Recently I have written several op-eds on the talks about talks with the Taliban, political settlement and the coming Bonn Conference II in December. Below is a guest post of mine published at the Afghanistan Analysts Network reflecting on the same topics with some updates and different questions. The Bonn conference of 2001 has been a gathering of anti-Taliban Afghans and the international community and it resulted in the Bonn Agreement which provided for the establishment of the Afghan Interim Authority (AIA) with a six-month mandate, to be followed by the Afghan Transitional Authority (ATA), mandated for two years, after which elections were to be held. Most Afghan analysts, meanwhile, claim that it was a mistake not to include the Taliban in the 2001 conference's set-up, and that, as a result, a chance was missed for preparing the ground for genuine reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan.
Now the question is, "What are the objectives of the upcoming Bonn conference, if it is not to be just a symbolic political event? Will there be a breakthrough for the so-called 'political settlement' in Afghanistan?" Apparently the Afghan government, NATO and the US are making efforts to ensure Taliban representation there. But if it happens, how relevant will this be? Without a clear agenda and objectives, the conference will just continue to draw the reconciliation narrative of the US and NATO exit strategy from Afghanistan.
On the other hand, US officials have publicly confirmed that they held direct talks with Taliban. Ahmad Rashid, in his Financial Times article, says the first face-to-face talks between Taliban leaders and the US were held in Munich on 28 November 2010 chaired by a German diplomat, probably Ambassador Michael Steiner (my speculation). On Taliban request, Qatar was also involved in the talks, and a second meeting was held in Doha on 15 February. A third meeting took place in Munich again, on 7 and 8 May, with the same participants. These confidence-building meetings were followed by the separation of al-Qaeda and Taliban members on the so far united list of global terrorists by the UN Security Council. Recently on a request by the US. In a latest move, the UN delisted 14 ex-Taliban from its sanctions list.
Despite all these developments, there are no signs of change on the ground. Family members of President Karzai blamed the Taliban for the assassination of his half-brother in Kandahar last month. Latest victims of the series of high-profile assassinations were Jan Muhammad Khan, the former governor of Uruzgan and a close aide of President Karzai, and Kandahar's mayor Ghulam Haidar Hamidi. Jan Muhammad and his son were killed in a high-security area near the Afghan parliament in Kabul. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
Under these circumstances, it is not very probable that the Bonn conference will result in a breakthrough on the so-called 'political settlement' to end the conflict in Afghanistan. Several problems stand in the way of this.
The Taliban have made it clear several times that the Afghan government is the secondary problem, while their primary conflict is with the foreign troops. Mr. Karzai has lost the national political mandate he enjoyed after the Bonn conference in 2001. Obviously, his delegation will not be a representative of all political forces in the country, let alone the Afghan people. More importantly, will the Taliban accept to attend the conference as part of a delegation of the Karzai Administration? Will there be a real Taliban representation at all?
Even if the Taliban's Quetta Shura under Mulla Muhammad Omar shows some willingness for talks and an eventual political settlement, this will not mean an end to the conflict. Already there is fragmentation in the ranks of the mid-level insurgent commanders. Recently, the brother of a Taliban commander in Zabul, my home province, told me in Quetta that there is a 'martyr' from every Noorzai and Kakar family in the province, all during the last ten years – 'how could the amir-ul momenin end all our efforts by a deal', he responded to my question about Taliban's direct talks with the US. 'If he had to do this, he could have handed over Osama to America in 2001', he added. There is also the question about whether and how to approach Hekmatyar's Hezb-e Islami and the al-Qaeda ally, the Haqqani network.
Meanwhile, foreign troops have already begun withdrawing from Afghanistan. All NATO combat troops are to withdraw by the end of 2014. By then, the Taliban's primary problem no longer remains the bigger part of the conflict. But what is being ignored by all stakeholders of the current process is the fact that the Taliban have more internal problems within Afghan society than with external actors.
It will be hard to ensure a unanimous understanding among all sections of Afghan society about a political settlement to end the conflict. Consequently, the international community should not put all efforts in persuading the Taliban to talk, while ignoring other domestic stakeholders of the conflict. The current political opposition forces in Kabul, who are expressing concerns on the talks with the Taleban, are factions of the former Northern Alliance (NA) who fiercely resisted the Taliban in the 1990s.
A revival of the NA is already underway. Three prominent leaders of the former NA have announced an alliance this June, and meetings are held with other factions of the opposition. They include former vice president Ahmad Zia Massud, the head of People's Islamic Unity Party (Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Mardom) Muhammad Muhaqqeq and Jombesh chief General Rashid Dostum. They are also having meetings with Yunes Qanuni, and Abdullah Abdullah has been invited to the new coalition. The primary agenda and motive of the new alliance is opposition to talks with the Taliban.
The Karzai government, instead of pursuing pragmatic politics of reconciliation in Afghanistan, has further fragmented the Afghan society by his kleptocratic rule during the last ten years. The worst development can be seen in the current showdown between the legislature, the judiciary and the Karzai administration.
Also those representatives of the Taliban leadership who are taking part in direct talks with the US must admit the fact that they currently have more serious problems of acceptability within Afghan society than with the international community. One big problem with the mindset of Taliban leadership is their fantasy that most people of Afghanistan support their harsh brand of Sharia and their extremist political ideology.
The Taliban must realize that they might enjoy grassroots support in parts of the country, but they have been and will always be unacceptable for the majority of the population in Afghanistan. It is their brutality that is compelling people to surrender in areas of their influence, not support for their ideology.
But nevertheless: If Afghans and the international community at the coming Bonn Conference fail to set out a realistic roadmap to end the conflict which takes these factors into account, this country will be well on the way into another era of crisis and chaos.