Russia gambles on Taliban peace talks

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

Pakistani cleric, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, also known as the “father of the Taliban” was killed and buried on Friday in Pakistan after an attack for which no one has yet claimed responsibility.

Haq was the founder of the Haqqani madrassa network where many of the leaders of the Taliban were educated – including the group’s founder – Mullah Omar. The Afghan Taliban were swift to issue a statement saying that his death “was a serious loss to the whole Muslim world”.

Haq in his latter days seemed to have concluded that the remaining Taliban leadership should enter peace negotiations with the Afghan government believing that a power sharing agreement is possible – a position the Taliban leaders seemed to have accepted.

Seventeen years since the US and its allies entered the Afghan arena to remove the scrounge of the Taliban, neither side seems to be anywhere near what can be termed a decisive victory.

Despite the US now being on its third president and having tested various strategies under a series of highly capable generals, the Taliban continues to remain a formidable and resilient foe.

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The Trump administration having come to the inevitable realization that the war can drag on indefinitely, appointed the highly experienced diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as the Presidential Special Envoy to Afghanistan with the explicit task of “injecting new energy into the stalled peace process”.

Any political settlement settlement with the Taliban may have unpalatable results. The Taliban’s often brutal form of conservative justice shocks the liberal sensibilities of the western electorates paying for the war.

Bringing them into the political process will mean conceding that where, for example, young brides wed older men, US troops are not the right means to change those customs and attitudes.

Despite the US now being on its third president and having tested various strategies under a series of highly capable generals, the Taliban continues to remain a formidable and resilient foe

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Unpalatable results

The answer to this is that we are getting these unpalatable results already - we have the worst of both worlds. President Karzai recognised this and made these kinds of concessions to bolster his legitimacy.

Witness the law passed before the election allowing Shiite men to deny their wives sustenance if they do not satisfy their husbands, and which requires women to get permission from their husbands to work. These helped to shore up his power, but did not substantially neutralise the Taliban’s desire to fight by bringing them into the political process.

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The pro is that bringing the Taliban into the political process will mean setting up a thoroughgoing participative process. One of the problems with the electoral system we implemented was that traditional power brokers such as warlords had such a central role in ensuring support for the candidates.

For example, the government paid insurgent leaders in exchange for their agreement not to attack voters or polling stations, according to the former head of Afghanistan’s Intelligence service, Amrullah Saleh.

Nobody expected an advanced democratic process. But we can reasonably expect that next time, votes are a better representation of opinion on the ground, rather than who has been bought to ‘deliver’ a particular province or area for a candidate.

Expressed in debate

This will require that the differences over how Afghanistan is governed be expressed in debate, rather than merely fought over, and this is the real advantage of bringing ex-militants into the process as much as possible.

This process will necessarily start with negotiating with some people who the US has been fighting. That will not be easy to accept.

Moreover, earlier this week, a US government report confirmed that not only has the Afghan and US government campaign against the Taliban stalled but it is in fact gone into reverse with the Taliban making significant territorial gains along with increasing casualties amongst Afghan security forces.

However, not to be outdone, and emboldened with it’s success in Syria and the wider Middle East, Russia now sees an opportunity to reassert its influence and showcase itself as a responsible global power.

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Putin as the new power broker in the Middle East wants to succeed where the US has failed. Moscow has offered to host a peace conference on Afghanistan later this week with both the Afghan government and Taliban in attendance.

Also invited are delegations from the US, China, India, Iran, Pakistan and some of the Central European states making this a truly global affair.

Putin’s belief seems to be that all sides are so suspicious, weary and tired of the conflict that they will clutch onto any possibility of ending the war even if brokered by Russia.

Russia will then cement its position as a serious geopolitical power broker with Putin being hailed as the champion who brought one of the longest and deadliest wars of modern times to an end. And who knows, maybe even the Nobel Committee would take notice.

Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

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