Ramifications of Negotiating with the Taliban

Molana Akram Awam speaks in a Pakistan mosque during a campaign for the implementation of sharia law. (Photo: Michel Setboun, Corbis)

The imminent withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan in 2014 and the recent move to open an official Taliban office in Qatar, following a year marked by further escalation of violence across the country and assassinations of several top political and public figures, have pushed the question of negotiations and a possible power-sharing deal with the Taliban to the top of the current political and public debate on Afghanistan.

The whole idea of a political settlement with the Taliban is of course not new to Afghanistan; some Afghan political figures as well as some foreign experts and diplomats have argued that the only solution to the Afghan conflict would be to include the Taliban in the Afghan government. According to them, the failure to invite the Taliban to the first Bonn Conference in 2001 exacerbated the phenomenon of terrorism and insurgency in Afghanistan and the region. While the desire of reconciliation and a political settlement with the Taliban is ultimately a good aim, and while it is true that the window of opportunity created in 2001 was not used wisely, there are many hazards associated with this endeavour that should not be underplayed.

There seems to be an understanding that to be sustainable and to enjoy popular support, talks or agreements with the Taliban need to be done under several conditions. First of all, the Taliban has to be fully disarmed, just like other major militias after the international intervention in 2001. Second, the Taliban must break all relations with al Qaeda. Lastly, they must accept and embrace the constitution of Afghanistan to protect basic political freedoms and diversity in the country. Without a full acceptance of these strict but essential terms, there won't be a political settlement that has the capacity to last.

Unfortunately, at this point the Afghan government's approach to negotiations and power sharing with the Taliban does not come from a position of strength, but rather of weakness and even desperation. It seems unable to persuade its challengers into strict conditionality. Even if all the above conditions are accepted in rhetoric, there is no guarantee that the current Taliban won't utilize its new powerbase in Qatar, and possibly Kabul in the near future, to spread the international terrorist agenda and pursue their radical project in Afghanistan.

An overwhelming majority of Afghans and politicians alike are very suspicious about developments that are likely to occur once the Taliban finds a stronger presence in Kabul. People know that the highly conservative ideology of the Taliban will lead to limitations of their newly reclaimed freedoms and the decline of the fragile Afghan civil society. Ethnic groups other than Pashtun are afraid that the Taliban will marginalize them politically and socially. After all, thousands of Hazaras were mercilessly massacred in the Taliban-orchestrated ethnic cleansings of the 1990s. Other ethnic groups were sidelined or subordinated by the Pashtuns under the Taliban regime. Without doubt, granting too much political power to the Taliban would be a huge blow to the people of Afghanistan and the region who had high expectations for democratization.

Many are also concerned that power sharing with the Taliban would bring the foreign elements that have supported militant Islamic insurgency, in particular Pakistan, several steps further in their pre-existing and well-known aims in Afghanistan: keeping Afghanistan weak and unstable, further destabilizing Kashmir, and challenging India. In addition, the prospects of regional cooperation and conducive diplomatic relations with neighboring states are likely to be jeopardized if the deal materializes. Countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are struggling with emerging terrorism on their own soil and will not accept a quasi-Taliban government in Afghanistan. This issue is critical, as Afghanistan will have to rely increasingly on the region when the international military mission reaches its end.

Power sharing with the Taliban could put enormous economic and political pressure on the country and turn the Afghans further away from their government. In fact, political unrest and dissatisfaction within political circles as well as on the streets of Afghanistan could escalate into another civil war. Unfortunately, the prospects of another civil war after the withdrawal of international troops and the reappearance of a power vacuum are significant. For the reasons mentioned above, the effect of growing Taliban political influence would likely strain Afghanistan's inter-ethnic and inter-regional relations even further, turning back the clock in this weak and divided state.

Negotiations and power sharing may be presented as the cure for the Afghan conflict, and leaders of major troop-contributing nations may be of the opinion that this will be their exit strategy from Afghanistan. However, it has to be understood that a rushed and compromised settlement with the Taliban is unlikely to be the endgame. Until the real backbone of the Taliban, which is at the moment in Pakistan, is broken and the Afghan government is strong enough to enforce conditionality, negotiations with the Taliban are doomed to become a new quick-fix with enormous risks for the Afghans and the rest of the world.

Yahya Massoud is former deputy head of Mission to NATO and the European Union in Brussels. Djeyhoun Ostowar is a Weidenfeld Scholar at Oxford University, senior fellow of Humanity in Action and president of Oxford University Afghanistan Society.