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.
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.Arif Rafiq