Afghanistan Peace Talks and Conflicting Goals

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Indian Subcontinent & Middle East Issues

The second phase of Afghanistan peace talks, dubbed “Mary 2,” has been held in Islamabad and Kabul, capital cities of Pakistan and Afghanistan, respectively. Delegations from four countries, that is, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the United States followed up on the second phase of the negotiations under conditions that the Taliban group had set two main conditions for its serious engagement in the national reconciliation process. Although these two conditions seem to be more realistic compared to the group’s previous conditions, they are also of high significance in certain aspects and can make the process of negotiations more difficult or stop it altogether. In their first condition, the Taliban have circumvented the government in Kabul and have asked for direct negotiations with the United States. Accepting this condition will not be easily possible for the national unity government in Afghanistan. The second condition set by the Taliban is taking control of the important and sensitive province of Helmand, where it is planning to establish its government by opening a political office like the one the group has already opened in Qatar’s capital, Doha. The second condition apparently pursues more complex goals.

Helmand Province is important in that, firstly, about 90 percent of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan takes place in this province, and secondly, Helmand is the biggest and vastest province in Afghanistan, which stretches along the country’s common border with Iran. At the same time, the province is where the late leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, started his move from there and, in fact, is of psychological significance to the Taliban. There is also a more important reality, which can be explained in relation with the future structure of power and the way Afghanistan would be run after the achievement of a possible peace between the Taliban and the national unity government. That reality is how to make the Taliban a partner in power in order to convince the group to stop its war in return. The information that has been so far leaked in this regard and made available to the mass media is that the Taliban expects to be given control of the eastern and southern Pashtun regions of Afghanistan in addition to a few ministries in Kabul in return for the peace deal. Helmand Province is important for the Taliban in that it can provide the group with a center to establish its local power in the future and, from the viewpoint of the Taliban, this can be a prelude to revival of an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan in the long run.

However, in reality, the viewpoint and expectations of the Taliban have serious opponents within important sections of the power structure in Kabul. Two opposite currents should be taken into account in this regard. The first current is part of the national unity government, which is represented by Afghanistan’s chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah, and is known as the Northern Alliance. This alliance is, in fact, made up of three important ethnic and religious groups in Afghanistan. They include the Tajik ethic group, the Turkish ethnic group, which revolves around Uzbeks, and the Hazara ethnic group, which is made up of Shia people and, in addition to other problems, has an ideological problem with the Taliban as well. The second current, which opposes empowerment or partnership of the Taliban in the power structure is the technocrat current, which since the military invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the fall of the Taliban, has been showing effective presence in power, especially in the administrative structure of the country. This current has no attachment to any specific ethnic or religious viewpoint, but includes representatives from all ethnicities and religious denominations. In other words, it can be considered as a force, which has more potential and more ready compared to other currents in order to form an Afghan nation-state. The opposition of these two currents, which play an effective role in developments of Afghanistan, with the delegation of part of the government’s powers to the Taliban should not be underestimated, because the Northern Alliance, which is world-renowned and capable of picking up arms and putting up armed resistance, is practically able to put a halt to any agreement that would not be in line with its interests.

In view of such realities, one can speculate that giving Pashtun-dominated regions of the country in east and south Afghanistan to the Taliban may not be practically as easy as it may seem at the first glance and this measure may give rise to more serious crises. The reason for this must be sought in the lack of any affinity between non-Pashtun ethnic groups and the Taliban, and the negative mental image that has been handed down from the time that the Taliban group was in power. In short, one can claim that an ethnic power struggle is going on in the country. Under the present circumstances, this lack of affinity has been maintained at a high level and, so far, no final decision has been made about amendment of the country’s constitution in the way that had been scheduled when an agreement was reached to form the national unity government in the country. Under these conditions, the quadrilateral peace talks have been followed more diligently than before due to a different set of reasons, because there existed some sort of optimism that Pakistan would appear more serious than before, and that participation of the United States and China could provide a higher degree of practical guarantees than before about the progress of the negotiations. However, it must be noted that every one of the participating sides follows conflicting goals and this issue makes achievement of a peace agreement and its later implementation more difficult than it may seem on the surface.

At the same time, another factor that must be also taken into consideration is the rise and presence of Daesh, which is hell-bent on making Afghanistan the seat of the eastern part of its caliphate in the so-called Khorasan region, and has already chosen the eastern Afghanistan province of Nangarhar, and its central city, Jalalabad, as the capital of its Khorasan caliphate. This is especially important in that Daesh enjoys the capacity to attract important parts of disgruntled Taliban forces in Afghanistan in addition to Tehrik-i-Tablian forces in Pakistan, thus, continuing its war in Afghanistan. Therefore, even if Pashtun-dominated regions of Afghanistan were given to the Taliban and General Petraeus’ plan was made operational in which the Durand border line loses its credit for the Pashtun ethnic group, this would not necessarily put a definitive end to the power struggle in Afghanistan. Of course, in a more accurate assessment, this may mean that the Taliban and even Pakistan would have achieved half of their goals through military means and with the ethnic backing of Pashtun people, and should make plans for the future and achieve the other half through participation in political and democratic mechanisms. However, there is no clear outlook for this issue anywhere on the horizon, though in its context, it can be a prelude to ethnic unity among Pashtun people in Afghanistan and Pakistan and establishment of the Greater Pashtunistan. The difference, however, would be that in this case, ethnicity would replace religion as the axis of unity as the Taliban and their emirate-based way of thinking would replace other ethnic-based approaches.

Key WordsAfghanistan, Peace Talks, Conflicting Goals, Mary 2, Pakistan, China, The United States, Taliban, Helmand Province, Islamic Emirate, National Unity Government, Technocrat Current, Northern Alliance, Guarantees, Nangarhar, Jalalabad, Khorasan Caliphate, Daesh, Mollazehi

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*Photo Credit: Associated Press

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