x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Like it or not, Afghan Taliban must be brought to the table

Exactly what role the Taliban will play in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of American troops must be negotiated.

Several critical factors can be identified as contributing to Afghanistan's ongoing 12-year-old war. Some view the United States' inefficacy in assisting the Afghans with nation-building as the major reason why the bloodshed continues, violence that has not even spared Kabul, as yesterday's attack on government offices demonstrates.

On the other hand, a number of analysts and scholars attribute the ongoing conflict to Afghans' perception of the United States as a foreign occupying force rather than a humanitarian ally.

And others still blame President Hamid Karzai's notoriously corrupt government and its inability to provide security and social welfare to all Afghans and to institute a modern nation-state system - one that is anchored in social justice, rule of law, separation of power and independent judiciary, executive and legislative systems.

But without a doubt it is the foreign interference of neighbouring countries - particularly, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan, both which have a self-interest in tipping the regional balance of power in their favour through the dominance of their proxies - that can be considered as the key reason behind this devastating internal conflict. Both have had a significant influence in placing hurdles to reaching a resolution to end Afghanistan's 12-year-old war.

Understanding this, the United States and its western allies came to the conclusion that without the political, social and economic collaboration between the Afghan government and the Taliban - who were overthrown by the American-led invasion in 2001 - it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the conflict to come to an end. It is thus vital for these two groups to build a mutual trust.

The United States, finding itself incapable of completely defeating the Taliban, understands that in order to create peace and security in Afghanistan it has as to push for negotiations between Karzai's government and the Taliban.

The Taliban have turned into such a well-trained, well-established and formidable movement that avoiding communication with them is no longer a realistic option. It is also worth noting that according to the United Nations, the Taliban and their allies were responsible for approximately 81 per cent of Afghan civilian casualties in 2012, 80 per cent in 2011, and 76 per cent in 2010.

Islamabad shares some of the blame for these figures. It is accused of providing shelter and financial support to the Taliban in attempts to shift the balance of power in Afghanistan in favour of Pakistan's national interest, rather than towards the Pashto Karzai government.

As a result, a socio-political and power-sharing relationship between the Taliban and Kabul will be paramount to reaching a peace plan agreement in Doha, and providing security and social welfare to all Afghan citizens.

While recent reports linked to the potential Doha peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government have raised a considerable amount of optimism for the future of Afghanistan, nevertheless, tensions have already begun to significantly heighten.

One of the key underlying tensions which Mr Karzai's government refers to is their fundamental opposition to the establishment of a Taliban official office at all (Mr Karzai has suspended talks with the Taliban). The argument is that the Taliban have introduced themselves as an alternative government to the current corrupt Afghan political structure; outside their Doha office, the Taliban raised a flag and banner reading "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan", which implicitly calls for the removal of Mr Karzai's government and the paving towards a new Afghan political establishment.

Afghan officials who refuse to attend the peace conference argue that the banner indicates that their office serves as a Taliban embassy. The Taliban office, which opened last week, also suggests that the Taliban is no longer just a military combat group but a political one as well. The Afghan ministry even added in a statement that "the manner in which the office was established was in clear breach of the principles and terms of references agreed with us by the US government".

The Taliban, however, view the introduction of its office in Doha as a tremendous political success and a step towards obtaining public legitimacy.

More fundamentally, these disputes over the Taliban banner reflect an underlying and deeper political and ideological tension between the Taliban and Mr Karzai's government. The gap between Taliban's ideological and political position and Mr Karzai's appears to be too large to bridge.

Ideologically speaking, the Taliban emphasise imposing extremist religious and Sharia law if they were to share power with the current Afghan government. Politically speaking, the Taliban have long insisted that any negotiation will ultimately be based on the complete withdrawal of foreign forces as a pre-condition to becoming part of a political settlement.

Both these two pre-conditions appear unlikely to be fulfilled anytime soon; although Nato's combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the US has signed a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan to station a few thousand personnel in the country even after 2014.

How the Taliban will figure into this post-US draw-down remains to be seen.


Dr Majid Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council on the Middle East

On Twitter: @majidrafizad