IT may not be the first but it is certainly the most significant face-to face contact between the Afghan Taliban and representatives of the Kabul government. Although both sides have tried to downplay the hype built around it, the Doha meeting has broken the ice raising hopes of a renewed peace process in Afghanistan. But there is still a long way to go before formal peace negotiations are possible.
Hosted by Pugwash, a Nobel Prize-winning peace group, the two-day meeting that saw participation by delegates from Afghanistan was reportedly followed by an informal exchange between the two sides. Interestingly while the Taliban called the meetings a “research conference”, the Afghan government officials described them as “scientific discussions”. Their caution is understandable given the sensitive nature of such informal dialogues.
There are certainly some signs of flexibility in the Taliban stance, going by its decision to participate in the Pugwash dialogue. The statement issued by the Taliban after the meeting, expressing appreciation of “efforts by the groups and the countries to bring peace in Afghanistan”, indicates either a shift in their hard-line position on talks or their growing confidence.
The Qatar meeting shows there are some signs of flexibility in the Afghan Taliban’s approach.
While agreeing to negotiate with the Americans, the Taliban had until now refused to engage with the Kabul government. Though direct negotiations between the US officials and the Taliban in Doha failed to take off after a strong reaction from the Karzai regime, the opening of their office has earned the insurgents some degree of legitimacy. Some Taliban representatives, including the four commanders released by the Obama administration last year from Guantanamo, are also based there, freely moving around.
What makes the Pugwash meeting more significant than the previous Taliban participation in the Paris and Tokyo conferences is the representation of such a large number of senior Taliban officials. The names of the eight-member delegation were posted on the Taliban website indicating that they had the blessing of Mullah Omar. But some observers caution against what they describe as overestimation of the importance of the Qatar meeting and what transpired there. They don’t see any tangible signs yet indicating the Taliban’s willingness to begin formal peace negotiations with the Afghan government.
One major reason for this scepticism is the escalation in insurgent violence in Afghanistan. There has been a marked increase in terrorist attacks in Kabul and other major Afghan cities with increasing civilian casualties. According to a UN report released last month, civilian casualties in Afghanistan exceeded 10,000 in 2014, a 22pc increase compared to the previous year reflecting increased ground battles. Women and children were particularly hard hit by the violence. The UN report found a 40pc increase in the number of child casualties.
Significantly, the Qatar meeting took place amidst the spring offensive by the Taliban, testing the mettle of the Afghan National Army backed by a relatively small residual American force. The government forces have shown greater grit and capacity to confront the ferocity of the Taliban attacks but the high rate of troop desertion and casualties remains a serious concern.
Although the Taliban have made significant advances, even in some northern districts there is still no possibility of the insurgents overrunning major cities leave aside Kabul. Despite all its problems and weaknesses, the Afghan National Army can hold its ground. The presence of residual troops has reinforced its confidence. The Taliban advance has already pulled American troops into the combat.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have their own problem of maintaining unity in their ranks. Though Mullah Omar remains the supreme leader, it is not clear if he has the same unchallenged authority he enjoyed a decade ago.
Many insiders believe his influence has waned over the years with the growing radicalisation of a new generation of field commanders. Most of them were teenagers during the Taliban rule, but now form the core of the resistance. Being out of the field for so long — and believed to be operating remotely from the Pakistani side of the border — seems to have turned Mullah Omar into more of a symbolic figurehead.
The relationship between the various Taliban committees based in Pakistan and the field commanders in Afghanistan is complex. It is quite evident that the insurgency on the ground is less organised and that decision-making is often left to individual commanders. Unlike the top administrative structure, the hierarchy in the field is less clear.
The Taliban may be united under one banner, but the group is comprised of various factions. How deep the divisions within the Taliban really go is not at all clear. This lack of clarity makes it hard to predict whether the Taliban will remain united or split up.
Some relatively moderate elements in the Taliban leadership favour peace talks with the Kabul government on minimal conditions. They believe reconciliation may give the insurgents a share in the central government and de facto control over most of eastern and southern Afghanistan.
For the moderates, the thinking appears to be the belief that the Taliban cannot win an outright military victory leading to the conquest of the whole of Afghanistan. But the hardliners see a complete victory very much in sight. The future of the Taliban will be dictated by the course of events in Afghanistan itself. The different factions of the Taliban will wait to see how things develop on the ground before deciding about the next step.
There is growing pressure on Taliban from Pakistan to come to the negotiating table with the Kabul government, but how much influence it has over the insurgents is questionable. Pakistan had facilitated the ill-fated talks between the Taliban and the Americans. But Islamabad does not seem to have played any role in the latest meeting. It may be an indicative of an effort by the Taliban to work independently of Pakistan.
The Pugwash meeting was indeed a very positive development. But it is going to be long hard way before Afghanistan can return to peace.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2015