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The Uncertainties Of The Afghan-Taliban Peace Talks

28/12/2015 8:17 AM IST | Updated 29/08/2016 9:00 PM IST
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Afghan security forces patrol near their base in the Marjah district of Helmand Province on December 23, 2015. Military planes have dropped food and ammunition to besieged Afghan forces battling to push Taliban insurgents out of Sangin, officials said December 22, two days after the emboldened militants stormed the opium-growing district. Islamists have captured large swathes of the district in the southern province of Helmand which British and US forces struggled for years to defend.Fleeing local residents reported bloody gunfights as the Taliban advanced on the district centre, highlighting a worsening security situation across Afghanistan a year after NATO formally ended its combat operations. AFP PHOTO / Noor Mohammad / AFP / NOOR MOHAMMAD (Photo credit should read NOOR MOHAMMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Peace talks with the Afghan Taliban are once again on Kabul's agenda. During Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's visit to Islamabad earlier this month, both Afghanistan and Pakistan committed to work together to restart the process.

This renewed attempt at engaging with the Taliban comes amidst other positive developments in the region. There has been progress in India-Pakistan relations, with both countries agreeing to revive the formal bilateral dialogue, which had been suspended in 2012 following the beheading of an Indian soldier along the Line of Control. The foundation stone for the much delayed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline was also finally laid this month. The prevailing insecurity in the region, especially the Taliban-dominated southern Afghan provinces through which the proposed pipeline will traverse, has just been one of the many obstacles that have prevented this project from even getting off the ground.

Many past meetings have been completely rejected by the Taliban on account of the alleged representatives not being authorised to negotiate on its behalf.

Efforts at reaching a political agreement with the Taliban (an ongoing process for nearly five years now) have gained urgency following the international military drawdown from Afghanistan. This year, in particular, saw much development with a series of exchanges in Urumqi (China), Doha, Oslo and the much hyped meeting in Murree in July, which was the first time that direct "authorised" talks between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives occurred on Pakistani soil. The fallout from the revelations about Mullah Omar's death however made sure that this latest phase in the reconciliation process came to a premature halt.

Pakistan's role in this renewed attempt is naturally going to be under strict scrutiny. However, if the Taliban does accept the offer of resuming the talks, then there are various Taliban-specific variables that deserve more attention than Pakistan.

For starters, there is always the issue of "legitimacy" of any Taliban delegation, which surfaces for such talks. Many past meetings have been completely rejected by the Taliban on account of the alleged representatives not being authorised to negotiate on its behalf.

Even the Murree meeting was marred by such issues. Some reports quoted Taliban officials as rejecting the notion that this meeting had the necessary approval and criticising Pakistan for hijacking the peace process. At the same time, this incident also highlighted an internal turf war between the Quetta Shura and the Taliban's political office in Doha, over which group is the authorised negotiator.

A similar scenario can very easily play out once again as Kabul attempts to reach out to the "reconcilable" Taliban. There continues to be uncertainty about the new Taliban emir Mullah Mansour's stance on the peace process. Whilst governing in the name of Mullah Omar for two years, it may have been possible for him to give consent to such meetings in the past.

There continues to be uncertainty about the new Taliban emir Mullah Mansour's stance on the peace process.

However, Mansour may no longer have that operational space available to him as he grapples desperately to consolidate his position within the movement. Consequently, the reconcilable elements may act independently of Mansour, and any outcome as such would not be very effective. Alternatively, even if they act at his behest, doubts could still be cast on their authenticity by the Taliban leadership to maintain a clause of deniability, given the opposition within the Taliban ranks, to the peace talks.

This may not be the worst-case scenario even if it adds to the prevailing confusion. However, any inclination to not publically acknowledge the leadership's consent for the peace talks highlights the issue of "representativeness". The factionalism within the Taliban that had been apparent for some time has now come to the surface with the confirmation of Mullah Omar's death.

There has been growing opposition to Mansour's appointment among a number of high-level and prominent Taliban leaders. An armed rival faction, Higher Council of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan led by Mullah Rasul, emerged in November this year. This is in addition to the defections of the Taliban fighters to the Islamic State (IS), that started in late 2014, who prefer to carry on fighting under the IS umbrella than accept a peace settlement, or Mansour's leadership.

Given this predicament, and the strong opposition from a number of Taliban commanders to the peace process, it is worth asking if Mansour or the "reconcilable" elements can even ensure the collective adherence to any subsequent peace agreement.

[Their] violent campaign will strengthen the position of the Taliban at the peace table, and their resiliency and military potency may allow them to negotiate from a stronger position.

Finally, there is the issue of "leverage". Afghanistan has just witnessed its most violent year since 2001. Even while Ghani was meeting with the Pakistanis, the Taliban orchestrated two major attacks in Kabul and Kandahar. In September, they managed to capture Kunduz in northern Afghanistan and were making significant inroads into Helmand province in southern Afghanistan in December. This violent campaign will strengthen the position of the Taliban at the peace table, and their resiliency and military potency may allow them to negotiate from a stronger position. Most of the recent Taliban statements -- including those issued in the name of Mullah Omar -- suggest that while the possibility of reconciliation remains, the insurgents are not willing to consider any significant concessions.

Kabul has repeatedly given assurances that peace with the Taliban would not be at the cost of the gains achieved over the past 14 years. The bargaining strength, however, when -- and if -- official talks commence will be determined largely by the military balance on the ground.

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