icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
Talking About Talks: Toward a Political Settlement in Afghanistan
Talking About Talks: Toward a Political Settlement in Afghanistan
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 221 / Asia

Talking About Talks: Toward a Political Settlement in Afghanistan

A major course correction is needed if talks with the Taliban are to have any chance of delivering sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

Executive Summary

A negotiated political settlement is a desirable outcome to the conflict in Afghanistan, but current talks with the Taliban are unlikely to result in a sustainable peace. There is a risk that negotiations under present conditions could further destabilise the country and region. Debilitated by internal political divisions and external pressures, the Karzai government is poorly positioned to cut a deal with leaders of the insurgency. Afghanistan’s security forces are ill-prepared to handle the power vacuum that will occur following the exit of international troops. As political competition heats up within the country in the run-up to NATO’s withdrawal of combat forces at the end of 2014, the differing priorities and preferences of the parties to the conflict – from the Afghan government to the Taliban leadership to key regional and wider international actors – will further undermine the prospects of peace. To avoid another civil war, a major course correction is needed that results in the appointment of a UN-mandated mediation team and the adoption of a more realistic approach to resolution of the conflict.

No matter how much the U.S. and its NATO allies want to leave Afghanistan, it is unlikely that a Washington-brokered power-sharing agreement will hold long enough to ensure that the achievements of the last decade are not reversed. A lasting peace accord will ultimately require far more structured negotiations, under the imprimatur of the UN, than are presently being pursued. The Security Council should mandate Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to appoint a small team of mutually agreeable mediators as soon as possible to ensure that critical stakeholders are fully consulted and will remain engaged in the negotiations process. The unequivocal commitment of the Security Council, which includes among its members Pakistan (through December 2013), will be vital to this endeavour. Consultations on preparations for the appointment and organisation of the team and the appointment of an individual to lead it should begin immediately with the aim of having the team in place well before the security transition is completed.

So far there is little evidence that any of the parties to the conflict recognise the urgency of the situation. Instead of a sequenced roadmap that would prioritise domestic reconciliation and include basic political reforms, accompanied by a multilateral mediation effort, the Afghan government and its international backers have adopted a market-bazaar approach to negotiations. Bargains are being cut with any and all comers, regardless of their political relevance or ability to influence outcomes. Far from being Afghan-led, the negotiating agenda has been dominated by Washington’s desire to obtain a decent interval between the planned U.S. troop drawdown and the possibility of another bloody chapter in the conflict. The material effect of international support for negotiations so far has been to increase the incentives for spoilers, who include insurgents, government officials and war profiteers of all backgrounds and who now recognise that the international community’s most urgent priority is to exit Afghanistan with or without a settlement.

The government’s efforts to start negotiations have been both half-hearted and haphazard. Amid fundamental disagreements over the very meaning of reconciliation, the process appears focused on political accommodation with a phalanx of unsavoury powerbrokers. The rhetorical clamour over talks about talks has led to desperate and dangerous moves on the part of the government to bring purported leaders from the three main insurgent groups – the Taliban, Hizb-e Islami and the Haqqani network – to the negotiating table. This state of confusion has stoked fears among ethnic minorities, civil society and women that the aim of Karzai’s reconciliation policy is primarily to shore up his constituency among conservative Pashtun elites at the expense of hard-fought protections for Afghan citizens. A thorough reassessment of Karzai’s national reconciliation policy, the role of the High Peace Council and the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) is urgently needed. The program has faced staunch resistance from local security officials mistrustful of participants’ motives, and its impact has been minimal at best.

The Afghan government must include all relevant domestic stakeholders in the negotiation process rather than the current amalgam of warlords. A small team of designated negotiators with demonstrated expertise in national and international affairs should be selected to shape the agenda. The government’s negotiating team should reflect the country’s diversity – linguistically, ethnically, religiously and otherwise – and should include representatives from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and the National Security Council (NSC). The inclusion of members of the political opposition – conservatives and progressives alike – will be crucial to the team’s success. Kabul should also ensure that a settlement is fully inclusive and protective of all citizens’ rights. Greater transparency in the conduct of negotiations and more vigorous public outreach to the political opposition, ethnic minorities, women and a wide range of civil society actors will be critical in winning back the confidence of citizens in the negotiation process.

Confidence-building measures should not be limited to simply winning over Taliban support for negotiations but rather focus on ensuring the broadest buy-in for a settlement. Any deal that appears to give preferential treatment to the Taliban is likely to spark a significant backlash from the Northern Alliance, Hizb-e Islami and other major factions. A deal that aims at simply appeasing the Taliban could also lead to defections within government institutions, particularly the security forces. As dramatised by the widespread violence prompted by the burning of several copies of the Quran at the military base in Bagram in February 2012, all indicators point to a fragile political order that could rapidly disintegrate into a more virulent civil war, if the Afghan government and international community are unable to arrive at a more sustainable approach to settlement that moves beyond carving up the spoils of government.

External actors can act as either spoilers or facilitators of any internal negotiation process. While the negotiation process must be Afghan-led, any settlement would need substantial assistance from a neutral third party. The UN, aided by input from regional and other bodies such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), has a crucial role to play. The UN Secretary-General should use his good offices to expand consultations with Kabul and key regional and extra-regional players, particularly the U.S., Pakistan and Iran, on the formal appointment of a mutually acceptable panel of mediators who are internationally recognised and respected for their knowledge of both international and Islamic law and regional political realities.

In the coming years, the government is likely to face even greater challenges to its legitimacy, as regional and global rivalries play out in its backyard. Ultimately, the success of any settlement will depend on Kabul’s ability to set the negotiating agenda and ensure broad participation in what will certainly be a lengthy multi-step process, as well as on the insurgency’s capacity to engage in a dialogue that focuses as much on political settlement as on security concerns.

Ensuring that the next presidential election, at the end of Karzai’s term in 2014, results in the peaceful transfer of power will be critical. Any attempt to extend his term would trigger an irreversible constitutional crisis and widen the appeal of armed resistance. No later than May 2013 – a year before the election is constitutionally mandated – the parliament must amend the constitution to clarify the rules of succession and define in detail the parameters of presidential authority, from the opening of the campaign to certification of polling results. Electoral reform must also be undertaken within the coming year in order to prevent another clash over the authority of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and guarantee maximum participation in the polling process.

Constitutional reform is also essential to build support for a sustainable settlement. The current political system is fundamentally out of step with the diverse nature of Afghan society and at odds with the need to reconcile improved governance with local self-determination and broad access to the levers of power and justice. Imbalances among the executive, legislature and judiciary and the need for devolution of power from Kabul to the provinces must be addressed. Change of this sort cannot be implemented under the impetus of any single, decisive conference. A half-baked power-sharing arrangement between the ruling government and elements of the insurgency through a one-off consultative Loya Jirga (Grand Council) or under the aegis of yet another U.S.-led and externally manufactured international gathering will never adequately address the current anomalies in the constitution.

Kabul/Brussels, 26 March 2012

Members of the Taliban delegation arrive to the signing of a US-Taliban agreement in the Qatari capital Doha on February 29, 2020. KARIM JAAFAR / AFP
Briefing Note / Asia

Are the Taliban Serious about Peace Negotiations?

This is the second in a series of three Briefing Notes that discuss and analyse the nascent peace process in Afghanistan, focused on frequently raised questions.

On 29 February, the Taliban and the U.S. signed an agreement that commits the U.S. to a fourteen-month phased withdrawal of military forces in exchange for Taliban commitments to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a safe harbour for terrorists. The agreement also obligates the Taliban to commence peace negotiations with the Afghan government and other Afghan power-brokers. This breakthrough comes after a decade of on-and-off U.S. and other efforts to catalyse a peace process, throughout which observers have questioned the Taliban’s willingness to negotiate a political settlement that will require substantive compromise. The group’s willingness to compromise remains an open question, but its interest in probing whether it could achieve its objectives through a negotiated settlement appears genuine – prompted, at least in part, by the elusiveness of a clear military victory.

Kandahar: Taliban Approaches to Peace

From Afghanistan's Kandahar, Crisis Group's Senior Consultant Graeme Smith reflects on the Taliban's position on the peace process. CRISISGROUP

Are the Taliban Negotiating in Good Faith?

Many Afghans have expressed concerns that the Taliban are not sincere in seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict, pointing to the group’s continued violence and rhetoric of victory in jihad. The Taliban have demonstrated sustained interest in dialogue with U.S. and Afghan interlocutors – most overtly and concretely, by engaging in negotiations with the U.S. for over a year, culminating in the 29 February agreement that commits the group to entering talks with the Afghan government. “We are tired of war”, said a mid-level Taliban commander from Kandahar who was present at the movement’s inception. “Who has suffered the most from this war? Of course, we want peace”. War-weariness aside, some in the Taliban movement seem to regret missing out on the post-2001 influx of foreign aid, as a generation of urban Afghans enjoyed opportunities that skipped past many war-torn villages. To interlocutors such as Crisis Group, they express hope that they could share in continued donor largesse after a settlement. If nothing else, such sentiments suggest a willingness to talk.

The fundamental question, however, is whether the Taliban are willing to compromise on substantive issues of power sharing, a future political structure, governance and rules for public life. That remains unclear and can only be truly tested during intra-Afghan negotiations planned to commence soon.

To date, the Taliban have been ambiguous in their statements on these matters. Some members have told Crisis Group and others that relevant discussions have not taken place comprehensively within the movement. One of the group’s clearly identifiable red lines is the desire to maintain cohesiveness, even in the event of a political transition. Yet the wide variety of individual, regional and factional views within the Taliban make it difficult to assess what compromises might threaten to divide the group. There may be limited enthusiasm for peace talks among some of the more hardline elements within the younger generation of Taliban fighters, but those ranks also include many who appear to be tired of fighting. If the peace process can be ushered forward and the group’s leadership given time to develop firmer positions on a political settlement, there is potential for those leaders to garner their followers’ adherence to compromises. Fighters across the spectrum of Taliban viewpoints appear to respect their leaders’ strict edicts, as evidence, most recently, by the group’s discipline during the seven-day reduction of violence period that led up to the signing ceremony with the U.S. in Qatar.

Although the group’s political office in Doha has progressed on the path toward intra-Afghan talks, sceptics question whether the agreement the group signed with the U.S. in February was merely a smokescreen. They note that the Taliban has internally trumpeted its success in forcing the U.S. into a timeline for troop withdrawal, without being obliged to commit to reaching a peaceful resolution with the Afghan government or to respect the current constitution. The Taliban’s willingness to accept a mutual reduction of violence before the signing improved the political atmosphere surrounding talks and signalled Taliban buy-in for the process. But, as human rights activists have told Crisis Group, the group’s swift resumption of violence against Afghan security forces after the deal’s signing and its framing of the agreement as a “victory” have again heightened suspicions that the group may simply be biding its time before attempting a military takeover once the U.S. has withdrawn.

The Taliban Lack a Clear Path to Military Victory

There is legitimate reason to wonder whether, in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal, the group might seek to gain power violently regardless of the status of talks at the time. But there are also several reasons to believe that the Taliban may prefer to explore other options.

First, fears that the Taliban could return to absolute power through military means, even after Western disengagement, are probably exaggerated. The Taliban failed to conquer all of Afghanistan in the 1990s, and their old opponents are far better armed and resourced today. A serious Taliban effort to retake Kabul or other northern cities would meet strong resistance.

Secondly, at least some leading Taliban figures appear to be aware of this. In discussions with diplomatic officials and other interlocutors, Taliban figures have indicated awareness that the group lacks a clear path to military victory – hence, arguably, their willingness to at least test a political pathway back to power. 

In addition, the group also must fight on a second front, against the ISIS affiliate in eastern Afghanistan. Taliban leaders have contended that their victories against the so-called Islamic State Khorasan Province would free up resources to focus on their main fight against the government, but the trend in 2019 actually showed a rising number of Taliban battles against the small ISIS branch – and the terrorist group continues to claim complex attacks in Kabul.

Why the Taliban May Now See Negotiations as Their Best Option

Diplomacy might prove more fruitful for the Taliban than pursuing outright military victory. So long as they can sufficiently achieve their objectives through negotiation, they will not only avoid the costs of further war but also gain legitimacy in the bargain. The Taliban have cautiously tested with Afghans and Americans political options for resolving conflict since the days after the U.S. intervention. These earlier engagements, however, failed to offer them real prospects of reaching their core aims: withdrawal of U.S. troops and installation of an “Islamic system”. Now those goals seem achievable, as the U.S. grows serious about exiting and a number of Afghan political figures indicate some readiness to renegotiate – at least to some as yet uncertain extent – the nature of the state system.

Taliban negotiators in Qatar seem inclined to avoid a Pyrrhic path to victory – pursuing a military conquest that devastates their own organisation, is not recognised as legitimate and that once again makes Afghanistan a pariah state, leaving Taliban leaders sanctioned, trade routes blocked and international aid money cut off. A Taliban representative told Crisis Group that his colleagues are hopeful that the billions of dollars in foreign assistance now flowing to Afghanistan might continue after a peace agreement, something that almost certainly will require an inclusive government and meaningful Taliban compromise on rights and governance issues (such as protections for women’s rights). The importance the Taliban places on the status international legitimacy confers was hammered home by the group’s apparent interest in an elaborate signing ceremony in Doha on 29 February.

As an insurgent group that exerts political leverage primarily through violence, the Taliban may be ripe for negotiations now; strong enough to make gains at the bargaining table while they are still able to marshal high levels of military activity, but not without concerns about their own organisational cohesion. Even in the face of a record-high number of U.S. airstrikes in 2019 and early 2020, the insurgent group held onto significant gains across the countryside. Yet this aerial campaign has exacted a high personnel toll, and after its recent deal with the U.S., Taliban leaders have no guarantee that rank-and-file fighters will maintain their fervour if international troops indeed pull out. In a few locations, the absence of a foreign enemy has already quieted the insurgency: for instance, the Panjwai valley, south west of Kandahar city, was the birthplace of the Taliban movement and later became a major battlefield for American troops and their NATO allies. The withdrawal of NATO forces made the valley less violent: “Without the foreigners, the Taliban lost their motivation”, a local security official told Crisis Group. Other locations have suffered growing violence despite the absence of international troops, so the trend is not clear, but the resumption of attacks after 29 February illustrates the Taliban leadership’s cause for concern: some commanders have geared back into action, while others have allowed their pace of operations to lull.

Did the Taliban Already Get Everything They Want?

Over a year ago, the U.S. acceded to the Taliban’s preferred sequencing for negotiations: bilateral discussions with the U.S. on foreign troop withdrawal, followed by talks among Afghans about everything else. After years of failed peace efforts, the U.S. acquiesced in the Taliban’s Americans-first strategy as a way of getting talks started. Critics have noted a number of ambiguities embedded in the text of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, and cite these as new reasons to doubt the group’s good-will. The agreement’s harshest critics suggest that the Taliban received everything they wanted, while even more measured critiques noted an imbalance in the deal’s terms.

It is true that the agreement contains ambiguities that have already raised challenges, including the terms of a controversial prisoner exchange between the Taliban and the Afghan government, as well as a lack of clarity on whether foreign forces will completely withdraw if peace talks stretch past fourteen months or fail to progress. But the flip side is that the deal’s terms provide flexibility that the U.S. can use to both pressure the Taliban and urge negotiations forward, without applying strict conditions that might not survive the inevitable stumbling blocks in any complex peace process.

This approach of negotiating with the U.S. first, gaining assurances, and talking to Afghans later has offered the Taliban a new degree of international acceptability, enhanced leverage for the next stage of talks, and the promise of achieving its strategic aim. But the group’s newfound legitimacy is unlikely to stick, if it stonewalls in negotiations or reneges on its deal with the U.S. As long as a road to political resolution of the war appears viable, involving compromises that Taliban leadership deem acceptable, this path will offer the group critical advantages that an unrestrained return to insurgency never could.

Are the Taliban Living up to Their Commitments?

The Taliban’s agreement with the U.S. obligates the group to take anti-terrorism measures as well as sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a peaceful settlement. The group implemented a week-long period of agreed reduction in violence across the country prior to signing the agreement, but in the following days, Taliban attacks on Afghan forces quickly resumed – in one instance prompting a U.S. airstrike to protect government forces. The group’s public statements have not only declared victory against a foreign occupation but also called for continued struggle to establish “an Islamic system” in Afghanistan. Observers have noted that the group has failed to explicitly denounce al-Qaeda the same way it has ISIS, although the agreement with the U.S. did not require it to do so.

Combined with contradictory statements from U.S. officials on their expectations, especially regarding the level of violence they consider tolerable under the deal’s terms, these acts have fuelled concerns that the Taliban is skirting its commitments to the U.S. But the group does not appear so far to have violated the publicly available text of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, which does not require continuation of the 22-29 February reduction in violence. Critiques of the agreement overlook the military reality that the Taliban were unlikely to be forced into greater concessions than those made. The Taliban have insisted on continued violence as their primary means of leverage over the Afghan government. Unfortunately, as has been the case in many other peace processes around the world, intra-Afghan negotiations are unlikely to begin and progress under a complete ceasefire.

The Taliban have shown persistence in pursuing a negotiated path to ending Afghanistan’s conflict, even though much of their behaviour and rhetoric continues to raise suspicion. Little is lost, however, by testing the Taliban’s potential to negotiate seriously. Much could be gained, not least the opportunity to curb violence in the deadliest war in the world. Neither the Taliban nor the Afghan government have fully prepared themselves for talks; both sides lack substantive bargaining positions and a well-articulated vision for a peaceful Afghanistan. Both sides also suffer from a corrosive lack of trust in their opponents. Still, negotiating peace does not require trust in the good faith of the other side at the outset. It will require patience, as any peace process will probably involve many false starts and disappointments. Practical steps could be taken to improve these talks’ chances for success, including some that Crisis Group previously has outlined, but the key ingredient will be a sustained willingness to search for common ground – even as challenges and suspicions arise on both sides.