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Hope for Peace in Afghanistan?

By Jonathan Power

Yesterday in Kabul, the so-called Quadrilateral Coordination Group—comprising representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the U.S.—met to hold discussions on a roadmap to peace in Afghanistan.

A former Taliban senior official said that "military confrontation is not the solution" and that a political solution was needed to end the war in Afghanistan. "The motivation for peace talks was very weak in the past," said Mohammad Hassan Haqyar. "But now the situation has changed and the parties seem to have a readiness for dialogue."

Speaking before the meeting, Sartaj Aziz, the shrewd foreign affairs adviser to Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said that "the primary objective of the reconciliation process is to create conditions to bring the Taliban groups to the negotiation table and offer them incentives that can persuade them to move away from using violence as a tool for pursuing political goals".

Some have compared these negotiations to those between the Viet Cong and the Americans that brought a successful end to the Vietnam War. In fact the two situations are not comparable. The Taliban, the ultra-fundamentalist Islamist guerrilla movement, does not hold a great deal of Afghanistan’s territory. The Viet Cong controlled well over half. Shortly after the peace agreement, the Viet Cong tore it up and captured Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam.

In Afghanistan, although U.S. troops are being drawn down fast and now only amount to 10,000, plus a small contingent of aircraft, the Americans are relying on the Afghan army. They have the Afghan Army trained well, unlike the Iraqi army, which disintegrated last year before the onslaught of the Islamic State. Nevertheless, the army is being battered. The 352,000-strong army and police force sustained 28 percent more losses last year than in 2014.

A complicating factor is that the Islamic State has recently entered the fray joining the once-defeated al-Qaida. Al-Qaida was the target for the original act of war made a few days after the 9/11 attack on the twin towers of New York. U.S. and British jets effectively destroyed the group. Foolishly, the allies stayed on, widening their purpose far beyond the limited goal of destroying al-Qaida, which President George W. Bush had announced was the bombing’s only purpose. The Americans and their NATO allies decided that they wanted to defeat the Taliban and other hostile groups so that Afghanistan could become democratic and treat its women better.

Today the Taliban are making ground and fighting with a ferociousness that suggests they will always be a significant force in the country. They do not have the strength to challenge Kabul and the power of the central government. However, in the last year, they have overrun military bases, district centers, and security checkpoints, seizing many weapons. They now control more territory since the time before American forces kicked them out in 2001. They have taken most of the province of Helmand in the south, giving them control over a large area of poppy growing. They are making money selling opium and using it to buy sophisticated weapons. Despite this, there are reliable reports that the Taliban are splitting as a result of two antagonistic claims for the leadership following the death of their powerful leader, Mullah Omar.

What are the chances of the peace negotiations working? The political scientist James Fearon has noted that only 16 percent of civil wars and insurgencies end through a negotiated peace settlement.

Some observers are hopeful that on this occasion there can be a successful negotiation, given the long stalemate in the fighting. They point to the fact that there is new leadership in Kabul. The previous president, Hamid Karzai, had an embittered relationship with the U.S.

The second indication that things might go well is that Pakistan, a long-time clandestine supporter of the Taliban—despite publicly helping the U.S.—on the grounds that it needed to secure its interests in Afghanistan and to counter Indian influence, is now using its weight to make peace. Since the attack in December that killed 132 school children in Peshawar, the government, facing outrage among most of its population, has been changing its policy toward the Taliban. Some say, however, that parts of its intelligence service are still pro-Taliban. There is also a fear that, unless the war ends, the increasingly powerful Pakistani Taliban will cause severe problems.

How much will the Taliban concede at the peace talks? They say they will only renounce al-Qaida once a peace deal is signed. They will also want to participate in a new government. They will want a Loya Jirga (a council of all parties) in which the Taliban, the government, and civil society come together to amend the constitution in order to legitimize the Taliban.

Most observers believe peace is a long shot. Moreover, if the Taliban had representation in the government, what would their demands be? They would want to sideline girls’ education and enforce the burqa. This peace process won’t be easy.

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Jonathan Power is a former long-time foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of Conundrums of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Day.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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