Author: Nishank Motwani, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit
The Afghan Taliban are clear about their goal in the ongoing 18-year conflict — total power, not shared power. From their first emir, Mullah Mohammad Omar, to current leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s leadership has been transparent about its objectives: monopolising power, expelling international military forces, dissolving Afghanistan’s security apparatus, and implementing their puritanical version of Islamic rule across the country.
Given the Taliban’s objectives, the question is to what extent humanitarian and development aid can be protected from political and security developments? In the context of ongoing peace talks, is there scope for seeking Taliban approval for existing and future service delivery?
In short, the answer is not much, despite existing hybrid service delivery arrangements involving the Afghan government, aid agencies and their implementing partners that abide by Taliban rules. This hybrid model, although functional in some districts in Helmand, Kunduz, and Logar, comes at the cost of legitimising Taliban rule and sanctioning its creeping invasion into Afghanistan’s political and socio-economic domains.
The hybrid model of service delivery is problematic for three reasons. It requires the Afghan state to cede space to the Taliban, it permits the Taliban to use governance as a tool to exert control over the population, and it consents to Taliban tactics of fear and coercion over Afghans — abdicating responsibilities of the state to a revisionist insurgent group. In this context, cooperation on service delivery is insufficient to engender the talks underway in Qatar, or to function as an entry point for discussing political and security issues.
There is little reason for the Taliban to compromise their goal of reinstating the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban have the upper hand militarily and are confident a fatigued United States seeks to end its involvement in Afghanistan. The Taliban appear to assume that the United States prefers to absorb the cost of a quick exit, rather than stay to broker or enforce a political solution.
The Taliban also seem buoyed by the exclusion of the Afghan government from the Doha peace talks. This direct engagement legitimises the Taliban’s assertion that it and the United States are the only important players. The Taliban claim the Afghan government lacks authority and has no interest in the withdrawal of foreign forces.
Appeasing the Taliban is doomed to fail, as no degree of concessions would succeed in stopping the conflict. If any gain has emerged from the peace talks in Doha, it is that the Taliban have attained considerable political legitimacy. Conversely, the peace talks are undermining the Afghan government’s legitimacy — presenting the government as opposed to peace when in reality it is resisting oppression and the dismantling of the state. The notion of an ‘Afghan-led’ and ‘Afghan-owned’ peace process has no substance so long as the Afghan government is excluded from negotiations.
Hopes for a political solution are based on the premise that Taliban aims are negotiable and the group has softened its ideology. Both presumptions are false. The Taliban have not changed and remain committed to extending their rigid values. A Taliban attack on the USAID-funded NGO, Counterpart International, in Kabul on 8 May 2019 for promoting ‘open inter-mixing’ between men and women underscores that point.
The Taliban want peace, but on their terms. The ongoing peace talks are not denting their objectives, or delivering any meaningful concessions such as a Ramadan ceasefire or barring the targeting of journalists or civilians. Perhaps the most significant danger of rushed peace talks is that they could exacerbate tensions and lead to considerably more violence. The US negotiating team should not be afraid to walk away if the talks reach a stalemate or a bad deal is offered.
Suspending talks has precedent. US President Donald Trump demonstrated he would not sign a bad deal by walking out of talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in February this year. Likewise, the Taliban know when to walk away. The Taliban suspended previous dialogue with the United States in March 2012 over the issue of prisoner releases. Similarly, former UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi suspended discussions with the Taliban when he saw that they were not negotiating in good faith.
Several policy options could curtail rising Taliban influence. A sustained international residual military presence could impose substantial costs on the Taliban, forestall state capture, and enforce any future peace deal. The United States currently commits around 140,000 soldiers to stabilisation in countries like Japan, South Korea, and Germany. Such deployments have endured for decades, suggesting it feasible to maintain a residual force of 15,000 soldiers under the US–Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement.
The United States may be more willing to sustain such a deployment if its NATO and non-NATO allies raise their financial and military contributions. Such a force should be allowed to target the Taliban across Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan. Any agreement struck with the Taliban without the means to impose costs for non-compliance is meaningless.
It is also necessary to acknowledge that inclusive peace talks will require a much longer process and alleviate expectations that the current short-term process can lead to peace. Preserving the existing political order and holding the Afghan presidential elections that have now been delayed until September 2019 is key. Proposals to suspend elections to accommodate the Taliban are dangerous and would only undermine the constitution for no tangible gain. Derailing the elections would signal that if the constitution can be bargained away, there is no end to what can be dismantled.
Finally, Afghanistan must deepen its strategic relationships with its primary regional partners such as India, Iran and Russia. Kabul’s relations with its regional partners should also be utilised to persuade China to pressure Pakistan into reducing its support for the Taliban.
Dr Nishank Motwani is a Senior Research and Communications Manager at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), Kabul. He is also an International Adviser at the National Center for Dialogue and Progress (NCDP), Kabul.