Have Taliban bid farewell to Afghan peace process?
It was many long, speculation-filled months in coming. On Tuesday last, US President Joe Biden announced that he was pushing withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan to September 11 this year. Immediately, the historic announcement triggered a flurry of critique, analysis and speculation. Those with a more sceptical disposition saw it as something that would not go down well with the Taliban, leading to increased violence, a possible breakdown of peace talks and a collapse of the transition process to a post-US Afghanistan.
Indeed, the Taliban have been publicly opposing any extension in the withdrawal deadline, repeatedly calling upon the US to honor its commitment to pull out all troops by May 01, this year. Tensions have been growing inside Afghanistan and the UN mission to the country recently reported that nearly 1,800 people have been killed in violence in the first three months of 2021. This, the UN report notes, is a 23% increase in violence when compared to the same period last year. Soon enough, the Taliban announced that they would not be attending critical upcoming peace talks in Ankara slated for April 24. Then, the spokesperson for the Taliban, Mr Zabihullah Mujahid, took to Twitter and stated: "If the (Doha) agreement is breached and foreign forces fail to exit on the specified date, problems will certainly be compounded and those who failed to comply with the agreement will be held responsible."
This ominous-sounding tweet seems to have confirmed the sceptical view that the Taliban would return to the battlefield now that the US has once more dithered on its withdrawal. Yet, I will argue that, quite to the contrary, this tweet is the surest indication that peace is still possible and that the peace process will continue, even if through a few stumbles and with some changes.
I urge you to read Mr Mujahid’s tweet again. It does not specifically say that the peace process is over and does not announce or threaten an immediate return to military means. Such could have very easily been done given that it was Twitter and all it took was a few words to do so. That Mr Mujahid did not is most certainly important. The tweet only says that “problems will certainly be compounded”. This is a very vague statement. Next, the last phrase of the tweet is: “…and those who failed to comply with the agreement will be held responsible.”
Now, it is easy to read this as saying ‘Taliban are returning to military action and will now be striking international forces in an effort to drive them out through force’. Yet, this tweet can also be read as saying, ‘Your decision will “compound problems” and one may blame “those who failed to comply with the agreement” for this “compounding”, and not the Taliban’. I think the tweet is more likely to mean the latter and not the former.
To my mind, what the Taliban are basically saying is that they will be adopting a ‘new way forward'. In this, they are likely to escalate attacks on Afghan security forces and wrest control of more areas (they already control 50% of the country) away from the same. Important to note here is that the Taliban have not overtly announced a resumption of attacks on US or NATO forces in the country. This is because the Taliban seem to understand that attacks on international forces will simply create a rationale for them to stay longer and respond with greater force, degrading the Taliban’s ability to maintain effective military capability. Indeed, in his speech, the US President had specifically named such an eventuality, saying that the US will respond with all tools available to itself.
One may note that an unnamed “senior Taliban leader” told the Associated Press recently that the Taliban had ordered remnants of al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters, on whom they had influence, to leave the country. It is important the Taliban are not looking to simply upturn the table. Clearly, they seem not to have walked away from issues seen as critical to its national interest by the US. This means that a shot at peace is still possible.
What, then, are the Taliban likely to do? As indicated previously, the Taliban are more likely to step up attacks against Afghan security forces in the bases, towns and cities that they tentatively hold. The rationale behind such action would be to raise the spectre of civil war, build more pressure on the US and allies and, to improve their own bargaining position on the negotiating table. Indeed, the Taliban refusing to attend the Ankara peace conference is more likely a pressure tactic. On the one hand, the Taliban appear to be inviting key stakeholders to try and coax them back to the table. On the other hand, and it follows from the preceding, that Taliban seem to intend to use their refusal to talk as a bargaining chip in itself. Here, it would not be too far from reality to say that the Taliban will seek more concessions and better terms as a precondition to their return to talks.
In particular, they might seek to target the current Afghan president, Mr Ashraf Ghani, his supporters and those who share his views on the Afghan imbroglio, and attempt to further sideline them in the peace process. At the heart of this, if true, would be the intent to have Mr Ghani’s government replaced with a less hostile, more amenable “interim” government to oversee the transition from the US- to post-US Afghanistan – and one that would include the Taliban as a part. Mr Ghani and his supporters have consistently opposed such a move. His departure seems like a valued proposition to the Taliban.
Why might the Taliban still be interested in the peace process and why not simply leave the table for the turret? Because a negotiated settlement is the surest way for the Taliban to earn global recognition. The Taliban had no international recognition during their previous 1996-2001 rule. As a result, they faced dire economic circumstances, sanctions and more. In fact, it was this situation, which made them dependent on Osama Bin Laden for finance. That their relationship with Bin Laden was the cause of the American invasion in the first place, is a well-known fact. Thus, international recognition and legitimacy are critical for the Taliban. It is for this reason they have maintained a political office in Doha since 2013.
In addition, all key regional and international players – including Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran, Turkey – even India – are committed to a negotiated peace. All these countries have said as much and multiple times, especially after the Biden announcement. The Taliban are unlikely to find much support if they adopt the military path. More ominously, they understand that if they take up arms, whatever international friends they do have will find themselves alienated from the rest of the international community. Adding to their friends’ difficulties or, worse, losing friends is not something the Taliban can afford at the moment.
Finally, the Taliban also understand that the US is going to leave. If they do not, they need not go too far. On the same day President Biden announced the new withdrawal deadline, the US Intelligence Community published its annual “Threat Assessment” report through the office of the Director of National Intelligence. This report devoted more than 23% of its pages to China and Russia, another 11.5% to Iran, and 7.7% to North Korea, as the top four threats to the US. To Afghanistan? Just four sentences.
Clearly, the US is shifting focus elsewhere to meet the challenge, it imagines, these other countries pose to its security. It is tired of its engagement in Afghanistan and wants to leave. Only, the US is seeking a way out that can help it keep its superpower-sized ego intact – even through, what can hardly be regarded as anything more than, its military defeat. That it is apparent to all that the US could not win, means by default that the Taliban did. The Taliban really need no more certification of their success. They can take a break, catch their breath, calm their nerves and return to the negotiating table. It is likely that such will happen, for by returning, the Taliban will only expedite the process of US departure. The latter should be of paramount importance to the Taliban and it is very likely that it is.
Thus, in the final analysis, I find little value in allowing the sceptical viewpoint to take hold. It is within the Taliban’s interest to return to the negotiating table. Of course, it must be for some purpose that despite the huffing-puffing and ominous tweets, the Taliban are continuing to negotiate deals of their own with smaller players within Afghanistan. So for now, we may keep calm and carry on – toward the certain end of the current 20 year-long, bloody chapter of Afghan history.