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Analysis: On Eve of Talks, A Refusal to Accept Difficult Truths

 

 

TOLOnews: What warnings would you have for both sides as the talks appear imminent? Are there case studies that might be relevant? Lessons from similar attempts at reconciliation?

The Afghan government needs to be clear-eyed and realistic as it approaches intra-Afghan talks. Its expectations should be guided by those discussions and negotiations that have occurred with the Taliban over the last several years. Based of those experiences, there is little reason to expect negotiations to be anything but frustrating.

The Taliban have until now consistently refused to budge on any major issues in contention. They have in effect dictated the pace and framed much of the substance of the peace process. As demonstrated in the February 29th troop withdrawal agreement and by attempts to arrange prisoner releases and a sustained ceasefire, virtually all the concessions have come from US and government negotiators.

Once formal discussions get underway, it will likely soon become evident that the difficulty in moving the discussions from mere dialogue to hard negotiations stems less from a lack of trust than from confrontation between two ideologically different views of the Afghan state. This possible impasse has always been widely recognized but assumed bridgeable once negotiations got seriously underway.

There has been a refusal to accept that the Afghan conflict falls into that class of wars marked by a clash of incompatible value systems, one seeking to build a liberal democratic Islamic order, the other a theocratic system of government grounded in external truths. Unless one side or the other gives way, continued conflict may be inevitable.

Unfortunately, there is little to learn from successful reconciliation efforts elsewhere. In those cases, however bitter and extended their conflicts, a shared set of core values made power-sharing achievable.  

TOLOnews: What's happening regionally (esp. Pakistan) and globally that you are keeping your eye on that may influence talks?

Regional powers and the Great Powers would all be better off with a peaceful, stable and united Afghanistan. There seems little doubt that their cooperation can be critical to Afghanistan’s achieving a sustained peace and economic viability. In turn, the prosperity of these countries through regional inter-connectivity requires a stable and united Afghanistan. Publicly all have encouraged peace negotiations. Despite this, several regional powers pursue hedging strategies, backing the Kabul government while also aiding the Taliban insurgency.

Once talks begin, the ability of these and other outside countries to shape Afghan reconciliation that satisfies their interests will be limited. Ultimately, Afghans alone will determine the success or failure of any negotiations. Although several are able to exercise leverage over the parties to the conflict and may retain spoiler power, none are able to dictate them. The Taliban in particular have demonstrated a determination to ignore international pressures when they run counter to bedrock beliefs.

TOLOnews: Is there significant language in Mullah Akhundzada's piece published on July 28 that you would care to comment on? ( http://alemarahenglish.net/?p=36053 )

The recent Eid greeting by Mullah Akhundzada is highly revealing of the Taliban’s strategies and goals. It is a cleverly crafted message aimed at reassuring the Taliban’s faithful that diplomacy will not compromise the movement’s long-held goals and that jihad has not been abandoned.

In rhetoric directed at dividing the Taliban’s adversaries, the supreme leader makes clear that for peace to be achieved, the Islamic republic will have to make the concessions. While he criticizes the US for not fully living up to the terms of their agreement, Akhundzada is careful, while American troops have not fully gone, not to threaten to disown the accord.

Speaking to the Afghan people and an international audience, he seeks to assure them that a Taliban rule would take seriously its domestic and international responsibilities. By promising an inclusive and tolerant regime the supreme leader tries to allay fears about a pure Islamic government. Akhundzada conspicuously makes no mention of women’s rights, freedom of expression, or a popular will. His triumphant tone is meant to convey the movement’s confidence in a victory that paves the way to restoring the emirate taken in 2001.

TOLOnews: Any new thoughts on the Ghani-Abdullah conflict-- what you called a "war within a war"? You think this could cause a serious breakdown in the peace process or will both sides keep muddling through?

The rivalry between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah will not by itself be the cause of a breakdown in peace negotiations. The inability to resolve deep seated leadership animosities despite an agreement in May on the formation of a new government leaves Ghani and his fractious and unwieldy negotiating team with a weak hand. It comes up against a unified, disciplined Taliban team prepared to negotiate from a position of relative strength. There are real fears that a bullied government side may agree to major concessions just to keep the peace process going. The likelihood is of a dragged-out negotiating process kept alive by fleeting hopes for a breakthrough.

More likely than a complete breakdown is that the talks will become less and less relevant as the impact of the US withdrawal is felt and “facts on the ground” determine the course of events.

TOLOnews: Some say the US election, ultimately, won't matter much for Afghanistan's fate, given that Biden's position on Afghanistan doesn't seem to differ significantly from Trump's in terms of limiting the US role to counter-terrorism rather than engaging in nation-building. Any thoughts on this?

US policy on Afghanistan will not be settled by the upcoming presidential election. An impatient American public and both parties favor a sharply reduced US presence, leaving little to be decided by the election. President Trump’s intentions to end an “endless war” are well understood, and Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Biden is identified with a policy on Afghanistan that he advocated ten years ago. It calls for the withdrawal of American troops while using “offshore” airpower to keep designated terrorist groups in check.

Whatever the outcome of the presidential election, key members of the US Congress and ranking Pentagon officials are likely to continue to argue for keeping in Afghanistan a small but effective counter-terrorism force. Their case could strengthen if intra-Afghan talks stall or break down. While nation-building and counterinsurgency became realities in Afghanistan after 2001, the stated rationale for the US commitment to Afghanistan has always been to prevent another terrorist attack on the American homeland. A decision to keep a residual US counterterrorism force would risk abrogating the February agreement with the Taliban. That may seem less important if by next spring there is no progress in intra-Afghan talks and the Taliban presses ahead militarily.

 

Marvin G. Weinbaum is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and served as analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the US Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 1999 to 2003. He is currently director for Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies at The Middle East Institute.

 

The views expressed in this opinion/analysis section are not endorsed or necessarily shared by TOLOnews. Contributors are responsible for the accuracy of the information in an opinion/analysis piece, but if it is discovered that information is not factual, a correction will be added and noted.

Analysis: On Eve of Talks, A Refusal to Accept Difficult Truths

Marvin G. Weinbaum, a former US State Dept analyst & currently a director at the Middle East Institute, gives his take on challenges ahead for the negotiations.

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TOLOnews: What warnings would you have for both sides as the talks appear imminent? Are there case studies that might be relevant? Lessons from similar attempts at reconciliation?

The Afghan government needs to be clear-eyed and realistic as it approaches intra-Afghan talks. Its expectations should be guided by those discussions and negotiations that have occurred with the Taliban over the last several years. Based of those experiences, there is little reason to expect negotiations to be anything but frustrating.

The Taliban have until now consistently refused to budge on any major issues in contention. They have in effect dictated the pace and framed much of the substance of the peace process. As demonstrated in the February 29th troop withdrawal agreement and by attempts to arrange prisoner releases and a sustained ceasefire, virtually all the concessions have come from US and government negotiators.

Once formal discussions get underway, it will likely soon become evident that the difficulty in moving the discussions from mere dialogue to hard negotiations stems less from a lack of trust than from confrontation between two ideologically different views of the Afghan state. This possible impasse has always been widely recognized but assumed bridgeable once negotiations got seriously underway.

There has been a refusal to accept that the Afghan conflict falls into that class of wars marked by a clash of incompatible value systems, one seeking to build a liberal democratic Islamic order, the other a theocratic system of government grounded in external truths. Unless one side or the other gives way, continued conflict may be inevitable.

Unfortunately, there is little to learn from successful reconciliation efforts elsewhere. In those cases, however bitter and extended their conflicts, a shared set of core values made power-sharing achievable.  

TOLOnews: What's happening regionally (esp. Pakistan) and globally that you are keeping your eye on that may influence talks?

Regional powers and the Great Powers would all be better off with a peaceful, stable and united Afghanistan. There seems little doubt that their cooperation can be critical to Afghanistan’s achieving a sustained peace and economic viability. In turn, the prosperity of these countries through regional inter-connectivity requires a stable and united Afghanistan. Publicly all have encouraged peace negotiations. Despite this, several regional powers pursue hedging strategies, backing the Kabul government while also aiding the Taliban insurgency.

Once talks begin, the ability of these and other outside countries to shape Afghan reconciliation that satisfies their interests will be limited. Ultimately, Afghans alone will determine the success or failure of any negotiations. Although several are able to exercise leverage over the parties to the conflict and may retain spoiler power, none are able to dictate them. The Taliban in particular have demonstrated a determination to ignore international pressures when they run counter to bedrock beliefs.

TOLOnews: Is there significant language in Mullah Akhundzada's piece published on July 28 that you would care to comment on? ( http://alemarahenglish.net/?p=36053 )

The recent Eid greeting by Mullah Akhundzada is highly revealing of the Taliban’s strategies and goals. It is a cleverly crafted message aimed at reassuring the Taliban’s faithful that diplomacy will not compromise the movement’s long-held goals and that jihad has not been abandoned.

In rhetoric directed at dividing the Taliban’s adversaries, the supreme leader makes clear that for peace to be achieved, the Islamic republic will have to make the concessions. While he criticizes the US for not fully living up to the terms of their agreement, Akhundzada is careful, while American troops have not fully gone, not to threaten to disown the accord.

Speaking to the Afghan people and an international audience, he seeks to assure them that a Taliban rule would take seriously its domestic and international responsibilities. By promising an inclusive and tolerant regime the supreme leader tries to allay fears about a pure Islamic government. Akhundzada conspicuously makes no mention of women’s rights, freedom of expression, or a popular will. His triumphant tone is meant to convey the movement’s confidence in a victory that paves the way to restoring the emirate taken in 2001.

TOLOnews: Any new thoughts on the Ghani-Abdullah conflict-- what you called a "war within a war"? You think this could cause a serious breakdown in the peace process or will both sides keep muddling through?

The rivalry between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah will not by itself be the cause of a breakdown in peace negotiations. The inability to resolve deep seated leadership animosities despite an agreement in May on the formation of a new government leaves Ghani and his fractious and unwieldy negotiating team with a weak hand. It comes up against a unified, disciplined Taliban team prepared to negotiate from a position of relative strength. There are real fears that a bullied government side may agree to major concessions just to keep the peace process going. The likelihood is of a dragged-out negotiating process kept alive by fleeting hopes for a breakthrough.

More likely than a complete breakdown is that the talks will become less and less relevant as the impact of the US withdrawal is felt and “facts on the ground” determine the course of events.

TOLOnews: Some say the US election, ultimately, won't matter much for Afghanistan's fate, given that Biden's position on Afghanistan doesn't seem to differ significantly from Trump's in terms of limiting the US role to counter-terrorism rather than engaging in nation-building. Any thoughts on this?

US policy on Afghanistan will not be settled by the upcoming presidential election. An impatient American public and both parties favor a sharply reduced US presence, leaving little to be decided by the election. President Trump’s intentions to end an “endless war” are well understood, and Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Biden is identified with a policy on Afghanistan that he advocated ten years ago. It calls for the withdrawal of American troops while using “offshore” airpower to keep designated terrorist groups in check.

Whatever the outcome of the presidential election, key members of the US Congress and ranking Pentagon officials are likely to continue to argue for keeping in Afghanistan a small but effective counter-terrorism force. Their case could strengthen if intra-Afghan talks stall or break down. While nation-building and counterinsurgency became realities in Afghanistan after 2001, the stated rationale for the US commitment to Afghanistan has always been to prevent another terrorist attack on the American homeland. A decision to keep a residual US counterterrorism force would risk abrogating the February agreement with the Taliban. That may seem less important if by next spring there is no progress in intra-Afghan talks and the Taliban presses ahead militarily.

 

Marvin G. Weinbaum is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and served as analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the US Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 1999 to 2003. He is currently director for Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies at The Middle East Institute.

 

The views expressed in this opinion/analysis section are not endorsed or necessarily shared by TOLOnews. Contributors are responsible for the accuracy of the information in an opinion/analysis piece, but if it is discovered that information is not factual, a correction will be added and noted.

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