Taliban-US talks: There is more to it than meets the eye

Taliban-US talks: There is more to it than meets the eye

Salman Rafi Sheikh,
US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad

After meeting US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan Taliban are said to have agreed to hold a second round of talks on paving the way for a negotiated end to the war and reach a political settlement. While it may seem that Khalilzad, a Pashtun-Afghan by birth, is getting traction despite the earlier cold response that his appointment in this capacity had received, his ability to push the Afghan Taliban to the talks table and thus end the war remains constricted due not only to the old stigmas attached to his personality but also factors beyond his control.

Already, his appointment by the US president and preliminary negotiations with the Taliban has raised opposition within Afghanistan. For instance, Afghanistan’s former chief of the National Directorate of Security Amrullah Saleh said recently that Khalilzad doesn’t have the authority or even the necessary mandate to speak on behalf of the Afghans and that the talks were meaningless insofar as no Afghan representative was included.

Among the persons who have reportedly opposed the absence of Afghan stake-holders is President Ashraf Ghani who has reportedly been completely left out of the talks mechanisms and was not even ‘aware’ of the latest Khalilzad-Taliban meeting held in Qatar, leading him to furiously call it a “breach of trust” between the allies. According to reports, he learnt about the meeting through a Taliban press release.

Clearly, this points to the first major challenge that the negotiators are faced with in Afghanistan. Khalilizad& Co. are facing a dual dilemma. On the one hand, they want to convince the Afghan Taliban of the necessity of talks as the only means to end the war. On the other, they want to convince the Afghan stake-holders that the only means to end the war is a potential return of the Taliban as a political force in Afghanistan’s politics, which is hard for many Afghan stakeholders to accept and reconcile their political position as such.

Not just this, for Khalilzad & Co. the real issue is to find a way to balance the Taliban’s demand for complete troops withdrawal with a political set-up of the kind that doesn’t simply allow the Taliban a walkover and allow them to re-establish their dominant position they established in the 1990s.

Therefore, for Khalilzad & Co. it is not going to be a case of bringing the Taliban to a point in reconciliation and present the rest of the Afghans with a fait accompli, for, unless the US actually wants to create new divisive political fault-lines in Afghanistan, it will have to do extensive negotiations with all stake-holders, including the Taliban and non-Taliban groups, war-lords and ethnic elites.

But such problems could crop up for the Taliban too. For them, bringing the US to the negotiating table might mean a partial success in that the US had earlier decided not to participate in the talks. But there is no gainsaying that the Taliban’s fundamental demand of troops withdrawal will involve a lot of bargaining with the US, and this demand would remain unfulfilled unless it can agree to a political formula that suits the interests of both the US and other Afghan stake-holders.

An additional challenge for the Taliban, as such, is also to make sure that the agreed political formula doesn’t reduce their victory on the ground into a defeat on the table and the future parliament they would be members of.

Given the crosscutting nature of the dialogue, there is likelihood of yet another stalemate. But the question is: can all of the parties involved, including the Taliban, afford such a break down?

This might not be the case, and should the talks to fail, Afghanistan could turn into a hotbed of super-power rivalry between the US, Russia and China. As of recently, both Russia and China have significantly increased their reach into Afghanistan with the sole aim of ending the conflict and paving the way for a permanent US exit, a position they think the US wants to use against their interests.

Russia sees the US presence in Afghanistan as a military outpost overlooking Central Asia and Russia. For China, a continued US military presence means that it will probably never be able to either extend CPEC to Afghanistan or put its resources for geo-economic use.

This rivalry might intensify in the wake of a failure to reach a settlement for two basic reasons. First, the US-Russia fallout over Syria might start affecting their policies and behaviour in Afghanistan vis-à-vis each other. Secondly, in the wake of the on-going China-US trade war, competition between them over controlling and exploiting Afghanistan’s resources might intensify. Besides, the US’ known opposition to CPEC reveals why it wouldn’t want to see heightened Chinese presence in Afghanistan.

The Taliban, therefore, are also under pressure because a failure to reach a settlement would put their new friends—China and Russia—in an unnecessary conflict with the US, and they wouldn’t want to see their new allies getting frustrated at their inability to find a way out of the war. There is as such little gainsaying that the outcome of these talks would re-set, in one way or the other, the region’s geo-politics.