The US-Taliban peace talks held on Tuesday in Doha ended
inconclusively, but are set to resume at an undecided later date in March. For
the US, a political settlement with the Afghan Taliban is now a necessity.
The insurgent movement remains impervious to an intensifying US aerial campaign. Its territorial control continues to grow as Afghan government forces and the US-led coalition are on a trajectory to overtake the Taliban in terms of responsibility for civilian deaths.
The Afghan government faces the risk of defeat in both the physical (territorial control) and psychological (legitimacy) domains. The status quo is untenable. There is little recourse to a political settlement.
But a poorly constructed peace deal may do more harm than good. One major risk is that it could serve as a morale booster for the al-Qaeda-led global fundamentalist movement, to which the Taliban has been tied for two decades.
The Afghan Taliban sheltered al-Qaeda during the 1990s up until the US invasion after the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaeda founders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri gave the bay’ah or oath of allegiance to Taliban founder Mullah Muhammad Omar. And al-Zawahiri has given the bay’ah to each Taliban leader who has succeeded the deceased Mullah Omar.
The al-Qaeda-Taliban relationship goes beyond history and symbolism. The reestablishment of the Taliban’s so-called “Islamic Emirate” is a rallying cry and strategy priority for al-Qaeda. The Taliban have portrayed their rule over Afghanistan as an idyllic period—a contemporary example of correct “Islamic” governance.
A flawed peace deal would concede too much to the Taliban, allowing it to claim an outright victory over the world’s sole superpower and reestablish something akin to the system it imposed on Afghans over two decades ago. The revival of a distinct “Taliban model” of governance would embolden extremist groups in the region and beyond to do the same.
In official statements, the Taliban have said that they are keen on intra-Afghan dialogue and do not want “exclusive control of power.” Indeed, following Tuesday’s talks, US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted that intra-Afghan negotiations are imminent.
However, there are likely to be hardliners within the Taliban political and military leadership that will stick to maximalist demands. They are, at the very least, likely to remain as formidable pressure groups throughout the negotiation process and perhaps even after a deal is reached. They may make it difficult for the Taliban to compromise on constitutional changes and a power-sharing arrangement. There is a risk that splinter groups could form as a result.
Despite the Taliban’s strength on the battlefield, the international community does have leverage over the group, enabling it to shape a “good” political settlement that does not serve as a boon for the al-Qaeda-led movement.
The Taliban desire two things they did not have when they ruled over most of Afghanistan in the 1990s: international legitimacy and foreign financial and technocratic assistance.
The Taliban have support in parts of Afghanistan because they are seen as alternatives to a corrupt and inept government as well as brutal militias. But if their control over parts of Afghanistan is formalized, public expectations would rise, creating problems for the Taliban, who are ill-equipped to govern. Initial euphoria over peace would yield to malaise or even anger over flawed governance.
In areas where they presently dominate, the Taliban do not provide a completely alternative system. They allow government schools and international NGOs to operate. The Taliban do not have a bureaucracy that can sustain a modern state. They need help in terms of both capacity and funds.
So what can the international community do with that leverage?
One, the US must make the final phase of its withdrawal contingent upon the conclusion and implementation of an intra-Afghan accord between the Taliban and most, if not all, groups who recognize the current Afghan constitution. The agreement between these groups must be framed as “sulh” or reconciliation, and as a deal between equals—not a surrender to the Taliban.
Two, there is no scope for the “Islamic Emirate” to be restored. Afghanistan is already an “Islamic Republic”. The regime the anti-Soviet mujahideen fought against was communist and aggressively anti-religion. In contrast, the current Afghan constitution declares Islam to be the state religion, requires the president to be a Muslim, forbids legislation that violates Islamic precepts, and allows for specialists in Islamic jurisprudence to serve as judges. In fact, the first post-Taliban Supreme Court chief justice, Fazal Hadi Shinwari, was a conservative Islamic scholar who wanted to ban television.
Many of the leading power brokers who recognize the current Afghan constitution are observant Muslims who are well-versed in the Islamic intellectual and jurisprudential tradition. In an intra-Afghan dialogue, it is they who must stand up for the good in the present system, including the rights afforded to women. Together, they will dilute the Taliban’s influence in determining Afghanistan’s future political setup.
Finally, the Afghan Taliban may have to formally disassociate themselves from al-Qaeda. But this may prove to be too difficult for the Taliban. Al-Qaeda has been decimated in Pakistan, but it continues to operate in Afghanistan through its South Asia affiliate. In recent years, the Taliban have repeatedly stated that they will not allow Afghanistan to serve as a threat to neighboring countries. But mere words are not enough.
In lieu of a formal condemnation of al-Qaeda, the Taliban could be asked to distance themselves from the group on the ground in Afghanistan, creating space for US and Afghan special forces to eliminate remaining al-Qaeda figures in the country.
The upside of a “good” Afghanistan peace deal is clear. It would bring an end to Afghanistan’s 40-year war—the war that helped give birth to al-Qaeda—giving one of Asia’s poorest countries a chance to make up for lost time. A negotiated settlement to the war would be an ultimate refutation of the al-Qaeda narrative.
Failing to secure a political settlement to the Afghanistan war would only give groups like al-Qaeda the chaos and violence they need to survive.