Interview

Afghanistan Peace Talks: From Deadlock to Deadlock

The negotiations in Qatar between the Taliban and a delegation from Kabul are meant, in the words of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to “reconcile the country.” While Trump would like to withdraw completely, Putin is waiting for just that and there are still many unanswered questions about the roles of the troops on the ground. Is there a chance for peace in this country bogged down in war for the last 40 years? George Lefeuvre, research anthropologist sheds light on the complex process.

Doha, 12 septembre 2020. — La délégation des talibans à l’ouverture des pourparlers de paix avec le gouvernement afghan
Karim Jaafar/AFP

In the middle of October, the offensive launched by the Taliban in Helmand province is still raging and local authorities deplore the exodus of at least 5,000 families fleeing the combat zone. Since 10 October, the US air force has conducted raids in support of the Afghan army, while since 12 September in the Qatari capital, Doha, the Taliban and a delegation from Kabul have been holding talks which, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, should “allow the country to move forward, reduce violence and grant the wishes of Afghans; a country reconciled which reflects the nation and is not at war.”

President Donald Trump, campaigning for a second term, is determined to put an end to the longest war in the history of the United States, but is not so ambitious as Pompeo since he means to be satisfied with “bringing our soldiers home.”

Without honour nor glory

It was in October 2001, a few days after 9/11, that the United States decided to intervene in Afghanistan. They had no idea that they would be leaving twenty years later without having defeated a determined adversary. A departure without honour or glory despite the successive deployments of troops which swelled US military presence from 2,000 men at the beginning of their intervention to over 100,000 at the height of their presence. They had no idea they would squander a thousand billion dollars—more than the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe had cost them in 1947. Nor that, in this historic “graveyard of empires” where both the British and the Soviets had become hopelessly mired, 2,400 US soldiers would lose their loves and 20,400 be wounded.

The attempt to solve a conflict which began long before the US came to Afghanistan and which periodically makes the headlines before being forgotten again is currently the object of talks that are likely to be long and arduous; on each side of the table, the negotiators’ starting positions are widely divergent. Their common objective is the signature of a peace treaty yearned for by the Afghan people. But are conditions ripe for this to come about?

To provide answers to these questions, we have arranged an interview with Georges Lefeuvre, anthropologist, former advisor to the EU in Pakistan and research associate with the Institut de relations internationales et stratégiques (IRIS).

Jean Michel Morel.First of all, let’s take a look at what some call the peace treaty between the US and the Taliban. Just what is that? What is their deal based on? What did the Taliban offer in exchange?

Georges Lefeuvre. — The total withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan was one of Trump’s campaign promises. When he made that surprise announcement in December 2018 to withdraw 7,000 soldiers, the Taliban realised that the balance of power had swung in their favour. If the US president was in such a hurry to leave, then he wasn’t in a position to make many demands. And indeed, at the outset of the Doha process, the four conditions posed by Washington for a gradual withdrawal were, in chronological order: a cease-fire, undertaking negotiations with the Kabul government, the guaranteed security of US troops during the evacuation and the promise that no terrorist attack will ever be launched against the United States from Afghan soil. However, as early as January 2019, the Taliban reversed this order of priorities, submitting the first two conditions to a preliminary agreement on the total and speedy evacuation of all foreign troops. After which these were no longer peace talks but discussions about the security of all the withdrawing troops of the 39 nationalities that make up the NATO “Resolute Support Mission.”

During the 14 months that followed the much-acclaimed declaration of December 2018, the Taliban adhered strictly to that document. The final agreement, made public on last 29 February, holds them to nothing more than refraining from any action against the departing troops and from terrorist attacks on US territory. At the same time, the Taliban have always reminded readers on their website, Voice of Jihad, that they were not violating the Doha agreement by pursuing their holy war until the fall of the present regime and the restoration of the Islamic Emirate.

At the centre of convergence of empires

J. M. M.By the end of these talks, slated to last a long time, Afghanistan will be bled dry after all these years of war. What is it about that little country, landlocked between its gigantic neighbours, that makes it so important?

G. L. — From its very origin, in 1747, Afghanistan was located at the focal point of expansion for the empires of the day: the Safavid Persian dynasty, the Shaybanid Empire in Central Asia and the Mughal Empire in India. It was to protect his land against his intimidating neighbours that Ahmad Shah Durrani, Pashtun of the Abdali tribe, created the State (stan) of the Afghans. A state indeed, but a buffer state. The medieval empires gave way to colonial powers, the Russians and the British, which fought each other like their predecessors, in the 19th C. and at the beginning of the 20th. After that, during the Soviet occupation (1979–1989) the two cold war blocs fought one another via “mujahedeen” proxies, mostly financed by the West, the consequences of which would be a civil war, the Taleb regime from 1996 to 2001, 9/11, the US military intervention, the fall of the Taliban followed 19 years later by their comeback! Quite recently, the major powers have found that the country possesses large extractive resources (hydrocarbons, copper, rare earths, precious metals, etc.). In a December 2014 lecture to funders in London, President Ashraf Ghani summed up his country’s very particular situation: “Either we shall be the crossroads for the integration of Asia, when the highways will run through our country to connect Central Asia, Southern Asia, Western Asia, and Eastern Asia, or we shall be a blind alley, an overlooked fragment of history.”

J. M. M.The start of talks between the Afghans was delayed for six months, because the Taliban demanded the liberation of 5,000 fighters in exchange for 1,000 captured government soldiers. President Ghani wasn’t about to consent to any such deal, but the US made him accept it. Isn’t this a sign of the government’s weakness?

G. L. — During those six months obstruction, the release of 5,000 prisoners was not simply a Taliban demand, it was a detailed paragraph (Part 1-C) of the agreement signed on 29 February with a deadline set at 10 March and a preliminary demand: no inter-Afghan negotiations until every prisoner had been set free. Once again, the US negotiator Zalmay Khalizad, anxious to complete the talks, had pledged the word of the main interested parties without consulting them! Neither his partners in the coalition concerning the withdrawal of all foreign troops nor President Ghani. No wonder the latter dug in his heels, while the Taliban felt strong enough not to budge an inch, delaying by just that much more the first inter-Afghan encounter. And then, of course, it is not the government as such that is negotiating in Doha—the Taliban had turned that down from the start—but a delegation, involving representatives of the opposition. President Ghani and the High Council for National Reconciliation had a hard time putting this together and it had to be modified several times before obtaining the Taliban’ approval. Thus, it was not only the President who was flouted but the State itself.

Moscow dialogue with the Taliban

J. M. M.Russia is monitoring the situation very closely. Vladimir Putin is in contact with both parties and has launched a parallel cycle of talks. What is at stake for Russia?

G. L. — Indeed, Russia has a nice head start on the USA in its dealings with the Taliban. As early as 2018, Zamir Kabulov, Putin’s special envoy in Afghanistan, met regularly with the Taliban and declared to the Turkish news agency Anadolu: “The Taliban are a political force that cannot be ignored and they have given up the idea of a worldwide Jihad.” Thus, Russia fears the Taliban less on their Afghan home ground than the ruthless Daesh internationalists, likely to destabilise Central Asian republics. Better still, the Taliban, who are engaged in a bitter struggle against Daesh, might well become precious allies, protecting the North-Afghan border of the ex-USSR.

The first Moscow Conference, held on 29 December 2019, was attended by Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and China. The following April the five republics of central Asia joined them for the second conference. In November 2019, Moscow organised the first bipartite meeting between Taliban from Doha and the High Council for Peace, a purely advisory body to the Kabul government. Then, in February 2019, when the Doha talks were making no headway, Vladimir Putin, to avoid a clash with his US counterpart, left to the Afghan diaspora in Moscow the task of arranging a new meeting between the Taliban and an Afghan delegation made up of the President Ghani’s main opponents. The next conference, on 29 May 2019, had a more official stamp since it opened with a speech by Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov,

Vladimir Putin has scored some points, but it is not in his interest to see the Doha process collapse. He hopes to see it bring about the total withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan before he plays his own cards. Thus, after Donald Trump brutally interrupted the talks in the middle of September 2019, Russia has been careful not to throw its weight around and when a furious Taliban delegation showed up in Moscow, it received only a polite welcome from Kabulov. Moreover, the Kremlin immediately expressed the hope that the talks between the United States and the Taliban would resume and lead to a conclusion. Russia has better prepared the “after” and above all has better prepared the Taliban for the idea of having to share power.

Pakistan’s error

J. M. M.That’s just it. At the end of the peace process, the Taliban will have to share power. Yet haven’t they already made worrying statements, rejecting the present Constitution, and referring to “the social, economic, political and educational rights (…) to be guaranteed women in accordance with the principles of Islam?”

G. L. — After having placed the Taliban on orbit in 1994, Pakistan’s main mistake was letting them take power all by themselves in 1996. And in fact, Pakistan got nothing in return, whereas it was expecting at long last from an Afghanistan under its control the recognition of the Durand Line as the official border between the two countries.

This time it seems that the Taliban will have to share power as they promised at the Moscow conferences, but we are far from it in Doha where for the moment there is no room for manoeuvre. Under the heading of overtures, it should be noted that the Taliban who, up to now, issued exclusively from the Pashtun ethnicity, have recruited in other communities: Tadjik, Uzbek and even among the Hazara Shiites whom they have mistreated in the past. And under the heading of blockages, the Doha talks will not begin until an agreement is reached concerning the Islamic school of reference: the Sunni school of Hanafi should be acceptable, but what about the Shiites. This is an important issue, because “sharia” simply means “law”, but which law?

Whatever the case, the Taliban are clearly demanding a return to their Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. True enough; their Taleb rigorism has already been eased somewhat such as the ban on listening to music or taking photographic portraits, but for the rest, nobody knows and the rights “guaranteed” women are likely to be very restricted. They will depend on the way the sharia is interpreted.

Why are they all Pashtun?

J. M. M. You have criticised the United States for their poor understanding of the history and political anthropology of Afghanistan. And you have also called upon Islamabad and Kabul to reconsider the demarcation of the Durand Line, laid down by the British in 1893. This arbitrary border of 2,300 kilometres separating Pakistan and Afghanistan cuts across Pashtun tribal lands, becoming a de facto cause of instability between the two nations. Does this mean that a reconciled Afghanistan will need to find an accord with its Pakistani neighbour?

G. L. — In terms of political anthropology, no political player has clearly raised a simple question: “Why have the Taliban all been of Pashtun ethnicity, ever since they burst onto centre stage in 1994 until their recent timid overtures? Why did their movement appear on both sides of the Durand Line, among the trans-border Ghilzai Pashtun tribes”? The Taliban are thus emblematic of the “Pashtun rift”, inherited from the British occupation of India, and if we are still talking about the Durand Line in 2020, it’s because the Afghan State has never recognised it as an international frontier. This refusal has been at the root of huge international territorial tensions and armed skirmishes ever since the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The “Pashtun rift” remains a breeding ground for irredentism and terrorism.

What is at stake, however, is not to “reconsider the demarcation of the Durand Line” but to go back and look at the four successive treaties that deal with it (1893, 1905, 1919, 1921). After all, if the reality of the Durand Line rests on those treaties, there would be nothing inappropriate about adapting the last of them to the reality of today: so long as Afghanistan fails to recognise that border, Pakistan will always be worried that Afghanistan may try to create a “Greater Pashtun state” which would deprive it of territory. It is therefore keen to keep that zone of turbulence under control; Afghanistan, for its part, is incapable of stamping out the uprisings and hotbeds of terrorism which it fuels. So, rather than stubbornly fussing about the rift, Afghanistan and Pakistan would do well to agree, first of all, that they are both victims of the same poisoned legacy of British colonialism.

The best way to pull the rug out from under the Taliban’ feet would be to find out at what conditions the tribes would agree to accept the Durand line as a “soft boundary1” between the two countries. Hence, it was not with the Taliban as such that negotiations should have been started after their defeat, but with the tribal chiefs whose passivity has favoured their powerful comeback. But it is not too late to begin a dialogue which would be the only way to curtail the power of the Taliban now that they are rattling at the gates. In any case, this issue will surface again. Afrasyab Khattak, Pashtun political figure of importance and whose Marxist convictions make him unlikely to harbour Taliban sympathies, wrote in Tolo News on 11 October, that Pakistan "will Praise the Taliban as ‘representatives of the Pashtuns’ and as the solution to the Pashtun issue on both sides of the border.”

1A border between two countries which persons and goods are allowed to cross with few controls.