Perspectives and prospects of negotiating with the Taliban

The negotiation of peace settlements with the Taliban remains an unpalatable solution to the problem of reconciliation. Power-sharing with the Taliban will effectively estrange Afghans from their leaders and possibly pave the way to civil war

The withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan in 2014 and the recent move to open an official Taliban office in Qatar following a year marked by the further escalation of violence across the country and the assassination of several top political and public figures have pushed the question of negotiations and a possible power-sharing deal with the Taliban to the very top of the current political and public debate on Afghanistan.

The whole idea of a political settlement with the Taliban is, of course, not new to Afghanistan; some Afghan political figures as well as some foreign experts and diplomats have argued that the only solution to the Afghan conflict would be to include the Taliban in the Afghan government. According to them, the failure to invite the Taliban to the first Bonn Conference in 2001 exacerbated the phenomenon of terrorism and insurgency in Afghanistan and the region. While the desire for reconciliation and a political settlement with the Taliban is ultimately a good aim, and while it is true that the window of opportunity created in 2001 was not used wisely, there are many hazards associated with this endeavour which may not be underplayed.

There seems to be an understanding that to be sustainable and to enjoy popular support, talks or agreements with the Taliban need to happen under several conditions.

  • Firstly, the Taliban have to be fully disarmed, just like other major militias after the international intervention in 2001. 
  • Secondly, the Taliban must break all relations with Al Qaeda
  • Lastly, they must accept and embrace the constitution of Afghanistan to protect basic political freedoms and diversity in the country.

Without a full acceptance of these strict but essential terms, a political settlement that has the capacity to last cannot come to fruition.

Unfortunately, at this point the Afghan government's approach to negotiations and power-sharing with the Taliban is not from the position of strength, but rather of weakness and even desperation. It seems unable to persuade its challengers to agree to strict conditionality. Even if all the above conditions were accepted in rhetoric, there is no guarantee that the current Taliban, who are strong and confident, will not use their new powerbase in Qatar, and possibly Kabul in the near future, to spread the international terrorist agenda and pursue their old radical project in Afghanistan.

The truth is that an overwhelming majority of Afghans – politicians and ordinary people alike – are very suspicious of developments that are likely to occur once the Taliban establish a stronger presence in Kabul. People know that the highly conservative ideology of the Taliban will lead to limitations of their newly reclaimed freedoms and the decline of the fragile Afghan civil society. Ethnic groups other than Pashtun are afraid that the Taliban will marginalise them politically and socially. After all, thousands of Hazaras were mercilessly massacred in the Taliban orchestrated ethnic cleansings of the 1990s; other ethnic groups were sidelined or subordinated by the Pashtuns during the Taliban regime. Without any doubt, granting too much political power to the Taliban will be a huge blow to the people of Afghanistan who had high expectations of the efforts to democratise the country.

There is also a widely held concern that power-sharing with the Taliban will bring the foreign elements that have supported militant Islamic insurgency, in particular Pakistan, several steps further in their pre-existing and well-known aims in Afghanistan – i.e., keeping Afghanistan weak and unstable and further destabilising Kashmir and challenging India. In addition, the prospects of regional cooperation and conducive diplomatic relations with neighbouring states are likely to be jeopardized if the deal materialises. Countries such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are struggling with emerging terrorism on their own soil and will not accept a quasi-Taliban government in Afghanistan. This issue is critical as Afghanistan will have to rely increasingly on the region when the international military mission reaches its end.

What is likely to follow power-sharing with the Taliban has thus potential to put enormous economic and political pressure on the country and turn the Afghans further away from their government. In fact, political unrest and dissatisfaction within political circles as well as on the streets of Afghanistan may escalate into another civil war. Unfortunately, the prospects of another civil war after the withdrawal of international troops and the reappearance of a power-vacuum are significant. For the reasons mentioned above, the effect of growing Taliban political influence is likely to strain Afghanistan's inter-ethnic and inter-regional relations even further and turn back the clock in this weak and divided state.

Negotiations and power-sharing may be presented as the cure for the Afghan conflict. And, leaders of major troop-contributing nations may be of the opinion that this will be their exit strategy from Afghanistan. However, it has to be universally understood that a rushed and compromised settlement with the Taliban is not the solution. Until the real backbone of the Taliban – which is, at the moment, in Pakistan – is broken and the Afghan government is strong enough to enforce conditionality, negotiations and power-sharing with the Taliban are doomed to become a new quick-fix with enormous risks for the Afghans and the rest of the world.

About the authors

Yahya Massoud is the older brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invasion and later the Taliban. Y Massoud is former deputy head of the Afghan Mission to NATO and the EU.

Djeyhoun Ostowar is a part-time doctoral student at the War Studies Department of King's College London and a Senior Fellow of Humanity in Action. Ostowar holds an MPhil degree in International Relations from the University of Oxford and an Honours BA from University College Roosevelt.