Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban may be over. To some, they never really began. Despite making the talks a foreign policy priority, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani seems to be backing away from diplomacy in favor of a tougher military-focused approach, for the first time labeling the Taliban “terrorists,” a term he had studiously avoided before. And the recent death of the Taliban’s leader in an American drone strike has further cast doubt on the prospect of peace talks.
Coming to some sort of accommodation with the Taliban after 15 years of war has been an elusive, many say quixotic, goal. Back-channel negotiations proceeded in fits and starts under former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, yielding no tangible results other than further alienating Afghanistan’s mercurial leader from the United States. Karzai accused Washington of undercutting him in his dealings with the Taliban; a two-year effort led by the U.S. and Germany to open peace talks in Qatar collapsed within days of the Taliban opening an office there after Karzai lashed out at what he perceived to be attempts by the group to establish a government in exile.
Hopes were high that when Ghani came into office in 2014, the former World Bank technocrat and finance minister could get the moribund peace process back on track and improve relations with Afghanistan’s nemesis, Pakistan, which is accused of harboring Taliban fighters. With a drawdown of U.S. troops coming at the end of the year, Ghani has said that Afghanistan’s best hope for lasting stability is to revive stalled peace talks with the Taliban — and the key to that is getting Pakistan on board.
But intermittent attacks that killed hundreds of Afghan civilians throughout 2015 derailed Ghani’s rapprochement on both fronts. Despite initial optimism, some experts say peace talks with the Taliban were doomed to fail given the group’s irreconcilable differences with the West.
“The idea that you can end [hostilities] on a grand bargain with the Taliban was so naïve from the beginning,” Marvin G. Weinbaum, a former Pakistan and Afghanistan analyst at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, told The Diplomat. “The Taliban’s vision is so existentially different it is impossible to imagine [what kind of deal would make them settle.]”
From 1996 to 2001, the Islamic fundamentalist movement imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia law in Afghanistan that, among other things, brutally repressed women and opposed democracy. Today, in return for coming to the negotiating table, the Taliban has demanded the removal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan, the release of all its members from prison and for the United Nations to remove them from a blacklist — all nonstarters for Afghanistan’s Western partners.
Moreover, the group remains fractured by infighting and it is unclear who speaks for whom. Some experts also say that any Taliban overtures are merely a smokescreen to allow insurgents to consolidate territory and power.
Both Kabul and Washington also question Islamabad’s commitment to brokering peace talks. Pakistan’s security services have long been accused of providing proxy support to the Taliban in their bid to prevent geopolitical archrival India from gaining influence in Afghanistan.
Hopes were high in January when Afghan and Pakistani delegations met with representatives from China and the United States as part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group to try and chart out a plan for peace talks. But months of inactivity and lethal attacks — including a truck bombing in April that killed over 60 people and wounded nearly 350 in Kabul — have soured the likelihood that an agreement will be reached anytime soon. April’s bombing was linked to the Taliban-allied Haqqani network based in Pakistan, according to Afghan intelligence.
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan remain tense, at best. The two share a 1,500-mile-long border called the Durand Line. Kabul doesn’t recognize the international border though, instead claiming the Pashtun territories in Pakistan as well as the North West Frontier Province. Certain tribal affiliations also transcend the man-made borders. “People on both sides of the Durand Line consider it a soft border,” Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s then-ambassador to Washington, told the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in 2007.
Historically, the neighboring countries have meddled in each other’s affairs. Each has offered sanctuary to the others’ political opponents. “Afghanistan sheltered Baloch nationalists in the 1970s while Pakistan extended refuge and training to the mujahadeen in the 1980s and then later supported the Afghani Taliban,” wrote CFR’s Jayshree Bajoria in 2009
Despite Ghani’s initial courtship, the relationship between the two governments grew increasingly strained as Pakistan failed to bring the Taliban to negotiations without preconditions. Islamabad counters that its people have borne the brunt of extremist violence and that it has waged a costly offensive in its ungoverned tribal areas to flush out militants.
Weinbaum, who is now with the Middle East Institute, notes that Pakistan does not wield as much influence over the Taliban as it is sometimes given credit for. Indeed, whether the Taliban is serious about peace talks after years of mixed messages is a matter of fierce debate. The group’s leadership has often showed little interest in, or outright disdain for, negotiations while continuing operations in northern and southern Afghanistan.
In a Foreign Policy piece from February, Weinbaum argued that the Taliban’s steady gains on the battlefield have increased its leverage in peace talks.
“Negotiating and fighting simultaneously is a time-honored strategy,” he wrote. “But when the strategy is taken from a position of growing weakness, it is more likely to be used to stave off defeat than to facilitate compromise. The Taliban easily interprets the eagerness of the Kabul government and its international backers to begin talks as evidence of their desperation.”
Yet there is also significant disagreement between members of the Taliban. Weinbaum detailed the chaotic inner workings behind the group’s decision to pull out of talks last year.
“Discussions with the Taliban broke off in early July when Afghan sources revealed that the insurgency’s spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, had been dead for two years,” Weinbaum wrote. “It was with Omar’s supposed blessing that Mullah Akhtar Mansour, his second-in-command, participated in the Pakistan-hosted July meeting. Mansour’s cover-up of Omar’s death reportedly angered many within the Taliban’s senior command, and his self-appointment as successor brought about challenges to his leadership, including those from his chief rival Mullah Mohammad Rasool. A harried Mansour then backed out of a second round of talks.”
On May 23, President Obama announced that an American drone strike killed Mansour, leaving in doubt who would take the reins of the fractured group. “Mansour rejected efforts by the Afghan government to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken the lives of countless innocent Afghan men, women and children,” Obama said during the announcement. “The Taliban should seize the opportunity to pursue the only real path for ending this long conflict — joining the Afghan government in a reconciliation process that leads to lasting peace and stability.”
But with the group’s leadership in disarray and Ghani increasingly impatient after a series of false starts, Weinbaum said the U.S. drone strike that killed Mansour “plants the final nail in attempts to find a political way out of the Afghan conflict.”
“Although over the last 10 months Mansour has stood as an obstacle to efforts to revive talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government, he had earlier been considered to be one of those Taliban leaders most open to reconciliation,” Weinbaum wrote in a Middle East Institute brief, noting that none of his possible successors is likely to join a peace process.”
“The important takeaway is Washington’s decision to make the Taliban leader its target,” Weinbaum added. “Until now, Mansour has lived and traveled with near impunity within Pakistan and apparently even allowed to travel abroad, and his mainline organization, the Quetta Shura, has until now been spared in the hope of having Taliban leaders with whom to negotiate. The direct order by President Barack Obama that Mansour be killed makes it clear that the Afghan conflict will be settled on the battlefield, not at a conference table.”
Indeed, even prior to Mansour’s death, Ghani said he would step up attacks against insurgents.
“We do not expect Pakistan to deliver the Taliban for negotiations,” Ghani told Afghanistan’s Parliament last month. He demanded Pakistan act as a “responsible government” and deal with the Taliban on its soil to prevent further attacks. If it didn’t, he warned that Afghanistan would bring the issue to the U.N. Security Council.
Also in May, Ghani ordered the hanging of six Taliban insurgents. In place of peace talks, Ghani said Afghanistan would directly confront the Taliban and no longer offer amnesty to insurgents (though he didn’t rule out dialogue with fighters who lay down their arms). Certain officials now fear tit-for-tat reprisals from the Taliban, especially with the spring fighting season in full swing.
“The executions of Taliban have now evaporated any efforts of peace talks,” Ahmad Saeedi, a former Pakistan diplomat, told Bloomberg. “I am really worried about the Taliban’s retaliation that may bomb everywhere.”
The shift is a far cry from Ghani’s previous outreach to Afghanistan’s southern neighbor. Last December, the head of Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, Rahmatullah Nabil, resigned. He had strongly opposed Ghani’s attempts at reconciliation with Pakistan, a sentiment shared by many Afghans.
“Hoping to persuade Pakistan to bring Taliban leaders to the negotiating table to help end a conflict now in its 15th year, Ghani opened the door for Afghan military cadets to train in Pakistan, and he announced an intelligence-sharing agreement between the two countries,” Ali M. Latifi of the L.A. Times reported. “The moves sparked fervent criticism from opposition politicians and many Afghans who blame Pakistan for turning a blind eye to or directly supporting militant groups in Afghanistan.”
Weinbaum told The Diplomat that he thought it was in Pakistan’s interest to have Ghani’s unity government succeed, as it would mean Kabul could rely less on India. Furthermore, a secure Afghanistan works in Pakistan’s favor because the country’s collapse could destabilize the region.
But such arguments fall on deaf ears to Pakistanis who fear a strong Afghanistan backed by India would threaten their strategic interests. Moreover, officials in the nuclear-armed nation worry about the potential blowback if Pakistani forces crack down too hard on the Taliban and its affiliates.
“Pakistan has often complained that when it launched military operations in Swat and South Waziristan in 2009, militants belonging to Pakistani Taliban took shelter in Afghanistan and started using it as a base, with the help of Afghan intelligence, to carry out operations against Pakistan,” wrote the Voice of America’s Ayesha Tanzeem in May.
With such complexities and rampant mistrust, the prospect of peace talks remains dim. As Weinbaum told The Diplomat, “One side’s got to win and one’s got to lose.”
About the Author
Justin Salhani (@JustinSalhani) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat. Anna Gawel is the managing editor.