TSG IntelBrief: Getting the Taliban to Talk
March 4, 2015

Getting the Taliban to Talk

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Despite recent optimism, dialogue between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban remains unlikely

• But the environment is changing as Afghan-Pakistan relations show real improvement

• Pakistan appears committed to do what it can to help, as does its key ally China

• It may be though, that the Taliban leadership is no longer able to guarantee its followers follow; the next few months—as the fighting season begins—will determine the country’s future.

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Despite recent speculation that the Afghan Taliban may be ready to enter into talks with the Afghan Government, progress has proved illusory. The Taliban say that they have been misquoted and have no intention of negotiating. This is a pattern oft repeated over the last four years, starting well before the Taliban opened their office in Qatar in mid-2013, and predating the negotiations that led to the release of Sgt Bowe Bergdahl in return for five Afghans held in Guantanamo in the middle of last year.

It is not that the Taliban have been inconsistent, it is rather that suggestions of a change in their approach have always seemed well founded until they have been proven wrong. If the Taliban had been testing the reaction of their followers and of the international community by again allowing talk about talks, it seems that, as so many times before, they have decided that the time is not right.

But time does not stay still, even in the remotest areas of the 1,500-mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan where the Taliban remain strongest. In fact it is the situation in the border area that has perhaps changed the most. The latest Pakistan Army campaign to eradicate the Pakistan Taliban has eroded the distinction often made in Pakistan between bad terrorists who perpetrate atrocities in Pakistan, such as the Peshawar school attack of December 16, 2014, and good terrorists who mount attacks in Afghanistan and target Indian interests. So intertwined have these groups become that the Pakistan Army can no more easily distinguish between them than can the rest of the world.

The election of Ashraf Ghani as President of Afghanistan last September, and his formation, after some delay, of an inclusive Afghan government, have also brought about change. It was not only the Taliban who disliked Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, and refused to have anything to do with him; the Pakistan government felt much the same. By the time Karzai left office, the two countries were spending more time trading generally well-founded accusations of complicity by their intelligence services in attacks on one another than they were on looking for ways to stabilize the region. But the bilateral relationship is now vastly better. President Ghani visited Islamabad not long after his election, and—significantly—has still to visit India, despite a standing invitation to do so. General Raheel Sharif, the Pakistan Chief of Staff, has already visited Kabul at least three times since Ghani’s accession, and the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has also been a regular visitor. Associated with these visits, Afghan forces have captured and handed over to Pakistan six Taliban members suspected of complicity in the Peshawar school attack, acting on intelligence provided by Pakistan.

All this shows that the two countries may have decided finally to pay more than lip service to their undertakings to help each other deal with the security threats posed by their respective Taliban groups. It will be hard for Afghanistan to rout out the Pakistan Taliban from Kunar Province where its leader, Mullah Fazlullah, is holed up, and it will be equally hard for Pakistan to deliver Mullah Omar’s representatives to the negotiation table, but without their engagement nothing will happen. Both countries have been further encouraged to work together by outside powers, and not just by the United States. China has become increasingly concerned at the number of attacks mounted by Uighur separatists who have their bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Chinese have leveraged their special relationship with Pakistan, and their current and future investment in Afghanistan, to get the two sides to focus on the need to work together on internal stability. China has hosted senior Afghan Taliban and has offered to facilitate peace talks. It has also announced that President Xi Jinping will soon visit Pakistan.

But it may still not be enough. Pakistan’s influence over the Afghan Taliban is limited, and it is unclear how cohesive the movement remains. Not only are local commanders likely to turn out to be independent warlords if they are asked to stop fighting, but other rejectionists may follow the example of Mullah Abdul Rauf, who in January was the first prominent member of the Taliban to join the so-called Islamic State. He did not last long, killed by a drone strike in February—no doubt betrayed by his erstwhile comrades. But others may be luckier and manage to mount an effective challenge to the leadership of Mullah Omar, who has not been seen or heard in public since 2001. The Taliban will know very well that if they cannot show that they control the insurgency, then there is no point in the Afghan government negotiating with them.

Just bringing the Taliban to the table therefore is not enough. It does not necessarily mean that they will talk, and even less that they will agree to anything. The Taliban have moved from their previously intractable position that they continue to be the legitimate government of Afghanistan to an acceptance that the Afghan government must represent all Afghans, but they have not explained in detail what this means.

The change all around them does not yet appear to have reached their core, and they may calculate that the coming fighting season will provide new opportunities to advance against a weaker Afghan Army, even if the U.S. reverses its policy on the withdrawal of its remaining troops and disengagement from operations. The next months will likely show whether either Afghanistan or Pakistan actually has the ability, even when backed by a neighbor, to loosen the state of endemic violence that seems to hold them both in a vice-like grip.

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