*This Commentary first appeared in the National Journal online on September 22, 2011
The assassination of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani should put to rest any vision of the Afghan conflict ending in reconciliation with the Taliban leadership. Rather than Rabbani’s death occasioning questions of its impact on the future of negotiations, it should instead serve as the final piece of evidence that, in fact, there is no peace process to salvage. What has passed for discussions with the Taliban were meetings with individuals almost entirely initiated by outright frauds or those unauthorized to speak for anyone other than themselves. Even then none of the supposed peace feelers ever amounted to anything more than talking about talks.
For some time now, the Taliban, by their words and deeds, have shown that they lack interest in compromising with the Karzai government or its international allies. The idea that Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura or the Haqqani leadership would bid for cabinet positions or provincial appointments was an essentially Western notion. It assumed that the Taliban could be induced to accept a democratically inclined, coalition government that could also constitutionally incorporate their Islamic doctrinal aims—this with a movement whose leadership has never shown much tolerance for those who did not share their particular worldview. The elemental Taliban precondition for beginning any negotiations has always been clearly stated: that foreign troops must first leave. In other words, that the Kabul government should effectively leave its fate to a Taliban force that had no intention of disarming. While most of the Taliban’s enemies have concluded that only a political solution can end the fighting, it seems that the Taliban alone have continued to believe in a military outcome.
Why then have so many opposing the Taliban been reluctant to give up on a peace process? Why have they appeared to grasp at straws that to the insurgents suggest a lack of determination and desperation? And why have they imagined that even were talks to begin they would take anything less than years to succeed? For answers we need to appreciate that the Kabul government has had a strong investment in keeping alive the prospect of serious negotiations.
Professor Rabbani as head of a High Peace Council represented the most visible manifestation of the Karzai regime’s commitment to push for reconciliation. The decision to name Rabbani, the former mujahideen party chief, as lead negotiator had little to do with choosing a person for his reputation for finding compromises. Indeed, Rabbani’s past suggested a man more capable of creating dissension than harmony, more likely to show intransigence than flexibility. Rabbani’s anarchic rule between 1992 and 1996 bears most of the responsibility for the Taliban’s march to power starting in 1994. The selection of Rabbani, the prominent leader of the country’s large Tajik ethnic minority, was designed so that the northern minorities would find it more difficult to reject out of hand the idea of direct talks with their long-time enemy the ethnically Pashtun Taliban. Surprisingly, Rabbani took his role seriously and made an earnest effort to find common ground with the Taliban. For his part, President Karzai sought to use the quest for negotiations to burnish his shaky claims to legitimacy by taking on the mantel of a peacemaker among a people fatigued by decades of war. By rallying his government and the international community behind a peace process, Karzai also hoped to deflect the heavy pressures from his critics at home and abroad that he address domestic political reforms.
The United States and Britain among others have also had an agenda in touting a political solution. Despite doubts, especially within the U.S. military, over whether the time was ripe for negotiations, Washington diplomats worked hard to facilitate political negotiations, even to opening our own lines of contact with the Taliban. Like many of its NATO partners facing rising domestic doubts about involvement in Afghanistan, the U.S. has been anxious to explore any shortcuts to an early termination of the conflict. Politically, Washington has also been concerned that any observed reluctance to endorse peace overtures could leave Americans accused of being responsible should, as most likely, they go nowhere.
But it is Pakistan that has been the principal instigator of a negotiated settlement. By promising to bring the major Taliban figures to the table, Pakistan’s military has hoped to relieve some of the pressure to act aggressively against those Afghan insurgent groups that it has been sheltering. Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership has consistently sought to convince the U.S. that the Taliban are moderates who will act pragmatically if given the opportunity to govern free of threats. For Pakistan, a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul presents probably the only way out of a serious dilemma—how can it place a friendly Pashtun force inside Afghanistan that would be expected to diminish Indian influence in the country and also avoid provoking a civil war by fearful non-Pashtuns. The solution for Pakistan has been to promote a coalition government in Kabul that in having to share power could be checked should they later be inclined to turn around and align themselves with Islamic militants challenging the Pakistani state.
The truth is that there is little at present that drives the Afghan Taliban leadership toward accepting a political settlement and a great deal that motivates them to sustain their fight. Despite real setbacks during the military surge in 2010 and 2011, the Taliban are not, as some contend, a dispirited fighting force, willing to take best deal they can get. Eventually, if Afghan security forces show themselves up to the task, reintegration through many political deals with defecting Taliban commanders and foot soldiers is conceivable. But the insurgents are for the time being convinced that they are holding their own militarily, indeed winning. Why even consider compromise when you have only to wait a few years while international troops are drawn down and finally leave? From the moment that they first emerged in Afghanistan, the Taliban have always been convinced that they have time and God on their side. The carefully planned killing of Rabbani is a rude reminder.
Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.