The New Threat to Peace Talks in Afghanistan

The tragic killing of 16 Afghan civilians in Kandahar this Sunday, apparently by an American soldier, will increase pressure to find a political solution to the Afghan war. Fortunately, there are some faint but important signs that such a process is more possible—but patience is essential to getting to any deal.

The NATO command needs to determine what happened in Kandahar—quickly—and take remedial action to ensure it cannot happen again. Coming right after the unintentional desecration of Qurans and the deaths of several NATO soldiers from rogue Afghan soldiers, this latest tragedy will further inflame anti-foreign sentiment in Afghanistan and strain ties between President Hamid Karzai government and his NATO allies.

Iran and Pakistan will stoke anti-Americanism. Pressure will build in Europe and America to withdraw faster from the Afghan war. With the anti-war socialists likely to win the French elections, we can anticipate at least one major NATO ally pulling out this year. But there are also significant indicators that the Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani patrons are more interested in a negotiating process than ever before. The Taliban has agreed to open an office in Qatar to facilitate talks and to allow five Taliban prisoners in Guantánamo to be transferred to Qatari control. It did not renounce the negotiations over the Quran crisis. If it does the same now—denouncing the killings but not renouncing talks—it will be a sign they are determined to pursue negotiations.

Why are they interested now? First, because they no longer see victory in sight. Three years ago, they did, because they had the upper hand throughout southern and eastern Afghanistan, and they calculated that their goal of retaking Kabul was a real possibility. That is no longer the case. They have lost the momentum on the battlefield, and the Afghan army (for all its faults) is an increasingly formidable opponent. So some in the Taliban may understand that even when NATO’s combat troops depart, the civil war between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaris will just continue. More war—not an easy victory—is not an attractive future for even the Taliban.

Second, the Afghan Taliban are also increasingly frustrated with their Pakistani patrons. A recent NATO study based on the interrogations of 4,000 captured insurgents demonstrated that the Taliban are totally dependent on the Pakistani army and its ISI spies for safe haven and sanctuary across the border. Without these havens the Taliban would be desperate.

Current and former ISI officers give the Taliban their marching orders and help assist with critical fundraising in Pakistan. The ISI also keeps the top leadership, like Mullah Omar, under their thumb and can pressure their families if they don’t obey the ISI’s orders. Not surprisingly, this breeds antagonism and frustration. The Afghans know they are being used by the ISI. Some want to be out from under the Pakistani boot.

The ISI is also in transition. Its new director general is General Zahir ul Islam. He’s a former director of ISI’s internal wing and was V Corps commander in Karachi, Pakistan’s main port and mega city, until being tapped for DG/ISI. Karachi is a lawless city that needs peace badly to prosper. Zahir is also very close to army commander General Kayani (Pakistan’s most powerful man) and may even succeed him as chief of army staff next year. The army allowed the Taliban to agree to the Qatar office and seems more open to a political process than previously. (The civilian government, led by President Zardari, welcomes talks, although it has no control of the Taliban or the ISI.) If Zahir wants to allow negotiations to proceed under careful ISI scrutiny, then talks about talks may lead to real talks.

Then the hard part begins. The Taliban has yet to break with al Qaeda and still cooperates with it in some eastern provinces. Last May the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s top leadership council, mourned Osama bin Laden’s death and hailed him as an Islamic hero. The Taliban also still refuses to deal with Karzai and assassinated his top negotiator last fall. Tajiks, Uzbeks, and the Shia Hazaris (more than half of Afghans) are justifiably skeptical that the Pashtun Taliban and the ISI can be trusted.

Afghan women have the most to lose, of course, and fear any deal will be at their expense. Under NATO protection millions of Afghan girls go to school; none did when Mullah Omar ruled the country before 9/11. So any political process will require great patience and skill. It cannot be rushed to closure to satisfy those who want a quick end to the war.

It will also need a regional strategy that includes not only Pakistan but also key stakeholders like Iran and India. They can be spoilers if not brought into the process, even if only indirectly. So the best outcome in Afghanistan—a carefully developed political process that brings some or all of the Taliban to a ceasefire and a power-sharing arrangement supported by the neighbors—needs time and patience. It cannot happen overnight, especially when Afghan anger with America is at a dangerous peak.