Taliban conducted its deadliest attack yet at the training centre of the National Directorate for Security in Maidan Wardak province, west off Kabul on January 21st, leaving 126 dead[i]. A few short hours after that, the group announced that it had resumed its talks with the US envoy at Doha[ii]. This recent escalation of violence closely following or followed by negotiations is now come to be a pattern for the terrorist group. However, in moving away from the tradition of escalating the level of violence before or during negotiations to get an edge and concessions[iii], the Taliban does not seem to be placing new demands in the aftermath of such incidents.
While it has been quite clear for a while that the Taliban are in no hurry to work towards a peace process with all the actors involved[iv], they seem to be continuously escalating the conflict level with no apparent wish to gain an advantage in the negotiation process. However, the group’s strategic advantage in entering into negotiations becomes apparent when we look at their dialogue partners and their targets for conflict escalation.
Taliban representatives have met with representatives of US, Russia, China, Pakistan, India, and Saudi Arabia among others. One major stakeholder that is missing from the list is the Government of Afghanistan. By showing that they are willing to talk to anyone, except the government that sits in power at Kabul, the Taliban gains three strategic objectives. One, it shows the world that they are not violent madmen or a rogue actor anymore, but rather a moderate group that is willing to listen to international actors and who are worth talking to. Two, by meeting only with representatives and officials of other countries, while not allowing the government of Afghanistan to come to these meetings, or agreeing to meet with them, it delegitimizes the government. Such meetings signify that the Taliban are the only legitimate actor that the international community must talk to with regards to any peace process in Afghanistan. Finally, it also shows that the government is powerless in keeping or maintaining peace in the country – something that only the Taliban can enforce. The ‘impotent’ and ‘puppet’ Afghan government[v], which takes its orders from the US, cannot therefore take charge of the country or maintain peace. Therefore, all governments of the world should only be looking to the Taliban for an effective settlement for peace and development in the country.
At the same time, the Taliban has been increasingly attacking Afghan security forces and institutions just before or around the time of their next negotiation process. This too follows their logic of showing the Afghan state apparatus and security forces as being incompetent. In demonstrating the security forces, and in the latest attack, members of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s intelligence agency which is being trained and supervised by CIA, are vulnerable to attacks and that they cannot even save themselves, they show that they cannot possibly protect the Afghan populace – something that should be left to the Taliban under their Islamic Emirate.
Looking closely at the patterns of talks of the Taliban, as well as their recent attacks clearly shows that they are engaging with the international community on their terms and with a clear strategy in mind. Taliban is willing to talk to those who see them as legitimate actors who should be forming the government of Afghanistan – nothing less would do.
The Challenge Ahead
The international community has taken a great step forward by starting talks with the Taliban – an important actor which must be included for making any peace deal sustainable in the country. The on-going US-Taliban talks and the resultant preliminary ceasefire is a case in point. However, the Taliban is still using these talks as a platform it can use to delegitimize the current government in Kabul. The group refuses to engage with the government in Kabul and insists that the American government consider its talks as primary and that any further discussion would be ‘intra-Afghan’[vi] rather than ‘NUG-Taliban’ – thereby delegitimizing the National Unity Government in power. The international community now needs to make these talks and dialogues seem as a desirable and legitimate alternative to violence – making them genuinely believe in conflict negotiations as a way to achieve their goals. Getting the Taliban to the level of negotiability[vii] must be carefully designed and planned by all the actors involved. For this, the international community must keep focus on when the time is ripe to talk to them. At the end of it all, we must remember that simply talking to the Taliban is not sufficient. The international community must now ensure that the peace talks and negotiations must at the crux of it include all relevant stakeholders of Afghanistan, and that the process must be led by the government, with the support of all for peace.
[i] Rupam Jain and Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Taliban attack on Afghan security base kills over 100, Reuters, January 21, 2019; accessible at: https://in.reuters.com/article/afghanistan-attack/taliban-attack-on-afghan-security-base-kills-over-100-idINKCN1PF0F8 [ii] Afghan Taliban resume peace talks with US envoy in Qatar, Dawn, January 22, 2019; accessible at: https://www.dawn.com/news/1459044/afghan-taliban-resume-peace-talks-with-us-envoy-in-qatar [iii] Think the Iran-Iraq conflict or the Colombia FARC agreement. In these and other instances, one of the parties almost inevitably escalated violence levels and number of attacks just before the negotiations in order to get an upper hand during the negotiations and to be able to set the terms of the outcome according to their preferences. [iv] While the Taliban were excluded from the Bonn and London process, there have been multiple attempts to include them in peace processes in recent times, including the Kabul Peace Process II of February 2018. For an analysis of the concessions and demands being made during the peace process and Taliban’s response, please see my article on the same for CLAWS Focus, accessible at: https://www.claws.in/1888/a-strategic-analysis-of-the-kabul-peace-process-ii-nikita-kohli.html [v] The Taliban has used these terms often to describe the Afghan government. See Bill Roggio, ‘They will beg us for talks but we will reject them,’ Taliban spokesman says, FDD’s Long War Journal, January 20, 2019; accessible at: https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/01/they-will-beg-us-for-talks-but-we-will-reject-them-taliban-spokesman-says.php [vi] Mujib Mashal, US, Taliban agree in principle to Afghan peace framework, Times of India, 29 January 2019, p.20. [vii] Philip Lustenberger defines negotiability as “a situation in which a critical mass within a particular conflicting party considers negotiations as a desirable, legitimate and achievable alternative to armed struggle.”; in Lustenberger, A Time to Fight, and a Time to Talk?: Negotiability of Armed Groups, Swisspeace Working Paper 1, 2012. Furthermore, Rather than a linear process or an explicit choice at one particular moment in time, negotiability represents an evolving social process involving the participation of different actors within a group (in Pearlman, A Composite-Actor Approach to Conflict Behavior. In Chenoweth, Erica, & Adria Lawrence (Eds.), Rethinking Violence: States and Non-State Actors in Conflict, pp. 197-219. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 2010). An armed group can, at one point, genuinely consider the conflict negotiable, but as circumstances change, negotiability might be reversed.