The announcement by the United States that it intends to enter into direct negotiations with the Afghan Taliban represents a significant opportunity to manage the Western “exit” from the country by the end of 2014. The fact that the announcement was made at the G8 meeting and that the Taliban have not rejected it is relatively promising.
On the other hand, President Karzai’s angry reaction, suspending US-Afghan negotiations on post-2014 security arrangements and his refusal to participate in any peace process with the Taliban until there is Afghan leadership of such talks highlights the inherent difficulties of bringing all the relevant parties together in a meaningful negotiation process.
Efforts to establish a joined-up process as part of the Western exit strategy from Afghanistan have a relatively long history. The announcement by the US, carefully synchronised with respective statements coming out of Pakistan and Qatar, is, in many ways, the culmination of developments that go back for more than two years.
Most significantly, almost exactly to the day two years ago, the creation of United Nations Security Council of Resolutions 1988 and 1989, separating the formerly single sanctions list against the Taliban and al-Qaeda into two created an opportunity, now fully realised, for some sections among the Afghan Taliban to establish a “political wing” to enter into negotiations.
Who will run the talks?
The question, however, that remains open, and has been put into sharp relief by Karzai’s decision to put a halt on Afghan-US relations and to boycott US-Taliban peace negotiations, is who will call the shots and ultimately decide on the future of Afghanistan. While it is clearly a matter first and foremost for Afghans to decide their future, it would be foolish to deny that the US, even as it and its allies prepare for exit, remains a key player in the conflict in Afghanistan.
This is for two reasons. On the one hand, the US is an actual party to the conflict, having invaded Afghanistan in an act of self-defence following the events of 9/11. Washington thus has a clearly obvious interest, and mandate, to be part of a settlement process with both the Afghan government and the Taliban. On the other hand, any deal on the future of Afghanistan will need strong international backing and guarantees, including security guarantees, which in turn will require the US to play some role.
Karzai’s insistence on an Afghan-led process is understandable in that it will be Afghans who will have to live under any settlement that might be agreed. Afghan leadership, and more so ownership, of the process is important, but no settlement will be sustainable unless it also involves the US and Pakistan and addresses a multitude of issues beyond governance arrangements in Afghanistan, including any future US presence in the country and relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Where does Pakistan stand?
Yet the United States is not the only important outside player. Pakistan has been instrumental in pushing the Taliban to agree to direct talks and the UN Security Council will be crucial for both the success of negotiations and the implementation of any agreement achieved. As the main “sponsor” of the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan has leverage over its leadership, but is at the same time exposed to conflicts with its own Taliban. Pakistan has also had a complex, difficult, and arguably deteriorating relationship with the US for at least a decade.
Pakistan has an interest in stability in Afghanistan, and in particular in limiting the destabilising spill-over effects back and forth across the two countries' common border. Some sections among the Pakistani elites, especially within the military, however, bear significant responsibility for the situation that developed after the 2001 invasion, and subsequent occupation, of Afghanistan by the US and its allies. At the same time, Afghanistan has historically been a battleground of the enduring rivalry between India and Pakistan. Pakistan’s best chance to avoid a pro-Indian government in Kabul is perhaps to play a constructive role in comprehensive peace negotiations that can secure a role for its Taliban allies in a future Afghan government.
Does it take four to tango?
Thus, there are at least four parties involved in a so-far fragmented process to bring stability to Afghanistan - the Afghan government, the Afghan Taliban, the US and Pakistan. Their relationships are primarily bilateral and they are fraught with difficulties and beset by uneasy legacies. For example, relations between the US and Pakistan have for several years now been dominated by the use of drones, primarily against al-Qaeda associated targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan, a strategy that successive Pakistani governments have publicly condemned, but most likely privately supported and facilitated.
Relations between the US and Afghanistan are also increasingly marred by public disagreements, the latest example of this, of course, being Karzai’s condemnation of the US announcement of opening direct talks with the Taliban.
Equally, not all is well between the US and the Taliban either: the day the intention to open talks was announced, a Taliban attack on Bagram airbase killed four US service personnel.
These few examples illustrate that there is little if any common ground between the four key parties to the conflict in Afghanistan, that their interests and demands significantly diverge on major issues, and that (apart from the US), they are internally highly factionalised.
As I argued two years ago, negotiating with the Taliban is not an easy or straightforward process. The success of these negotiations is certainly not a foregone conclusion. Moreover, the overall challenge is not simply to achieve a deal between the US and the Taliban, but to embed it into a more comprehensive process that locks all four parties into a sustainable peace settlement.
Despite understandable misgivings that one may have about negotiating with the Taliban - and despite the very obvious difficulties that the establishment, and successful conclusion, of a joined-up peace process for Afghanistan has - it remains, for the time being, the centrepiece of peace efforts and the one and only hope that the people of Afghanistan have to determine a peaceful and secure future for themselves.