The first section of this two part article is available here.
In a private conversation with myself in May 2015, a political leader of the Afghan Taliban, who is very close to the Political office of the Taliban, commented on media reports that talked of dialogue with the Afghan Government saying, “the Taliban are ready to talk to those who have their own free will and we do not see the Afghan president as having so.”
He added, “the United States is the real power and an occupation; we can negotiate with the Americans but we do not trust them.” He further said: “The Chinese and the Iranians contacted us but we told them clearly that they have to recognize the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan if they want to play the mediatory role. They should realize that Afghanistan is under occupation and that there is a legitimate resistance against this occupation. Only then can they be nonpartisan mediators.”
It seems that the Taliban’s refusal to talk to the Afghan Government signifies the continuation of their armed activitiesBaker Atyani
Talking about Pakistan and its relation with the Taliban, he said, “the Taliban are not under anyone’s control. We make our own independent decisions.”
The Taliban’s stance
Looking at various statements both on official forums and by senior Taliban members, it can be deduced that the Taliban’s stance regarding any future talks will be based on the following:
1. The Taliban still consider themselves as the legitimate government of Afghanistan and choose to call themselves the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan, the official name given by Taliban to Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
2. The Taliban believe that formal talks can be held with what they describe as occupation forces only with the condition of complete withdrawal. They reject the notion of talking to the Afghan Government. In this regard, Taliban perceive China, and not Pakistan, as a potential foreign guarantor for future talks.
3. The Taliban firmly believe Islamic law to be the only source of legislation and would not negotiate on this principle. Despite the fact that the Afghan constitution claims Islam as the prime source of legislation, the Taliban’s vision of implementing Islamic law is different from the Afghan Government’s interpretation.
4. The Taliban’s stand over its armed status is a principled one and is not up for negotiation. After surviving the last 13 years of war, they feel themselves victorious and not in a hurry to talk, if at all, with high set standards.
5. The Taliban’s stand vis-à-vis minorities and other ethnicities joining the political process has also evolved supporting the idea of sharing power with others. They are also convinced to allow women to acquire education and be part of the public life within the bounds laid down by the religion.
6. The Taliban’s standpoint toward the foreign and local militant groups vividly states that they are not allowed to use the Afghan soil against other countries. It is a clearly developed stand within the Taliban and endorsed by Mullah Omar himself which means that al-Qaeda or any other militant group would not be allowed to work against any country from inside Afghanistan.
The Taliban political figure said: “Foreign fighters are our guests. We cannot expel them from Afghanistan but as long as they are there they need to respect the laws of the land and the host country.”
The developing landscape
It seems that the Taliban’s refusal to talk to the Afghan Government signifies the continuation of their armed activities targeting international forces and the Afghan National Security Force. At the same time, Taliban are ready to unofficially explore other options and hold informal talks.
Reading varied standpoints leads to infer that any direct and formal dialogue with the Taliban would not be possible before the complete withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan by 2016. Taliban have adopted a stiff standpoint over NATO’s decision to maintain military presence inside Afghanistan after 2016 as announced on May 13, 2015 in the Turkish city of Antalya. The Taliban responded by saying, “as long as they have military presence inside our country, their civilian efforts, irrespective of their name and title, will not find security.”
In this regard, there are certain factors to be taken into account over the course of next two years that might affect any future talks:
The weak condition of the Afghan Government: its ability to become stronger, attain reconciliation from within, and to effectively fight corruption. According to Transparency International, Afghanistan is fourth on the list of most corrupt countries in the world. Recent U.N. reports state that $1.2 billion went in bribes in Afghanistan during the year 2014 alone.
The ability of the Afghan security forces to fight the Taliban in the next two years: field performance of the Afghan National Army is comparatively no match to the Taliban might on ground at this stage. According to a report presented by the U.S. special forces, the Green Berets, to the U.S. CENTCOM in October 2014: “The Afghan National Army cannot stand in front of Taliban,” which again raises questions about the future of Afghanistan post 2016. The police, in addition to incapacity and weakness, have also been accused of corruption and abuse of power according to a recent report by International Crisis Group published in June 2015.
Another important point is the regional efforts to support the Afghan Government and the seriousness of regional powers not to pursue proxy wars inside the Afghan territory.
Also worrying are the visible signs of threat by the new group of “Khorasan state” of ISIS: so far all the efforts of this new group are directed at competing with and confronting the Taliban.
Additionally, the ability of Taliban to stay intact, unified, and coup up with post withdrawal changes: Taliban leadership and its affiliate groups like the Haqqani Network still obey Mullah Omar and follow the orders of the Taliban central shura council.
Depending on Islamabad to help bring Taliban to talks sounds unrealistic: the relation between Islamabad and Taliban stands altered to quite an extent since 2001 and is now built on mutual interests rather than Islamabad’s one-sided control over the views and agendas of the Taliban. Islamabad’s reaction over the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar Akhond, deputy leader of the Taliban, in 2010 after the news of Taliban’s covert contact with the United States broke out, and later arresting of the relatives of Mullah Tayyab Agha, head of Taliban political office, in a mere attempt to bring Agha under pressure after the Taliban opened Doha office are perceived as hostile by the Taliban. In another instance, Taliban accused Pakistan of torturing Mullah Obaidullah Akhond, former Taliban defense minister, who was arrested in 2007 and died in Pakistani jails in 2010. In a recent press conference held in Kabul on May 12, 2015, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif strongly condemned the surge in attacks by the Afghan Taliban under their summer offensive calling it an act of terror. “Pakistan cannot exercise pressure anymore”, a member of the Taliban media cell told me: “We can work with Pakistan on matters of common interests, but we cannot trust Pakistan anymore,” he said.
The Afghan Government appears to be a strong purveyor of dialogue process. The incumbent Afghan President is clearly very serious and active in trying to bring the Taliban to the talking table. On the other hand, the Taliban have evolved from a group that adopted armed activities as their signature, since the ousting of their government in 2001, into a political movement using armed activities as a way to come back to power.
This is the starting line for any future talks between both the parties. Nevertheless, disparity in vision and stands is likely to make the reconciliatory process close to impossible at this stage as well as making it costly for all the parties, especially the Afghan Government that will face a severe military resistance from the Taliban. The Taliban might affirm their previously adopted stands through this resistance while simultaneously trying to improve their stand for any future negotiations.
Baker Atyani is Al Arabiya News Channel’s bureau chief in South and East Asia. He is a veteran journalist, covering conflict zones in Asia for the past 16 years and is an expert on militant groups in Asia. He has produced numerous documentaries, articles, and investigative stories and was the last journalist to interview Osama Bin Laden before 9/11. He has been honored by the U.N. for his work and by Al Arabiya News Channel and MCF with “Exceptional Courage in Journalism” awards.