Afghan Taliban peace talks: Tragedy in Afghanistan, farce in Qatar

Published: June 28, 2013
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The Taliban inaugurated the office with a flashy press conference, and proceeded to cast itself as Afghanistan’s true government. PHOTO: AFP

Karl Marx famously said that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, second as farce.”

The war in Afghanistan has proven Marx wrong. Years from now, people will look back on this conflict and see that history can be both tragedy and farce at the same time. Events in recent days vividly demonstrate why.

Let’s start with the farce.

A Taliban office opened in Qatar to launch negotiations to end the war. The Taliban inaugurated the office with a flashy press conference, and proceeded to cast itself as Afghanistan’s true government.

Kabul was furious, and refused to send negotiators. Washington asked Doha to demand that the Taliban, one of the world’s most brutal organisations, act more diplomatically. The Taliban refused. Talks were suspended—until the Americans claimed they were still on. But then they were suspended again, indefinitely, even after the Taliban discarded its offending flags and banners. Yet even with the Taliban now apparently uncommitted to talks, and with Kabul’s intentions unclear, Washington continues to speak about restarting negotiations.

At one point, these dizzying twists and turns prompted author Bina Shah to tweet that the status of the talks “is more confusing than the status of Rihanna and Chris Brown’s relationship.”

Indeed. At least the Rihanna/Chris saga follows some level of (twisted) logic.

By contrast, it’s utterly illogical to expect a nation’s political future to be successfully negotiated without the resolute participation of that nation’s sovereign government.

If there’s any hope of salvaging the talks, Kabul must fully commit to participating. Unfortunately, prospects are grim. The government with arguably the most compelling interest in securing Kabul’s buy-in—Washington—is rapidly losing credibility with the Afghans. And the government with the most credibility with both Kabul and the Afghan political opposition—New Delhi—is exceedingly hesitant to endorse talks with the Taliban.

So this leaves Pakistan. Can the country that reportedly helped bring the Taliban to Doha get Kabul to fully commit as well? And can it reduce intra-Afghan hostility to talks by engaging the Northern Alliance and other opposition groups? Does it even want to do so?

Given the sorry state of Pakistan-Afghan relations—which make the US-Pakistan relationship look like a match made in heaven by comparison—I doubt it.

What can we expect from any talks? Not much. Both the US and the Taliban are making unrealistic demands (the Taliban won’t soon accept Afghanistan’s constitution, and there’s no way every single foreign troop will immediately leave Afghanistan). There could be an agreement on prisoner swaps (involving captive US soldier Bowe Bergdahl and Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo). But not necessarily.

At any rate, the Taliban has an edge. If it starts talks with Washington, the US will be on the defensive—which, for the Americans, violates a cardinal rule of Negotiations 101: One should only negotiate when in a position of strength.

The Americans don’t hold any semblance of an upper hand. Rather, they’re desperate. They know they can’t win on the battlefield, and that their modest stabilisation achievements are in jeopardy now that security responsibilities have been fully transferred to the Afghans. An agreement is their only hope.

And yet such an accord will remain elusive, particularly if Kabul is not on board. Some reports say Karzai would prefer to defer talks until after next year’s election.

So the Qatar office remains unoccupied—affording satirists ample time to poke fun at the absurdity of it all. The irreverent Pan-Arabia Enquirer posted doctored photos of the Taliban’s empty “plush new offices”—replete with snooker tables, video games, and sleek furniture—a comfortable place “where enforcing strict Islamic law [won’t be] a chore for Taliban officials.”

Ultimately, though, these talks are no laughing matter, despite their farcical nature.

And this brings us to the tragedy element of the war.

Little has been heard of the views of ordinary Afghans—those most affected by negotiations with the Taliban. It’s safe to say many are infuriated with, and terrified by, the notion of talks with the group. It is them, after all, who suffered the horrors of Taliban rule, and who could face fresh horrors if talks empower the Taliban.

These Afghans include Razia Jan. I recently chaired a panel discussion on youth and conflict in Afghanistan. Jan, speaking by videoconference from Kabul, spoke poignantly of the girls’ school that she launched, and of the terrible fate it could meet if the Taliban gained political power.

With her eyes wide and her voice cracking with emotion, Jan begged the Washington audience not to let the US government talk to the Taliban.

We musn’t forget this human element. Afghans, after all, don’t have the luxury of shaking their heads bemusedly at the fiasco in Doha, before simply moving on.

And this is true regardless of what may transpire at the negotiating table.

Read more by Michael here or follow him on Twitter@MichaelKugelman

Michael.Kugelman

Michael Kugelman

Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He tweets @MichaelKugelman (twitter.com/MichaelKugelman)

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