The first seven months of 2015 saw unprecedented movement toward peace in Afghanistan. A series of unofficial meetings between the Taliban and the Afghan government culminated in an official meeting in Pakistan on July 7. A second meeting was scheduled for July 31. The gatherings were preliminary, but real peace talks appeared close at hand. Then, on July 29, the world learned of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Mullah Omar was always the wild card for peace talks. Only he could ensure that the Taliban would stand together behind a deal, experts said. Without his endorsement, the talks would be illegitimate.
Sure enough, with the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death, momentum toward peace came to a halt. The meeting set for July 31 was postponed indefinitely. Then Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, rejected negotiations altogether and reissued the call for jihad against the United States and the Afghan government. Nearly a week after that, over the course of four days, three bombings wrecked Kabul, killing and injuring nearly 400 Afghans. The Taliban claimed responsibility. The question now is whether the window for peace talks is closed.
TABLING THE TALIBAN
The Taliban are immersed in a power struggle. Mansour is trying to secure his position against defiant rivals such as Abdul Qayum Zakir and Omar’s son Yakub, who question his right to rule. There are two possible outcomes to these struggles, each with its own implications for negotiations. One outcome is that the Taliban movement stays united. A single leader—Mansour or one of his current rivals—defeats all others and holds the movement together. In order to rule effectively thereafter, the new leader would have to prove himself. He would have to show the Taliban rank and file that he can carry the flag and wage war against the United States in Afghanistan. The presence of the Islamic State (also called ISIS), a credible threat to Taliban legitimacy, would further press the new leader to prove himself through war. For these reasons, any new leader would likely continue to reject peace negotiations, at least in the near term.
After six months to a year, the situation may change. Battlefield setbacks, the resilience of the Afghan unity government, and pressure from China and Pakistan might bring the Taliban back to the table. If this were to occur, a united Taliban would be a good basis for a lasting agreement, avoiding the spoilers and confusion of splinter groups.
Mullah Omar was always the wild card for peace talks. Only he could ensure that the Taliban would stand together behind a deal. Without his endorsement, the talks would be illegitimate.
Whether a new leader would seek peace over the long term depends partly on his true feelings toward negotiations. The West has only a hazy understanding of Mansour’s intentions. On the one hand, recent media reports have him bending to Pakistani pressure to send representatives to meet with Afghan officials and faking an official message from Omar (long dead) approving the idea of peace talks. On the other hand, his tribesmen tend to see him as a hardliner. Sometime before 2014, he told them that he expected the war to go on for years. He had seen the Taliban reconstitute themselves after 2001 and was confident they could persevere again.
The other possible outcome to the current Taliban power struggle is that, faced with internal feuding and a rising ISIS, the Taliban crumbles. Various groups with allegiances to different commanders spin off and form their own insurgencies. In this scenario, ISIS would gain adherents and perhaps become the strongest of the groups. The odds of a lasting peace deal in such a scenario would be almost nil. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would have no negotiating partner with enough weight to end the violence.
Yet, even in this case, there is a bright side. Taliban splinter groups and ISIS may very well start fighting with each other (as has already begun in Nangarhar). As they do, the Afghan army and police will become the dominant players on the battlefield by default. Ghani would then have leverage to work out individual peace deals with the leaders of the new splinter groups. Such peace deals would not end the violence, but could reduce it and reinforce the position of the Afghan government.
In the first half of 2015, cooperation between the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China enabled progress toward peace talks. Concessions by Ghani early in his term went a long way toward convincing Pakistan that a peaceful Afghanistan need not be a threat to its interests. In return, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistani Chief of the Army Raheel Sharif pressured the Taliban to meet with Afghan officials. China, with its close relationship with Pakistan, played an active and helpful role in facilitating discussions.
Omar’s death does not change the base interests behind multilateral cooperation—Pakistan and China do not want a long-term civil war in Afghanistan. By delaying the start of negotiations, however, his death does make it tougher to sustain cooperation. In fact, cooperation is already fraying. Ghani has come under intense criticism, especially from former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, for making concessions to Pakistan and getting little in return. He bet a lot on Pakistan bringing the Taliban to the table. With Omar’s death, Ghani now must wait for a return on that investment as car bombs go off in Kabul. His frustration is clear. On August 10, he gave a scathing public speech, criticizing Pakistan for allowing the Taliban to use its soil to kill innocent civilians in Afghanistan. Without something in return, continued civilian casualties may force Ghani to abandon rapprochement.
The Pakistani leadership’s ability to sustain cooperation is also of concern. The civilian government is said to have trouble controlling the country’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency (ISI). Many ISI operatives are thought to have longstanding ties with Taliban leaders. Moreover, Raheel is due to step down next year, and his successor may be less conciliatory. Over time, Pakistani leaders could decide that pressuring the Taliban (or its splinter groups) is not worth it. China could help here by pressing Pakistan to get the Taliban back to the table. But the West should temper its expectations. China values its trusted relationship with Pakistan. How far it will push Pakistan’s military leadership remains unknown.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
For now, the United States and the international community must be patient yet determined. It would be wrong to give up on peace negotiations and the gains of the past seven months. Whether the Taliban cohere or fragment, there may be another chance for peace talks six months to a year from now.
Even if the immediate opportunity for peace has diminished, a foundation of common regional interest persists.
The immediate priority should be staunching Taliban advances on the battlefield. The United States should intensify air strikes and advise the Afghan government to intensify its own military operations. The level of violence see in Afghanistan last week shows that, for now, the war is still on. New setbacks for the Afghan army and police will embolden the Taliban and discredit peace talks. Furthermore, military defeats create a distinct risk for Ghani. He must respond to the Taliban’s salvo in Kabul in order to prevent opponents from further incapacitating the unity government or calling into question rapprochement with Pakistan. It might seem tempting to hold off on military operations in order to help build Mansour’s credibility. In theory, Mansour could consolidate his position as leader and then turn to peace talks. Such endeavors should be put aside. The risk is too great, his true intent—compromise or total victory—too unclear.
At the same time, the United States should protect the renewed relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Washington and the international community need to encourage cooperation and discourage a return to the status quo ante of distrust. They should help Ghani stick to his Pakistan-friendly policies and they should work with Pakistani leaders to ensure that bringing the Taliban to the peace table remains a priority, leveraging U.S. aid where necessary. The United States should work with China on this effort as well. Regular multilateral meetings between the United States, the Afghan government, Pakistan, and China could help keep focus on the issue of peace. Regional cooperation has been a powerful tool in pushing the Taliban toward the table.
To keep relations with the Taliban themselves alive, the United States and the Afghan government should fall back on regular informal discussions with the Taliban, such as the May 2015 Pugwash conference or the June 2015 meeting between Afghan women leaders and Taliban associates in Norway. It would be a shame to lose this helpful avenue for the two sides to meet face to face and build confidence.
The first seven months of 2015 were a hopeful time for Afghanistan. Even if the immediate opportunity for peace has diminished, a foundation of common regional interest persists. The United States and its allies should try to fortify this foundation so that the window of opportunity may reopen. Peace talks are not yet dead.