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With US–Taliban talks in stalemate, uncertainty looms in Afghanistan

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In Brief

As the Taliban makes its presence felt even inside Kabul’s Red Zone, Afghanistan’s political structures are creaking.

‘Once American troops are withdrawn, the existing government will collapse’, says William Polk, the veteran US foreign policy commentator. Tino Weibezahl, the head of Kabul office of Konrad Adenauer Foundation, says people associated with the current regime are attempting to get their families out.


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But even as talks in Doha between the Taliban and the United States remain in stalemate, President Barack Obama is apparently considering complete American withdrawal by the end of 2014. The impasse over what appear to be trivial protocol issues — such as the name of the Taliban political office and the flag used over the building — shows how difficult it will be to resolve the larger conflict. And while the Taliban gained international legitimacy with the formal announcement of talks with the United States, the negotiations, if they ever begin, are unlikely to change the nature of war inside Afghanistan.

The talks in Doha are a reminder of several missed chances to end the war earlier. I was present during the 2005 Asian Security Conference (Shangri-la Dialogue) in Singapore, when General Jamshed Ayaz, president of the Institute of Regional Studies Islamabad, suggested talking to the Taliban. The whole house rose in ridicule at the suggestion. In April 2007 Kurt Beck, head of the German Social Democratic Party, was scoffed at as ‘clueless’ by Chancellor Angela Merkel when he suggested talking to the Taliban, while at the Bonn Conference in December 2011 President Hamid Karzai scuttled the announcement of Taliban–US talks, which had been imminent. The United States first accepted talking to the ‘good Taliban’, but is now compelled to negotiate with the entire organisation.

The costs of these missed chances to negotiate are enormous. Despite claims to the contrary, a study released by the Bundeswehr (Germany’s military) at the end of May reports that the number of attacks on troops and civilians rose by 25 per cent in 2012. The Taliban’s victories and the West’s weariness of the war have made the Taliban more confident that they can finally win the battle against foreign forces mainly represented by the United States.

The Taliban know the reason the United States is negotiating with them is that US politics demand an orderly withdrawal by the end of 2014. In this context, the Taliban’s approach is to completely disregard Karzai — the weakest player in the peace process. Moreover, the very process of Doha negotiations, if they take off, will eventually lead to his irrelevance.

So President Karzai is in a bind. He is wary of American intentions, which is why he does not want direct talks between the United States and the Taliban, and he needs some American forces to stay in Afghanistan after 2014 to shore up the successors he leaves behind.

The Taliban will not acquiesce to this arrangement. They know Afghan forces alone cannot hold them back. A recent US military video revealed that the US-led plan to more than double the size of Afghan forces to 352,000 has resulted in poor selection, severe loss of training quality and, eventually, battlefield defeats. The Afghan army is no match for motivated and hardened Taliban fighters.

The Americans, whose primary objective is to leave, know that an orderly withdrawal is not possible if Karzai is allowed to stop the Taliban entering into the political process. If Karzai tries to do so, American decision-makers will jettison him to get their troops home safely. For now American interests are met by keeping Karzai insecure to the extent that he is compelled to agree on locating sufficient American forces behind and sign the status of forces terms with the United States.

The United States and its allies fail to appreciate Afghanistan’s resistance to Westernisation. No foreign invasion has ever been able to hold Afghanistan. By providing an effective underground governance structure the Taliban maintain a psychological and cultural grip over the Afghan population. As Gerard Challand has said, ‘the seeds of their return were planted long ago’.

With American withdrawal coming by the end of 2014, most Afghanis now accept that the Taliban will outlast the US military and challenge the corrupt and fractured administration installed by the United States in Kabul. Eventually, the Taliban will win, but Afghanistan is set for a period of uncertainty in the interim.

Sajjad Ashraf is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. He served as Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Singapore 2004-2008.

A version of this article was first published here, as RSIS commentary No. 135/2013.

3 responses to “With US–Taliban talks in stalemate, uncertainty looms in Afghanistan”

  1. It is enlightening to compare this post with the two articles that Anatol Lieven published recently in the New York Review of Books. Lieven tries to see Afghanistan in its regional context, a necessary effort since Afghanistan will have the same neighbours, notably India, Pakistan and Iran, after the US withdrawal, and none of them will be indifferent to Afghanistan’s fate. Nor will Russia and China. This author’s own country, Pakistan, may be happy for the Taliban to rule once more in Kabul, though this shouldn’t be taken for granted, but which other neighbouring country will? While it may be true that “most Afghans now accept that the Taliban will outlast the US military”, more likely if the US pulls out completely next year and not in 2024, this doesn’t guarantee an eventual Taliban victory. The Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other minorities have not forgotten what Taliban rule was like. Not all of them can leave.

    • It is absolutely true that whatever happens in Afghanistan is of regional concern. This is an improvement over the global concern that brought in foreign forces in the first place. Left to the regional states would have caused lesser problems.

      Of course Pakistan and Iran are neighbors, China barely but who else? Others have interests, some of which are legitimate.

      The world fails to understand an important fact that a most Pashtuns, who form majority of Afghan population live in Pakistan. The 2,700 km border drawn by the imperialist powers is porous. Same tribes inhabit either side. Pakistan therefore, has to sensibly deal with whosoever is in power in Kabul. And this means acceptance of a reality and dealing with it.

      I never said there will be an immediate Taliban takeover. The world is unable to recognize that no foreign invader has ever been able to hold Afghanistan. Taliban is a bad brand name, based on their medieval government, given to the Afghan resistance by the western powers. The old time Taliban are not there any more. It was the articulate German, French and English speaking gentlemen who came to represent the resistance in Qatar. That surprised many.

      After all how many more cultures will be destroyed in quest of supremacy? Countries and societies should better be left to evolve. Attempts to transplant alien cultures bring havoc.

      I am predicting uncertain conditions in the interim. And if the outside powers do not interfere again.

      • The Pashtuns have provided the leaders of Afghanistan ever since the reign of Ahmad Shah Durrani, with the brief and inglorious interlude of Baccha Saqqao the only interruption. In consequence, Pashtuns thankfully have a wide range of leadership models to imitate that go well beyond the unattractive contemporary examples of Mullah Omar and Hamid Karzai. Irrespective of whatever languages Taliban representatives in Doha may speak, they have not rejected Mullah Omar’s authority. And he still only sees out of one eye.

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