problem. A central failing of Pakistan’s Afghan policy has been its failure to generate Afghan trust. The result is evident: Most Afghan leaders and the local people distrust Pakistan.

Past opportunities presented to Pakistan by both Ghani and his predecessor Hamid Karzai were squandered. The problem is that, unlike India, Pakistan has not yet accepted political inclusivity in Afghanistan. 

At the same time, the Taliban is belligerent and seems to be less about Islam and more about Islamabad. With the group now disintegrated across different factions, many Taliban offshoot groups hold divergent and often conflicting views about a political settlement.

No longer a homogeneous group, the Taliban is also internally divided along ideological and tribal lines and has become increasingly decentralized and incoherent, both vertically and horizontally. The Taliban has also become more extremist as a movement.

For example, today, after a Taliban commander is killed or captured, he is replaced by another fighter who is more radical, inexorable and uncompromising. More importantly, for 21 years, the Taliban’s primary goal has not changed: to control Afghanistan’s political system and fundamentally change it. 

It is imperative to consider these factors and publicly articulate what each side wants and what their fears are, what is negotiable and what is not and how each side make decisions. Unfortunately, the Taliban has not given up on someday reacquiring its “Islamic Emirate,” nor has it publicly sought a negotiated settlement.

To that end, one strategy toward an ultimate settlement that is likely to have more success is to pursue a salami-slicing approach toward the Taliban. This means peeling away splintered Taliban groups and low-level commanders from the battlefield and integrating them into the Afghan government.

This would likely pressure the Taliban leadership to negotiate seriously while it still has leverage. In the past, the Afghan government efforts have been fruitful in reconciling some Taliban commanders in northern Afghanistan, where the group maintains a modest presence.

The reason behind that may have been that the Taliban often commissions less-experienced commanders in northern provinces, who receive less cash and reinforcement than commanders in other areas.

However, reconciliation does not appear to be an ideal option for many Taliban leaders, not because they loathe accepting the Afghan constitution but because their fighters will be disarmed.

Some Taliban leaders who are energized by their recent territorial gains even see a settlement as shameful, mostly because they believe that time is on their side. The Taliban’s attack today on a police headquarters in Paktia province is a testament.

In the interim, the Taliban is likely to engage in reaching informal agreements at the local level with Afghan authorities. In areas where the Taliban’s influence has grown, it is mostly because of little or no resistance from Afghan forces.

Afghan intelligence and low-level security officials regularly reach out to the Taliban to establish informal ceasefire deals on a district level. This has enabled the Taliban to become adept at managing local governance.

Meanwhile, easing the widespread distrust between the two sides is indispensable to reduce violence. Employing indirect communication lines can therefore prove effective, including forging ceasefires at local levels, detainee releases and engaging intermediaries, such as tribal leaders, who maintain contacts with both sides.

Assuming the talks do begin, negotiations would likely involve a general ceasefire, accepting the Taliban as a legitimate political entity, dual prison releases, delisting Taliban leaders from various sanction lists, security and financial guarantees for the Taliban, constitutional reforms, distribution of power and patronage and eventual withdrawal of foreign forces.

However, agreeing on the prioritization of the settlement terms, timing and sequencing is likely to be a sticking point. 

Nonetheless, the United States will need to remain engaged in actualizing whatever political deal is reached, including brokering the inclusion of Taliban in an Afghan coalition government. Until then, the United States should plan for two prospects: one where peace talks succeed and a settlement is reached and another where negotiations fail.

Both prospects should meet the minimum need to not allow Afghanistan to plunge into the hands of a Pakistan–linked regime. This means preparing to apply more pressure on Pakistan and the Taliban with a simple approach, especially in response to their token confidence-building gestures: Don’t trust, and verify. 

Javid Ahmad, a non-resident fellow at West Point’s Modern War Institute, is a fellow at the Atlantic Council. His research focuses on pressing security, counterterrorism and socioeconomic issues in South Asia. Follow him on Twitter: @ahmadjavid

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan–Pakistan relations Hamid Karzai Taliban Taliban in Qatar War in Afghanistan

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