The American and NATO plans for the future of the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan center around an unprecedented surge in Western optimism that one way or the other, the reconciliation efforts with Taliban will bear fruit and the government in Kabul will once again find the upper hand in relation to its adversaries. The chorus leaders for this surge in Western optimism are the war-weary politicians who seem to reiterate that "we will never kill enough insurgents to end this war". While the top politicos in Western capitals are hedging their bets from behind their glittery office desks in favor of some kind of an ad hoc political settlement that will limp into the Afghan horizon, the Western military top brass engaged in the actual war in Afghanistan are more sober, acknowledging that the gains made so far are "fragile" and "reversible" and stressing the importance of avoiding a hasty troops reduction.
The extent of the progress in talks with Taliban as the largest militant group in Afghanistan was revealed recently when the Taliban confirmed that their recent rounds of talks held with help from Qatar and Germany were about Western prisoners and not about negotiating a peace deal. This apparent lack of progress in the business of talks with Taliban – or to be precise, talks about talks – does not bode well for both the government in Kabul as well as the Western plans for withdrawal of most of their troops by the end of 2014.
This lack of progress in talks has come to light at a time when the first contingent of American troops have already been withdrawn from Afghanistan; the government of President Karzai in Kabul has assumed security responsibilities for a number of relatively calm areas of the country on the roadmap to 2014; the Taliban have drastically stepped up their force projection by targeting cities and prominent pro-government figures and the government's rocky relations with Western countries and financial assistance providers is going through turbulent times.
If there is any lesson learnt from the long history of conflicts in Afghanistan, the road towards a political reconciliation with Taliban will not be as easy and picturesque as the media and the governments involved in Afghanistan envisage. It certainly will take a lot more than political statements, meetings here and there and a few millions of dollars in bribe to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table. It is evident that the price that the Taliban would want to extract in return for acquiescing even to a semblance of a political truce, however short-lived it may be, will be no less than a complete overhaul in the current political dispensation of Afghanistan.
Any new political set up that the Taliban can agree to essentially entail revoking the Constitution as it is and making way for Sharia rule to hold supreme across the land. This goes far beyond the "redlines" that the government in Kabul has set for its own plan of reconciliation. The hyped-up Western media frenzy with regards to negotiations, talks and reconciliation with Taliban has its roots more in their desperation to bring an end to the decade long war than in any real possibility of it here on the ground in Afghanistan. As the current euphoria over a future reconciliation is more of a stir born out of necessity among the politicians and the media, it might die down and be forgotten as quickly as it has emerged over the past two years.
While the outcome of reconciliation attempts is far from guaranteed as discussed, what is further contributing to the current deadlock are the divergent positions that the stakeholders in talks are taking vis-à-vis the Taliban and each other. The efforts by the Americans and the broader Western coalition, the government of Afghanistan and Pakistan towards opening paths of talks and negotiations lack coordination, clarity and unity of purpose. Undoubtedly, there exists a great deal of latent potential in the three sides' efforts towards breaking this deadlock if they can set aside rivalries and genuinely work towards the singular objective of hammering it down the Taliban's throat - the inescapable necessity of negotiating.
Another important issue to consider is the ensuing fragmentation that might happen in the Taliban's broad yet loose structure if any of their leaders consent to sitting down for negotiations. It is a fact that what keeps Taliban's diverse sets of commanders, regional units and divisions together is their common belief in the necessity of taking up arms in Jihad. If any grouping within the Taliban or its supreme leadership decides to give talks a chance, the possibility is very strong that many factions within the Taliban break away and reject any notion of talks and press ahead with the insurgency. This again confirms the fact that the process of talks, on which Afghan and western governments insist in unison, is much more difficult and tricky than these governments would like to admit.
Negotiation and reconciliation with Taliban, as difficult and uncertain as it is, can be possible only after the root causes of the problems are recognized. This, apart from strong political will and concerted efforts on the part of all the counties and actors, involves setting up the right mechanisms in place and working out the modalities of the negotiations in close collaboration and consultation with those countries that are direct stakeholders in Afghanistan conflict. The most important component of any viable plan to stabilize the country should be to strengthen the rule of the government of Afghanistan and extend its reach throughout the country.
For this purpose, it is a foregone conclusion that we must improve the governance – and not only the government - in the country, reduce corruption and make the government into a legitimate representative of our national diversities and aspirations. In any conceivable plan, the international support to Afghanistan government, security forces and people should continue for many years to come if the international community and Afghanistan are to achieve these goals. Building capable Afghan security forces should continue and be expedited and the resources allotted for that increased. These are the only alternatives to a grim fate that might be awaiting the country, should the international community and the Afghan government fail in this project.