After months of international diplomatic efforts, the Afghan Taliban opened a political office in Doha, Qatar to begin peace talks and end the Afghan war. While the trilateral negotiations between the Taliban, Afghanistan, and the United States have not yet started, they have already hit several important snags.
In an apparent show of muscle, and its continued defiance of recognizing President Hamid Karzai's government, the Taliban opened the new office waving their own white flag and with signs displaying the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" -- the moniker used when they ruled the country in the 1990s. Displeased with the portrayal, Karzai announced that his government no longer plans to send envoys from the Afghan High Peace Council to partake in talks in Doha, but remains willing to pursue the negotiations inside Afghanistan. While the signs were taken down, Karzai felt his government had been sidelined in the process that led to the office opening, and suspended bilateral negotiations on a long-stalled U.S.-Afghan security deal that will govern the American military presence in Afghanistan after 2014.
But despite their willingness to come to the negotiating table, the Afghan Taliban has not yet accepted or respected any of Washington's and Kabul's primary conditions -- namely to renounce violence and recognize the Afghan Constitution. In fact, just one day after the office's opening, the Taliban continued their daily violence and claimed responsibility for an attack that killed four American troops. The Taliban's intransigence to enter serious talks shows the measure of their strength, and is a sharp reminder that the Taliban's insurgency remains potent, insincere in its dealings, closed to the terms of negotiations, and ultimately, unwilling to reconcile.
The Taliban's approach to circumvent the Afghan government and negotiate directly with the United States also indicates that Karzai's government -- despite being lauded as the main driving force behind the process -- remains the weakest player in the peace talks. Perhaps, the only players who truly benefit from the new office are the Taliban themselves. It appears that their ultimate goal is to follow in the footsteps of Hezbollah -- the Islamist insurgent and political group in Lebanon -- evolving into and essentially operating under a similar militant and political framework in Afghanistan.
Given the current operating environment and conditions, the Afghan Taliban and their affiliated factions appear to benefit from the new political office in at least three important ways.
First, the new office helps the Taliban play to the cameras and spread its propaganda through international outlets. It also gains international recognition and legitimacy in a bid for acceptance as a political force in Afghanistan. Putting up their own signs and flag imply that the Taliban's leadership could use the new office as a base for their shadow government, something that only confirms the worst fears of the Afghan people. If the Taliban pursues their political ambitions under the Afghan constitutional framework, and through an inclusive election process, Afghans could probably live with it. However, if the Taliban were brought in through some sort of a power-sharing settlement without elections, and perhaps under an amended Afghan constitution, that compromises decade-long important gains, it could prove unacceptable to many Afghans.
Second, with easy access to its traditional and historical allies and financiers in the Arab region, the new office enables the Taliban to raise funds and public sympathy for its seditious agenda in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban is already blunt and effective in sending strategic messages that support its military operations in Afghanistan, and it is seizing the Doha process in its favor. These efforts will only escalate, and will receive much more attention once the Taliban establish direct access to important international state and non-state entities, such as the U.N. and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Third, using the new office as a hub, the Taliban will continue to push for concessions from Washington and Kabul, particularly in releasing its prisoners from detention facilities at Bagram Airfield and Guantanamo Bay, and the lifting of travel bans on senior Taliban leadership. The Taliban is also likely to make more ambitious demands in other areas, including changing the Afghan Constitution in a way that increases its influence in the country's affairs. Washington and Kabul might even make some of these concessions in return for unbinding promises the Taliban will later break.
Regardless, the lack of incentives for the Taliban to sincerely negotiate signifies bigger challenges for the effectiveness of the peace talks. Additionally, the success of the talks is further clouded by Karzai's regular anti-Western outbursts, as well as his hasty decisions and obstinacy in reaching the long-awaited Bilateral Security Agreement that Afghanistan desperately needs. With international forces leaving the country next year, the Afghan government needs a security deal with Washington, largely for its own survival. Though Afghan security forces are now fully in-charge of operations nationwide, they are still mired in big problems -- including a growing number of casualties, higher desertion and attrition rates -- and remain cripplingly reliant on international air, logistic, and financial support, things the security deal can ensure.
Every insurgency and conflict ultimately ends with some sort of an agreement and settlement; indeed, the Afghan war will someday end as well. While the resumption of peace talks is a good sign, given the conditions and negotiating terms, the opening of the Taliban's political office in Doha appears to benefit them the most, not the United States and not the Afghan government. Although these incipient talks will take a long time to materialize, Karzai must realize that the continued existence of his government and the feasibility of its nascent security forces hinges primarily on reaching a timely bilateral security deal with Washington, something which should not be disrupted by the Taliban's signs and flag-hoisting ceremony.
Javid Ahmad is a Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views reflected here are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadjavid.
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