Potential negotiations between the Afghan government and representatives of the Taliban have stirred ever increasing international interest during the last two months. Pundits the world over have voiced myriad assessments of the morality of such talks, the possible agenda of the negotiations, and the potential outcomes. Many have argued that talking to terrorists is inherently a bad idea, fearing that negotiations would legitimise terrorist groups, their goals, and their means. Others have speculated that the US and the Taliban would agree neither on fundamental political concerns – such as the Taliban’s renunciation of international terrorism and their support of a peace process – nor on normative issues – such as human rights and other social norms. On the whole, opinions on the prospects and dangers of negotiations differ widely, and evaluations of possible conclusions range from emphasising their necessity for establishing peace in Afghanistan to voicing concern about the return to Taliban rule in the country. Despite this variety in assessments, a fundamental difficulty of talks with the Taliban has been neglected: Even successful negotiations may not be enough to have a positive impact on the country.
After all, a negotiated agreement with the Taliban would only solve one of the many problems faced by Afghanistan – and such an agreement would also, miraculously, need to satisfy the various stakeholders inside and outside the country. And stakeholders there are many. Although Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly insisted that his government must have the lead in any negotiations with the Taliban, he faces considerable criticism from a number of different factions within his country opposing a potential power-sharing agreement. The Taliban leadership (Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura) is in a comparable position, having to accommodate hardliners and different factions (such as Hezb-e-Islami and the Haqqani Network) in a settlement, and convince field commanders that they will be provided for even in peace. On top of this already intricate setting, Pakistan has repeatedly revealed that, while it supports talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban, it has a strategic interest in the outcome and cannot be expected to sit idly by during the process. Similarly, the US government has expressed its own interests in talks. It supports negotiations with the Taliban in principle, having adapted its Afghan strategy to “fight, talk, build”, and hopes that a negotiated settlement will foster greater stability in Afghanistan and reduce the threat of Taliban terrorist attacks following the withdrawal of coalition troops by the end of 2013. The original cause for the international involvement in Afghanistan, al Qaeda, seems to have broken its ties to the Taliban as well as to Afghanistan and will likely not intervene in any negotiations.
But apart from the negotiations, Afghanistan faces a number of unsettling challenges in the near future that could impact the country’s future dramatically – and perhaps influence its course more than the pending talks with the Taliban. Most imminently, the Afghan government needs to prepare for the impending withdrawal of coalitions troops in 2013, which could leave a gaping hole in the Afghan security architecture if no provisions are made before then. Currently, coalition forces still provide much of the country’s security as well as substantial training for police and military. Afghan military and police alone will not be able to provide comprehensive civil and military security, which would include continuing the fight against insurgents. Instead, a provision needs to be established for the post-withdrawal period that would allow foreign forces to remain in the country in a support capacity. Yet, attempts to achieve exactly that through a strategic partnership with the US, for example, are stalled because disagreements have arisen on topics such as the execution of night raids and the handover of detention centres – a discussion suggesting notably different expectations in Washington and Kabul on how specific issues should be handled. Additionally, the increase of violence against NATO personnel by their nominal Afghan allies, particularly in the past weeks in response to the burning of Qurans on Bagram Air Base, has horribly demonstrated the lack of mutual trust and respect between foreign trainers and local trainees. More violence should be expected after the killings of at least 16 Afghan civilians by a rogue American soldier on Sunday. Moreover, with the end of international military involvement in 2014, Afghanistan needs to secure further financial assistance, which may plummet with the end of the coalition’s official commitment. While many countries have already pledged further assistance to Afghanistan, it will be difficult for the country to sustain the degree of international assistance it currently receives and needs in order to maintain its large government and security apparatus.
Regionally, the withdrawal of coalition troops carries a certain risk of reviving old rivalries between regional powers, such as India and Pakistan as well as Pakistan and Iran, in which Afghanistan is a token in a broader struggle for influence. For instance, India’s strong financial involvement in Afghanistan wakes fears of isolation for India’s historic enemy, Pakistan. For this reason, Pakistan has in the past tolerated and supported Afghan Taliban groups to represent Pakistani interests over India’s commitment in Afghanistan. And Iran’s protection of Shiite and Persian minorities, such as Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Turkmen, against the powerful Sunni and Pashtun Taliban disgruntles Pakistan. The reduction of foreign involvement in Afghanistan opens the door for these antagonisms to grab a hold of Afghanistan again.
Furthermore, Afghanistan as well as its allies need to prepare for a change in Afghan political leadership in 2014, as President Karzai has stated repeatedly that he would not seek a third term. In such instance, Afghanistan not only has to prepare for the transition of responsibilities from the coalition forces to Afghan leadership, but also it needs to prepare a new Afghan leadership to handle these challenges. Considering the country’s current levels of ethnic regionalism, factionalism, corruption, and cronyism, a transition of leadership is in itself a challenge and potentially destabilising. Depending on the quality of the election, the transition process, and the new leadership, the security situation in the country may be under systematic threat in the near future. The inclusion of further contestants from the Taliban through a negotiated power-sharing agreement may complicate this process even further.
Given that these factors all come together in Afghanistan, the impact even of successful negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban is questionable. While the adoption of an agreement is only a matter of time, its nature may not be favourable to some of the non-Afghan stakeholders – and perhaps even to the Afghan population. Concessions will have to be made to reach an agreement. The Afghan government can only hope that offering positions of influence to members of the Taliban through a power-sharing agreement will indeed have the anticipated effect – an end to the fighting and an improvement of the overall security in the country. It is this aspiration, however, that makes talks with the Taliban necessary. With the coalition forces withdrawing from the country and the Afghan security forces lacking the necessary capabilities to fill the gap, ending the insurgency through the marginalisation, disbandment, or elimination of the Taliban becomes a distant prospect. Under these circumstances, refusing to engage the Taliban in negotiations would risk prolonged violent conflict that would impede the country’s stabilisation and development. Accordingly, a potential agreement with the Taliban presents an important piece of the Afghan puzzle; yet it remains only one step along the way. In the immediate future, more looming issues may have a greater impact on the country’s stability and growth.
Claudia Hofmann is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. Her current research concentrates on non-state armed actors, civilian approaches to conflict management, and criminal networks.