On Tuesday, representatives of the United States, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan met in Kabul to discuss ways of moving forward on peace negotiations with the Taliban.
This marks the first time that the high-profile, quadrilateral peace talks have been held in Afghanistan.
The timing of the talks is not auspicious. The Afghan government has recently suffered a series of military setbacks. A day before the talks began, the government withdrew security forces from the strategic Musa Qala district in Helmand province, effectively handing over control to the Taliban.
Meanwhile, heavy fighting is raging in the Dahana-e-Ghori district northwest of the capital, Kabul.
These attacks come after a string of military successes for the Taliban in 2015, which was Afghanistan’s bloodiest year since the US-led invasion in 2001. According to the United Nations, 11,002 civilians were killed or injured in Afghanistan in 2015.
The Taliban appear to be fighting their way to the negotiating table, while the Afghan government has no overarching strategy for waging war or making peace. The continued presence of foreign forces may be weakening the Afghan government’s ability to make decisions, as it relies heavily on the strategising of its foreign backers.
To make matters worse, Afghanistan’s “national unity” government, agreed upon after the disputed 2014 presidential election, has still not formed a cabinet or finalised a list of governors. The defence ministry is being headed by a caretaker.
In the meantime, thousands of young and educated people are fleeing the country as the economy stagnates.
This is the situation faced by the quadrilateral group meeting in Kabul, which hopes to find a formula for peace with the Taliban. But the question remains: Is peace possible?
There are four ways in which peace with the Taliban could be realised: firstly, the creation of a “national unity” government; secondly, direct national elections in which the Taliban would participate as an independent political party; thirdly the creation of a “southeast frontier” administered by the Taliban, similar to Pakistan’s “northwest frontier” where ethnic Pashtuns enjoy a degree of autonomy; or finally, a phased peace process entailing the devolving of power to Afghanistan’s provinces, with each electing its own governor and forming its own police force.
Yet all of these formulas require agreement on fundamental issues that neither party can afford to make. Some of the major sticking points are as follows:
The question of ‘foreign fighters’
In 2013, Taliban spokesman Sohail Shaheen stated: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan simultaneously follows both military and political options and aims which are limited to Afghanistan.” This statement distanced the Taliban from al-Qaeda and its global jihad.
This leaves the question of what will happen to the hundreds of foreign fighters in Afghanistan who supported the Taliban, whose status will be a hurdle in any peace negotiations.
If a peace accord is reached, will the Taliban arrest these fighters and hand them over to the government? Could the government allow these fighters to remain in the country if they handed over their weapons? These are some of the questions that the negotiators would have to grapple with.
Yet it is highly unlikely that foreign fighters would lay down their weapons and turn to a civilian life.
Many Uzbek fighters in Afghanistan are members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and many other Uzbek, Chechen and Uighur fighters are loyal to al-Qaeda.
It is inconceivable that the Taliban would join hands with the Kabul government, backed by the US, in fighting against its former al-Qaeda allies. Taliban fighters would see this as a major betrayal and it would cause the group to fracture.
Withdrawal of all foreign forces
In September 2014, Afghanistan signed a bilateral security agreement with the US that allows 10,000 US troops to remain in the country. The agreement is open-ended but vague, stating that the troops may remain “until the end of 2024 and beyond”, and that it can be terminated by either side with two years’ notice.
A similar agreement has been signed with NATO to allow 4,000 to 5,000 additional troops to stay in Afghanistan in a noncombat role.
But a main Taliban demand is the immediate and total withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan.
Will the US government agree to scrap its security deal and leave, given the security threats posed by al-Qaeda and ISIL in Afghanistan?
Even if an agreement is reached, a two-year notice would need to be given before US and NATO begin their withdrawal. Yet the Taliban would want to keep their weapons during those two years.
Is such a scenario acceptable?
The Taliban is also pushing for constitutional reforms, such as mentioning the word “sharia” in the Afghan constitution. Currently, the constitution refers to “Islamic law” instead of “sharia” specifically.
However, including the word “sharia” would present challenges for donor countries, whose constituencies may be averse to funding a government that is constitutionally required to implement sharia.
On the other hand, if the word “sharia” is not incorporated into the constitution, the Taliban would see this as a major defeat.
Would the Taliban’s ideologues agree to turn a blind eye to this omission – and would it be acceptable to their constituency?
Power-sharing requires concrete action – it is not just a political exercise entailing signing agreements and shaking hands.
If a peace deal were reached, Taliban fighters would have to be integrated into the Afghan military and security forces, and some positions in government would have to be allocated to Taliban officials.
But Afghanistan’s current experiment in power-sharing between the two 2014 presidential candidates, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, has so far been a failure. There are deep disputes at all levels, and a cabinet has yet to be appointed.
Judging by the chaos of the current model, it is hard to imagine how power-sharing with the Taliban would be any easier.
A potential power-sharing agreement could also be complicated by internal divisions within the Taliban.
Would hardline Taliban ideologues agree to lay down their weapons and share power with a government that seeks to build a nation along the Western model?
The Taliban would find it nearly impossible to sell democracy to the families of thousands of its fighters who died with the belief that the conflict is about “pure Islam” and the rejection of “infidels” and Western political theories.
A recognised political party?
Another outcome of the peace talks could be Taliban agreement to participate in elections as a political party. Yet this scenario may lead to undesirable outcomes for both the government and the Taliban.
Once again, Taliban scholars have deemed democracy to be un-Islamic, and accepting democracy has the potential to fragment the group.
On the other hand, if the Taliban were to agree to participate in the democratic process, there would probably be no clear winner in the elections – especially given the deep divisions between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns that appeared in the 2014 election.
A marginal win would not bestow the victorious party the legitimacy needed to run the country. Rather, an unconvincing victory could further polarise the country, causing the country either to descend into ethnic and tribal warfare, or necessitating the formation of a national unity government. And, as previously discussed, forming a national unity government in Afghanistan is fraught with difficulty.
A zone for the Taliban
The option of allowing the Taliban to administer an entity in southeast Afghanistan similar to Pakistan’s “Northwest Frontier”, while also permitting the Taliban to influence the central government, would enrage other ethnic parties and could trigger the disintegration of Afghanistan.
However, this may be an option that would stop the Taliban short of marching on the capital Kabul in a zero-sum game of do or die.
Furthermore, the reality on the ground is that the Taliban are the de facto rulers of much of the south.
There may also be a midway option between central rule and federalism, which would allow Afghanistan to avoid total collapse or a protracted, debilitating war.
In Afghanistan, the president’s appointment of governors is a highly politically charged exercise. Throughout Afghanistan’s modern history, central governments have had to deal with tribal and ethnic disputes at the provincial level.
Holding provincial elections for the governors, and relinquishing provincial security to local police forces, could serve as a phased peace process and allow the central government to rid itself of provincial disputes.
Devolving power to the provinces could “organically” enable each ethnic and tribal group to take responsibility of provinces where they are in the majority.
Provinces with mixed ethnicities, where no one group has a clear majority, are few and in a worst-case scenario they could split. But developing power to the districts could also calm ethnic tensions within the provinces. Splitting a province is certainly less problematic than splitting the country.
Under such a phased peace process, Taliban participation in the central government would not necessarily upset the balance of power.