Afghanistan’s presidential election a week ago has challenged any notion that the country is about to fall into the lap of the Taliban. Ahead of the vote on April 5, eight candidates vying to replace President Hamid Karzai traveled to all regions of the country, even undertaking walkabouts in provinces normally considered chronically insecure. They attracted thousands of supporters to their rallies and millions to polling stations.
Only in some outlying districts of conflict-affected provinces such as Kandahar, Badghis and Nuristan did Taliban’s threats oblige the authorities to close polling stations. The 959 closed stations countrywide, or 13 percent of the total, provide a new crude estimate of Taliban reach. The movement still has significant influence in villages of southern Afghanistan. But its 13 percent toehold and inability to prevent popular participation in a national process belie its claims of being on the verge of victory.
Regardless, a formidable list of challenges, including weaning the economy off international aid and restoring confidence in local institutions, await the new president. However, the election should give the new leader a strong mandate to confront the insurgency head on. This is important because only when the country is largely at peace will it be possible to make real progress on the social and economic reforms, such as job creation and anti-corruption, that Afghans want.
Negotiating with the Taliban
In a significant departure from Karzai’s administration, the new leadership is likely to overhaul procedures for the detention and treatment of Taliban prisoners. Karzai’s long standoff with the U.S. over sovereign control of Bagram prison distracted attention from the issue. The system has been erratic and corrupt, with noncombatants languishing in jail while combatants exit quickly. Captured Taliban have worked assiduously to regain their freedom, whether by paying off officials or by persuading members of parliament and tribal elders to petition on their behalf. Afghanistan has even asked Pakistani authorities to free Taliban from Pakistani jails as a confidence-building measure to encourage the Taliban toward peace. But militants released in Afghanistan and Pakistan have rejoined the insurgency without the slightest hint of any resulting confidence in the peace process. The fate of Taliban prisoners will no doubt be part of future talks aimed at ending the insurgency. But the new president is likely to take a tougher line at first and hold on to prisoners until another round of negotiation gets underway.
There has been some progress on the attempts to draw the Taliban into negotiation. For example, a Taliban pragmatist and former finance minister under the Taliban rule, Mohtasim Agha Jan has called for talks, declaring that there is no prospect of a military solution. This stance has left him estranged from the leadership of the Taliban’s consultative body, the Shura, but it has also pressured the Taliban to do something.
The Taliban’s old guard leadership, consisting mainly of mullahs from Kandahar, have been fighting for 20 years. This is too narrow a social base from which to bid for power.
Two years ago, the Taliban leadership mandated members of its political commission to travel to Qatar for talks with the United States on the fate of Taliban prisoners held at the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. The meetings were supposed to progress to another level in June 2013, when the Taliban released a carefully worded statement saying that they intended to talk to all sides and that they would refrain from hosting terrorists. In return, their representatives were allowed to move into a proper office in Doha. But the Taliban felt they were grandstanded by Karzai, who publicly objected to the flying of an Islamic Emirate flag at the office. The peace process ground to a halt. But instead of walking away from diplomacy, the Taliban let its delegates maintain a low-key presence in Qatar. Their representatives have held occasional diplomatic meetings on issues such as civilian casualties but otherwise pass their time waiting for instructions. The door has thus been left ajar, with the possibility that talks will resume when the time is right.
The new Afghan leaders will need better and more direct communication channels than what their predecessors developed in order to bring the Taliban back to the negotiating table. The outgoing Kabul government distrusted the Taliban delegation in Qatar and tried instead to deal with other figures in the movement, with few results to show for the effort. Instead of ad hoc prisoner releases or declarations of brotherhood, the new leaders in Kabul should build confidence with Taliban interlocutors by engaging consistently, respecting confidentiality and pursuing realistic proposals.
It is unclear if the Taliban would seriously engage in negotiations, given that many in the leadership still pin their hopes on the armed struggle. Therefore Kabul must also plan for the long haul and have ready a clear alternative to a negotiated settlement. The new president must work unambivalently to improve security in the face of a sustained Taliban armed campaign. The odds of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table can also be improved if the new Afghan leaders mend relations with their counterparts in Pakistan. The Taliban have successfully used Pakistani territory as a springboard for their insurgency in Afghanistan. They know they have to pay attention to what the Pakistani authorities tell them. Distracted by quixotic quests such as demands for the release of former Taliban military chief Mullah Baradar and suspicions over who really controls the Taliban, Karzai’s administration struggled to normalize relations with Islamabad. It is time for elected governments in both countries to develop a cooperative approach to ending their respective insurgencies rather than gaming against each other.
Instead of playing divide and rule inside the Taliban, the new leaders in Kabul should encourage the group’s pragmatist members, such as Mohtasim, to continue articulating the pro-peace Taliban perspective. These authoritative friends of the Taliban can help articulate the idea that there is no further justification for spilling Afghan blood. It is this idea that will drive an end to the current armed struggle.
The Taliban should reflect on the choice of the Afghan people. The Taliban’s old guard leadership, consisting mainly of mullahs from Kandahar, have been fighting for 20 years. This is too narrow a social base from which to bid for power. They succeeded in rebuilding military capacity, keeping a disciplined movement intact throughout the years of international intervention and sustaining an armed struggle that deliberately evoked the Afghan tradition of heroic resistance. But there is rather more life in the Kabul-based political system than the Taliban ever acknowledged.
The election was an exercise in Afghan pluralism, which the Taliban were powerless to thwart. If the Taliban try to justify continuing the war through a fatwa declaring that the new administration is just another U.S. puppet, few Afghans will believe them. For the Taliban, fighting on in the hope of winning a war of attrition against their countrymen will be a costly gamble. Instead, if they respond positively to overtures made by new leaders in Kabul and proceed speedily to talks, they can claim a place in the Afghan pluralism which was on display in this election. They can say that they fought the occupation but now that foreign troops are on their way home, they should renounce armed struggle in favor of peacefully propagating their version of Sharia. The Taliban have missed earlier opportunities. Will they draw the right lessons from the presidential election?