A negotiated settlement is possible, but only if we identify the stakes of all the geopolitical actors involved and try to meet their desired outcomes in one combination or the other
Peace and security have evaded the Afghans for the greater part of the last four decades. What they yearn for, above all else, is an end to the strife that has engulfed their country.
The desire to bring an end to violence has led various stakeholders to attempt disparate solutions. First, the US tried, in 2004, to impose its own political order in the hope that an elected government on the lines of the US administration would be more likely to carry out reforms. When that failed, President Hamid Karzai adopted a bellicose stance, trying to push himself in to the nationalist space by attempting to unite the Afghans. This, at times, led to vilifying both the US and Pakistan. That too was futile.
The new President, Ashraf Ghani, at the helm of a unity government which represents all stakeholders, chose to adopt a course which saw him making unprecedented concessions to Pakistan in the hope that Islamabad would prevail on the Taliban to talk peace. Pakistan made all the right noises and indicated that Akhtar Mansour, head of the Taliban’s political wing, had agreed to talk with the Ghani government. It is now six months since that happened and there’s been little to show. Afghans cynically refer to 2010 when Akhtar Mansour travelled from Pakistan on three occasions to meet the Americans and the Afghans. That Mansour, who also met President Karzai, was later said to be an impostor.
Reality check for Ghani
However, now, Ashraf Ghani’s overtures seem to be failing. He invested considerable political capital in building institutional bridges with Pakistan, but has been paid back with an unprecedented increase in the frequency of violent attacks. With the Pakistan-backed initiative yielding no tangible results, Ghani has been forced to express his disappointment and has asked Pakistani leaders to prove their sincerity in backing the Afghan peace process. Internally, cynicism is mounting and disenchantment with the Ashraf Ghani government is high. Strains have also begun emerging in the coalition arrangement.
Failure of all these previous attempts has led to the following questions: What can talks achieve in the pursuit of peace in Afghanistan? Can any peace negotiations bring about a solution that will mollify the multiple actors in Afghanistan? While we cannot answer these questions per se, what we can attempt is to identify the stakes of all the actors involved, should they have to come to a compromise through the process of talks.
The first stakeholder is the Afghanistan unity government itself. The optimum outcome for the government is an Afghanistan under one rule that is strategically and economically autonomous. Such an outcome will require enough national power to allow Afghanistan to “balance” the other powers in the region. Realities, however, dictate that the government will have to settle for a compromise, a less than optimum outcome under the current circumstances. The exact degree of compromise will be determined by the stakes of the other actors.
The second stakeholder is the Taliban. This is a complicated stakeholder because of its many factions, each with a different perception. While the ISI-backed Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour agreed to negotiate with the unity government, the group led by Abdul Qayum Zakir, the Taliban’s overall military commander, has shown no such inclination and is determined to take the fight to Kabul. In between, there are several other factions who had, at various stages, unsuccessfully tried to negotiate, earning the wrath of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Broadly, the optimum outcome for the Taliban is the establishment of a Sharia state in Afghanistan under their complete control. The compromise solution that could be acceptable to some of the factions is a sanctuary, an honourable return and a role in the governance of the Pashtun parts of Afghanistan.
Pakistan, India and the others
The third important entity is Pakistan. Pashtun nationalism is perceived as detrimental to Pakistan’s interests as that could lead to tensions in its western areas. It is for this reason that Islamabad has sought to dominate Afghanistan by formulating various stratagems – ‘fusion’, ‘confederation’, ‘strategic depth’ The best case outcome for Pakistan, then, is the establishment of a client state in Kabul, with freedom to push the terrorist infrastructure that is plaguing Pakistan to areas across the Durand Line. Contrary to the general perception, Pakistan would be disinclined to accept Taliban rule in Kabul as that could fuel Pashtun nationalism.
It is in India’s interests to have a strong and united Afghanistan, not least because that will keep Pakistan’s focus on its western borders. India would perhaps not object to a compromise formula that restricts the Taliban to parts of the south while denying the Haqqani network space in Loya Paktika, a hotbed of anti-India activity.
The US, on its part, wants a respectable exit from the region. Thus, any solution except the return of the Taliban to Kabul will be acceptable to Washington as a compromise solution.
Iran, currently battling bigger troubles, wants to see a stable Afghanistan. Tehran wants a stable Afghanistan to stall narcotics trafficking, prevent an influx of Afghan refugees and prevent anti-Shia activity in the country. The other neighbours – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – are uncomfortable with any Taliban activity in the north of Afghanistan.
China and Russia are concerned about terrorist activity spreading to their own restive border provinces. To that effect, they are likely to accept any solution that keeps northern Afghanistan free of terrorism. Russia is concerned that a return of the Taliban will fuel narcotics trafficking, which kills 50,000 Russians every year. It is also worried that Islamic fundamentalism could spill over and create tensions in Central Asia. China is worried about the situation in Xinjiang and the possibility of the Uighurs gaining sanctuaries in Afghanistan.
The bottom line
The perception that Ashraf Ghani’s election as President, the formation of a Unity government and the end of the Nato mission in Afghanistan could create a climate conducive to ensuring peace has led to a slew of ‘talks with the Taliban’.
Norway mediated an encounter in early June between Afghan women and a Taliban delegation, and Pugwash organised two days of talks between Afghan officials and a Taliban delegation in Dubai. China, which was the first to do so, has already hosted a few Taliban delegations and recently organised a meeting in Urumqi between an Afghan delegation led by Defence Minister Masoom Stanakzai and three Taliban leaders. Chinese and ISI representatives were also said to have participated. A Taliban delegation also quietly visited Iran last week for talks with Tehran.
The only common thread that has emerged from all these efforts is that a solution that will be acceptable to Kabul, to Islamabad and some elements of the Taliban, needs to have two parameters. One – a cessation of hostilities, possibly in exchange for ceding some control to the Taliban of districts along the Durand Line and a presence in Kabul in some form. Second, facilitating the return of the 1.5 million-plus Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
If any of these negotiation efforts are to succeed, the desired outcomes of the various important players will have to be met in one combination or the other. This is, of course, based on the assumption that peace in Afghanistan can be attained by talks alone. Talks can only bring one up to a point. Beyond that, if positions become irreconcilable, it is force, or recourse to arms that will influence matters.
Anand Arni and Pranay Kotasthane work on geostrategic affairs at the Takshashila Institution, a Bangalore based think tank and school of public policy