Co-opting the Afghan Taliban?

“The Taliban are expected to give input to the peace-making process, the goal of which is to draw the Taliban, as an organisation, to peace talks.” — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The Afghan President Ashraf Ghani after the holding of an international conference for peace in Afghanistan on February 28 in Kabul expressed his readiness to hold talks with Taliban in order to give a break to his country from more than 16 years of violence and war.

Co-opting Taliban is a relatively new phenomenon because earlier the Kabul regime had rejected the possibility of holding talks with the Taliban and allowing them to join the mainstream politics and governance.

Is breakthrough for peace in violent and conflict ridden Afghanistan in offing? Or the reconciliation with Taliban is nothing more than eyewash? How central is Pakistan’s role to take the so-called Afghan peace process to its logical conclusion? These are the questions which are raised in the midst of efforts to end years of armed conflict in Afghanistan by accepting Taliban as a legitimate group for peace negotiations. About the offer made by the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for talks with Taliban, he made it clear that, “we are making this offer without preconditions in order to lead to a peace agreement. The Taliban are expected to give input to the peacemaking process, the goal of which is to draw the Taliban, as an organisation to peace talks.”

The policy of ‘carrot and stick’ pursued by the Kabul regime will not work unless there are direct talks between the Taliban, the main resistance group and the United States because Taliban have made it clear that any peace deal for Afghanistan cannot be reached unless there are direct talks between them and the US. The Trump administration has however pursued a hard line approach on dealing with the Taliban calling that group responsible for unleashing a reign of terror by launching several terrorist attacks and killing thousands of Afghans and foreign forces in the last one decade.

The US hardline position on Taliban reflects Washington’s clear stance: Taliban must disarm and accept the legitimacy of the Afghan government instead of continuing their violence and brutal killings

Three major characteristics of peace offer to Taliban made by the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani needs to be taken into account. First, the division within Taliban as moderates and hard liners cannot be ruled out if the Taliban accept Kabul’s peace offer. While reacting to Kabul’s peace initiative, the Taliban leadership is aware of the fact that it is facing a difficult situation because of its isolation at the regional and at the international level. The criticism against Taliban as a violent extremist group targeting civilians; causing fear and panic instead of launching a peaceful movement against what they call ‘foreign occupation’ of Afghanistan by the US forces has its own merit. Even Pakistan, which was before 2001 a major supporter of Taliban has expressed its inability to provide space unless they (Taliban) agree to join the process of negotiations. On these grounds, it is argued that Taliban will not have any option than to accept Afghan President’s peace offer despite the threat of split in their rank and file. The Afghan government has also given the hint that some of the restrictions which have been imposed on Taliban like foreign travel may be lifted if they agree to join the peace process. Taliban prisoners may also be released provided they (The Taliban) recognise the Kabul regime and commit to operate within the parameters of law particularly by respecting the rights of women.

Those who are against providing legitimacy to Taliban because of their brutal and ruthless acts of violence while they were in power and since their ouster from power in October 2001 argue that by recognising Taliban as a legal entity in Afghanistan, the Kabul regime will legalise their countless suicide attacks which killed thousands of civilians. If legalising Taliban as a political group and a legitimate stakeholder is the price which the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wants to pay of what he calls to ‘save the country’ it will create a very bad precedent. Second, recognising Taliban and giving them a major role in the country’s mode of governance will also not be acceptable to the Northern alliance which since 1996, when the Taliban captured Kabul and controlled more than 90 percent of the territory of Afghanistan till today, continue to oppose Taliban because of their anti-Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara stance. Taliban’s anti-Shia and anti-women measures while they were a power still haunt the Northern alliance and majority of the population of Afghanistan.

Even now, Taliban do not express any regrets of their past brutalities against ethnic communities and women population of Afghanistan and assert that if they come to power they will do it again. According to the critics, co-opting the Taliban in Afghan society will destabilise the country as their major opponents ie Northern Alliance will not accept President Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun to appease fellow Pashtuns (The Taliban) who happen to represent Pashtuns of the south and eastern parts of Afghanistan and are responsible for countless acts of terror.

As pointed out earlier, there also exists likelihood that the recent peace offer to Taliban by the Afghan President may cause split within the rank and file of Taliban. Hardline Taliban elements who do not recognise the Kabul regime and consider it puppet of the United States may not approve peace talks with those who are a product of foreign occupation. Splinter groups may emerge within Taliban who may call for sustaining Jihad against the foreign forces and their Afghan allies.

Third, Pakistan’s position on the Afghan predicament resembles like a devil and deep blue sea situation. Pakistan welcomed the move of the Afghan President to offer peace talks to the Taliban as an opportunity to pull its western neighbour from decades of violence and armed conflict. Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Lt Gen (Retd) Nasser Khan Janjua while expressing his country’s satisfaction of Kabul’s new peace move vis-à-vis Taliban stated that, “Pakistan welcomes President Ghani’s offer of seeking peace through dialogue and understanding and would do its best to facilitate the realisation of this noble initiative.” However, if Pakistan’s soft posture vis-à-vis the Taliban is without the latter’s regret and condemnation of its past behaviour and its pledge to renounce violence, one cannot expect any change in the age-old tactics and approach of Taliban who as of now have refused to change for the better.

The US hardline position on Taliban reflects Washington’s clear stance: Taliban must disarm and accept the legitimacy of the Afghan government instead of continuing their violence and brutal killings. If the Trump administration is flexible and supports Afghan President’s peace offer to Taliban, in that case one can expect that the Taliban may be co-opted in the Afghan political process and then in the country’s power structure following the holding of new general elections.

The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations, University of Karachi. E.Mail: amoonis@hotmail.com

Published in Daily Times, March 9th 2018.