South Asia

What Talking to the Taliban Means

Neither the Afghan government nor its opponents were willing to show their hand but the Moscow meeting has at least established that peace is not the exclusive preserve of the US.

Last week, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai – who is also de-facto head of the group’s Doha office – participated in the Moscow Peace Conference on Afghanistan. The meeting was attended by members of the High Peace Council of Afghanistan, officials from nine countries – Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Pakistan, the US, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia – and ‘non-officials’ from India.

Significantly, Turkmenistan, an immediate neighbour of Afghanistan, stayed away from the meeting. The United States sent an observer from the political section of its Moscow embassy, while India sent two veteran (but retired) diplomats, T.C.A. Raghavan and Amar Sinha.

The meeting in Moscow was a demonstration of robust Russian diplomacy. It will now be difficult to exclude Russia from any future multilateral arrangement concerning the future of Afghanistan. This was the first time that Taliban representatives have formally met officials of interested countries in a plurilateral setting, though Taliban and Afghan government representatives came face-to-face formally more than three and a quarter years ago, in May 2015, in Murree, Pakistan, with Chinese and US officials in attendance as observers.

American policy

It is clear that President Donald Trump has no interest in preserving democracy or women’s rights in Afghanistan, and much like Barack Obama before him, wants to signal to the American people prior to running for a second term that he is taking US military forces out of Afghanistan. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is the designated magician to pull the peace rabbit out of the Afghan hat.

American war aims are now markedly different from what the United States started with. When the US began its military operations against the Taliban on October 7, 2001, President George W. Bush declared that these were designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations. Now, more narrowly, the US will ensure that in its national security interest, Afghanistan never becomes a sanctuary for terrorists that could attack the United States.

That the Taliban are very much an ‘interested party’ in the Afghan conflict is something that has long been agreed by the US and Afghan Governments. Since 2009, the US has not considered the Taliban its enemy.

Ambassador Khalilzad had a meeting in Doha with Taliban interlocutors last month. He will have another meeting in the next few days with the Taliban team in Doha. Talking to the Taliban without preconditions was agreed upon by the previous US administration.

Also read: Designed to Fail: The American Misadventure in Afghanistan

Although the US is willing to speak to the Taliban, the main trouble in talking to them is that the organisation is composed of several factions. Local commanders are inadequately represented in the Quetta Shura, adding a further complication for those who wish to engage with them.

The Taliban leadership is aware that the American public is no longer interested in the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban smells victory, quite oblivious to the fact that the new generation of city-bred Afghans may resist Taliban rule.

The biggest problem for the present Afghan government, is that the Taliban leadership believes it to be illegitimate. The Taliban’s reliability is, moreover, questionable: after the Afghan government started direct, formal contact with the Taliban in Pakistan, it transpired that Mullah Omar, who had supposedly blessed the project, had been dead for 27 months before that meeting.

Russia’s initiative

The Moscow meeting was made possible by Russia’s investment in cultivating ties with the Taliban. Russia wants to protect its southern flank through an insurance against the spill-over effects of an ongoing war in Afghanistan. Its progressive disengagement and hostility with the US over the past five years as well as its permanent interests in the region, adds to the competition between Moscow and Washington.

In a press conference held on November 12, Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Ambassador Zamir Kabulov, said that initially Moscow had planned an inclusive meeting and obtained acceptance of important political personalities such as former president Hamid Karzai, former national security advisor Haneef Atmar (who is expected to run for the next presidential elections), the Hizb-e-Islami leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and prominent representatives of the Hazara as well as Tajik communities. The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, however, opposed the Russian plan on the ground that its participation in a meeting sponsored by a foreign government would constitute interference in the internal affairs of his country.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with members of delegations during the talks in Moscow. Credit: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

The Moscow meeting advertised the Taliban’s already well-known demands: that negotiations for peace and reconciliation will begin between the Taliban and the Afghan government only after the fixing of a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan. The Russian Federation, as also China, Iran, and Pakistan are in favour of the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. None of the Central Asian countries present at the Moscow meeting spoke in their statements about the need for a U.S. pull-out of troops as a precondition for direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Taliban representatives did not give much away as the Taliban is ascendant on the ground. The members of the High Peace Council had nothing substantive to say, other than making a plaintive appeal for peace and inviting the Taliban to be part of the country’s political process.

In a sense, the High Peace Council members, being the interlocutors for reconciliation with the armed opposition, represented the Afghan government, though formally no designated Afghan negotiators or plenipotentiaries were present in the Moscow meeting.

Besides insisting that any talks with the Afghan government will begin sequentially only after timelines for withdrawal are settled with the US, the Taliban have long demanded that meanwhile, as confidence-building measures, all its adherents held as prisoners be freed and anti-Taliban sanctions be removed.

Also read: A Middle Finger to the Past: Afghanistan Votes, Despite the Odds

The engagement with the Taliban is at a preliminary stage because aside from the demands mentioned, the Taliban have not yet unveiled the end-state envisioned by its leadership for Afghanistan, without which no settlement will be possible.

In case the US settles for withdrawal – with only a small military contingent and minimal air bases remaining on the ground –  in exchange for an interim administration which includes the Taliban, this would not be acceptable to the Afghan government. Taliban’s boycott of and armed opposition to the recently held parliamentary elections has not won them new friends among the population of Afghanistan.

Russia’s effort in September last year to host a similar meeting fell through primarily because the Afghan government was opposed to it at that time. They differed from the Russian assessment that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known also as ISIS or the Daesh), was the biggest threat to the future of Afghanistan and the region.

In his short statement, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said in reference to ISIS that as the spearhead of terrorists, supported by “its foreign patrons”, it “has tried to turn Afghanistan into a bridgehead for its expansion into Central Asia and the whole of our vast region.” It was obvious to his audience who these “foreign patrons” are likely to be. Russia has not forgotten that it was forced to withdraw from Afghanistan 30 years ago because of support and sponsorship provided to the Mujahideen, principally by the US.

After the Moscow meeting, Lavrov made an unexceptionable statement suggesting that the problems of Afghanistan could only be settled “politically”, through “the attainment of national accord” and with the involvement of “all the parties to the conflict.” This is a statement that gives the Afghan government some room for manoeuvre.

Russia has been able to underline that peace and reconciliation talks with the Taliban are not the exclusive preserve of the US. That is what Kabul too has gained from this meeting, even if it is well understood by all players that the main conversations will be between the Taliban and the US.

India’s participation

India is not opposed to an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process. Indeed, India supports any political intra-Afghan process in which Afghans take the lead and are in-charge. New Delhi believes the future of Afghanistan is a matter to be settled among Afghans, without outside interference. In fact, it is such interference that has been the bane of Afghanistan for 40 years. Some of Afghanistan’s neighbours and friends have undermined its sovereignty and integrity instead of supporting them.

Also read: Afghan Elections Overshadowed by Chaos, Corruption and Taliban Threats

India seeks the reverse, and that is why on the issue of talking to the Taliban, it naturally keeps discreetly a step behind that of the Afghan government.

India attended the Moscow meeting because the Russian Federation had convened it and invited India. Since the Afghan government decided to send members of the High Peace Council as ‘national’ yet ‘non-government’ institution representatives, India too sent two former diplomats but did not participate at the official level.

Future prospects

The end-game in Afghanistan is likely to be a long-drawn affair. The Taliban has not spelt out its plans, and neither for that matter has the Afghan government shown its hand.

Ambassador Khalilzad has presumably been given an unrealistically short time-line to produce results by President Trump. This is bound to bring him in conflict with the present political dispensation in Kabul, even with the sweetener that it can carry on until interim arrangements to bring the Taliban into the state structures are agreed upon.

What is needed in Afghanistan is patience and perseverance. Truckling to the Taliban’s demands will imply giving up gains made since 2001. Moreover, despite democracy and a deep sense of nationhood, Afghans are not deracinated. Hence, any new political dispensation must be acceptable to the diverse ethnicities that compose Afghan society. India, together with Afghanistan’s friends, must persevere for the longue durée.

Jayant Prasad has served as India’s ambassador to Afghanistan and as director general, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.