President Ghani extended Oliver branch to the Taliban at the Kabul Process-II meeting on 28 February 2018 announcing a comprehensive peace proposal to the armed opposition group. The road map unveiled by the President had all demands of Taliban put forth from time to time accepted barring announcement of a timeframe for withdrawal of the foreign forces from Afghan soil. Even this very concern, to a certain extent, has been addressed by Kabul proposing that the demand can be first discussion point during the peace negotiation. Talking to the local media, Chief Executive Officer of the High Peace Council last week said that as part of negotiation, the withdrawal of the international forces from Afghanistan can be discussed as first agenda point.
Following announcement of the comprehensive offer, Afghan public has also been calling upon the Taliban to explore ending the longstanding Afghan conflict through political settlement. Helmand sit-in has been one of the many forums for raising voice in support of the peace process. The sit-in has been organized in the aftermath of a deadly suicide attack in Laskargah city of Helmand province, a suite which is now being followed in many other provinces. Such unprecedented initiatives have been additional source of pressure on Taliban making it difficult for them to ignore Kabul’s peace offer.
However, Taliban has not offered a reaction, negative or positive, after over seven weeks since the Kabul Process-II. The long silence has been uncharacteristic of the Taliban who have always been very fast to refute any peace offer in the past; they have always had reasons to refuse. The delay has been a clear indication that the Taliban are faced with conundrum. The road map offered by President Ghani has left Taliban with limited reasons to continue fighting and avoid peace negotiations. Having said this, it has also been difficult for the Taliban to join formal negotiation process mainly because they fear that this might harm legitimacy of the war they have been waging since collapse of their theocratic regime in 2001.
The Taliban has their struggle rooted in a narrative that sees the post 9/11 Kabul regime as puppet of the western countries and call the presence of foreign forces operating under the United Nations’ Security Council mandate as invaders. The narrative, further supported by bad governance and corrupt judicial system, has helped Taliban not only mobilize foot soldiers but also financial resources inside Afghanistan and beyond. Agreeing to peace talks with a government that has always been tagged as marionette will potentially cause skepticism among ranks and files as the group would have opted to negotiate with a regime they always portrayed as dummy. Joining the peace process can make the mid-level leadership and foot soldiers, the segment of Taliban practically engaged on the battlefield, question legitimacy of the anti-Kabul government rhetoric.
In addition, since there are segments of hardliners among the Taliban only believing in military conquest, the Taliban leadership may be wary of formation of fictions among their ranks at the senior level. The Taliban can be classified in to three main groups namely clergy which gives religious legitimacy to the ongoing Taliban warfare; political leadership responsible for political agenda setting; and military that is engaged in ambush. Hence, there should be a concern among Taliban leadership that in case they opted to join dialogue for political settlement, there might be breakaway fictions causing disharmony within the very coherent structure.
There is no guarantee that the peace talks between Kabul administration and Taliban will make headways. As is the nature of peace negotiation process, it usually is tiresome, time consuming and long process with equal possibility of failure and success. Hence, the Taliban are not prepared to risk their well-established structure, strong narrative and network of formal and informal relations with people and entities for the overture. However, denying the comprehensive peace proposal presented by President Ghani and mounting public pressure has faced Taliban with a dilemma.
In the light of the challenges that Taliban are faced with, expecting the militant group to provide a formal response to Kabul Process-II package of President Ghani will be naïve. In a context where the Taliban are not able to make decisions, Ghani administration should take one step further by finding avenues to open behind the scene channels for commencement of peace negotiations as part of track-1.5 and track-2 diplomacy. In the past, Kabul has been least interested in informal talks with a belief that it could distract attention from formal negotiations. However, given the circumstances and concessions offered as part of the overture in Kabul Process-II, this additional brave step can be decisive in the quest for peace in Afghanistan.
The opportunity to engage in peace process without public announcement will provide Taliban a chance to test the waters vis a vis peace negotiation and its potential for success. During the process, the two sides can agree on distinct set of actions as part of confidence building measures as well. As the negotiations mature, parties to the negotiation can gradually make their progress public and engage additional stakeholders as required for the success of the process. Now that President Ghani has offered a very generous package meeting almost all demands of the opposition groups, one additional step could lead to a long awaited peace talks.
Mr. Mushtaq Rahim (@mushtaq_rahim) is board member of ADSO and an independent political and security analyst, and expert on conflict management and peacebuilding. He has been working in Afghanistan for the last 16 years on promotion of good governance with specific focus on security sector reforms and peacebuilding. He holds a Master of Arts in Conflict, Peace and Security besides Maters Degree in Business Administration.