Current General Studies Magazine: "Negotiating with the Taliban" December 2015

Current General Studies Magazine (December 2015)

General Studies - II "Debate Based Article" (Negotiating with the Taliban)

The recently concluded Doha Dialogue on ‘Peace and Security in Afghanistan’ presents a number of opportunities for the international community, as well as India, in dealing with the resurgent Taliban phenomenon.
The second round of the unofficial Doha Dialogue, organised by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs with support from the state of Qatar, comes at a time when the official Quadrilateral Coordination Group on Afghan Peace and Reconciliation, with participation from the governments of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and the U.S., has become a non-starter due to the non-participation of the Taliban.

Key leaders from the Taliban’s Qatar office, the only one of its kind set up by the dominant Taliban faction of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, were in full attendance at the Doha meeting which was boycotted by the Afghan government. Led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, head of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, the group, whose leaders and assets figure on a UN blacklist, put forward a number of conditions for initiating a peace process in Afghanistan. There are three reasons why the Doha process is significant at this juncture: the Taliban leadership’s preference, as articulated in Doha, for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan over continued bloodshed; their willingness to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government; and, for the first time since the Taliban’s fall in 2001, they have started clarifying the contours of their vision for Afghanistan, albeit through a Track II process.

Why engage with the Taliban?

But why should we make peace with a violent outfit holding highly objectionable religious and political views? Shouldn’t our efforts be aimed at ensuring that the Taliban are defeated, both militarily and ideologically?
The most important reason for engaging with the Taliban is that not doing so is indeed a worse option, and could prove to be suicidal for Afghanistan and its people. With no less than 60,000 heavily armed men in their ranks, the Taliban are reportedly in control of around 30 per cent of the country’s districts, with their reach and control steadily on the rise. There is a lot of concern today about the impending spring offensive by the Taliban and what it would do to the Afghans.

Despite the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) withdrawal from Afghanistan, the U.S. has decided to keep close to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan this year, and around 5,000 in 2017. However, if 1,40,000 NATO troops in 2011 (and 1,20,000 in 2013) could not stop the Taliban’s territorial gains, what could 10,000 troops do? In other words, Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan is a foregone conclusion whether we like it or not. The question is whether we can make their comeback less painful and more acceptable for the Afghans by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Second, widespread electoral fraud during the 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan, and Washington’s involvement in making an agreement between the two contenders on the electoral outcome, has dented the legitimacy of the Afghan government. With decreasing American military support, very little political legitimacy, and sheer lack of military strength to run its writ over the country, the Afghan administration will find itself in more trouble in the years ahead. The more it delays direct talks with the Taliban, the weaker its negotiating position would become prompting the Taliban to seek even more concessions.

Third, and most important, the Taliban leadership repeatedly hinted at possible power-sharing arrangements with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during the Doha deliberations. Given its many weaknesses, Kabul would do well by engaging the Taliban in a dialogue process. In that sense, the Afghan government’s “official” decision to boycott the Doha conference was a mistake.

Have the Taliban changed?

Despite the Taliban’s military capability to take back most parts of Afghanistan, the international community would need to know, before conferring any semblance of legitimacy on them, whether they are willing to change their violent ways. In order to assess this as well as to nudge them to change even more, it is important to engage them. If the leadership’s declarations at the Doha conference are any indication of their current policies, then the Taliban have indeed transformed, even though they would still need to travel a long way to belong to the contemporary cultural and political milieu. The Taliban left no stone unturned in reassuring the dialogue participants, including Afghan women, parliamentarians and civil society activists, that they would respect women’s rights (to work, choose their spouse, etc.) and ensure modern education for all, including girls. It is possible that the overzealous bunch of madrasa-trained Taliban soldiers who secured one surprise military victory after another in the mid-1990s has after all learned the ropes of statecraft.

Second, the Taliban seemed to be receptive to the idea of an Afghan political space where there is no monopoly of power by any one party. That is clearly a major change for an uncompromisingly puritanical outfit. Given the diversity of Afghanistan, and politics deeply rooted in tribal loyalty, it is next to impossible for any one political outfit to exclusively govern the length and breadth of the country: the Taliban, if they are serious about the ‘no monopoly of power’ proposal, have then recognised that unavoidable reality.

Third, the Taliban representatives also underscored the importance of economically developing the country in cooperation with neighbouring states. For instance, they pledged open support for the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project and guaranteed that they would ensure the security of the pipeline along with the Afghan government.

Potential roadblocks ahead

And yet, the Taliban seem to be intransigent on a number of fundamental issues that could come up as serious difficulties on the negotiating table. The most important issue is that the Taliban, who refer to themselves as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, continue to be unwilling to submit themselves to the Afghan Constitution and accept the term “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” written in its preamble. Intent on creating an “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, they propose to establish a state based on the Sharia law. They are non-committal on the question of democracy, partly due to their interpretation of Islam, and partly due to their fear whether the Afghan people would accept them if they fought an open and transparent election without the might of the gun.

For the Afghan government and the international community in general, it would be difficult to accept the Taliban if they do not agree to assume power through a democratic, electoral process. It is likely that when the Taliban talk about “power-sharing agreements” with the Afghan government, what they have in mind is being given a ‘share of power’ in Afghanistan (say, legitimate control of a few provinces) on a platter. This could be difficult for both the Afghan government and the international community to concede and could well be a deal-breaker.

And yet, the point is to create a political situation, through sustained negotiations with the armed outfit, in which it is possible for the Taliban to see the virtues of competitive politics as an attractive route to power. Having tasted power once, they might see the merit in it. For that to happen, the Afghan government may have to accept some of the Taliban’s preconditions for talks, such as allowing them to open a formal office on Afghan soil.

India’s fears and options

New Delhi has had a frosty relationship with the Taliban due to a number of reasons: the deep links between the Taliban and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and the latter’s use of Afghan territory to train terrorists to fight in Kashmir; the extremely objectionable policies followed by the Taliban regime until its fall in 2001; and the highly unhelpful behaviour of the Taliban during the IC-814 hijack in 1999. However, New Delhi has realised over the years that the Taliban could one day return to power in Kabul in one form or another and that it would have to deal with them eventually. Clearly, not dealing with undesirable regimes, despite our political and ideological differences, can’t be smart statecraft.

An early indication of the Indian rethink vis-à-vis the Taliban came in October 2009 when the then Foreign Secretary stated in a speech, “We support the Afghan government’s determination to integrate those willing to abjure violence and live and work within the parameters of the Afghan Constitution, which provides the framework for a pluralistic and democratic society.”

Reiterating this policy two years later, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated, referring to the peace talks between the Hamid Karzai government and the Taliban, in an address to the Afghan Parliament: “Afghanistan has embarked upon a process of national reconciliation — we wish you well in this enterprise.”

New Delhi’s cautious approach towards the Taliban is reasonable, given the latter’s past behaviour towards India. However, there is today a need for New Delhi to play a more proactive role vis-à-vis the Afghan reconciliation process. It is important to take note of the laudable attempts made by the Taliban representatives in Doha at allaying India’s fears by stating that they would not allow their territory to be used for terror activities, and that their foreign policy would not be dictated by anyone (an indirect reference to Pakistan).

India’s Afghan policy, ever since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, has been impressive and imaginative. However, it does fall short in meeting the country’s future objectives in Afghanistan in the context of the emerging political realities there. India should therefore make use of the reconciliation process in Afghanistan to subtly engage all stakeholders there. The Doha process and the message from the Taliban leadership based in the Qatari capital should be taken seriously by New Delhi.

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