A Strategic Analysis of the Kabul Peace Process II
After months of deliberation and internal national consensus building, the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani offered one of the most comprehensive offers a government has made to non-state armed groups by inviting the Taliban for formal peace talks on February 28 . The offer made was surprisingly without any conditions or riders, even to the extend of no call for the drop of arms against the government and the civilian population . This marks a radical change in the government’s policies and approach to dealing with the Taliban, and it is highly doubtful that the decision to do so was made out of any concern for the armed group or because of the purity of the heart of Ghani. In trying to understand the strategic implications of the offer, and the possible responses of the Taliban and the internal community to it (beyond the regional actors and the EU, which were a part of the group that put out the proposal), this article will look at the timing of the proposal, the actors involved, the motivations, and the possible moves for the Taliban, given that the ball is now in its court.
The proposal, which reiterates its ‘support to the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process’ makes a provision for the Taliban to have ‘an office in the capital, Kabul; passports for their members; help resettling militants’ families; and assistance in scrubbing the names of top commanders from international terrorist blacklists’ . While there has been an extensive talk of including the Taliban in the official government making process since the mid-2000s, the extend of the concessions being made by Ghani to bring the Taliban to the discussion table is quite surprising. While one may argue that the decision is motivated by the immense military and political pressure being put on the Afghan government by the United States Government , it seems a bit unlikely, not in the least because Ghani, like his predecessors have become quite adept at ignoring threats from the US while milking them for military and humanitarian aid.
To fully understand the decision, it is important to understand the background in which the discussions have been taking place. The proposal seems to have come at a very opportune moment for the Afghan government, given that the country will see the Parliamentary election in July this year (2018), and the Presidential elections next year (2019). Despite having been ousted from power in 2001 by the US army, the Taliban retains a lot of control over the country and continues to have sway over the political decision making. Against the backdrop of the elections, it would be a calculated risk for Ghani to suggest to the Taliban that he is open to engaging with them unconditionally, allowing himself to be seen as a representative of all Afghans, one who is even ready to engage with the Afghan Taliban, while simultaneously ensuring that the growing opposition would be regarded as sectarian and tribalists, who cannot represent a cohesive and multi-ethnic Afghanistan. With the Balkh Province Governor Mohammad Atta Noor and former Afghan President Hamid Karzai attempting to unite various factions under their lead and away from the influence of the current President Ashraf Ghani , the support of the Taliban, if only in ensuring that they (the Taliban) vote for him, or allow the electoral process to take place, or at best (or worst) ensure that the people vote for him at the booths, it can spell victory for Ghani.
It must also be noted that the proposal comes just before the start of the traditional summer offensive led by the Taliban. The summer offensive has traditionally seen large scale and intensive incidents of violence and bombings carried out by the group, traditionally against the government structures in areas where the Taliban has not had much control. The Kabul Peace Process then squarely puts the onus on the armed group by allowing it a legitimate place in the governmental discussion, while delegitimizing its violent actions at the same time. By putting the focus on the non-violent option that the armed group now has also has serious consequences for the Taliban’s new relationship with the ISIS-Khorasan, with which it recently signed a cease fire agreement in the Kunar province on 14th February this year. While it allows the Taliban to break its agreement with the militant group, it would at the same time remove the security arrangement made between the two groups, putting the Taliban leadership in line of possible fire.
Possible Options for the Taliban
Given the current scenario, we can therefore expect one of three possible reactions from the armed group: (a) accept the proposal and join the Kabul Peace Process II, (b) reject it in its entirety, and (c) a faction of the group accepts the proposal and enters into the discussion with the parties to the Peace Process. The first option would bring the most benefits to the group, allowing it not only the material benefits such as a headquarter office in the capital and passports, but would also grant it political legitimacy, something that it has long coveted. It would also have the additional benefit of allowing the Taliban a chance to avoid any ‘battlefield’ deaths , something that the Taliban would be wise to consider, given that its ranks have been declining, and its fund to recruit, train, and maintain personnel and their missions has been on the decline. However, accepting the proposal in full could also have a negative repercussion for the group in declining its legitimacy among the other non-state armed groups functioning in the country and the region due to its acceptance of the civilian government and its more secular and encompassing approach to governance. It could signal a weak commitment towards its militant ideology, as well as towards honouring its commitments to ISIS – Khorasan. Due to the extreme costs and benefits involved, the first scenario becomes an unlikely situation that the Taliban might accept.
The second situation is of the Taliban rejecting the Peace process proposal. While some analysts have argued that a rejection of such peace proposals has been the traditional response of the group, and would therefore maintain the status quo , such an analysis of the system is not entirely true. With the proposal to have the Taliban at the table be as extensive and without any preconditions whatsoever, the stakes in the game have changed. If the Taliban is to refuse the proposal, it would signal that it has no interest in being a part of the government by any configuration, and consequently, does not have the interest of the people in mind. It would signal that the Taliban is only interested in violence. Such a tactic, while negating the costs associated with the first option as mentioned above, also negates any benefits for the group, for now and in the future, and may be the final nail in its coffin, at least from the point of view of the Afghan populace.
This then leaves the third option of a faction of the Taliban accepting the proposal as the best option available with the group. The tactic of keeping all types of ‘opposition’ in suspense, while reaping the benefits is an old tactic, used famously by Queen Elizabeth I when she played with her various suitors, and yet did not commit to anyone, or by Kissinger, who, while arduously close to Nixon, maintained distance and friendship with all types of political actors, thus keeping his options open. While giving them hope of an open dialogue, yet not fully committing to the idea that the Kabul Peace Process and its outcomes are legitimate, the Taliban would be able to keep all the cards to itself, while at the same time ensuring that both, the governmental and other political parties, and the non-state armed groups operating in the country, would continue to pursue it, and continue to make the Taliban various concessions to try and win them over to their side. However, the Taliban leadership would have to be ever more vigilant if they are to take this strategy. If the game is played far too long or in an unwise manner, the various civilian and militant factions may simply come to distrust them and despise them.
It must be noted that if such a response is taken by the Taliban (which is the most likely scenario), the government would have to agree to sit with them along with the various other political factions and international agents, if only just to maintain its face by showing that it honours its commitments. While this is the most likely scenario, it is also the least effective one, which might not actually lead to any significant or actual changes in the game of politics in the country. At most, it would present a picture of Ghani to the domestic populace of Afghanistan and to the world as someone who really tried to bring the armed group to the table, and as a President who last represented the cohesive unity of all of Afghanistan.
Of course, such a charting out of the possible responses of the Taliban to the Kabul Peace Process II is based on an assumption that the group is rational in its decision making, and that it would try and calculate to some extend the possible payoffs in any situation. While some may disagree with the assumption since the general tendency has been to invalidate any action by a non-state armed group as irrational, it is safe to say that that is perhaps not the case with the Taliban, which has ensured its survivability and continued relevance on the basis of very calculated responses to various governmental and international responses over the 20 years of its existence.
- Deshmukh, Shreyas. 2018. “AFTER THE KABUL PROCESS: THREE OPTIONS FOR THE TALIBAN.” South Asian Voices. March 5. Accessed March 13, 2018. https://southasianvoices.org/after-kabul-process-three-options-taliban/.
- DesMarais, Scott. 2018. “Afghanistan’s Powerbrokers Prepare for 2019 Presidential Elections.” Institute for the Study of War. March 09. Accessed March 12, 2018. http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/afghanistans-powerbrokers-prepare-2019-presidential-elections?lipi=urn%3Ali%3Apage%3Ad_flagship3_feed%3BXFGZB%2B5MQ0yFTxxNyQQKYQ%3D%3D.
- Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. 2018. “The Kabul Process for Peace & Security Cooperation in Afghanistan Declaration.” February 28. Accessed March 3, 2018. http://mfa.gov.af/en/news/the-kabul-process-for-peace-and-security-cooperation-in-afghanistan-declaration-ii.
- Karzai, Hekmat Khalil. 2018. “An Unprecedented Peace Offer to the Taliban.” The New York Times, March ` 11.
- Kramer, Andrew E. 2018. “In Peace Overture, Afghan President Offers Passports to Taliban.” The New York Times, February 28.