The conflict of Afghanistan has polarized the international politics. The government of Afghanistan and the Taliban have developed separate and contradicting scenarios for ending the conflict. The United States and most European powers support the government’s agenda while regional powers including Russia, Pakistan, and Iran are following the Taliban’s scenario – China also seems joining the camp. The Russian government’s recent unilateral initiative to bring the Taliban to peace talks table in Moscow in early September, and the United States and Afghanistan’s unwillingness to participate in the conference is a clear indication of this polarization. Moreover, the Taliban is gaining more leverage on the ground and enjoying increasing foreign support. The disputant parties have also failed to present a clear agreement on the results of a possible political settlement of the conflict. Under such circumstances, a negotiated settlement of the conflict between the government and the Taliban does not seem likely. This argument could be elaborated in three different stages:
1. Domestic stage
The conflict has reached to a military stalemate in which no side seems to win on the battleground. The Taliban is weak enough to not capture territory but strong enough to persist the insurgency. The group has been successful in situating itself in political landscape of Afghanistan in the course of the past one-and-a-half decade. President Ghani’s February peace offer which included the recognition of the Taliban as a political party and the possible revision of the constitution is an indication of this development. Within this context, a political settlement of the conflict is unlikely because the Taliban will not come to a peace talk table with the government of Afghanistan unless it is weakened in the battleground. Neither any insurgency theory nor historical experience confirms that an insurgent group would negotiate unless it is weakened in the battleground. Therefore, unlike the government of Afghanistan and its partners’ efforts for breaking through the stalemate by opening a negotiations process, the Taliban would maintain the status quo with the assumption that the insurgency will eventually reach a tipping point against the government (i.e., the complete withdrawal of international forces, changes in international and regional politics in favor of the insurgency, the erosion of the Afghan armed forces as a result of reductions in international aid, and an elite fragmentation).
2. International Stage
The multiplicity of players has made the conflict complex and impossible to be resolved by a bilateral negotiation agenda between the government and the Taliban. There is no agreement among international players on a negotiation modality or an agenda for conflict resolution. The disagreement would challenge any international cooperation to conflict resolution and has its roots in the international players’ contradicting policies concerning war and peace in Afghanistan. While the United States supports and claims to be facilitating the Afghan government’s “Afghan-owned Afghan-led” peace agenda which prescribes a bilateral negotiation mechanism between the government and the Taliban, some regional powers including Pakistan, Russia, and Iran follow the Taliban’s scenario, downgrading, if not excluding, the role of the government of Afghanistan at international arena. In the most recent case, Moscow is hosting a conference in September 4, 2018 in which delegates of the Taliban and 11 countries including Pakistan, Iran and China, are invited to talk on peace in Afghanistan. The governments of the United States and Afghanistan have declared their unwillingness to attend the conference. This shows a lack of a cohesive international and regional cooperation and consensus on a peace process in Afghanistan. Therefore, without bringing these players on one page expecting them to follow a uniform peace agenda and agree upon a single modality of negotiation, a political settlement of the conflict does not seem likely.
3. The outcome stage
There is a serious discrepancy between the disputant parties’ expected outcome from a potential conflict resolution. The Taliban expect the outcome to be the creation of a Sharia-based regime in Kabul while the governments of the United States and Afghanistan expect integrating the Taliban into the post-2001 political process as a political party. The Afghan government, in this sense, expects a political settlement or a positive-sum end to the conflict while the Taliban is expecting a zero-sum scenario. This position of the Taliban appears to be unpopular in Afghanistan where both the common citizens and political circles fear repetition of their ordeal experienced under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (1996-2001). The Taliban’s expectation of a win scenario is rooted in the group’s assumption that they are winning both militarily and politically, therefore, they pose the question as to why come to a peace talk table with the government of Afghanistan. Unless, this assumption and calculation is changed, a direct negotiation between the government and the Taliban does not seem likely.
Considering the multi-layered complexity confronting a direct negotiations arrangement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the current prolonged stalemate is an unfavorable but inevitable scenario. Unless remarkable changes occur at all three stages, as elaborated, the uncoordinated unilateral efforts of the multiple parties, including Russia and other regional powers, would not open a pathway to the overdue peace process in Afghanistan.
Dr. Yaqub Ibrahimi is a political science lecturer at Carleton University in Ottawa and a senior research fellow at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies.