Taliban admission of unwinnable war could open the door to peace
Either side ought to provide the platform for serious peace talks
By Julian Borger
Published: 00:00 July 14, 2012
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The recognition by the US-led coalition in Afghanistan and now by a senior Taliban commander that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable by either side ought to provide the platform on which serious peace talks are conducted.
But getting from a conducive environment to actual negotiations can take years. There is pride to be swallowed, there are constituencies to be appeased, and then there is the constant temptation to struggle on for just one more fighting season in the hope of piling up bargaining chips to bring to the table. All the while children, women and men, civilians and fighters alike, continue to die in a prolonged endgame leading inexorably to a predictable stalemate. What matters most now is whether that endgame is negotiated or fought out.
All the conditions are in place for an all-out civil war to follow in the wake of the withdrawal of western combat troops in 2014. The Taliban is biding its time and marshalling its resources, the Afghanistan National Army is almost entirely northern force having consistently failed to attract recruits from the Pashto south while the Northern Alliance and the provincial warlords are stockpiling arms as a hedge against an uncertain future. The only meaningful bulwark against the looming chaos is political will borne of a shared dread of a return to the slaughter of the early nineties.
Such fears are undoubtedly a motivating factor for the Taliban. The main reason we know for sure that commander Mawlvi interviewed by Michael Semple for the New Statesman, is not just an irrelevant, moderate anomaly in the Taliban camp, is that the insurgent leadership has actually invested real political capital in the talks. It despatched officials to Qatar in January to commence formal talks with the Americans, and has kept them there despite the fact that the US reneged on delivering confidence-building steps, including the exchange of five Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo for a captured US serviceman, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.
A combination of president Hamid Karzai, the Pentagon and Congress has blocked the release of the Guantanamo five, bringing the most promising move towards talks in a decade of war to a dead stall. Few observers of the process expect any serious movement until the US presidential elections, because of the Obama administrations fears of being portrayed by Republicans as talking to terrorists in the run-up to the November vote.
The Qatar process might have led nowhere in any case. Mawlvi reflects the view of the whole insurgency in his contempt for Karzai. Officially, the US is only supposed to be facilitating talks in Qatar between the Taliban and the Kabul government, but Mawlvi makes clear the insurgents will only talk to those who wield real power: the Americans and the Northern Alliance. Some elements in the latter, in turn, have threatened to pull the plug on the Karzai government if it shows signs of compromising with the Taliban.
Mawlvi was adamant that the Taliban would not lay down arms on the current terms an acceptance of the existing centralised, western-style constitution. A surrender and slavish bowing as he called it. The Taliban insist on Sharia-inspired governance in its domain. So any deal ceding control over large areas in the south and east to the insurgents would imply a corresponding sacrifice of the rights of women and girls, and the aspirations of the non-Taliban Pashtu population.
The obstacles were huge but there was at least the possibility of a bargain at the start of the year. Some Taliban figures have said their opposition to girls education is not set in stone, for example. And Washingtons plan for a smooth transition to Afghan-run security in 2014 implicitly relies on a deal with the Taliban, however painful and morally compromised.
As the months go by without meaningful talks, however, even that faint and tarnished hope is slipping away. The young Taliban field commanders inside Afghanistan owe less and less to their supposed leaders safely hidden inside Pakistan, as one cohort after another picks up the bloody insurgent banner from older mid-level guerillas mown down by US and British special forces operations and drone strikes. It is little wonder Mawlvi is uncertain the elder generation of Taliban commanders could actually deliver a peace deal.
And with ever passing month of ebbing American presence as the surge is drawn down, nothing is happening to persuade Pakistan that its strategic interests are not served by a cordon sanitaire of Taliban control or sheer turmoil in southern Afghanistan.
When it comes to a half-happy ending for Afghanistan, Pakistan holds a veto, and the Taliban leadership is currently both Islamabads guest and its hostage. While Mawlvi spokes with extraordinary candour on most subjects, he was a stone wall on that single issue, saying: The one thing I dare not talk about is the relationship with Pakistan.
Guardian News and Media 2012
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