9 September 2013.
Developments in Afghanistan in recent months show that moves toward negotiations with the Taliban are getting more serious. This was publicly underlined on 7 September, when Pakistan unconditionally released at least seven Taliban prisoners, including some captured leaders. The previous day Afghanistan released 11 such prisoners, who were likewise free to go where they wish. This was explicitly called a move to facilitate a new round of talks.
During the same days, however, the U.S. launched a drone strike against a truck travelling through Afghanistan's Kunar Province, killing 16 people, many of them ordinary passengers, according to local authorities. American officials made no comment on this extraordinary prisoner release, and may have been behind it, but they also seem determined to demonstrate their lethal power and determination, combining violence and diplomacy until they get an outcome they can accept.
Even more dramatically than the prisoner release, in June the Taliban were allowed to open an office in Doha (Qatar) under the signboard of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan", the name used by the Taliban government during its rule, and fly that government's white flag.
This move gave rise to acute differences between the Karzai government and its U.S. backers. Karzai exhibited his anger by protesting this move, which apparently led to the failure of that initial round of talks. Karzai and other Afghan senior officials labelled the process a conspiracy, accusing the parties involved – the U.S., Pakistan, Qatar and the Taliban – of seeking to divide Afghanistan. In protest he suspended negotiations with the U.S. on the strategic agreement that is supposed to lay out the terms for long-term American involvement after the announced pull-out of some or all of its troops next year
The Afghanistan government complained that its preconditions for talks were ignored. Karzai, in a letter to Obama on 19 June, wrote, "Our agreement to open an office in Qatar was to achieve peace but not to lose our sovereignty and national unity and lose the achievements of more than a decade. The peace process should be led by Afghans." Karzai also insisted that a halt to Taliban military activities should be a precondition for the start of negotiations, and that such negotiations should take place in Afghanistan. (BBC, 27 June 2013)
But while denouncing the Qatar process, in the same statement he once again called the Taliban his brothers and demanded they should take part in the construction of Afghanistan and not kill their own brothers. (BBC, 28 June)
The occupiers have found the situation in Afghanistan very hard and complex, even though they seem to have decided to seek a negotiated settlement to the war against the Taliban. To a large extent these complexities have emerged as a result of the occupation itself.
Why the sudden rush for negotiation: the evolving U.S. position
It is not difficult to see why so many forces involved in the Afghanistan war in the last decade and beyond have suddenly become "peace-loving".
For a long time, the U.S., the leader in occupying Afghanistan, continued to say, "We don’t talk to terrorists." It was desperate to come out victorious from this war so as to move forward with its global ambitions. But the war has taken far longer than the U.S. expected, and, despite adapting one after another new strategy, a clear victory has become less possible.
The U.S. announced its intention to withdraw its main forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. However, this would still be far from withdrawing completely from Afghanistan. As of now, the U.S. says that around 10,000 of its soldiers will remain there for the indeterminate future. That means the U.S. would still overall lead the war from behind the scenes and even take part in more sophisticated operations, along with training Afghan government forces. As of now, the U.S. plans to keep military bases in Afghanistan indefinitely.
This is a continuation of its original goals in invading Afghanistan, to secure its dominance in a region that is the gateway to South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East, and strategically placed in relation to Russia and China.
At the same time it seems that the U.S. has come to the conclusion that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable without giving a share of power to the Taliban. When they launched the war in 2001 American political and military leaders needed to win a quick and impressive victory, in part to regain some of their lost power of intimidation after the defeat of their invasion of Vietnam. Their strategists believed that with the development of hi-tech and sophisticated weapons, they now had the capability of waging short and victorious wars against third world countries with small forces. Afghanistan was supposed to be an example of that.
In fact the quick collapse of the Taliban government only two months after the start of the invasion was considered evidence of the validity of that strategy. Drunk with apparent victory in Afghanistan, they planned the occupation of Iraq and even other countries. But it was too soon to conclude that hi-tech weaponry had become the deciding factor in the war.
The Taliban took advantage of the discontent of the masses against the occupiers and started to make a comeback, and the U.S. found itself to some extent pinned down in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some U.S. allies or at least some of their generals concluded that with the resources they had and the way they were fighting they could not defeat the Taliban. They argued that their interests would be best served by starting to talk with the Taliban with a view to including them in some way in the ruling power. The U.S. imperialists seemed opposed to that idea for a long time. Under pressure from some European allies and especially due to the deterioration of the war situation for the occupiers, Washington retreated from its previous position, but a condition for the start of negotiations was a prior achievement of a position of strength. The purpose of the "surge'" of more than 30,000 American troops in 2009 was to either finally defeat the Taliban and/or strengthen the U.S. position if bargaining proved necessary. But contrary to the claims of the U.S. military at the time, the "surge" did not help much to change the situation.
The U.S. has been seeking to talk to the Taliban since 2011. According to Karzai spokesperson Aimal Faizi, “the opening of an office for the Taliban in Doha was the result of negotiations between the Taliban and the US in 2011." He said that the Afghanistan government was informed only days before the second Bonn conference" in June 2011.
The Taliban position
The U.S.'s failure to defeat the Taliban should not obscure their reactionary nature, nor that of the other Islamist groups allied with them.
In the absence of a revolutionary force (an alternative to both reactionary sides, the occupiers and the reactionary Islamists), the masses who hated the occupiers and their installed government for their atrocities could see only one option: the Taliban. Some stayed away from both sides but some joined the Taliban.
However the Taliban's reactionary nature brought them some serious limitations in this war. They did not stop with the extreme oppression of women, half the population. They also bitterly suppressed the poor masses of all nationalities and religions and increased their suffering, while siding with feudals and other well-off reactionaries. This increased the hatred of many of the masses during years of their rule all over the country including the Pashtun areas.
The Taliban's Pashtun base is both a strength and a problem for them. Their oppression of people of other religions, even other branches of Islam, and also the country's smaller, non-Pashtun nationalities that overall make the majority of the population, means that altogether about 60 percent of the population of Afghanistan have not been very susceptible to their influence, and countrywide support has always been out of the question. The fact that the Pashtun masses have felt driven to the Taliban by the atrocities of other warlords, commanders and the imperialist occupiers, especially against Pashtun people, does not mean deep support. According to some polls and estimates, at least one third of the people in the Pashtun areas such as Southern and Eastern Afghanistan do not support the Taliban at all.
The Taliban suffer from another disadvantage that works against their popularity: most people in Afghanistan know about their dependence on Pakistan which uses them as a tool for its own regional interests and its rivalry with India. Pakistan, despite its disobedience on the Afghanistan issue and its not-very-hidden support for Taliban, at the end of the day it is a strong ally of the U.S. in the region.
These factors have brought the Taliban obstacles that their reactionary nature doesn’t allow them to eliminate. They might be investing in the discontent of the masses but their strategy and tactics are far from relying on the masses. They might fight the occupiers but they are far from being an independent force, and may finally allow the foreign forces in, if not through the front gate then through the back door. Further, time is not necessarily on their side – they cannot continue the war forever. It is perhaps because they are aware of the consequences of this situation that they agreed to negotiate with the occupiers over the last two years, a change in their initial position of refusing any talks until the occupiers leave the country. So far, including at the Qatar talks, they have refused to talk to the Afghan government directly, but recent statements signal that they may change this position.
Pakistan is another player in the Afghanistan war that is not happy with developments since theoccupation began in 2001 and is strongly against Karzai and any non-Pashtun based regime that would be inclined toward India and Iran. Despite pressure from the U.S., they have refused to reduce their support for the Taliban. The Afghan government believes the only reason the Taliban can continue to fight is Pakistan.
During a visit to Afghanistan, Sartaj Aziz, senior national security adviser to Pakistan's prime minister, admitted that, because of previous relations, Pakistan's security agency (ISI) "has some contacts with the Taliban but doesn't control them." (BBC 21 July.) In referring to the Qatar talks, he added that Pakistan helped arrange the meeting with the Taliban when asked to do so.
Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who has authored several books on the Taliban and regional politics, recently wrote an article about the talks, which was published by the BBC. He believes that Pakistan is genuinely helping and supporting the talks. "Having long been accused of meddling in Afghan affairs for its own ends, Islamabad is desperately keen to make sure that the talks do not collapse, because successful talks could not only lead to an end to the destabilising war in Afghanistan, but to a reduction of Pakistani Taliban militancy. The ISI did play a positive role in initially getting the Taliban to return to Doha after a break of 16 months and it is doing so again." (www.ahmedrashid.com )
But there might be more than that, as Western governments are increasing their pressure on Pakistan and warning of the possible cost to that country if it does not cooperate. This pressure might also be accompanied by promises for a Taliban role in a future Afghan government and an increasing role for Pakistan in Afghanistan and the region as a whole.
In fact, that was one of Karzai's main fears leading to his protest against the Doha talks. He had suspicions, or perhaps even indisputable evidence, that the main points to be negotiated had already been agreed upon between the U.S. and Pakistan and probably the Taliban, in the absence of Afghan government representatives. That is why Karzai called it a conspiracy to divide the country.
Possible negotiation points
In fact, it now seems impossible that the Taliban will agree to negotiate for anything less than their inclusion in the ruling power system. The question for the U.S. and other major players is how. They are reviewing three main alternatives at the moment. (1) To incorporate the Taliban into the existing power structure and give them some ministerial position or "elect" them to some governmental positions. (2) To rewrite the constitution to include the Taliban’s views on Sharia (religious) law. This could be a problem, since the Islamists advocate Sharia as the exclusive legal system and have opposed any other constitution. (3) To hand some provinces, mainly the Pashtun provinces, to the Taliban and let them control and make the law in those regions. There has been much talk about the latter option, and it seems it is the favoured solution among imperialist and Pakistani circles.
The idea was raised by Conservative British parliament member Tobias Ellwood in 2012. Known as "Plan C", it would divide Afghanistan into eight zones and hand a few over to Taliban control. While explicitly rejected at the time, in some aspects it still represents the imperialists' view for power-sharing in Afghanistan. An Afghan government official also claimed that Pakistan's adviser to the prime minister Sartaj Aziz raised a similar plan with the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan.
In the end, all the forces involved are entering into negotiations for their own interests. Karzai’s protest is that he should not be left out and no decision should be made behind his back, but he is not opposed to negotiations in principle, or even necessarily to some of these possible points of agreement.
The Taliban might retreat from their position on not talking to the Afghan government. The tone of Taliban leader Mullah Omar's message on the occasion of the Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr was more conciliatory than previous statements. In his message he said that the Taliban is not seeking to monopolise power and will allow others to "serve their country". He also signalled that he will not allow the country to be used to attack other countries, a possible reference to breaking with or restricting Al-Qaeda. It also seems that he is retreating in terms of Taliban opposition to NGO activities, women's education to some extent, and so on. He noted a change in military activities and asked his followers to be cautious about civilian lives.
In sum, there are pressures on the various forces involved to come to some kind of agreement – of course at the expense of the people's interests. They can easily agree on trampling on the people's interests and rights. After all the rhetoric about democracy and women's rights that the Western occupiers used as an excuse to invade, these issues have disappeared from their discourse and from that of Karzai, who has repeatedly (and truthfully) called the Taliban his “brothers”. There is no doubt that whatever the agreement, the people and especially women will suffer as usual, and maybe even worse than now.
It may be that this negotiation process will continue. It also may happen that the differences and the clash of interests among the reactionary forces involved will prevent a settlement. In either case, this situation will go against the people's interest and is not likely to bring the kind of regional stability the imperialists seek either. Once again, despite all their crimes, the imperialists may not achieve their goals.