The Political Games in the Taliban Negotiations

That the Taliban has agreed to negotiations is not surprising. It has much to gain from participating in negotiations – yet almost no incentives to agree to any sort of a deal before 2015. Nor should the controversy regarding President Hamid Karzai’s first endorsing the negotiations and then the very next day withdrawing from them be surprising. All that the Taliban has to gain from the negotiations – attention, increased legitimacy, and direct channels to the United States – Karzai finds deeply threatening.

The restarting of the negotiations was in the making for a while: the Taliban had been sending repeated signals over the past several months. Just a few weeks ago its delegation, led by Tayyeb Agha, the purported key man in the Taliban negotiations, a former personal assistant to Mullah Omar, and a man deeply distrusted by the Arg Palace, traveled to Iran. Purportedly, the Taliban tried to reassure Tehran that in any future post-2014 political dispensation in Afghanistan in which it expects to have a major say, the minorities, such as the Shia Hazaras, would not be persecuted like they were under the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s. In fact, the Taliban’s public messages for more than a year have been that all ethnic groups would be represented in a “post-NATO” government. Tehran in turn has for years now sought to develop a more complex, less unidirectionally confrontational relationship with the Taliban.

At a civil society-Track II conference in Paris several months ago, the Taliban also learned that it has a good deal in common with some members of the fractured and extensive anti-Karzai opposition and that it can exploit their anti-Karzai narratives to increase its own legitimacy. It realized that even in the formal political space within Afghanistan – not just in Afghan villages and among the many different marginalized groups in the currently highly exclusionary mafia-like rule in Afghanistan – it has a lot of space for maneuver and for enhancing its capital.

That does not mean that the Taliban has been able to overcome the fear of all the opposition groups and ethnic minorities. Indeed, prominent members of the former, now divided Northern Alliance, such as key Tajik leaders, have repeatedly threatened a civil war should Kabul or the United States strike a deal with the Taliban they find unacceptable. Their maximalist threats are of course a part of a bargaining posture, but Taliban leaders themselves revealed that the greatest fear for the group after 2014 is a protracted civil war north of Kabul pitting the Taliban against a reconstituted Northern Alliance, in a repeat of the 1990s.

Nor has the Taliban persuaded many civil society groups and women’s organizations that it truly means its words that while women should be treated within the dictates of sharia, it would not be as harsh in its treatment of them as it was in the 1990s. At the same time, some of the greatest threats to women’s rights and the fragile improvements in the lives of Afghan women over the past decade have systematically, including very recently, come from President Karzai trying to wrap himself in an Islamist legitimacy cloak and leaning on a very conservative ulama he appointed. By the time the Taliban may be taking over any formal authority in Afghanistan, the past decade’s strengthening of women’s rights in Afghanistan may well have been long eviscerated. Women groups and civil society groups more broadly continue to be deeply excluded from either the Doha startup efforts or the activities of the High Peace Council, a body appointed by President Karzai to engage in reconciliation with the Taliban.

The timing of the announcement was also convenient for the Taliban. First of all, it occurred on the day that the Afghan National Security Forces took over responsibility for security throughout Afghanistan. That allows the Taliban to maintain the narrative that it will negotiate once the foreigners have agreed to leave. President Karzai used that moment in a parallel way to refurbish his nationalist legitimacy.

Second, this year’s fighting season has been bloody, the level of Taliban military activity very intense, and Afghan National Security Forces have been taking extensive casualties. Although the Taliban has so far not altered the state of the battlefield from where it was a year ago, it can credibly claim – and appease its mid-level commanders, previously chagrined by the leadership’s negotiations outreach – that it has no intention to give up the fight while it talks to the farangis (foreigners). Fighting while talking and staying true to a deal only as long as one does not become stronger on the battlefield, which becomes a good time to renege, is in fact very much the Afghan way. And its strategic campaign and victory during the 1990s very much involved coopting tribes and negotiating with local powerbrokers when it was convenient, and subduing them later.

And the farangis, not the Arg Palace, are the interlocutors with whom the Taliban continues to want to talk. In yesterday’s opening of the Doha office, it spoke of reaching out and engaging with civil society and other governments. And indeed, immediately, the international community started descending onto Doha, with many a prominent negotiator – in a formal position or as a self-appointed Track-II diplomat – wanting to be first in the door to start the negotiations. For several years now, delivering the Taliban negotiations has become the Olympic games of international diplomacy, with Turkey, Norway, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia all having their own outreach to the Taliban, and the Taliban obviously enjoying the attention and playing one audience against another. And since the United Stated finally agreed to the negotiations in 2010, it has been the dominant and ultimate focus for the Taliban in the negotiations. And Washington has increasingly become preoccupied with negotiations as the White House wants to “bring the war in Afghanistan,” or more precisely, the U.S. participation in the Afghanistan war, to an end. The more eager and desperate the United States or West appears to strike a deal, the weaker its hand.

It is this international legitimization and divide-and-gain approach, very similar to how President Karzai himself engages in international diplomacy, that the Taliban obtains from participating in the negotiations. Today the legitimization is more important for the Taliban than the prisoner swap and the freeing of some of its key leaders held in Guantanamo on which the previous round of talks with the United States collapsed in March 2013. Even if the issue resurfaces and is once again the cause of the collapse of the next round of the negotiations, the Taliban will have managed to appropriate the narrative.

And it is precisely this internal – within Afghanistan – and external legitimization that Karzai fears from the negotiations and is the basis on which he has objected to the Doha office and actively subverted previous negotiating efforts and starts. The Arg Palace may still not comprehend how deeply unpopular and illegitimate his rule and the associated extortion and corruption rackets have become, even as many Afghans call the current political dispensation a mafia rule. Indeed, it is a system in a profound legitimacy crisis, where power, murder, kidnappings, land dispossession, appropriation of foreign aid, and impunity have come to define politics. But President Karzai is deeply aware that his rule is supposed to end in next year’s presidential elections and that unless he installs a trusted successor, the vertically-integrated criminal-patronage structures of his own network will become very shaky and even his life will be potentially threatened.

So as much as he distrusts the United States in the negotiations with the Taliban and deeply dislikes the idea of the Taliban office, he played a gamble. Seeing the writing on the wall that renewed negotiations were coming, he hoped to put himself in the driver’s seat regarding the negotiations, recapture attention to himself, and desperately avoid being seen as a lame-duck president.

From his perspective, the renewed negotiations would have allowed him to divert attention away from July’s anniversary of the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework, whereby he committed himself to reduce corruption and the international community tied 20% of aid funding to his delivering on this commitment. The Afghan government is not in a position to show meaningful improvements, but the international community has lost the focus and wherewithal to live up to its threats anyway. More importantly, a renewed round of negotiations with the Taliban could make Karzai hope that he could divert international focus and pressure that he not meddle in next year’s presidential elections from himself. The international community would be mesmerized with the negotiations, and he could play his internal political games unfettered.

He was blatant that he immediately wanted to move the negotiations to Kabul where he could control them far better. But it was equally clear and should have been clear to him that the Taliban would not agree to such a relocation nor has become interested in his government being the principal interlocutor. Instead, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan label on the Taliban office, the flag, and the media coverage only stuck a needle deeply into Karzai’s sensitivities and sense of internal and external vulnerability. The gamble did not pan out; it only deepens his sense of long ago being betrayed by the United States. At the same time, however, Karzai continues to be persuaded – as he became several years ago – that the United States forever needs Afghanistan for the prosecution of its objectives in Pakistan and in a New Great Game in Central Asia, a strategic delusion that imbues him with a sense of great leeway in his snubbing of and ranting against the United States. Suspending talks on the bilateral security agreement makes him believe, incorrectly as it turns out, that he has leverage both with Washington and in the Taliban negotiations.

What, unfortunately, the Taliban gets out of Karzai’s huff is to be able to claim that it is the puppet Arg Palace that is the spoiler in the peace process. But of course, the Taliban has absolutely no incentive to come to any deal before 2015. After 2015, it will be militarily in a far stronger position. That will be the case even if the Afghan National Security Forces do not fracture along ethnic and patronage lines; their military operations are not significantly hampered by the lack of enablers and logistical, intelligence, and maintenance support; their morale is not sapped by the lack of medevac; and United States, despite Karzai’s latest stunt, signs a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan and some U.S. and ISAF residual force is left there after 2014.

Nor can the Taliban have any assurance that any pre-2014 deal would withstand the political earthquake of next year’s presidential elections. The Taliban has no incentive to participate in the elections – it does not poll well and its strength comes from being the outsider, the entity that delivers order if not rule of law per se against the excesses of the mafia politicians. And of course, it comes from the barrels of its Kalashnikovs. So, the Taliban does not want to run next year, even if it certainly will have an incentive to intimidate and coopt local politicians. And if the election goes very poorly, is very illegitimate and pervaded by violence, maintaining any Western political, development aid, and military support for Afghanistan will be difficult, once again playing into the hands of the Taliban.

As much as the United States might wish it, any pre-2015 deal is highly unlikely. And should it by some miracle be struck, it is highly unlikely to hold. Bringing the negotiations to a successful conclusion – one that is indeed the platform for stability and human security in Afghanistan and U.S. counterterrorism objectives, and not merely a deal for the sake of a deal or a fig leaf for U.S. and Western departure – is linked to the U.S. maintaining a credible presence in Afghanistan after 2014. That includes a security presence there, however much the Taliban is keen to negotiate it away. A successful outcome to the negotiations is also deeply linked to the 2014 presidential elections being seen as reasonably clean and legitimate by the majority of the Afghan people so that the next political authority in Afghanistan can claim to have their legitimacy and support.

Ultimately, a negotiated deal will only truly enhance Afghanistan’s stability and the security of the Afghan people if the negotiations are designed in a way that equally entangles the Taliban and the Afghan government and powerbrokers in a far greater rule of law and much lesser impunity than has been the case over the past decade.

Editor's note: For more details on negotiating with the Taliban, see Chapter 11 of Aspiration and Ambivalence: Strategies and Realities of Counterinsurgency and State-Building in Afghanistan, by Vanda Felbab-Brown.

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