PEACE talks, or even talks about talks, in Afghanistan for many years now have been a case of going round in circles — with the Afghan Taliban in particular always sending mixed messages. Once again, then, with Pakistan Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz making some of the most emphatic and direct claims on attempts by the state here to facilitate talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the Afghan Taliban have quickly tried to distance themselves from these initial and careful rounds of engagement. Are talks dead before they can even begin? Not necessarily. For one, it is quite common for elements of the Taliban, particularly those with links to the leadership, to engage in talks about talks while the leadership itself remains condemnatory of talks and hews to maximalist preconditions. That is the Taliban’s equivalent of talking and fighting, a strategy that seeks to wrest the maximum concessions from the other side if it ever comes to a negotiated settlement.
In the Taliban’s case, there is another reason to publicly appear dismissive of talks that have taken place: the annual spring offensive is at its peak and there is little value in sending mixed messages to the rank and file fighting it out over vast swathes of the country. Moreover, this fighting season has brought a new element, a surge of fighters, many of them foreign, who appear to have been dislodged by the military operations in Fata. Were the Taliban leadership to acknowledge even an incidental interest in talks, it would perhaps send the wrong message to the field where the Taliban have made deeper inroads quicker than what was widely perceived. Yet, the same old conundrum remains: the Afghan Taliban, for all their ability to operate in far-flung areas and inflict significant damage on the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, appear to be no closer to overrunning the country. Kabul in particular appears to be a city where the occasional — though high-profile — Taliban attack is possible, but there appears to be no imminent danger of a governmental collapse or the capital coming under sustained attack. Therefore, with an Afghan president more willing to go the extra mile than anyone else in power, it remains to the Taliban’s advantage to also engage in talks.
For its part, the Pakistani state appears to be going through cycles of indecisiveness of its own. All sides agree that Pakistan has influence over the Afghan Taliban, though the security establishment and government here often argue that the degree of influence is much less than it is perceived to be by outside powers and the Afghan government. Yet, at no stage has it been apparent that Pakistan is willing to test the limits of its influence over the Afghan Taliban in the interest of securing a negotiated settlement. Can a meek Pakistan truly influence a recalcitrant Afghan Taliban?
Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2015