Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban Islamist movement has been talking to the United States since July. But its refusal to directly negotiate with the Afghan government has emerged as the main hurdle to a comprehensive peace settlement to end more than four decades of war in Afghanistan.
It is strange that the Taliban are mainly fighting a war with Afghan government forces but are negotiating only with the United States. It is telling that, since September 2014, 45,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers have been killed in fighting with the Taliban and other insurgent groups. The United States and the NATO-led coalition it leads had less than 100 fatalities in the same period.
In recent months, the Taliban feel strengthened by indications that Washington is eager to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. They have read signs of a U.S. military drawdown as evidence of their victory after 18 years of fighting. The movement sees the United States as exhausted by the war in Afghanistan and thus want to push for maximum advantage.
The Taliban have many arguments for not negotiating with the Afghan government. The movement, which formally calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, still views itself as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Its leaders have repeatedly argued that their government was overthrown by the U.S.-led military intervention in late 2001. The Taliban still see Afghanistan as occupied by foreign forces.
Thus they consider the government in Kabul a puppet regime with no real power, and in their view negotiations with the Afghan government would grant it legitimacy. The Taliban are also worried that negotiations with the Afghan government will weaken their organization because foot soldiers will inevitably question the motives of their leaders for leading them into an aimless war for 18 years.
But such arguments will not change the facts on the ground, and the Taliban cannot ignore the Afghan government. They have two choices: They can either become part of the current Afghan political system or push for a military strategy aimed at eventually overrunning Kabul after the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
If they adopt the first choice, they are unlikely to win the Afghan presidential elections scheduled for September because they have limited popular appeal and only represent a small fraction of Afghanistan’s estimated 35 million people. Most Afghans oppose the Taliban because of their atrocities and conservative ideology. A nationwide poll in 2015 found that 92 percent of Afghans supported the Kabul government and only 4 percent favored the Taliban.
While the Taliban control or contest nearly half of Afghanistan, the vast majority of the area under insurgent control are remote rural regions where just 10 percent of the Afghan population lives. The Taliban do not control even one of the 34 provincial capitals.
Most significantly, the Taliban are unlikely to participate in elections because they are against participatory democracy. The argument that representative democracy is against Islamic Shari’a law is echoed throughout Taliban literature. Now that the Taliban have enormous military power, they are unlikely to embrace the path of democracy where they will probably lose the power accumulated through violence.
Such complications appear to have prompted the Taliban to only talk to Washington so they can only discuss the withdrawal of U.S. forces in return for some guarantees that Afghanistan will not revert to a terrorist haven. It is possible the Taliban might demand complete control over the Afghan government or over several strategic eastern and southern provinces.
Kabul, on the other hand, appears willing to make key concessions. The Afghan government is ready to review the constitution, recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political party, and accept insurgent demands within constitutional limitations.
It is obvious that the Taliban are pushing for a route that will guarantee a share or monopoly over power without facing elections where they are unlikely to attract popular support.
It is important to discuss the Taliban’s assurances that they will not attempt to recapture Kabul by force. For many Afghans, however, these ring hollow because the Islamist mujahedin parties made similar noises after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989. They ultimately pushed for a military victory, which thrust Afghanistan deep into a brutal civil war.
Afghanistan’s status as an ethnically mixed country with no single group enjoying an absolute numeric majority adds to the challenges for the Taliban. Durable peace in the country will require considering the interests and addressing concerns of all ethnic groups in Afghanistan. The Taliban cannot do this on their own because they have historically relied on Pashtun clerics. While they have made inroads into some Sunni Tajik and Uzbek communities, they are far from claiming that they can represent these communities. The Taliban have no support among the predominantly Shi’ite Hazara community. Given their track record of meting out harsh punishments, the Taliban are unlikely to appeal to Afghan women, whose lot has changed significantly during the past 18 years.
Thus, any negotiations to determine the future of Afghanistan cannot happen in the absence of the country’s democratically elected and globally recognized government, which enjoys the support of all ethnicities. Ignoring this vital reality will only create obstacles and eventually lead to another conflict.
It is a good omen that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently consulted prominent Afghan political leaders “to reach a unified stance on the peace process.”
Given that an intra-Afghan settlement could ultimately guarantee sustainable peace in Afghanistan, both the Afghan government and the Taliban should avail of this opportunity.
The Taliban must talk with the government while Kabul must give space to the Taliban in the current political system on a scale replicating the national unity government in 2014. This is the only path to end the four-decades-long war.
Hizbullah Khan is a Pakistan based journalist and political analyst. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.