The Taliban thinks the U.S.-led coalition is rushing for the exits in Afghanistan, a dynamic that will allow the insurgent group to negotiate a potential settlement to conflict from a position of strength, says South Asia expert Amin Tarzi. However, the Taliban have given mixed signals as to what type of deal they would prefer. "The Taliban said that they respect minority rights; that they are not there to impose rule over all Afghans," says Tarzi, but the group's leader, Mullah Omar, "issued a statement saying the Taliban will take over Kabul as soon as the Americans leave." Tarzi says the prospective talks between the Karzai government, the United States, and the Taliban, which recently opened an office in Qatar, is a "potential breakthrough," but he notes that considerable uncertainties remain.
Last week, with some fanfare, the United States announced that the Taliban and the Karzai government were going to have negotiations with Washington on the future of Afghanistan, and this was seen as a major development. But the talks failed to take place over a disagreement regarding the flag the Taliban could fly. What is the goal of these talks in Doha?
This is a phase in the talks. The United States did not join officially in talks until 2008–09, when, as a part of the troop surge under President Obama, there was an effort to get negotiations going. However, they stalled because of a failure to reach agreement on release of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo and a refusal by the Taliban to talk to the Afghan government, which they view as illegitimate. The Taliban maintained that the Karzai government was a puppet of the United States, and said they would only discuss a political settlement with their primary antagonist , the U.S.-led coalition.
These talks in Doha are a potential breakthrough because the Afghan government had established what is called the High Peace Council, and the United States pledged that any negotiations would be led by the Afghans, with Washington as a partner. But, of course, what happened last week is that the Afghans were angered by what they perceived as the United States attempting to pursue negotiations with the Taliban without Kabul. Meanwhile, the Taliban unfurled their flag and posted a plaque that suggested it was an Afghan government-in-exile.
What exactly happened?
We don't know. The U.S. government said, "look this was not the way it was supposed to be." That is why Secretary of State John Kerry called Karzai. So, the Taliban flag is no longer flying over their Doha office, and the name plate has been changed to "Political Office of the Afghan Taliban," which is acceptable to Kabul.
Kabul is now saying that they may send a delegation of the High Peace Council to Doha to meet with the Taliban and the United States, in theory with the Afghans in the lead. However, the problem is that the Taliban does not recognized the Kabul government. And so we're back to square one—basically 2008–09, when the Taliban said they would only have talks with the main antagonist, i.e., the United States.
[This was before the Taliban suicide attacks near the presidential palace and CIA headquarters in Kabul in late June.]
And what are the serious issues at hand?
First, the United States and Afghanistan agree that the Taliban must stop the insurgency. Second, they have to accept and respect the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, issued in 2004. Third, the Taliban must disarm and enter the political process. At the end of her term, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton included women's rights as a fourth issue, which are protected under the Afghan constitution. At the time, there was a lot of hesitation by people saying the Taliban is notorious for its lack of respect for women's rights. The Taliban has not said anything about the constitution, which they see as a document imposed on the country by non-Muslim foreigners.
In my view, the Taliban sees that the United States is in a hurry to leave and believes they can get a pretty good deal because of that. But nobody knows what that deal is. Is it the Taliban controlling certain areas of Afghanistan, or having certain governorships and having their own rule in the south and southeast? Is it that they would come in as a full bloc within the Afghan parliament and then try to win a majority by vote? Is it that they would revert to their old ways? Or is it that they would actually come in and respect the constitution?
The United States wants to depart in a respectable way, leaving the Afghan government in charge and supporting the Afghan National Security Forces. And if the Taliban provide for that, the United States may actually overlook some of their eventual policies.
So you think the Taliban may figure time is on their side?
Yes, especially if they don't disarm. They think they could actually gain the upper hand. But we hear very divergent reports. Over the last few days, according to one report, the Taliban said that they respect minority rights; that they are not there to impose rule over all Afghans; and that they respect all Afghan perspectives as long as they are within Islamic bounds. However, there was a subsequent report in which Mullah Omar, the reclusive leader, issued a statement saying the Taliban will take over Kabul as soon as the Americans leave, within weeks or something like that. So which one of these do you accept?
I covered the negotiations in the Vietnam war and that began in 1968 and ended with the Paris peace treaty signing in 1973. The United States was eager to get out of Vietnam. The treaty collapsed two years later when the North Vietnamese invaded the South. Do you think a similar thing will happen here?
That situation was different in that North Vietnam was a specific state, and the negotiations were much more open and had international backing. Here, you are talking to a whole bunch of people, often not speaking with one voice. When we say "Taliban," who are we talking about? Additionally, we don't even know if Mullah Omar is still alive.
The Taliban have now gained legitimacy and think they have the public support within the constituencies that they want to win. At the same time, they are not going to give up their arms and fighting capability because they view the Karzai government as inherently very weak. So they are going to talk, but again it's the timing.
It goes back to the issue: what do we, the United States, and our partners want from Afghanistan, where we've fought the longest war in our history?Answering this question should be a main goal. What do we want today, two years, five years from now?
We haven't mentioned Pakistan yet. How is Islamabad veiwing these negotiations?
Officially, Pakistan is taking a very cautious stance. With Nawaz Sharif's election as prime minister, the Pakistanis are trying to signal that they want a peace agreement and want Afghanistan to be supportive of the U.S. efforts. So they have not done anything to hinder the process. Without Pakistan's acceptance and support, this negotiation would not have happened. The Pakistanis have a lot of leverage over the Taliban, but they don't control them.
There has to be a multilateral agreement between the four main partners—Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and the Taliban—and that's a very tough group to put together at the same negotiating table.