A promising start but a long way to go
There have been numerous reports regarding the ongoing talks between the United States and the Afghan Taliban. While both parties have not reached any sort of agreement yet, it’s been assessed that this is the most serious phase of talks that have taken over the last seventeen years. Washington states that both parties have agreed in principle to resolve the conflict while the Afghan Taliban maintain that they are not looking to rule the country alone and agree to share power with other local stakeholders.
So far, in general, there are three main takeaways from the ongoing talks. First, the leadership in the US appears to be serious about withdrawing troops from the country. However, what’s also clear is that Washington is looking for an exit which would allow the US to keep some semblance of face saving. While the ongoing negotiations are taking place on conditions set by the Taliban, Washington is happy to play along as long as they get the former’s signature on some basic demands which talk about disallowing any militant groups from using the Afghan territory. It’s clear that everyone including the negotiating team which is talking on behalf of the US understands that Washington’s withdrawal hardly means that stability will immediately return to Afghanistan. This is just a phase which would only lead to domestic power struggles: Afghanistan’s domestic politics is riddled with ethnic, tribal and nationalistic challenges and its unlikely that the withdrawal of foreign troops would simply bring together the Afghan nation.
Second, the Afghan Taliban are in control of the talks; they want to talk for many reasons, including gaining legitimacy to establishing links with various international states, but they are in no hurry. For the Taliban, the ongoing talks and their outcome is very significant irrespective of the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Seemingly, the group controls the narrative of Jihad for now: Afghan fighters are happy to fight against the Kabul government and kill other Afghans, for they are convinced that to fight against the US, they will have to fight against their own people as well because they support Washington’s objectives and stay in the country. However, for the Taliban this question is very important: what happens once the narrative of fighting against an external actor goes away when the US withdraws its troops from Afghanistan? How will the Taliban keep their group together when most of their fighters are fighting against the U.? The Taliban fighters do not believe that killing their own Afghan brothers is any kind of ideal Jihad. Keeping this in view, the Afghan Taliban are going to be very careful when they finally say that we have reached a deal with the US or the Afghan government. The moment such an announcement is made, arguably, the Taliban lose their narrative of carrying a legitimate Jihad afterwards.
Afghanistan’s domestic politics is riddled with ethnic, tribal and nationalistic challenges and its unlikely that the withdrawal of foreign troops would simply bring together the Afghan nation.
Third, regional states are making efforts to make sure that they have stakes in the negotiation process and what comes from it. Neighboring states are flocking to Kabul to make sure that their interests remain central in the ongoing negotiation process. Recently, reports emerged that even India’s military may not be averse to an idea of its government talking to the insurgent group. Iran on its part now carries considerable influence over the group which is in contrast to Tehran’s position about a decade ago. The insurgent campaign has diversified with the group also expanding its relations with various international actors. Most of the Taliban leadership is spread regionally and any one country is not in a position to force the group beyond what they think is best for the group’s own political or military interests. For instance, carrying out the bombing campaign and refusing to become part of talks which were to take place in one place or the other is one case in point.
Pakistan remains a central player as the country has huge stakes in the process. The Taliban understand that in any time of future crisis they can rely on Pakistan and the group doesn’t want to worsen its relations with Pakistan. It’s interesting that a recent agenda point of Taliban’s talks with the U.S. also included this point: “Taliban sources say Baloch militants won’t be allowed to use Afghan soil to target Pakistan.” As always, Pakistan is worried about Baloch insurgents using Afghanistan to mount attacks in Pakistan. This is where Pakistan’s apprehensions about India and some elements close to India in Afghanistan come to play. This statement if being discussed somewhere in talks between the US and Afghan Taliban, confirm that Pakistan’s agenda is also part of the talks. A lot is at stake for everyone.