Written by Sahar Khan.
In the last week of March, Uzbekistan hosted a conference in its capital, Tashkent, on Afghanistan’s peace process. It was attended by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan Tadamichi Yamamoto, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherni, as well as representatives from approximately 20 countries, including China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Iran.
As expected, the Tashkent conference resulted in a joint declaration in which the international community strongly backed the Afghan government’s offer to the Taliban, made in February, to hold direct talks “without preconditions.” The signatories also urged the Taliban to accept President Ghani’s offer, and praised the offer for being “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” and in accordance with various UN resolutions.
So was the conference a success? Yes and no.
The international community’s strong support for the Afghan government’s olive branch to the Taliban is a significant change—and an encouraging show of unity. The Afghan government’s offer to the Taliban includes legitimacy in the form of a political party, a ceasefire, and even prisoner exchanges and passports. For any of these to be successful, Afghanistan requires the support of regional countries and international organizations like the UN and EU.
Yet, the Taliban did not show up. Their absence highlights three influential—and interconnected—strands running through the current peace process.
Using the Taliban to counter ISIS resembles a road well-travelled. Arming violent non-state actors like the Taliban intensifies political instability and puts civilian populations at risk, all the while increasing overall violence.
First is the Taliban itself, which sometimes takes a long time to make decisions. For example, during negotiations with the Obama administration, the Taliban would often remain silent for months before engaging in serious dialogue again. Their current silence, therefore, may be in keeping with that pattern.
More importantly, the Taliban leadership views the United States, not the Afghan government, as the more important player in Afghanistan. The Taliban consider the U.S. an occupying force that has installed an illegitimate “American-style” government in Afghanistan. As such, they are more interested in having direct talks with the United States rather than the Ghani government. The Taliban views the government as a puppet regime while the Afghan government considers the Taliban an insurgency that violates Afghanistan’s constitution and routinely threatens its territory by staging terrorist attacks. The Taliban’s absence and current silence on Afghanistan’s offer may also be an indication of some internal divisions. While the Taliban have demonstrated cohesion over the past several years, there are sharp internal divisions over whether to negotiate directly with the Afghan government.
The second strand is the tumultuous relationship between the United States and Pakistan. Since 2001, the U.S. has often called on Pakistan to exercise its leverage over the Taliban, always hoping that Pakistan could nudge the Taliban in the “right” direction by putting a stop to attacks or encouraging them to come to the negotiating table. Of course, the United States has not always been open to negotiating with the Taliban: President George W. Bush almost always rebuffed the notion of having any kind of talks with the Taliban while President Trump has expressed scepticism about a political settlement with the Taliban. Pakistan’s position has been that it has limited influence over the Taliban.
Yet, the relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan’s military establishment and intelligence agencies is well-documented, and has often been a cause for alarm in Washington. Pakistan has also actively stopped negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban. For example, Pakistan prevented negotiations between Hamid Karzai’s government and Taliban on several occasions between 2008 and 2010, raising questions on whether or not Pakistan actually wants the Taliban to have better relations with the Afghan government. Within Washington, the consensus has been that Pakistan has been using the Taliban to counter India’s growing influence in Afghanistan while working toward establishing a Pakistan-friendly government in Kabul. Whether or not Pakistan is successful will depend on how the latest peace process unfolds.
Currently, the Trump administration is divided over how to deal with Pakistan. At the same time, Pakistan is adjusting to the administration’s hardline approach, which has involved a reduction in military and security aid, pressure from the Financial Action Task Force, and sanctions on Pakistani firms accused of nuclear trade. In Tashkent, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif expressed support for President Ghani’s plan, emphasizing the need for regional cooperation and “collective pressure” on the Taliban. But it remains unclear how direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Ghani government would impact Pakistan’s policy of “strategic depth.”
The third moving strand the Tashkent conference highlights is the spread of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. The U.S. has accused Russia of supplying arms to the Taliban to fight ISIS—an allegation Russia denies. Similarly, various Afghan and western officials have accused Iran of supplying weapons to the Taliban to counter ISIS and undermine the U.S.-led mission, which similar to Russia, Iran denies. The spread of ISIS in Afghanistan has caused global concern, especially for Afghanistan’s neighbours. The U.S., however, remains sceptical of the spread of ISIS in Afghanistan, and believes that Russia is pushing this narrative to exert itself in Afghanistan.
Using the Taliban to counter ISIS resembles a road well-travelled. Arming violent non-state actors like the Taliban intensifies political instability and puts civilian populations at risk, all the while increasing overall violence. After all, the Taliban are the by-product of U.S.-led efforts to arm and equip Afghan anti-communist militias to counter invading Soviet forces in the 1980s. This history should give Russia and Iran—and the U.S.— pause.
Thus, despite some positive developments at the Tashkent conference—a multi-country joint declaration, international support for Taliban’s involvement in the peace process, and an emphasis on Afghanistan leading peace negotiations— it is much too soon to declare it a success. The fact that the Taliban did not show up may not be cause for alarm, but the prolonged silence suggests the Taliban may believe they do not need to reconcile with the Afghan government because they can achieve a military victory on their own. Indeed, Taliban are active in 70% of Afghanistan, and are more or less financially independent because of the burgeoning opium trade. Furthermore, violence in Afghanistan continues to escalate despite increases in U.S. and NATO troops and Afghan claims that their security forces are stronger than before.
So while the Tashkent conference is not a raging success, it is not a failure either. But instead of patting each other on the back, stakeholders in Afghanistan may need to start planning for a Taliban rejection of Ghani’s olive branch. Peace continues to remain elusive in Afghanistan.