The Taliban who were in power in Afghanistan for almost half a decade in the 1990’s but were evicted in the wake of 9/11 are once again due to have a formal political identity an office address in either Turkey or Saudi Arabia if reports of plans being laid out to restart the process of reconciliation with the rebels are to be believed. The rebels some say continue to control vast swathes of the country’s rural areas particularly in the South and the East and are able to strike at Kabul and Kandahar, Afghanistan’s two main cities at will. So why should the Taliban talk with the Afghan government and will these talks bring about peace and stability in the country as Western forces prepare to pull out by 2014?
The answer to this question is complex just as every other dilemma in Afghanistan is. But some of the steps towards reconciliation with the Taliban are now being identified and as far as this is clear there may be hope of greater progress than there has been seen so far. First and foremost the process has to be Afghan led thereby indicating that the High Peace Council will be the main instrument for any negotiations on the table. Nomination of a Chairperson for the High Peace Council will therefore have to be undertaken by President Karzai at the earliest. The other issue is of getting Pakistan on board this seems to be at present some what contentious and thus may take some time thereby indicating that US Pak Afghan relations would have to improve. The third is political representation of Taliban for which purpose it appears that an office in Turkey or Saudi Arabia is likely to be established. Then is representation of the rebels who are seen as credible and genuine. Some options are emerging but how much these intermediaries have the confidence of Mullah Omar is not clear so far. It is only after meeting these basic conditions can any progress be anticipated on this issue.
Mr Karzai who has been opposing any talks so far with the Taliban after the killing of Mr Burhanuddin Rabbani chairman of the High Peace Council knew all along that there was no scope for avoiding talks at some point of time but had to take a strong stand to ensure that the opponents of reconciliation are on the back foot. The Afghan government is now assured that it would have a principal role to play in talks with the Taliban, thus there is greater hope that these would gather some momentum. The aim is also to find a relief for Mr Burhanuddin Rabbani this may have to take place early.
The venue for Taliban’s office also needs consideration. While Qatar was considered as one of the venues possibly this was supported by the US but Afghans were left out of the decision making moreover Qatar though a non controversial location would be considered as too low key for the Afghans as well as the Taliban and other stake holders including Pakistan to accept the same. Thus Turkey appears to be the best option with Saudi Arabia a close second. During a visit to Istanbul last December, Karzai said he would be happy if Turkey could provide a venue for the Taliban to open a representation office so how this progresses remains to be seen?
There are a number of stake holders particularly the Tajiks and the Uzbeks of the former Northern Alliance who are likely to oppose official recognition of the Taliban office and may have to be swayed by reality of the existence. On the other hand the Afghan government itself may feel sidelined if after a certain point talks are not carried out by its active involvement. But treating the Taliban office as something of a weak lobby or a government in exile may prove beneficial for all sides for that would induce the rebels to come on board in a negotiated settlement.
Pakistan’s willingness to support the talks is perhaps the most uncertain factor with a low in US Pakistan relations and the Army and the government in that country mired in the Memo gate controversy. It may show interest if the interlocutors nominated by the Taliban are approved by it and give it access to managing the overall process. So how the internal and external environment for talks shape up with many interventions that would be required to ensure that the space for reconciliation is widened and is more inclusive is not clear so far.
Never the less with all parties now on board and likely intermediation by the Saudis or the Turks there may be progress even though it appears that some possibly even the US were banking on Qatar to play the role. Despite these indications and as and when talks start these are likely to proceed slowly and expecting results soon may be over optimistic. What is also essential is for the Taliban to join the Afghan ideological mainstream rather than follow the extremist political path for then alone can peace be guaranteed in Kabul.