InternationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 24

War and talks go on as Taliban dominate

As war and negotiations are taking place simultaneously between the opposing sides in Afghanistan, a firm commitment has come from the Taliban that they do not want to monopolise power and that peace could only return to the war-ravaged country when there is an inclusive broad-based government. While the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated, a very important silver lining on the horizon of the country has emerged with the statement of the Taliban that they do not want to have power single-handedly in Afghanistan.

In a recent interview to an international news outlet, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen promised that the militant group would not capture Kabul by force despite having the capacity to do so. More importantly, Shaheen said the Taliban would lay down weapons when a negotiated government acceptable to all sides in the conflict was installed in Kabul and Ghani’s government had gone. It means that there is no foreseeable end to the armed conflict in Afghanistan unless negotiations, which are taking place simultaneously between the Afghan High Peace Council, headed by former Chief Executive Officer, Abdullah Abdullah, and the Taliban, succeed. However, due to the obstinate and recalcitrant stances of both sides the negotiations have remained inconsequential. The last round of negotiations, dubbed as intra-Afghan dialogue, which took place in Doha, Qatar, could not make any headway and the only outcome was that the negotiating parties said there would be more talks after Eidul Azha.

As the Taliban are saying that they would only give up weapons once the warring factions, including the government of President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, come to a negotiated settlement on the future of the new interim government and also the roadmap for a new political system has been laid down, Ghani has ruled out relinquishing power at any time before any settlement. In other words, while the Taliban are stating that Ghani shall leave power instantly, he has taken the stance that he could only do so after successful peace talks. In this situation, both sides are looking at the process of negotiations from their own stated position, therefore, the talks have become less important.

Against this backdrop, the most important aspect of the unfolding situation in Afghanistan, as mentioned above, is the unequivocal stance by the Taliban that they do not want to usurp power or appropriate it only for the group. According to the Taliban spokesman, “I want to make it clear that we do not believe in the monopoly of power because any government, which sought to monopolize power in Afghanistan in the past, was not a successful regime. So, we do not want to repeat the same formula.” This is a crucial statement and stance of the Taliban. It means that they have come of age and realized their past mistakes and also do not want to repeat them. Equally importantly, the statement of Shaheen also clarifies another thing that the Taliban have also realized that no single movement through the force of arms could establish a stranglehold on Afghanistan for long. Therefore, it would be futile to come to power through the force of arms and then keep other legitimate stakeholders to power at bay.

Insofar as the stance of President Ghani is concerned that the Taliban should first cease fighting and then come to the negotiating table does not hold any substance in the situation that has emerged in Afghanistan. Ghani has often said he would remain in office until new elections determined the next government. On his continued stay in power, as said earlier, the Taliban are uncompromising and they have their reasons for it. It would be tantamount to the surrender of the Taliban, which obviously the latter would never do. In simple terms, Ghani just wants to prolong his power while the objective realities have changed. Ghani had come to power in 2017 after a controversial election as the runner up, Abdullah Abdullah, also claimed victory and pronounced himself president. It was only after an America-sponsored tacit deal that Ghani became the president and Abdullah was made the head of High Peace Council, with the second powerful position in the power corridors of Kabul.

At the moment on the battleground, the Taliban have got swift victories. Till Eidul Azha on July 20, the Taliban had captured almost half of the 419 districts of Afghanistan. More importantly, they have taken control of Afghanistan’s important border crossings with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan in the north, with Iran in the west and with Pakistan (Chaman in Balochistan) in the east. It seems that it is part of the battlefield strategy of the militants to first take control of the border crossings with neighbours of Afghanistan so that to manage the international trade of Afghanistan and generate important revenues from trading convoys and goods. This is a very shrewd strategy on part of the Taliban as it has two main advantages to the militant group. On the one hand, it would raise large revenues for the Taliban which it could use to further strengthen its position. On the other hand, controlling the border crossings with Afghanistan neighbours would deny a large amount of tax revenue to the Afghan government. In the Taliban’s calculation, it would put a lot of pressure on President Ghani to step down. However, India, on its part despite opening talks with the Taliban unwillingly sensing the group would soon overrun Afghanistan, has also provided the Kabul government with economic aid and a large number of arms to fight the Taliban. But it seems that India is wasting its money and resources as Ghani’s forces are increasingly surrendering to the Taliban despite his claims on July 20 on the occasion of Eid to step up fighting against the Taliban.

The other day the top US military officer, General Mark Milley, told a Pentagon news conference that the Taliban had “strategic momentum” and he did not rule out a complete Taliban takeover terming it not inevitable. On their part, the Taliban, as a strategy, have desisted from overrunning any of the 34 provincial capitals of Afghanistan. However, in the meanwhile a large number of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) personnel have surrendered to the Taliban. But their spokesman, Shaheen, has termed it not capitulation but realization on part of the Afghan soldiers that fighting the Taliban was of no use morally, legally and religiously. Although one cannot buy the argument of Shaheen in this regard yet surrendering of a large number of ANSF personnel makes a lot of sense as they have no reason to fight the Taliban when the latter have forced the US-NATO to leave Afghanistan after 20 years of long occupation-presence in Afghanistan fighting the militants without trouncing them.