There is increasing traction to American efforts to pursue talks with the Taliban. US Special Envoy for the region, Mr. Marc Grossman in Delhi to explain details to the Indian leadership and then visited Kabul to possibly clarify various nuances to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Taliban has also acknowledged that talks are being actively considered which has given momentum for increased engagement of regional countries and other influential actors as Turkey to support the same. One main player is out of the loop so far, Pakistan at least openly. Under the circumstances are talks with Taliban a way to stability in Afghanistan? At present these appear a way out of Afghanistan for the United States rather than bringing tranquility to the troubled South Asian state which has seen over three decades of violence. Yet the negotiations can if properly structured prove to be a way to Afghan stability, here is how?
Firstly the constituency for talks in Afghanistan is growing. For instance there is support to negotiations by groups such as Jaish-ul-Muslimin Movement, who have been aligned towards the Taliban for long. Thus it was no surprise that leader of the group, Sayed Mohammad Akbar Agha came out strongly in support of talks. These disparate groups who have been working with the Taliban in the past are willing to engage the US which gives hope for building consensus on the peace process with the Taliban in the days ahead. Jaish-ul-Muslimin has a history of opposition to both the United States and Afghan government. The group has demanded release of al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners currently detained in Guantanamo also cessation of all UN works in Afghanistan. That the leader of this group Mr. Agha a former member of the Taliban is now talking of a cease fire would imply that hard liners who support rebels are more amenable after the US decision to consider release of prisoners from Guantanamo thereby building confidence in these groups. Ultimately their commitment will however be tested once stage 2 of the talks start after release of the prisoners from the Guantanamo as that would indicate if they were really interested in the process or only seeking release of their compatriots. But this is a chance worth taking.
More over other Taliban support groups as the Hizb e Islami are deeply engaged with the Afghan government and there is a good chance of an agreement being worked out with the leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the near future.
The other challenge is to get leaders of the National Coalition, Abdullah Abdullah who have stated that secret talks by the Afghan government and the United States with the Taliban will not lead to peace. Closing the divide between the Tajiks and other ethnic groups who are coming out in the open with many Tajik leaders objecting to present contours of peace process which are seen to be out of the public domain and thus as a threat to those who opposed the Taliban rule in the country is important. How all these different strands will be reconciled remain to be seen.
Negotiations will thus have to be structured in a manner that these at some time become Afghan led or take full care of concerns of all Afghan political and ethnic groups. In other words these have to ensure that finally Afghans of all hues come together, be it the Taliban, Karzai government or Abdullah Abdullah led National Front which represents the interests of the Tajiks and Uzbeks. While this may seen quite difficult at present, but by setting such a goal it may become achievable for the milestones in the pathway could be established and worked towards.
The different strains in the Afghan peace process are also evident with the ongoing debate between the United States, UN and NATO. While NATO and UN seem to be supporting the process led by Afghanistan, the US is planning to go ahead on its own without involving the Karzai government. President Hamid Karzai and his supporters are also upset at least initially that they were not on board when the United States decided to have talks with the guerrillas in Qatar. Now it appears they are reasonably satisfied to accept this arrangement. However this may not be enough. UN and NATO concerns will have to be taken on board.
While many may not it, but getting Pakistan on board is important. That Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) controls many of the disparate groups is well established. While US Pakistan relations are slowly returning to normalcy how much sanction the Taliban has been given by the ISI to engage with the US is not clear. In all probability a go ahead would have been given without which it would not be feasible for the Taliban to act. How to get Pakistan to act in the larger regional interest rather than a narrow national one will perhaps be the biggest test which will have to be addressed most seriously. How much effort has gone towards the same remains to be seen?
Other stake holders as regional states including Iran will also have to be taken on board. Here the good services of either Gulf States as Oman and Qatar or Turkey would have to be taken by the Americans given the state of relations between Tehran and Washington. Iran would like to hear also about status of American forces post 2014. It is only with these assurances that support can come for the talks.
Others such as India, Russia, China and Central Asian states may go along in case the negotiations are Afghan led without giving the Taliban a major say in future governance or division of the country into ethnic strongholds which will only create more regional instability.
While peace negotiations are complex especially in Afghanistan with a large number of national and international players in the fray these have possibly become more so. Thus success of negotiations with the Taliban will depend on how all these stake holders are brought on board and jointly work towards stability in Afghanistan rather than only facilitate a US and NATO pull out by 2014.