Taliban are talking from a position of strength
0 comments | by Salman Rafi Sheikh
While the US-Taliban talks are of paramount importance in terms of bringing the 17 years old war to an end, there remains little to deny that even after fighting this war for such a long period and inflicting unimaginable loss of life and property on the country, the US has been unable to achieve even its initial objectives i.e., dismantling the Taliban. And therefore, notwithstanding the talks, it is difficult for those representing the US or Afghan interests to ignore or set aside the fact that the Taliban’s control in Afghanistan’s numerous districts hasn’t waned. In fact, as the latest report of Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIAGR) shows, it is expanding in an unabated fashion. Therefore, the question that the US negotiators will have to seriously confront is: how can they make the Taliban agree to a peace plan that involves either the placement of US forces or retention of some of the US military bases in Afghanistan when their own position in Afghanistan is stronger than ever and there is nothing that can be done to reverse it?
Convincing the Taliban is going to be difficult, and the Taliban are making sure that the war they have seemingly won on the ground isn’t lost on the table; hence, the Taliban’s appointment of their five senior and well-known hard-liner commanders as their principal negotiators. The ‘Taliban Five’, who had been detained in Guantanamo, were released in 2014 by the Obama administration as part of prisoner exchange. Significantly enough, these top five Taliban leaders include former head of the Taliban government’s army, the intelligence chief, two governors and a minister, making a sound combination of military and civil minds. The composition of this group clearly shows that the Taliban will be discussing military matters regarding the withdrawal of troops and the future of military bases, marking something that had remained until recently a non-negotiable point for the US. Of the top five leaders, one happens to be a former of governor of Herat province, Khairullah Khairkhwa, who was once a close confidant of both Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omer, leading some commentators to doubt that the appointment of these leaders might not ease the road to negotiations and settlement. On the other hand, it is also true that the exact opposite of this doubt might come true. There is no gainsaying that the Taliban wouldn’t want to lose this war on the table, and the appointment of these five leaders signifies this. But, as far as the fear of making negotiations difficult is concerned, it is also possible that if negotiations come to a point where a settlement becomes possible, the presence of these leaders, who do command a lot of respect from the Taliban rank and file, will make the settlement a lot more acceptable to the lower rank Taliban groups than would otherwise be the case. On the other hand, the appointment of these men also sends a positive message to Washington about the Taliban’s own seriousness in these negotiations and that they aren’t negotiating just to buy time and expand their control and include more and more districts in their controlled areas. In fact, this was clearly mentioned by Hakim Mujahed, a former Taliban who is now a member of the Afghan government peace council, that the presence of the former Guantanamo detainees in the Qatar office showed that the Taliban are serious about seeking a deal.
The appointment, therefore, in itself not going to damage the talks. The only thing that can damage talks and create a deadlock is the inability of the US to see the writing on the wall and decide not to withdraw or insist on keeping military bases. The appointment of these top five men shows that the Taliban wouldn’t be giving the US any relaxation on these issues and that any pressure on them to accept these demands will be effectively countered by these men, who know, out of their previous experience, what it means to be in control of Afghanistan, and what they will lose if they agree to the presence of troops or military bases. In this context, it seems to be correct to say that the Taliban’s position, after two rounds of talks with US officials, has not changed regarding the core US demands about troop presence and military bases. While this is hardly surprising to see the Taliban sticking to their core demands in the wake of their ever growing military strength in Afghanistan, the fact that no party, not even the Afghan government or the US, has objected to the appointment of these well-known hardliners shows that they don’t have enough strength to do so, and even if they do so, it might come only at the expense of the talks itself, which is something neither the US nor the Afghan government can afford at this stage. While we will see whether this happens or not, the Taliban have certainly shown how tactful they are and how seriously they are aiming at translating their battel-filed victory into a diplomatic success through the appointment of the ‘Taliban five.’