The Afghan Taliban, according to initial reports, have declined the offer by President Ashraf Ghani to recognize their groups as a “political” movement. There is merit in the proposal and if acted upon with sincerity and handled with care, could prove quite successful. Recently, President Ghani offered to the Afghan Taliban that his government was ready to accept the political status of their group so that the ground could be prepared for peace in Afghanistan.
President Ghani’s offer to recognize the Afghan Taliban as a political movement has been made as part of a wider package to the insurgent group. The package deal by Ghani includes, inter alia, fresh elections and constitutional review. The Taliban have been hesitant to recognize the legitimacy of the constitutional government of Afghanistan. They have been arguing that the existing political dispensation of Afghanistan is illegitimate as it was imposed by the West and has not been the manifestation of the general will of the Afghan nation. Therefore, the Taliban have been taking the position that they will not enter into a dialogue with the government in Kabul.
There may be some truth in the argument of the Afghan Taliban that the existing political dispensation of Afghanistan was not the result of a true social contract in which Afghans participated freely. However, there is also substance in the argument that President Ashraf Ghani and, before him, Hamid Karzai were elected by Afghans as heads of their state through fair and free elections. Although the veracity and transparency of all the three Afghan presidential elections held since the installation of the present constitutional dispensation in the year 2002, have been questionable.
Now, when President Ghani has made an offer to the Afghan Taliban to recognize the group as a political movement and also offered it fresh elections and review of the constitution, this indicates that Kabul has accepted to a great extent the Afghan Taliban stance. By offering them fresh elections President Ghani has demonstrated his government’s amenability to compromise. This is an effort to induce the Taliban to give up their insurgency and terrorist attacks and become part of the political process. The price which President Ghani has offered to placate the Taliban─new elections─is significant.
However, the offer of fresh elections to the Taliban could also be construed as a stratagem to test and expose the popularity of the insurgents among the Afghan population. There is little doubt in the assertion that the Afghan Taliban may have a huge support within the Afghan population but this does not mean that the group could sweep, or even win, elections whether for the office of president or parliament. This seems to be the key reason that the Taliban have rejected the offer by the Afghan president to recognize the group as political movement and inviting them to participate in fresh elections.
The offer to the Taliban also includes constitutional review. The Afghan Taliban have been questioning the validity of the country’s constitution which, without any doubt, was written under the tutelage of occupying US forces in Afghanistan. But whosoever may have written the Afghan constitution, it is the most important state document and the Americans must be credited for giving Afghanistan a modern, liberal constitution, which the leadership of Afghanistan could not give to the country in the 271 years long history of the nation. It is important to note that the Afghan constitution does not recognize Shariah (Islamic Law) as the supreme law of the land. The Taliban have been critical of this aspect. By offering review of the constitution, President Ghani seems to have pointed at inclusion of the provision that his government has no objection to make Shariah constitutionally as the supreme law of the land. However, it is still unclear whether the Western allies of President Ghani, particularly Washington, are supportive of the offer of constitutional review, particularly with reference to making Shariah the supreme law of the land.
Ghani’s offer to the Taliban may have suddenly been triggered by the insurgent group’s favourable reaction to the groundbreaking of the strategic Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (TAPI) gas pipeline. The Afghan Taliban, while welcoming the initiation of work on TAPI, announced that they would not pose a threat to the pipeline as it is a project of national importance for Afghanistan. In a way welcoming TAPI, the Taliban have tried to give an impression that they are not anti-development. Furthermore, President Ghani extended the olive branch to the Taliban seemingly in response to the earlier surprising offer of peace dialogue by the Taliban to the United States. The Taliban made the talks offer to the US in an open letter addressed to the American public stating that they preferred to resolve the conflict through peaceful dialogue and warned that the use of force alone would complicate the problem in Afghanistan.
The timing of the talks offer by the Afghan Taliban was profoundly significant. It came soon after the Taliban claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks killing more than 100 people in Kabul. Staging large-scale deadly terrorist attacks and proposing talks by the Taliban simultaneously was contradictory. But large-scale terrorist attacks just before offering talks to Washington were aimed at raising their stakes in prospective peace negotiations. Interestingly, the huge terrorist attacks staged by the Taliban in January this year in Kabul were made not long after Ashraf Ghani stated that without the US support Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) may not be able to defend the state and its system for more than a year. So by large-scale terrorist attacks the Taliban wanted to further intimidate the Afghan authorities and demonstrate to the world that Ghani was right in expressing its powerlessness without Washington’s support.
Now if the Afghan president is ready to compromise his government as well as the constitution of Afghanistan, the most important question which lies ahead is the future of Afghanistan. If 40 years of war, conflict, civil war and insurgency could not compel the Afghan groups, parties and stakeholders together to search for peace and if a constitution and three elected governments could not put the state on the track of stability, then what is the solution to the multidimensional crisis of Afghanistan?
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s offer to the Afghan Taliban to recognize it as a political movement is a golden opportunity for peace in the war-ravaged country has really emerged. President Ghani has offered not only recognition to the Taliban but has also proposed to them new elections and, more importantly, a constitutional review. An important aspect of the offer is that it is unconditional and aiming at achieving a peace agreement. The offer is also meaningful because it expects that in response to be recognized as a legitimate political movement, the Taliban would contribute to the peacemaking process. Although it has not been official stated, but if the Taliban are somehow convinced of the importance and practicality of the talks offer, they would not only play a critical role in the peacemaking but also peace-building in Afghanistan.
In the past President Ghani has been consistently calling the Taliban “terrorists” and “rebels.” There are various reasons for Ghani to make such a generous peace-offer to the Taliban now. The immediate and foremost reason which seems to have pushed the Afghan president to make the offer would appear to be: as the Taliban knew about US and its Western allies’ lack of commitment to defeating their insurgency, they wanted to exploit this situation to their advantage. In Taliban calculation, after the environment created by large-scale terrorist attacks Washington and Kabul would be more than ready to talk to the Taliban. This Taliban strategy was apparently effective in view of the extensive offer by President Ghani.
The Taliban talks offer to the US was also forced by a sense of fear within the group. After January’s terrorist attacks in Kabul, US President Donald Trump and the Afghan president had vowed punitive response to the insurgents. President Ghani even went to the extent by saying that now Taliban would be negotiated with on the battlefield. After that, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) reportedly killed tens of Taliban in operations in different parts of Afghanistan.
The timing of the Afghan Taliban talks offer to Washington was significant as it has been made just before the spring in which their routine Spring Offensive is anticipated. The talks offer to America before the Spring Offensive and just after launching large-scale terrorist attacks in Kabul also shows an element of war-weariness on the part of the Taliban.
So President Ghani’s offer to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political entity, the earlier peace talks offer by the Taliban to Washington and the Taliban welcoming of the TAPI gas pipeline and Pakistan putting its weight behind Ghani’s offer to the Taliban create a situation from which a golden opportunity has emerged for peace in Afghanistan which needs to be capitalized upon by the interlocutors in that state.