Afghanistan: It's what's for dinner. (side dishes include Iran and Pakistan)
Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently embarked on a trip to Qatar in order to touch base with Taliban representatives in Doha and discuss the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the group that was ousted by US led forces in 2001.
The Taliban have been in Doha since 2011 when they initially expressed their desire to set up some kind of office or outpost in the Qatari capital. Initially, fear arose from the Afghan government based on the idea that such an office could be used as a way to rally funding or support for the Taliban in the Persian Gulf. Afghanistan withdrew it’s ambassador to Qatar to show how strongly it disapproved of this action.
However, it seems that the Karzai government has now come full circle with the recent visit. While no substantive results have come from the meeting, the groundwork is being laid for some kind of negotiated settlement.
(Great article on Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) by Ali M. Latifi (@alibomaye) on Karzai’s visit: Talks with Taliban uncertain after Qatar meet – Features – Al Jazeera English.)
However, In my eyes, it is unlikely that any acceptable settlement can be reached; it is even less likely that any settlement will be reached before the US pullout in 2014.
First, let’s examine why it will be so difficult to reach a settlement that will be accepted by not only the negotiating parties, but also the citizenry of Afghanistan.
Let’s start with the Karzai government. They want to incorporate the Taliban into the Afghan political process, and as a result force the group to disarm, or at the very least, create a non-militant political wing (a la Hezbollah). While the ‘Hezbollah model’ might appeal to the Taliban in some ways by giving them two tracks through which to advance their goals, it is unlikely they would be readily accepted into any Karzai led government, or a government led by those close to Karzai. Karzai has a legacy as the ‘anti-Taliban’ candidate; the moderate Pashtun. This was why he made such an appealing choice to lead Afghanistan in 2001. His hands weren’t stained by the blood of the Afghan civil war, he had worked with other ethnic groups in the United Front prior to the US invasion, and had suffered personal loss at the hands of the Taliban (his father was assassinated in 1999 and the Taliban were implicated in the killing). In short, he summed up what Afghans wanted in a leader, because he was not unlike many other Afghans civilians. How can someone who came to power on that type of legacy suddenly say “Hey, no hard feelings guys, let’s put you on the ballot!” It would fracture and severely handicap his own government, and anyone who was gearing up for a 2014 run on the ‘Karzai Legacy’ platform.
Next, the Taliban. The Taliban has been pointing the finger of blame at Karzai since he has been in power. They accuse him of usurping their government. Of being an American puppet. Of being corrupt. Hard words to swallow. Would the ‘hard core’ Taliban suddenly accept the rule of Karzai’s government? It’s hard for me to imagine Mullah Omar and Karzai posing for a photo-op post negotiated settlement. In short, too many barbs, insults and bullets have been fired in Karzai’s direction by the Taliban for them to suddenly back off their hardline stance without changing the very fabric of their organization.
Finally, the Afghan citizenry. By 2014, the citizens of Afghanistan will have been caught in the crossfire of a war with the Taliban for twenty years. Most citizens and their families have suffered some form of hardship at the hands of the Taliban, ranging the scale from intimidation and beatings to public executions, suicide attacks and IED blasts. If the Taliban do not face some sort of punishment or rebuke for these actions, many in Afghanistan will feel as thought justice has escaped them. Karzai’s government has trouble enough gaining confidence amongst the citizenry without inviting the erstwhile oppressors and current source of violence into the governmental process.
These notions aside, let’s assume that Karzai, the Taliban and the citizens of Afghanistan in an unlikely turn were willing to let bygones be bygones. I still think it’s impossible for a settlement to be reached before the end of 2014. The first reason is, a new Afghan government will be elected in 2014. Is it beneficial for the Taliban to reach and agreement with Karzai now, knowing that any negotiation might be temporary depending on who comes out ahead in the 2014 election? Unlikely.
Secondly, negotiation 101 is to always negotiate from a position of power. The Taliban certainly has support both inside and outside of Afghanistan, but must constantly look over its shoulder as US troops are still on patrol, air and drone strikes are still common place and capture could result in being indefinitely detained by the US on charges of terrorism. Post-2014, as the US shifts its focus to ‘high value targets’, the rank and file Taliban will likely be afforded more free reign inside Afghanistan. The Afghan National Army is still hemorrhaging soldiers both due to desertion and an increase in combat deaths, there are major logistical and materiel issues plaguing the ANA and it is unlikely these issues will be fully resolved by the 2014 US pull out date. These potential hardships make the hard core and militant Taliban salivate as they see the US withdraw as their chance to get back the country that was taken from them in 2001. In short, the Taliban will be in a much more powerful position in regards to negotiations following the US withdraw and would likely be able to extract more from the Afghan government based on the threat of violence.
These factors make it extremely unlikely that a negotiated settlement will be reached before 2014, and even the prospects after that are bleak. I’m not advocating turning away from a negotiated settlement, if one can be reached, then by all means it should be explored. However, I feel there are too many pitfalls to really put any hope in a negotiated settlement (not to mention that the Taliban assassinated former Afghan president and principle negotiator Burhannudin Rabbani in 2011, acts like that don’t really send a message of ‘Let’s talk it out’).
Looks like we’re in store for another communication letdown.