10 February 2016
The background – Talking About Talks & the remaining inconvenient questions
On February 6, a meeting of the ‘Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) on Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Process’ took place in Islamabad. The QCG is a partnership between Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the United States (US) that seeks to promote a conducive environment for the commencement of Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace talks aimed at reducing violence and establishing lasting peace in Afghanistan and in the region as a whole. This latest meeting was third in the row of the QCG group this year.
The first meeting was held on January 11, 2016, in Islamabad, followed by a second one in Kabul on January 18. During these two meetings, the representatives of the four countries reiterated the commitment of their countries towards the realization of objectives expressed in their statement from the quadrilateral meeting held on the sidelines of the ‘Heart of Asia Conference’ in Islamabad on December 9, 2015. As such, the QCG meetings are a continuation of the so called ‘Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process (HOA-IP)’ which started in Turkey in 2011 and aimed at promoting regional security and cooperation for security and stability in Afghanistan (Istanbul Declaration). Inspired by the ‘spirit of Istanbul’, the group of the QCG countries are stressing that the process of initiating negotiation with the Taliban should lead to a political settlement and an end to violence, or at least a significant reduction of violence, in Afghanistan.
However, it is important to note, that besides the much discussed and criticised opening of the Taliban office in Doha, the efforts to facilitate direct peace talks between the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban did not produce any fruitful outcome. Even more important, is that they failed for the same reasons that existed till today. This therefore, raises some old as well as new questions: first, in general terms, what is different this time and might make the QCG initiative successful? And more specifically, how far can these four countries influence anything in Afghanistan?
The Actors-Change Conundrum – Why now?
Basically one can state that in order to change anything in the decades-long war-torn Afghanistan, one need actors who possess- the political will to improve the situation (even if it means that one must depart from its own partisan interests), the necessary financial and military resources, sufficient leverage among the Taliban and other militant groups, acceptance of and credibility among the Afghan people, and most importantly, Afghans who still believe in a peaceful future. Having these factors in mind and to prerecord, one can’t help anticipating but also the QCG meetings result in ‘talks about talks’. It is argued here, that the conditions responsible for the ongoing difficulties with arranging any peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban have not only remained the same, rather have also turned worse. In this regard, there are several indicators that need to be outlined and it necessitates some light on the political will and their capacities to bring out change in the actors involved.
Pakistan & China: Lack of credibility and policy of ambiguity
As long as Pakistan continues its support and sponsorship for certain radicalized Islamist organizations, which are either directly or indirectly, promoting militant, terrorist activities against the Afghan state and society as well as civilians and troops of the international community, there will be no peace and stability. In this context, Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership should reassess their relationship with Jihadist organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and its front (or better cover) organization Jamaat ud-Dawah (JUD), the al-Akhtar Trust (a front organization for terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed) and al-Rashid Trust (a Pakistani Deobandi terrorist group active in India & Afghanistan). There is no doubt about the fact that there will be no peace without the collaboration of Pakistan. However, Islamabad remains as an actor which lacks credibility when it comes to terms with peace and stability in Afghanistan. Furthermore, even if Pakistan continues support for Jihadist organization, its relationship with the Taliban was always and is still complex as well as complicated. In other words, it is not clear how much influence Pakistan has over the Taliban.
In this context, the sudden appearance and active role of China at the negotiating table was rather a matter of time rather than a real surprise. Nevertheless, acting for last one and a half decade as an‘economic free rider’ with minimal involvement in the Afghan internal political developments, one must wonder about the motives of Beijing’s new diplomatic engagement. Taking the ongoing major development projects into account, especially Beijing’s ‘one road, one belt (OROB)’, it seems that there is a new quality of China’s interest in Afghanistan, which goes beyond the rational of exploitation of natural resources. The OROB initiative aims at in linking China with Asia and Europe as well as to improve connectivity with the Middle East and Africa via numerous gigantic infrastructure projects, like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The initial rational of this whole development program was to boost Chinas’ slackening economy, especially in its western, landlocked province Xinjiang. The project should help to bridge the imbalance in development between the prosperous eastern and underdeveloped western part of China. Against this backdrop it is apparent that China’s leadership is keen on peace in Afghanistan in order to ensure stability in Central Asia which is a sine qua non condition for its grand vision of regional development and cooperation. Furthermore, besides this economic reasoning there is also a concrete political interest behind fostering peace negotiation. China’s western province is not only troubled by economic underdevelopment but also hit by a religious motivated separatist movement of local Muslim Uyghurs. Radicalized elements among the Uyghur militants maintain close links with the Taliban and other terrorist groups in neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over the years both countries have served as a platform for activities to destabilize China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The fact that international terror groups like Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda is calling for ‘Global Jihad’ against China for being anti-Muslim reflects the tremendous security challenge for Beijing’s decision-makers.
Having said so, it becomes less difficult to understand China’s point of view with respect to its actions regarding the current Afghan peace talks in order to contain violence. However, China’s diplomacy speaks its own language which might rather complicate the efforts for reconciliation. It seems that China’s strategy regarding Afghanistan is torn between the perceived necessity to please its ‘all-weather-friend’ Pakistan and its own interests to ensure stability in Afghanistan. For example, it is astonishing that Beijing still continues to block UN sanctions (based on Resolution 1267) against Pakistan based on terrorists and Jihadist organizations (for example LeT/JUD, al-Akhtar Trust, al-Rashid Trust). It is important to note that these militant elements don’t just have the operational base in Pakistan but also in Afghanistan. Therefore, China’s (as well as Pakistan’s) position during the negation process might face critics of ambiguity, especially through the lens of the Afghan government.
The US and Afghan government do not operate from a position of strength
The US as the initial prime negotiator has nothing really to offer to the Taliban to make them stop their ongoing violent attacks and bring them to the negotiation table. The fact that US is perceived to have lost the battle in Afghanistan in last 15 years, has reduced their significance and thus, has given more room to Pakistan and Chinese delegations to manoeuvre. The Afghan government, which is evidently the weakest actor in the whole process, mostly had a ‘rubber-stamp-function,’ that is, to provide official Afghan legitimacy for potential upcoming negotiations and arrangements on the country’s future trajectory. In contrast, Taliban enjoyed a tremendous rise of power and gained control over the territory. Today, most of the rural areas are under the rule of the Taliban or other militant groups. Even in the north, which was a traditional stronghold of anti-Taliban forces, have come under Taliban’s control. The battle of Kunduz, one of the larger urban areas of the country and the temporary taking over of the city by the Taliban can be seen as examples which reflect the failure of the Afghan army from keeping the militant oppositional forces at bay. In this context, it is important to note that in the last decade, Taliban has grown stronger not only militarily but also economically . Given Taliban’s awareness of its own strength compounded with the weakness of the Afghan government, the loss of political will among the international community to be military involved in Afghanistan, and the reduction of the US engagement in the region- makes the Taliban a difficult negotiation partner, if they join the talks at all.
Taliban and Peace: An unequal equation?
In order to assess a potential role of the Taliban in the next round of the peace negotiation process, it is interesting to have a look at the internal dynamics of the Taliban movement since last year. For the 2015 negotiation attempt, which was pushed by Pakistan (Murree process) and supported by China, broke down in July 2015 after it became known to the Taliban leader Mullah Omar. After Omar’s death, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor was appointed to be the new leader of the Taliban. Being generally portrayed as a pragmatic and protagonist of negotiations for a political settlement to end the ongoing armed insurgency of the Taliban and affiliated groups to topple the western-backed government in Kabul, created a new hope for a peace process. But quite from the start as new leader, Mansoor had to face an identity crises of the Afghan Taliban over the dilemma of continue fighting or entering peace negotiating. Subsequently, he had to deal with severe factionalism within the movement, and much critic, especially, from the ideological hardliners and many of the battle-field commanders who rather prefer to fight than to talk. In this process, the advent of IS in Afghanistan was an additional challenge.
However, after months of infightings, today it seems that the most crucial transitions in leadership and organisational structures as well as power shifts within the Taliban movement made substantial progress, and that Afghanistan’s Taliban are closing ranks around their new leader. This phenomenon might help to serve the goal of bringing Taliban factions into the negotiation process. But even if the Taliban joins the next round of talks, they will have their own agenda in the negotiation process, which will not necessarily match the prospects for Afghanistan as envisaged by the government in Kabul and by the Afghan people.
Final thoughts – How sustainable would be political solution?
Even if the Taliban is following the calls and the ongoing ‘peace talks’ lead to a political settlement, it will still remain as an expression of hopeless ‘expedient optimism’. There are several reasons to say so as:
First, two of the main facilitators -Pakistan and China- should know that the Taliban never stick to their promises. For example, until today, the Pakistan Taliban have broken each agreement with the country’s military. Likewise, despite giving Beijing guarantees that Afghan territory (during the Taliban regime from 1996-2001) will not be used for anti-Chinese activities, Taliban turned a blind eye towards their Uighur affiliates by carrying out terrorists activities in order to destabilize China’s western Xinjiang province. The fact on the ground proves that, until now neither China’s nor Pakistan’s influence have helped to reduce the level of violence in the country. Furthermore, neither the Afghan government nor the US will address the Taliban condition for peace, that is, the total withdrawal of foreign troops. This will remain as a permanent trigger for armed conflicts. Furthermore, one should always keep in mind that Mullah Akhtar Mansoor has also a history of being a hardliner and a ruthless, stone-hard ‘political strategist’. When he is convinced that a more radical stand would serve to manifest his position within the movement’s inner- and outer relations, it can be expected of him to switch again to a more hard-line stand. Latter one could result in an end of any peace negotiation.
Second, even if the most significant sections within the Taliban movement (meaning those providing and controlling most of the fighters) are willing to negotiate a political solution to end the war, there is the severe threat that fighters attracted by the Islamic State (IS) -which is persistently expanding its influence in Afghanistan- will continue their fights to undermine any sustainable peace in the country. In this context, one should not forget that most of the middle and lower ranks of the Taliban are just mercenaries and/or part-time fighters. They are fighting for money rather than for any religious creed, and are increasingly attracted by the success and large financial resources of IS. Any ceasefire in Afghanistan or changing towards another battle field of global jihad (like Syria) is not in their interests.
Third, and most important crux of the matter is (even if Afghan government and Taliban would meet the demands and conditions) that Taliban interpret the ‘talks’ as a broadening of the armed struggle rather than a ‘peace negotiation’. The talks are seen as an extension of their militant activities into the political arena. In other words, through the current round of peace talks Taliban will get an additional opportunity to undermine Afghanistan’s democracy from within and to push their Islamic fundamentalist agenda in the political-administrative structure. The tremendous rise of highly radicalized Islamist clerics in state and society in the last few years have prepared the ground for the Taliban to regain political leverage. Furthermore, looking at the development of previous talk initiatives as well as subsequent agreements and their ‘implementation’ it is legitimate to question the credibility of Taliban commitments especially, regarding the hold of a future ceasefire agreement.
Last but not the least, since the IS and other terrorist groups are not interested in a political solution, any potential results of a sustainable peace process by Afghan government and Taliban remains an illusion. Thereby, fighting will remain rather as a norm than an exception.