The latest round of talks held in the second week of May 2019 between the United States (US) and Taliban left US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad expressing frustration about the “slow progress” of the peace talks, even as dead bodies continued to pile up high. This was the sixth such meeting between the two sides since the process commenced in October 2018, and there have also been secret meetings before the engagement turned overt and high-level. The six rounds of peace talks have yielded a tentative “draft agreement” on two issues: first, Taliban’s primary concern with withdrawal of “Foreign Forces”; and second, on assurances that Afghan territory will not become a base for use by international terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS), to hurt the US or any other country.
In theory, a conflict is ripe for resolution if a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ prevails, at which stage the conflict is essentially deadlocked, and no actor can unilaterally “escalate to victory and this deadlock is painful to both of them (although not necessarily in equal degree or for the same reasons), they seek an alternative policy or way out.” The important condition here is not the existence of an objective mutually hurting stalemate, but rather that both sides perceive it as such, regardless of what the objective state of the conflict is.
The evidence from the conflict in Afghanistan demonstrates that the current peace process does not satisfy the criteria for the existence of a mutually hurting stalemate. This is because the conflict is not militarily in a static state, and because the stalemate is not perceived to be mutually hurting by Taliban. Indeed, the Taliban not only view the current state of conflict as a stage from where they can escalate to a position of strength, but also as one where the stalemate is not necessarily damaging to their position in the battlefield or on the negotiating table.
Crucially, the Taliban’s assurances belie facts on the ground. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) Project, during the first four months of 2019, the Taliban military offensive increased in the month of March, even as offensive operations by the state decreased. This was followed by the official announcement of the spring offensive by the Taliban on April 12, 2019, after which Taliban-led attacks spiked sharply. This is corroborated further by SIGAR’s April Quarterly Report, which says that the average monthly enemy-initiated attacks have risen by 19% from November 2018 to January 2019.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the Taliban initiated at least 53 attacks in Afghanistan in 2019 (data until May 31) in which 50 civilians perished, as against 54 such attacks between January and May 2018 in which 66 civilians were killed. There has certainly been no diminution in military activity by the Taliban.
The SATP database indicates that, through 2018, 5,455 militants have been killed in 717 incidents involving the Taliban, while 2,037 were injured. The numbers for 2019 already stand at 2,982 militants killed and 652 injured in 432 incidents (data until May 31). Despite suffering comparable losses over years, there has been no degradation in Taliban’s operational capacity to carry out offensive military action and large scale assaults, indicating that the fighting manpower available to the outfit is much larger than the estimated 50,000 permanent and temporary fighters.
Clearly, the military stalemate is either not a stalemate or not damaging enough to them in their own estimation. This is also borne out by United States Forces own assessment that the Taliban are preparing to attack more provincial centers in 2019.Crucially, District level Stability assessments by Resolute Support (RS) which include district, population and territorial control data, last produced in October 22, 2018, indicated that Districts under Afghan Government control or had already fallen to 219, 7 per cent down from the previous quarter. Taliban controlled or influenced districts had increased marginally to 50, while the number of contested districts went up from 132 to 138 Districts over the same period. Since October 2018, this data has not been released publicly, in line with the earlier discontinuation of Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) casualty data since October 2017, suggesting that both these metrics could be out of tune with the narrative of the stalemate in the Afghan conflict.
The sixth round suggests that the negotiation process has in fact essentially boiled down to the timeline for withdrawal of Western Forces – the Taliban’s core demand – that could be hammered out by the two sides. The Taliban has focused its attention on this key deliverable, after which it purportedly intends to begin intra-Afghan negotiations for a comprehensive ceasefire. On the other hand, US frustration with the pace of the talks is highlighted in the six statements made by the US after these rounds, as no concrete outcome was achieved beyond the draft agreement, until the fifth round. Even this draft doesn’t seem to be nearing completion anytime soon. But the presence of foreign troops is a necessity that arises out of the absence of a ceasefire. The withdrawal of foreign forces prior to such a ceasefire would eliminate all pressure on or motivation for the Taliban to push for a negotiated settlement with a progressively weakening Kabul, or with any other marginal adversaries.
The futility of the current process and the divergence between the perceptions of the two sides are evident in the juxtaposition of statements emanating from the six stages of the negotiation process:
Table 2.Actor Stance on Negotiations:
- Comprehensive Ceasefire
- Counter-terrorism assurances
- Bar International terror outfits like Islamic State and Al Qaeda from operating in Afghanistan
- No direct talks with the Afghan Government
- Complete Withdrawal of Foreign Forces
If the nature of talks is indicative of anything, it is that ‘time’ is a greater consideration for the US than it is for the Taliban. Contrary to the received wisdom that the US would deploy military power to “coerce Taliban to the negotiating table” and “bargain from a position of strength”, the reality is, the US stance is progressively weakening. The Taliban is very much in the process of simultaneous bargaining, signaling its intent to sustain negotiations, and to engage in violence. As the negotiations stretch out, the Taliban is strengthening its military position on the ground, and its appetite for relentless attacks does not seem to diminish.
The New York Times reported that the withdrawal timeline that is being negotiated between the two sides ranges from six months put forth by Taliban to three years put forth by the US. If the past is any precedent, the Taliban will have an interest in prolonging the process until the withdrawal approaches a stage where a reversal of the process is difficult, if not completely impossible.
Worse, fissures within the Afghan polity are already visible. President Ashraf Ghani’s call for a Consultative Jirga (Congregation of Elders, Tribals, ethnic groups) in the month of April 2019, which had some normative value for the Afghans, was boycotted by the High Council of Jihadi and National Parties encompassing many important political formations. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Afghanistan and stakeholder in the National Unity Government (NUG) Abdullah Abdullah, himself boycotted the Jirga – perhaps the most visible proof of the lack of unity and consensus within the Afghan leadership. Further, on May 27, CEO Abdullah confirmed that he was not in the loop when President Ashraf Ghani appointed three new acting ministers. Abdullah noted, “Any change in ministers recently is only considered a political decision, not another move… It is unfortunate that when the changes happen, the people of Afghanistan, including the relevant ministers are informed through social media… As the chief executive, I was personally embarrassed when I was asked about one of the ministers, who was dismissed, and I replied that I was not aware of that. I was not informed”. To complicate the issue the NUG’s constitutionally mandated term ended on May 22, further eroding its legitimacy and credibility.
Consequently, even if the intra-Afghan talks begin, the Taliban could well exploit the political fissures to prolong the process. Earlier, in February 2019 and again in May 2019, the Taliban further tried to widen this wedge by engaging with Afghan politicians outside the NUG in the talks held in Moscow, even as it steadfastly refused direct engagement with the Afghan Government. In the six rounds of talks held with the US, the Taliban has refused to talk directly to the Afghan Government, and Kabul has been excluded from the process. However, President Ghani’s political opponents, including former President Hamid Karzai, continue to attend the Moscow rounds, eroding the legitimacy of the Ghani-led administration.
The Taliban has cleared benefited from its intransigence in these talks. The US and Afghan Government positions have been considerably diluted, as a war of attrition drained resources and resolve. As time passes, these resources - in men, materials and morale – have been delivering diminishing returns. From throwing the Afghanistan constitution under the bus, to directly engaging with the Taliban to the exclusion of Kabul, concessions have been rolled out, without any reciprocity from the Taliban in terms of a cessation or even diminution of hostilities on the ground.
Significantly, Taliban’s assurances in the negotiations inspire little confidence. According to The Long War Journal, contrary to the Taliban’s counter-terrorism assurances, al Qaeda continues to operate across Afghanistan and has done so over the past two decades. Indeed, Zalmay Khalizad, in his own testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in July 2016, noted that the Taliban had enduring ties with al Qaeda and the two were unlikely to part ways. Further, US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Forces Commander General Scott Miller confirmed, on May 22, 2019, that Al Qaeda had been seen operating across different parts of Afghan territory.
Clearly, though the negotiation process is on, the conflict is not in a mutually hurting stalemate from Taliban’s perspective. Taliban continue to initiate attacks across Afghanistan and has sought to use the peace process to consolidate their position militarily as well as politically. In the meantime the military component of the US strategy has contracted to an exclusive reliance on its air campaign, which has had questionable deterrent value. As the US calculus of its interests in the Indo-Pacific region compel it to pull out resources from Afghanistan, the so called ‘peace talks’ look increasingly akin to a slow surrender, both on the table and on the ground.