Central & South Asia

Uncertainty Looms Over Taliban Talks

The Qatar peace talks done wrong could risk nullifying progress made in Afghanistan over the past 18 years and set a dangerous international precedent, challenging the norm of state sovereignty’s inviolability.
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© Bruce Rolff

July 22, 2019 20:19 EDT

The intra-Afghan conference held in Qatar on July 7-8 is the latest development in the ongoing peace talks convened since January, which have been led by the US special envoy for reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad. Yet it remains unclear what the Taliban’s post-peace settlement vision, policies, programs and priorities for Afghanistan would be. Added to this is the extent to which Pakistan would be able to influence domestic Afghan matters through the Taliban.

Although the intra-Afghan meeting represents a welcome step in the talks, there is still reason for deep concern. Not only because the democratically elected Afghan government has been sidelined in the talks and the Taliban’s continued refusal to engage directly with Kabul as a key stakeholder in the Afghan conflict. But because the peace talks appear to rest on a long-disproven assumption that has historically thrown lethal wrenches into the US and NATO engagement in Afghanistan, which is that the Taliban should be dealt with through an in-country counterinsurgency campaign.

Pakistan’s Proxy

In the early 2000s, when Pakistan’s support was more concealed, the Taliban were incorrectly characterized as independent insurgents. If this was true, then what segment of the population do the Taliban represent, and whose grievances have been fueling their decades-long campaign of terror? The Taliban’s own demands are clear: the withdrawal of US troops and other foreign forces and the release of members of the movement who remain imprisoned. But this goes nowhere toward addressing the issue of their own post-peace settlement political change agenda for Afghanistan.

With the Taliban, we are not dealing with a movement supported by marginalized, if any, groups of the population, which would confer some measure of legitimacy. On the contrary, as they did in the 1990s, the Taliban rule through intimidation and fear in the districts under their control.

This is key to reminding ourselves that the Taliban continue to be a proxy for Pakistan, not an insurgency unless we accept a definitional expansion of the term to accommodate an externally-enabled one. Yet the role of Pakistan in the Taliban’s post-peace deal policies is unclear. Has Pakistan’s strategic sponsorship of the Taliban featured at all in the peace talks? More importantly, have the implications of the Taliban’s lifeline to the Pakistani army been considered for the change agenda that the movement would pursue in Afghanistan after a peace deal is in place?

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From repeated statements by US President Donald Trump to this effect, including well-evidenced investigative publications in recent years, there is near-unquestioned consensus now that the Taliban are a proxy for Pakistan and that the latter has been supporting the group since the beginning of the Afghan War in 2001. Following the corollary of this fact, a peace settlement’s conferral of political legitimacy to the Taliban would effectively translate into an indirect admission of a demonstratively aggressive foreign state, Pakistan, into the domestic affairs of Afghanistan.

What lends credence to this concern is the Taliban’s radio silence on their political agenda following a peace deal. Though educated guesswork in a recent article speculated what the Taliban might want, the fact of the matter is that their representatives in Qatar have been remarkably taciturn regarding not just the specificities of their political vision for Afghanistan, but the vision itself.

One would think that a movement that has fought as ruthlessly as the Taliban have, repeatedly violating the laws of war and rejecting several calls for a ceasefire, would have a communicable political vision for a post-war Afghanistan. If the Taliban’s demands were grounded in the real grievances of well-defined, if not ostracized segments of the Afghan population, it would be in their interest to put these forth with as much force as possible. What is the benefit of secrecy if the Taliban’s demands are grounded in the legitimate concerns of local people?

Posing the question of what the Taliban want beyond troop withdrawal is absolutely fair and timely. If the movement is a proxy for Pakistan’s army — as an accumulating body of evidence confirms it to be — the Taliban would be wise to keep tight-lipped in negotiations.

Their change agenda following a peace settlement would be nothing less than a thorough reorientation of state capability and resources to the benefit, leverage and enrichment of Islamabad. The political infrastructure of Afghanistan would be remodeled in every perceivable way to become a strategic asset to Pakistan. President Trump’s fear that Afghanistan could devolve into a lab for terrorists would only hold true.

Broader Consequences 

Besides broadening the sphere of influence for an increasingly praetorian Pakistani army and its draconian martial law, the case of Afghanistan’s surrender of sovereignty through the internationally condoned mechanism of peace talks would set a dangerous precedent for global security. This would be keenly noted by states with expansionist ambitions — a phenomenon no longer relegated to the distant past. Terrorize, maim and murder through a proxy for long enough, and incursions into the sovereignty of other states can still come within view 70 years after the UN Charter enshrined the inviolability of sovereignty.

It follows then that the answer to the question of the Taliban’s post-peace settlement change agenda carries ramifications not just for Afghans, but also for the security of all states. How the US handles the Taliban is being studied closely by countries and non-state actors alike, all of which would be drawing their own inferences for what is henceforth possible between nations.

For the United States, it would be a victory exacting heavy costs in Afghanistan and beyond. Other US adversaries would see an American-condoned peace deal appeasing Pakistan as the herald of an international order more permissive of aggression. Afghans would pay the highest price: loss of independence, resources and decades more of insecurity.

To prevent both, Special Envoy Khalilzad should carefully ascertain what the Taliban’s policies, programs and priorities for the Afghan state and society would be after a peace settlement. Equally important is to pursue a principled approach in the face of further secrecy and half-answers. A failure to do so could see the Qatar talks cast as an internationally supported mechanism that cleared the way for one state to splinter the sovereignty of another by way of a proxy. For non-state actors and expansionist states, this would be emboldening.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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